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How to Paint on Turkey Feathers

Melissa J. Bell

Artists often pride themselves on experimenting with many different mediums and materials, particularly those that are unusual or may present unique challenges. One such material is the bird feather, which can be used as a painting surface in place of canvases and paper.

Feathers like that of a turkey or other large bird have been used by artists for many years, and take particularly well to acrylic paints, which are layered on using many traditional painting techniques.

  1. Choose a large, clean turkey feather that is suitable for feather painting. Brush all the feather pieces upward with your fingers, so that you have a smooth shape, then coat it with a clear sealer spray or other fixative. Let the sealer dry completely.

  2. Lay out a large piece of mat board or cardboard to use as a painting surface. Tape the turkey feather to the board at the top and bottom, using artist's tape, which is less likely to damage the feather.

  3. Mix up a small amount of the main color you will use in your painted feather design and dip a small paintbrush into the color. Paint the design outline onto the turkey feather surface, laying down the lines for all of the major shapes you will need. Let the paint dry.

  4. Mix up each of the major colors you will be using in your design. Paint a base coat of each color onto the feather, filling your outlines with individual blocks of color.

  5. Build up several layers of the colors from Step 4 until you have the color saturation you want in each block. Let the paint dry.

  6. Mix up your shadow and highlight paint colors. Add shadows and highlights over the color blocks like you would in a traditional painting, creating depth by letting the dark colors show through the more transparent light colors. Let the paint dry between layers.

  7. Add the last of the shadows and highlights to your painted feather, using the darkest and lightest possible colors. Build up these colors several times to create bold, thick lines.

  8. Coat the feather with a clear gloss spray and let it dry completely to seal the paint. Remove the artist's tape and lift the finished feather from the mat board.

  9. Tip

    There are many different methods for painting on feathers. You don't necessarily need to start with a clear sealer if you would prefer to paint directly on the feather for a more natural look, and some artists prefer to block out the base colors by eye instead of painting outlines. In order to work with a colored background on the turkey feather, you can spray the feather with a colored sealer instead of clear in Step 1. Paint does not stick to feathers easily, so you will often have to build up the colors slowly by painting over them several times. This will be a concern particularly in the initial feather painting stages.