I am hugely attracted to Colin Woolf’s use of tiny pinfeathers as paint brushes. He will place one in a special handle to paint a watercolor image of the bird that the feather came from. Each bird has only one of these stiff tiny feathers on each wing. It is from the same place the tip of your thumb would be if you grew wings. It is actually one of three feathers that helps a bird navigate in slow flight, called an alula.
This is an old painting technique that Colin has revived from 200 years ago. He authored a book in 2012 about pin-feather painting and has a couple of five-minute YouTube videos describing the technique. His website also describes the technique and shows some of his painting.
I sent Colin a couple of ruffed grouse pinfeathers. From them he just finished this picture which I will feature prominently in my home once I get it framed.
When walking, if I find a feather I often bend over, pick it up, hold it high and let it loose to watch it spin, twirl, float, flutter, circle or otherwise make its way back to the ground. I love the way each feather shape elicits a different motion and I cannot always predict exactly what it will be.
Daniel Wurtzel uses blowing air engineered to do amazing things to different materials including feathers. The feathers he uses here are wing flight feathers, which spin, shafts downward. Body feathers float and circle. Other feathers come down in different ways as air flow interrupts the pull of gravity.
After spending several years looking for matches for feathers, one black and the other white, I found several. These two are from the same species of pheasant, the silver pheasant. The black one is a subspecies called the Lewis pheasant.
Black and white is a powerful combination for an artist to work with because people attach strong meanings to these two opposites. Different peoples place different values on black and white. For instance, in southern Thailand where the black form of the silver pheasant lives, black is the usual choice for mourning and in China where a white form of the silver pheasant lives, white can be the choice. The birds just attend to their business, unencumbered with the values we place on whiteness and blackness.
I eat birds – well, chickens and turkeys. Someday, I expect, a bird will be pulling up and eating worms that have been feeding on parts of my long decomposed body. It is really quite remarkable the way organic life keeps reinventing itself. It’s not morbid to me.
Life is precious, but it goes away, and there is a grace in letting it go. Hanging on through fame or lasting accomplishments seems a bit futile. My mother was a fairly well-known artist in her time. She died in 2008 and just six years later, except for a few collectors, no one knows her. The person with the longest lasting fame that I know of is that recently discovered fellow who fell in a Alps glacier 35000 years ago. So if you want to be remembered a long time after your death…
This is my favorite piece, in part because it tells a fairly clear story. But that is not saying much because my favorites tend to be my latest. The one I am making now—of crows laced into an intricately carved large black feather – will probably become my favorite, until one I make after that.
There is a kind of bird from Africa that you can make color from its feathers. I read on the internet that the Turaco’s feather pigment is water soluble. It is hard to believe since this bird lives in tropical forests where I could just picture its feathers dripping red and green in a rainstorm. So I took one of their beautifully red-colored wing feathers (shed at a zoo) and put it in a glass of water to leave overnight. Actually, it wasn’t that simple because these (and most) feather surface structures repel water. This feather just popped up to float on the surface. So I squeezed and kneaded the feather until the surface tension broke and the water finally soaked into the feather. Next morning I checked on the cup and found the water to be perfectly clear. Hmmmm.
This feather’s red pigment is the only red feather color known to be copper based. The bird’s green pigment, also copper based, is the only know true green chemical pigment in birds—the greens of most birds being a combination of yellow carotene-type pigments and blue surface structures.
Then I added a small amount of dish soap to the cup and immediately red started coming out of the feather into the water. After about an hour, the feather turned a light grey color and the water looked like cherry juice. I did soak a green feather in soapy water but the green remained in the feather and the water clear. The next step is to evaporate most of the water and see if I can make a watercolor to use in a background for a shadowbox using these feathers.
Just like us, a bird’s body and feathers are assembled from what it eats. I find it a wondrous piece of the natural world that a wren can make feathers from digesting the bugs it eats just as our bodies can amass themselves from milk when we’re babies and later from food like rice and beans or burgers and fries.
Recently, I awoke at night with this as new and prolific topic for feather shadowboxes: birds and what they eat. I was excited and quickly sketched thirty or so before I made myself stop. I felt a pang of frustration because there are endless design possibilities for this theme but I could not possibly find enough time to make all but a small portion of them.
Lying in bed after my sketch fest, my amplified awareness of the assembling of life and disassembling at death cycle of eating was overwhelming and I needed to lie back down and breathe deeply to let these thoughts incorporate into my cells. Then I fell asleep for the rest of the night.
A visual artist is often profoundly aware of the ways that colors enhance the beauty of the world.
As a human you have 3 kinds of cone receptors in your eyes allowing you to see the primary colors. A bird has 4! They can see ultraviolet and violet colors that we can’t. Plus their eyes are made in other ways different than ours which means they can see more subtle differences in the primary colors and the colors appear sharper, more vivid. It makes sense that feathers have adapted to birds’ visual abilities which means that for a bird, feathers show even more colors and patterns than we know. So imagine my disappointment with my human eyes and desire to see like a bird when I learned more about what the world looks like to them.
A black and white feather such as this Merganser’s may appear to a bird as a shimmering wonder of violets and blues.
I am fascinated with starlings in part because the only kind where I live was introduced, an immigrant. Since they are considered a pest by many, I tend to notice their beauty, especially the feathers. It is the nature of my perspective as an artist.
Ours in North America aren’t the only starlings. As a matter of fact, over 100 species of them grace this world with their different voices, social behavior, and their feathers. I had the opportunity this week to photograph 20 species worth of their feathers. They range from 5 to 45 millimeters each in length and average about 25 millimeters which is about an inch long. The metallic feathers only reflect light from a single angle. In the final image, these feathers are at that angle, at their shiniest. Looking at them from any other direction, they look mostly grayish. The image shows the feathers at their peak–like an outdoor magazine that only shows the biggest fish caught or a fashion advertisement showing an unattainably beautiful face. But unlike the beautiful faces, the feathers here aren’t enhanced in photoshop.
Each feather was positioned and lit just right, photographed and then combined in what ended up in a file big enough to print a 10 foot image in fine detail.
What if birds had to shop for feather-care products like people shop for hair products? What a confusing array of choices they would have to confront! Thinking about the time I spend combing, washing, drying and fussing over the my head’s small patch of hair makes me more appreciative of the effort a bird goes through to keep the feathers in good shape all over its body. No matter how vain I might be about my hair, feathers are infinitely more important to a bird than my hair is to me.
The swallows in my barn groom their feathers with their bills and sometimes with their feet, especially when they are shedding old feathers to make way for new ones growing in. They nibble every feather from its base upward to get them aligned just right. They dislodge small feathers as they shed. Then they take a break to shake dust and feathers loose. Often they take to the wing after a preening session and give themselves a thorough shake while in mid-air, sending a plume of dust and feathers behind them.
Preening is the topic of a small series of feather shadowboxes I am making. This crow piece was the first; Macaws were next. A preening Kingfisher will follow.
An artist needs to eat too, so why did I just let Microsoft use twelve feather shadowbox images as their screensaver downloads free of charge? My mission here is to share my appreciation and excitement about life. I have chosen to do this through the complex, diverse and beautiful world of feathers. Screensavers images are a pretty good way to share since we stare at our electronic devices so much. And people do sometimes buy prints and originals from first having seen the images as screensavers.
So have at it: download the second series of a dozen screensavers (or the first series) for your PC computer or android phone or tablet.