It’s funny, but when cutting detailed bird shapes out of feathers, I make very few cutting blunders.
When something has my full attention, mistakes become unlikely. When I make one, it is either a result of inattention to detail, skipping a step in the process, or because I am exploring the “cutting” edge of learning.
I cut the wrong side of one of these feathers when I skipped the step of checking my preliminary sketch to see where to make each cut. An artist, using oils or acrylics, can just paint over mistakes; or even paint over an entire piece. With a feather, an error means starting over. I am looking for a similar feather to replace this one that I ruined.
Blunders like this put me in mind of the process of evolution. A fault in a creature’s body usually makes life harder. The creature dies or doesn’t reproduce more of its kind because the mistake gets in the way. However, once in a great while, one of these errors makes life easier, more effective, better. I haven’t experienced a cutting-feathers-mistake contributing to better art…yet; though every once in a while, I seem to try.
These are guinea hen wing feathers. The piece, once I find a replacement feather, will be 30 by 20 inches, picturing California quails flying up into the circle of feathers.
“The power of the wind was in the feather which he made you hold in your hand.” Quote from a participant in The Feather Religion, 1905, Klickitat, Washington, USA.1
Klickitat native, Jake Hunt started this religion between 1898 and 1904. This was a during a generation of northwest USA natives who were experiencing huge changes in their cultures as European descendants restricted their ways of life and access to resources. It was related to the Washani (which also uses eagle feathers) and later, to the Shaker Native American religion.
An eagle feather was held in each hand and a person would spin. Songs were sung, drums played, and feathers waved to keep time. The feathers were used to brush sickness off the body and worn in the hair in prescribed ways as reminders of the powers of feathers, or at least by association, eagles.
“It seemed as though I were traveling as I had never traveled before because in my hand I held the feather…and it was leading me on”2
1 & 2 Alice DuBois, The Feather Cult of the Middle Columbia, 1938, General Series in Anthropology, George Banta Publishing Co.
My new and first book is here: Feathers Form and Function. I am excited to be able to offer a profusion of my art and my thoughts about feathers all in one place. You will find quality in the design, the printing, and the materials used; and the way the printed colors accurately reflect the art. I undertook writing this book a year ago by gathering my previously published short articles, including some from this blog, researching, and mostly, regular writing appointments with my computer and notebook. The easy part was supplying the designers with art which I did up until the last minute so my latest works could be included in the book.
This website’s book page describes the contents in more detail and provides an easy place to get a signed copy.
On the side of a mountain under a ponderosa pine, a warm October sun lulled me into a sleepy happy place. Plop! Something small and hard fell on my face interrupting my dreams. Opening one eye, I spied a white breasted nuthatch working the tree over, looking for bugs by prying up loose bark, which rained down around me.
Lying there, occasionally dodging falling bark, I watched a flock of them for an hour. What struck me (besides the bark) was the agility and intensity of these little birds. They looked in every nook and crevice, upside down under branches, sideways, and on the trunk.
At 17 by 14 inches, this piece is made from two turkey feathers.
I dream of taking a trip back through the eons that birds have been on the earth to see all the different shapes and forms and colors of the feathers that have come and gone. Some birds probably just slowly changed over generations to something better adapted to their surroundings while other species just perished. It would be a journey to see the continuation of the dance of life on earth.
How do humans fit into the world today—from the perspective of feathers? The male peacock’s display feathers evolved to be so long and ornate that they place the bird at the edge of the ability to survive. The peacock’s tail limits its movements so much that a little more tail would keep it from escaping predators. We are impressively clever, active, and striving creatures. It seems like we keep getting more so. Our inherent ability to invent and build appears to place us at the edge of our ability to continue to thrive and maybe survive. What if through our inventiveness, as we grow in numbers, change our surroundings to suit our immediate needs, and reduce the ability of the earth to support us, we are evolving beyond our capacity to inhabit the earth?
Try taking two flight feathers from the same side of a bird’s wing and put the front, leading edge parallel and over the trailing next feather, like it was on a bird. The pull them gently and you can feel the feathers grab. If you put the leading edge of a feather underneath trailing edge of its neighboring feather instead of on top, there will be no grabbing; they will just glide smoothly over each other.
These feathers stick together in at least three ways to help make the wing smooth and aerodynamic:
1. The leading edges of the feathers let a small amount of air through as the bird flies, a little more air than comes through the trailing edges. This evens the pressures caused by moving air which would otherwise tend to pull feathers away from the smooth airfoil a wing is supposed to make for a bird to fly
2. The leading edge of each feather curves slightly down and the trailing edge faces slightly up. So when two flight feathers on a wing overlap, the leading edge grabs trailing edge of the next flight feather.
3. The almost microscopic barbules on the leading and trailing edges of each flight feather sort of splay out which help to grab onto the next feather, further creating more of a seal so the feathers stick together firmly in the wind.
Reference: Muller, V. and Patone (1998) Air Transmissivity of Feathers. Journal of Experimental Biology 201, 2591-2599
Someone is killing wild Great Argus Pheasants in SE Asia and selling their feathers on Ebay. It is making me sad as these pheasants are one of my favorite birds. Partly why I use feathers in my art is because they are freely given by birds. These pheasants shed their feathers every year where they are kept in zoos and private aviaries. I want people to appreciating life through my photography and art, not kill it; and especially not buy feathers from birds that were killed for their feathers.
Can taking pictures of beautiful birds and feathers or making art from them urge someone to buy feathers from birds that were killed for their feathers? I hope not. But it is a thought that bothers me and several wildlife photographers I have spoken to. I did report this auction to Ebay and federal authorities.
Feather shapes and sizes are quite limited. How does one arrange a typically large, long and skinny feather into a wider picture? Many of my pieces center on a single cut feather. In order to create a pleasing, unified, creative design that tells a story or conveys a feeling, there has to be more to the design than just the single feather. That is, unless the final picture is long and skinny. I prefer not to do that.
I have placed feathers drifting off a preening bird image to fill the space. Sometimes I add small feathers to balance a picture as with a cut-feather silhouette of a bird singing with feathers coming out of its mouth. Using two or more large cut feathers has sometimes solved the dilemma.
Working feathers into unified designs is all part of a vexing but rewarding process of creation. Sometimes I wish wild birds would grow big wide, wide feathers to make this process easier. But that wouldn’t help the birds very much would it?
I am not the only one who appreciates a fallen, shed feather that I find on the ground. I came across this ant who came across this feather on a windy day. I am not sure why the ant appreciates the feather, but it does and is able to something about it, a testament to its strength and the feather’s lightness. Good luck, Ms Ant.
I made a humbling discovery that I am not the only one who has a passion for showing off feathers in unsuccessful attempts to enhance already perfect natural beauty.