Just a Gull: Part Two

Painting the Herring Gull

By: Text and photography by Del Herbert
Updated April 30, 2019

In the article that appeared in the previous issue, I carved, sealed, and primed a herring gull decoy. In this article I’ll try to cover painting the gull in general terms. My goal is to communicate how I strategize painting, rather than give detailed instructions for this specific bird. Unless otherwise noted, the colors I use are Jo Sonja’s paints.

As you will see, I use templates extensively to lay out feathers. In the past I have included patterns for the templates. I have received some feedback that my templates did not exactly fit some of the carvers’ birds. I am sure that was because of minor differences in the carvings. In this article I will show feathers penciled on the actual carving. I encourage everyone to do the same and pattern your stencils to your actual carving.

As a side note, I never planned to carve a gull. In the early 1990s a friend asked me to carve a gull for his collection. I originally turned down the commission because I was more interested in waterfowl and shorebirds. We went back and forth for a while until one day I got an inspiration and completed a gull for him. I was so pleased by the results that I later made a second gull, which won best of show for smoothie waterfowl at the 1994 Ward World Championship. Go figure!

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Our eyes evaluate color in relationship to the surrounding areas. I’ll paint the bill first so I can evaluate the surrounding hues. If I left the bill white it would be very distracting. Here I’ve airbrushed the bill with thin layers of cadmium yellow. I attempt to leave the junction of the mandibles and tip of the bill lighter by spraying additional layers on adjacent areas.

  2. I continue shading the darker areas of the bill with the original cadmium yellow and a touch of raw umber.

  3. Repeat with progressive amounts of raw umber. Try to shade low areas and the bill/head junction a bit darker and leave the tip and junction of the mandibles lighter. The more variation you can achieve, the better your bird will look.

  4. The red spot on the lower mandible is cadmium yellow tinted with naphthol crimson. Straight red would create too much contrast.

  5. I add nostrils with raw umber and outline them with the original cadmium yellow hue.

  6. Although the carving is smooth with relatively few contours, I am going to attempt to paint in some “lumps and bumps.” The gull is primarily gray and white. I am going to mix the gray with raw umber, Liquitex Payne’s gray, and white. I can warm the mix with more raw umber or cool it with more Payne’s gray. Here I’ve ghosted in some contours with the airbrush. When I use the term “ghosting,” I mean a light, almost transparent coat of paint applied with an airbrush. Go slowly. You can always add more shading, but it is difficult to lighten up a dark area.

  7. This close-up shows the shading on the head, neck, and cape areas.

  8. I lay out the cape and scapulars with a Prismacolor Verithin pencil in cool gray. I spend a lot of time laying out feathers to get the effect I want. Remember, you’ll make stencils from your feather sketches.

  9. Here’s the layout of the tertials and greater coverts.

  10. Now I’ll begin painting the under-rump. Here I’ve ghosted in some feather groups with a large oval template. Note that I use only part of the template for each feather and different parts for different feathers. We are already establishing body contours.

  11. Add splits with the same paint mix. The splits appear darker because I applied them with a brush (I use a Loew-Cornell 7020 #2.)

  12. Add barbules with off-white (white gesso with 5% of the original gray mix). The more passes over the barbules and splits, the better your bird will look. I normally make two or three passes in this area.

  13. Begin laying out the primaries with a mix of 60% burnt sienna and 40% carbon black. 

  14. Add shafts and shade the trailing edges with another pass from the airbrush. I paint the shafts with the same hue, but again, the brushwork gives a darker value.

  15. Add some ripples to the trailing edges of the primaries. I do this freehand with the airbrush.

  16. For the white tips on the primaries, I use templates and hand brushing. Start with off-white and lighten with subsequent passes.

  17. I lay out the back feathers with the airbrush and templates, using the original gray mix. Notice that there are very few hard lines. I will build up feather values with multiple passes.

  18. I have added the feather shafts and airbrushed one half of each feather darker. Generally, I paint the lower half of the feather darker. However, in a few feather groups I’ll paint the upper half darker to add interest.

  19. This close-up shows the feather shafts and change in value from one half of a feather to the
    other and gives you a better idea of what I’ve done. I’ve also added some splits to the side pocket junction.

  20. Now I’ve ghosted in some feather edges and splits on the side pocket. These should be very light.

  21. Make sure there is a change in value between the side pocket and rump. The rump is darker because it is beneath the side pocket.

  22. Hand paint splits and barbules on individual feathers.

  23. Here you can see the splits and barbules I’ve added to the tertials and greater coverts.

  24. Here’s an overall view. In areas where you have too much contrast you can easily tone it down with a light pass from the airbrush.

  25. I add ticking with a light gray mix. Ticks should be barely visible and go in the direction of feather flow.

  26. The ticking continues onto the breast and side pocket area.

  27. I repeat the ticking with a pass of white gesso and add the red eye ring. The gull is finished. I hope you are as happy with your own gull as I am with mine.

About the Author:

  1. A lifelong hunter and fisherman, Del Herbert began wildfowl carving in 1985. He has won more than 250 blue ribbons and 120 best in show awards and won Best in World Shootin’ Rig in 1998 and 2010. His work has been juried into the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Del was selected as a Ward Foundation Living Legend in 2016.


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