Painting the Drake Eider

Eiders, eiders everywhere. This one hails from the Bering Sea.

By: Text and photography by Keith Mueller
Updated May 13, 2021

The Pacific eider (Somateria mollissima v-nigrum) is the largest of the six eider subspecies and the largest duck in North America. It is nearly a pound heavier than its Atlantic cousin (S. m. dresseri). The Pacific eider’s range is within the Bering Sea to the southern Aleutian Islands.

Like all six common eider subspecies, the drakes in breeding/winter dress are adorned in a striking black-and-white plumage accented with values of green in the head and hindneck, pastel salmon-colored pinkish blush in their chests, and a hint of a pale olive/gray coloration in their white scapulars.

Eiders are covered with a thick and heavy layer of feathers that protect it from life on the frigid seas. The barb structure of the eider’s feathers is thick and wool-like. The scientific name (Somateria mollissima) refers to the “soft and woolly” body feathers.

In this demo, I will demonstrate how I paint this magnificent eider species with premium-grade oil paints.


  1. I carved my bird from tupelo. After sanding, I coated with two generous applications of Deft’s clear interior wood finish (matte). I let each coat dry thoroughly before sanding with 220-grit Swiss sandpaper, making sure to wipe off the powdery residue the sanding creates.

  2. The decoy is ready for priming and pre-painting (Grisaille) steps. I use Ronan Japan oil paint. For the priming paint, I use flake white with a small amount of raw sienna and raw umber to soften the bright white. I apply two coats, allowing the first to dry overnight. I slightly thin the first coat with citrus thinner, paint thinner, or turpentine to get a heavy cream consistency. When it dries, I sand with 220-grit sandpaper and wipe off the paint residue. For the second (and subsequent) applications, I thin the soft white to the consistency of light cream. Again, lightly sand the paint after it has dried overnight and wipe off any residue. Repeat this for two of the three remaining applications. The decoy is now ready for feather texturing and pre-painting. I will explain the fifth white application in the next section.

  3. For this eider, I want to replicate the natural feather texture beneath the paint. To do this, I use the same combs (A) that decoy carvers have long used for vermiculation, but rather than creating raised texture I want to suggest “soft” and “woolly” feather barbs beneath the paint. I do the combing on the last application of the white. I comb the head and contour feathers but not the tail, primaries, and tertials.

    The procedure is easy. I apply the last layer of white primer with a heavier consistency. I do one anatomical section at a time as the Japan paint will firm up quickly. (For this demonstration, I painted the side pockets to help clarify the comb texture.) Comb the paint immediately, starting at the lores (feathering along the bill line) of the head and continuing to the back of the head, throat, and neck. Paint only one side and start combing immediately. Pass the comb from back to front through the wet paint (B), using light pressure and following the natural feather flow. Immediately after passing the comb through the wet paint, take a fan brush and use light pressure over the combed texture in the same direction as the combing (C). This softens the texture. Even though Japan paint is a good self-leveling paint, the fan will take off the harsh edges on the surface of the combing.

    Repeat the process on the other side of the head and make sure to blend the areas together along the center of the head. Pass the comb through this area to match the two sides. Continue to the chest, then the scapulars, side pockets, and flank spots. Allow 24 hours to cure before painting. In image D, you can see the final effect.
    Keep in mind that you will get a soft blend only if you clean and dry your fan brush to eliminate loose “fingers” in the tips of the hairs.

  4. I decided to pre-paint this decoy with colors that were fairly close to the finished colors on the head and chest. I began the pre-painting with fast-drying Japan paint. I use flake white, raw sienna, chromium oxide green, burnt sienna, chrome yellow, and chrome yellow/orange. This image shows the pre-painted decoy ready for oil painting.

    Usually when I paint ducks with white and black plumage sections that don’t blend to each other, I address the white areas first. This lets me concentrate on painting the color variations without worrying about smearing painted areas.

    I use my usual colors for an eider. The only exception is that the “green” on the Pacific’s head is more of a pale earthy, sienna/green than the more intense mossy green of the Atlantic. For the white and green head colors, my palette of Old Holland oil colors consists of Cremnitz white (a.k.a lead white), raw umber, dioxazine mauve (violet), raw sienna, cadmium yellow deep, cadmium red light, chromium oxide green, and Scheveningen green (a.k.a. phthalo green yellow shade).

    It is important to have several values of white (from warm to cool) for a drake eider to keep the finished bird from looking too monotone. I will use five values of white on this decoy, including Cremnitz white, warmer values with yellows and siennas, and cool values with earths and violets. The idea is to introduce whites that are warmer in areas that would be exposed to light and cooler in shadowed areas. Cremnitz white will pull the different values together in the blending.

    I always give myself latitude in my painting so I can alter my colors as I go along. I will make at least five values of the soft green for the head plumage, using mixes of Cremnitz white, chromium oxide green, Scheveningen (phthalo) green, raw sienna, yellow deep, and violet. The salmon-colored pinkish blush on the chest has several color values and uses Cremnitz white, raw sienna, yellow deep, red light, and violet in many combinations.

    I refer to adult drake common eiders in full breeding plumage as “olive backs” because of the soft, earthy, pale olive/yellow highlighted along the lateral scapulars. For this color, I use several values with Cremnitz white, raw sienna, yellow deep, and violet.

    The painting methods for the white plumage are essentially the same throughout the decoy, using “fat” paint (right out of the tube and thinned slightly to a room temperature consistency of warm butter). Apply the varied color values in the correct corresponding areas, blend them together, soften with a fan brush, introduce new color values, blend, soften, and so forth.

  5. For the head, start at the top using warm white values (white, raw sienna, and yellow) and then gradually add the cooler white values (white, umber, sienna, and violet) to the lower head and throat. I soften and blend the values along the edges of their color zones with soft red sable flat brushes.

  6. With the white values blended, I begin to add the green values (from warm to cool) to the side and back of the head (both in front and behind the white line of the auricular ridge). I softly blend the first green value to the white along the front edge of the jowls. I add each additional value to the sides and back of the head and then use soft red sable flat brushes to softly blend them to the existing green. I then paint the white auricular lines with warm white on the top half of the lines, and a cool white on the bottom half and carefully blend the lines to the existing greens on the side of the head.

  7. For the chest, I mix many values of salmon pink, pale orange, butter yellow, and several values in between. I want these colors pale and muted and not too bright and intense, so I maintain a strong Cremnitz white presence in the mixes. Again, I add the varied color values from the top of the chest to the bottom, starting with the paler warmer color values and moving to the deeper cool values. I blend them to get a soft transitional blend from top to bottom. Then I softly blend the color at the top into the white of the throat and neck.

  8. The scapulars are a bit easier because I apply only the warmer white values and applications of the earthy olive/yellow colors of the breeding adult drake eider. I apply the warmer white values to the center and middle of the right and left scapular groups, including the post-humeral raised “thorn feathers.” I add a little yellow to the warm white and highlight the tops of the “thorns” and the highest areas of the scapulars, and then subtlety blend this to the warm white to leave just a hint of the warmer color.

  9. With the white color softly blended, I add the olive/yellow color to the lateral edges of the scapulars, again starting with the warmer values near the top (along the white) and finishing with the cooler values along the bottom margins. Then I use a soft fan brush to blend all the values together and to the white.

  10. To add the finishing touch to the bottom margins of the scapulars, I mix a little raw umber and violet to add a cool value shadow color to the olive-yellow values of the lateral scapulars. I paint this darker color across the bottom margin and then blend it into the existing values with a soft fan brush.

  11. To complete the mid-line scapulars and the “thorns,” I take a #3 kolinsky brush and use the earthy violet/brown from the previous step to outline a few loosely-interpreted scapulars and the thorns. Then I softly blend the feathers to the white with a fan brush. I also use this cool violet/brown to paint the underside edge of the thorns, which simulates them being undercut and shadowed.

  12. I start the tertials by painting the entire group with the warm white value. Using a #3 kolinsky, I outline the curved shapes of each tertial using a lighter value of the violet brown I used to paint the thorns and the lower margins of the scapulars. I paint the edges wet over wet.

  13. Wait a few minutes for the paint to relax and then soft blend with the fan brush.

  14. Adding a little raw umber to the violet-brown mix, I carefully outline the tip of each tertial with a fine line using my kolinsky. Again, I paint wet over wet.

  15. Let the edging settle a bit and then blend with the fan brush, using very light pressure.

  16. I use the same color and brush to add a single fine line simulating the rachis (feather shaft) to the tip of each tertial, and then I blend with a clean fan after the paint has settled for a few minutes.

  17. Now I set the decoy aside for half an hour to let the paint settle. I take the base warm white color and add a slight bit of yellow just as I did when I highlighted the thorn feathers. Using my kolinsky, I apply a small amount along the inner web base of each tertial feather, adjacent to the darker edge value of each tertial. Then I soft blend with my fan brush.

  18. The tertials are completed with a darker value highlight along the tips, which I blend into each tertial feather with a flattened #3 kolinsky run along the inner edge of each new dark line. The tertials and all the white feathers are now complete. I put the decoy aside overnight before painting the bill and dark feathers of the head, side pockets, tail, caudal area, and primaries.

  19. For the black plumage mixes, I use many different mixed combinations using black, burnt umber, violet, and blue. Since the eider is holding a Pacific blue mussel, I mix the black values of the mussel from burnt umber, a little touch of black, blue, and violet. I add highlights of light violet and blue to the edge of the mussel for color contrast and a little artistic dynamic.

  20. The bill gets five values of mixed yellows and pale-to-deeper oranges, using mixes from the cadmium reds and yellows. I paint each color in each section and then blend them together. I introduce and blend other yellow and pale orange values to the blended bill colors to highlight and shadow the bill.

  21. The “v-nigrum” in the Pacific eider’s scientific name refers to the black V on the throat area of the head (a.k.a. chin and throat). I paint the V with several values of black and earthy violet/browns using a #3 kolinsky brush.

  22. Drake eiders in full winter and breeding plumage show a little violet highlight in the black plumage on the head and upper edges of the side pockets. I add this highlight with iridescent blue and violet oils and a little violet and blue oils in the mix. This produces a beautiful color accent to this spectacular duck.

  23. After outlining the edges of each tail feather with the mid dark brown, I fill in the base inner webs of each feather with the mid light brown.

  24. Using my flattened #3 Kolinsky, I soften the inner edges of the dark outer margin color to the base light brown color.

  25.  I soften the feathers with my clean fan brush, using light pressure.

  26. After the paint settles for 15 minutes, I go back over the outer edges of each tail feather with a brown value that’s darker than the one used previously.

  27. To add the illusion of feather barb structure on the tail, I blend inward at a 45-degree angle with the tips of my fan brush as shown here.

  28. I finish off the tail painting by adding a value that’s lighter than the base color to the base of each tail feather, running adjacent to the dark outer margin of each tail feather. Then I take my fan brush and soften this new base color, sweeping outward at a 45-degree angle. This blends the new light color into the inner web of each feather. The tail is complete.

  29. I paint the primaries opposite of the way I painted the tail. I start by applying a dark value, and then outline each feather in the light values. Outlining complete, I soft blend the feather outlines with a fan brush with very light pressure. I repeat this step until the feather edging of the primaries is sharp and clearly defined.

  30. I finished the eider painting with the side pockets. Warm and cool black/dark brown values descend from the top (warm) to the bottom (cool).

    I blend the values together. While the paint is still wet, I add moderately fat applications of several iridescent blue and violet values along the top areas and blend them carefully with my fan brush. I want the iridescent colors to be subtle.

  31. The painting is complete! I set the eider aside for a week to make sure the paint cures properly before I float it for balancing with weights. I can rig it for the Bering Sea or a collector’s shelf. This decoy ended up on a shelf.

Other Tips:

  1. I paint the bill and the dark plumage with the same techniques I used for the white plumage areas: applying many values of similar colors, blending, softening, and then introducing similar but varied values and blending and softening them.

    For the bill and dark feather palette I will use Cremnitz white, Scheveningen black, burnt umber, raw sienna, cadmium yellow deep, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red medium, cadmium red deep, dioxazine mauve (violet), ultramarine blue deep, and Daniel Smith’s iridescent violet and
    iridescent blue oil paints.

  2. I mix several light and dark brown color values for the tail and primaries. I use the lighter values for the base color of each tail feather. In contrast, I use the same light color values in reverse for the primaries, to edge each primary feather. For the light brown, I use burnt umber, raw sienna, a little red medium, and Cremnitz white. The various dark browns are burnt umber, violet, raw umber, and a touch of black.

About the Author:

  1. Keith Mueller has been a professional bird carver for nearly 40 years. He is a seven-time World Champion and has been named the Living Legend Folk Artist by the state of Connecticut Endowment for the Arts three times. The author of several books, and a carving and art instructor, Keith lives in Killingworth, Connecticut. He has written several articles on color theory, composition, and design for Wildfowl Carving Magazine.


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