Putting the Red in Red-Tailed

This hawk may be a miniature, but it still requires maximum effort.

By: Al Jordan
Updated May 24, 2018

Al Jordan lives in Rochester, New York, where he is a master falconer. He was the North American shorebird champion in 2008 and the IWCA Shorebird Champion in 2010. Al is also an instructor and judge and the author of Wildfowl Carving Magazine’s Half-Size Osprey Workbench Project. Learn about Al’s classes and one-on-one instruction at (585) 227-2235, www.ajordanbirds.com.

In part one from the last issue of Wildfowl Carving Magazine, I demonstrated how to carve a life-size red-tailed hawk. Now, I’m going to demonstrate how to paint this species, but this time, I’ll be using a half-sized bird with inserts for the primaries. The process is basically the same for both carvings, regardless of their sizes. There’s a great deal of diversity in the appearance of individual red-tailed hawks. Their coloring can depend on the time of year, the lighting conditions when you observe them, the birds’ diets, their ages, the climate, and other factors. So there’s no absolute “right” way to paint this hawk. You just have to try for the effect you want to achieve within the basic guidelines. The paint strategy I outline here will show you how I approach this magnificent raptor.

This article is from the Spring 2012 issue. For more information on our issues, check out our issues page.

Materials List

  • Airbrush
  • Fine sable brush (Vermont Raptor Academy Brush #6)
  • Paints ​(Chroma Airbrush):
  • Unbleached titanium white
  • Burnt sienna
  • Raw sienna
  • Chestnut brown
  • Warm white
  • Ebony
  • Carbon black
  • Raw umber
  • Driftwood
  • Burnt umber
  • Payne’s gray
  • Yellow oxide

Red-tailed Hawk Demonstration

For a closer look at each step, please click on the image to enlarge.

Step-by-step painting

  1. I begin by painting the tail and upper-tail coverts with unbleached titanium white. Be sure to thoroughly cover the tail. 

  2. Paint the outer edges of each tail feather with a mix of 40% burnt sienna, 40% raw sienna, and 20% chestnut brown.

  3. Here you can see how I use a template to airbrush a second coat of the tail color, thus intensifying the color. 

  4. Using the same red-orange color, I paint the bottom edge of the upper-tail coverts. In my opinion, these are the most beautiful of all the feathers on the red-tailed hawk.

  5. This photo clearly shows the white tips of the tail feathers. I hand brushed this on, using warm white and three or four thin coats. You can also see the dark subterminal band. I hand brushed this on, too, with ebony applied in very irregular strokes. Once I complete this stage, I repeat it using a thin coat of 50% carbon black and 50% ebony, again using irregular strokes, mainly in the center of the previous coat. Notice also the brown markings on the upper-tail coverts. Once again, I hand painted with a brush, using chestnut brown, keeping the strokes very irregular.

  6. Now wash the entire area with raw umber. You can see the depth this adds to the tail.

  7. Further define the entire area by adding both light and dark splits. Do this by using the color of the area under the top feather. The light splits are unbleached titanium white and the dark ones are chestnut brown. 

  8. The next areas to tackle are the secondaries and secondary coverts. Thoroughly cover these areas with what will be the base color of a medium gray (80% driftwood and 20% ebony).

  9. I’ve also base coated the primary inserts with the same medium gray.

  10. Using driftwood, airbrush the back edges of the primaries, secondaries, and secondary coverts. 

  11. Darken the primaries with several thin washes of ebony. Then lighten the back edges with a blend of 75% driftwood and 25% warm white.

  12. I’ve inserted and finished the primaries. I highlighted the back edges by hand brushing on the lightened gray from the previous step.

  13. Highlight some of the outer edges of the secondaries and secondary coverts with the tail color. Don’t highlight all these feathers. I jump around and strategically pick certain feathers.

  14. The secondaries and secondary coverts have very subtle stripes. I paint these by hand brushing with very irregular strokes a mixture of 80% burnt umber and 20% ebony.

  15. Paint these areas with several washes of the same color from the previous step. Highlight the bottom edges of these feathers with the same light gray used in step 11.

  16. The next step is to lay the foundation for the scapulars and upper marginal feathers. Carefully check your reference materials. You’ll find that no two red-tails are alike in this area. I use warm white and airbrush the bottom edges of these feathers.

  17. Using the same tail color, I airbrush the areas just above the white edges. This is not a solid, continuous color.

  18. Now use chestnut brown and fill in the remaining areas of these feathers.

  19. Extend the brown up to the head area.

  20. Detail and tighten this area. You can do this by adding both light and dark individual brush strokes, creating splits and highlights with warm white and chestnut.

  21. I have lightened some areas of the head—above the eye, behind the eye, and just behind the cere area. I have again used the light gray from step 11.

  22. To paint the beak and cere/lip area, base coat the beak with 70% warm white and 30% Payne’s gray. Next, paint the cere and lip area with 50% yellow oxide and 50% warm white. You can brighten the cere with a wash of cadmium yellow.

  23. Finish the beak by airbrushing the tip with Payne’s gray. You can paint the inner nostril area with chestnut brown. I have carefully scraped the paint off the eyes.

  24. Use a fine sable brush to paint the rictal bristles in front of the eye. I use warm white, chestnut brown, burnt umber, and ebony for this. Finish the eye ring by painting it with driftwood and dots of ebony.

  25. Airbrush the entire underneath portions with warm white. Then highlight the area with 80% raw sienna and 20% burnt sienna.

  26. Paint the under tail using the same technique you used for the upper tail and wash it with several layers of titanium white. 

  27. The breast, belly, and flank markings are next. Check your references for these areas. Once again, every bird presents a different appearance in these areas. I start by painting individual strokes of chestnut brown in the centers of the feathers.

  28. I add the markings on the tarsus feathers using chestnut brown applied with very irregular strokes. 

  29. Finish the painting by adding individual strokes of warm white on the feather edges. 

  30. Here’s what the finished bird looks like.


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