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A Ringed Teal Drake Part Two: Painting

Time to paint outside of the pond.

By: Brad Snodgrass
Updated July 22, 2021

In the previous issue, I explained how I carved a ringed teal, a bird that I have never actually seen in the wild. Now I am faced with the prospect of painting the bird, which presents its own set of challenges. Painting used to be the part of the process I dreaded the most. The possibility of messing up a decent carving with a bad paint job used to drive me to the brink of carving shop paralysis. Often, I’d let a fully carved piece sit naked on the shelf in my shop, sometimes for months, while I worked on another carving, only to have it meet the same fate.

Part of what makes our art form so fascinating and so challenging at the same time is that we must master so many skills to produce a quality piece. First, we must capture the essence of the species in wood, then somehow make a very hard substance look like soft feathers, through a variety of texturing techniques and, ultimately, painting. Painting is the frosting on the cake. After years of experimentation with a variety of techniques, and countless hours of trial and error, I have reached the point where I look forward to the painting. I practically begin to salivate when I get to this point, because this is where the bird comes to life. The fruits of my labor are just around the corner.

As always, I will rely heavily on my reference material, especially my study skin and images found on the computer.

I pick a rainy day to start, since I am going to be here for a while. I live in Oregon, so this will be no problem! Next, I make sure the dogs are comfortable. As a matter of fact, I make sure everyone else in the house is comfortable. There is nothing worse than mixing my paints, getting in the zone, and then having a major interruption. Painting is a cerebral activity. I will need to focus.

In Detail

  1. Even though this will technically be a smooth bird, I will lightly texture the surface of the wood
    with a mixture of white gesso and texturing paste in about a 60/40 ratio. I will apply this with a piece of closed-cell foam and stipple it across the surface of the teal (except for the bill). I find this has a softening effect on the final appearance of the bird. It will require several coats to get adequate coverage.

  2. I use a holding device that I screw into the bottom of the teal. I want to minimize how much I handle the carving to reduce the transfer of oil from my hands to the wood.

  3. I am applying the gesso/texturing paste mixture to the surface of the bird with the closed-cell foam. I had to cut a thinner piece to get into the hard-to-reach area behind the neck. This process required several coats, and I let each of them dry adequately before applying the next. I strive for uniform coverage. I prefer to start with a white coat, just like an artist’s canvas, especially with a bird such as a ringed teal that has a multitude of colors.

  4. Now it’s time to start thinking about where I am going to apply color. After I have closely examined my reference, I use a watercolor pencil to lightly sketch in areas where different colors will go. Since this is a “smoothie,” I am not tied to previously established feathers as I would be in a full decorative bird. I love the freedom of painting a smooth bird, but I still have to get the feathers in the right places, and the colors where they belong.

  5. I will soon begin mixing my paints. I have always been irritated with those little plastic paint trays you find in art stores. They never seem to hold enough paint and they are the devil to clean! My friend and fellow carver Jim Burcio had a stroke of genius and arrived one day with a tray for deviled eggs. Try it, you’ll like it!

    Like a good chef, I now assemble all the component parts I need to cook up a ringed teal drake. I have a paint tray, a study skin, a selection of paints, a nose syringe that I use to transfer water when mixing my paints, and an old brush to mix the paints that will also serve as a measuring tool. One brush load of paint will equal one part in the paint recipe. I also have my airbrush, which I will use to apply the base coats and establish feather edges as I move through this project. I use the Iwata HP-C Plus with the top-loading cup, but any good airbrush will do. The paper towels on the workbench do more than just keep the workbench clean. As I change colors in the airbrush, I spray the new color on the white paper towel to see if it is what I want and to make sure the airbrush is not spattering. I also have a bowl with water for cleaning the brush as I change paints, and a bottle of flow medium that I mix into my paints. I will be using Jo Sonja acrylic paints, as they provide a nice matte finish. If you use conventional paintbrushes and techniques, don’t despair. The paints and steps will be the same as you paint this bird. Just use your favorite technique. I have painted with oils and have used brushes to apply acrylics, but when using fast-drying acrylics, I prefer the soft blend that I can obtain with the airbrush. However, the real painting doesn’t begin until I pick up the conventional brushes.

  6. I am beginning to mix my paints. This photo is an example of the process I use for mixing the various hues found in this bird. I have raw umber and smoked pearl in the paint tray and have moved one part (a brush full) of smoked pearl to a separate compartment. I am preparing to move another part of raw umber to that container. I will mix parts of the two colors until I attain the desired hue, and add water from the syringe until I get the desired consistency. I prefer the consistency to be about that of light cream. I will then add flow medium. Flow medium will not change the consistency and will not dilute the colors. I will record my recipe as I move through the painting in case I have to recreate this hue at a later time or date. I will most likely not get this bird done in one sitting. 

    1 part smoked pearl + 1 part raw umber

  7. When cutting feather shapes, I use the same stencil film that I used to create the pattern. The various shapes will reflect the variety of feathers that you will find in this bird. I don’t need the exact shapes, just something reasonably close. I will be using “female” stencils, which I will explain in more detail in step 17.

  8. I have my study skin and photos of the ringed teal set up on a slide show on my computer, which I also project through the television in my shop. I can easily check different parts of the bird as I move through the painting process.

  9. Before spraying the bill with gray Krylon primer (a trick I borrowed from Daniel Montano), I mask the head with painter’s tape. The primer gives the bill a beautiful smooth surface when lightly sanded with steel wool between coats.

  10. I will begin this project by painting the bill. I like to get it close to the right color early so it doesn’t jump out at me as I paint the rest of the bird. I have mixed a medium hue found in the bill, using two parts warm white and one part cobalt blue. This is essentially a base coat. All base coats will be in the middle range of the final hue for that area of the bird because I want to be able to go darker or lighter from that point. All feathers will have at least three values of the same hue. This is what fools those rods and cones in the eye to make you see “soft.” 

    2 parts warm white + 1 part cobalt blue

  11. The bill has been painted with its base coat color. The nail gets two parts carbon black and one part burnt umber. I virtually never use straight black because it appears dark and lifeless.
     
    2 parts carbon black + 1 part burnt umber 

  12. The bird now has the base coats for the crown, the tail, the rump, and the under tail, including the upper- and lower-tail coverts. This color consists of one part raw umber, one part burnt umber, and a touch of carbon black. I have hopscotched around the bird simply because you find this color in all these places. I have also painted the cheek and brow with smoked pearl. This is a great base coat for white, because I can lay warm white over it later and really make it jump. Titanium white and gesso would also work if I wanted to push the white to the extreme.
     
     
    1 part raw umber + 1 part burnt umber + a touch of carbon black

  13. The base coat for the breast is provincial beige with a touch of burnt sienna. I have also applied straight smoked pearl to the white patches on the flank in front and behind the ring below the tail. I have lightened the white edge near the rear of the head with straight warm white.
     
    provincial beige + a touch of burnt sienna

  14. The base coat for the back of the breast and the cape consists of one part warm white and one part raw umber. The scapulars are two parts gold oxide and one part burnt umber.
     
    1 part warm white + 1 part raw umber

    2 parts gold oxide + 1 part burnt umber 

  15. The base coat for the tertials is the mix of one part raw umber and one part warm white from the previous step.

  16. The base coat for the sides is warm white with a small amount of black. This completes the base coats.
     
     warm white + a touch of carbon black

  17. I now begin to define some feather edges using the female stencil, starting under the tail. This color is one part burnt umber and one part black, which is of course darker than the base color, thus providing contrast. The female stencil creates a dark edge at the tip of the feather and leaves the base coat color at the base of the feather. This color is more intense toward the tip and is lightly misted toward the base, providing the three values of color in the feather that I mentioned in step 10.
     
     
    1 part burnt umber + 1 part carbon black

  18. Using the edge of a slightly rounded stencil, I define the darker leading edge of the tail feathers with the same mix of one part burnt umber and one part black.

  19. I am defining feather edges for the upper-tail coverts and the rump.

  20. Since I have this color in the airbrush, I use it to define the small feathers in the crown, utilizing the appropriate stencil.

  21. For the rear part of the breast, I use straight raw umber. Notice that not all feathers are round. I have cut my stencil to accurately reflect the feather shapes in this area.

  22. The back of the real bird is relatively monochromatic, but it would look flat and lifeless if I painted it that way. I am defining the feather edges with a mix of five parts burnt sienna and two parts burnt umber. This will bring the entire back close to its actual hue.
     
    5 parts burnt sienna + 2 parts burnt umber 

  23. By using a stencil to divide some of the feathers along the centers where the quills would be, I am establishing additional depth to the feathers. When I have finished misting this entire area with the darker color, very little of the base color will remain and it will be close to the actual look of the real bird. Just enough of the base color will remain to show some contrast and allow me to do some splits and tips in the final painting step.

  24. I use straight warm white for my feather edges on the white patches on the bird’s flanks. By allowing this to mist lightly over the black, I can achieve the effect of translucence in this area. This adds considerable depth to my painting. Light feathers lying next to dark always present opportunities.

  25. On the breast, I add spots with a mix of burnt umber and a touch of black (see swatches in step 17). These will vary in intensity and size. Ultimately, I will define feather edges on the breast with a mix of one part raw sienna and two parts warm white. These feather edges will partially obscure some of the spots, which will give the appearance of spots lying on the surface and some lying under feather tips. I will go back and randomly darken some of the spots to heighten this effect before I have finished with this area.

  26. The green iridescence of the speculum is such a prominent feature of this bird. I find that iridescence has a greater effect when it plays off black. I am outlining each feather in this area with a mist of straight carbon black. 

  27. I am painting the feather centers with an undercoat of yellow light, which will allow the iridescence to really pop.
     
    yellow light paint

  28. The final application of iridescence is brilliant green with a small amount of green iridescence.

    brilliant green + green iridescence

  29. It is now time to set down the airbrush, pick up the brushes, and begin the real painting. The goal of this step is to really bring the bird to life and to diminish the stenciled appearance of the feathers. In the final analysis, there should be very little evidence that the bird was painted with an airbrush. Here I am establishing the markings on the side of the head. The brush I use for this step is a Langnickel 6010 Royal Sable, but any brush that would give this effect will do. Most of the brushes that I use for splits, tips, and feather lining are Lowe-Cornell or some other reasonably priced brushes. These brushes should point up well, hold their point, and last for two or three birds. I have found that I go through brushes quickly no matter how much I pay for them.

  30. This photo shows the bird after I have added the splits and tips. For the splits, I use a #00 Lowe-Cornell and pull the base color through the tip of the overlying feather. I create tips with the same brush and add fine brushstrokes with the hue I mixed to create the feather edges when I stenciled the tips of the feathers. This process defines the feather edges, softens the bird, and adds realism.

  31. I am examining the vermiculation on the study skin. Vermiculation varies greatly from species to species so it’s important to have good reference.

  32. I painted the vermiculation lines with the #00 Lowe-Cornell. The paint mix is one part burnt umber, one part carbon black, and a small amount of white.

    1 part burnt umber + 1 part carbon black + 1/2 part warm white 

  33. On the bill, I add some depth by highlighting areas that would catch the light. Then I add a coat of Jo Sonja Blocking Sealer, which I find gives it the nice leathery look you find in a real bill.

  34. The final step is to open the eyes. After this, I like to live with my carvings for a while. Sometimes I will see things I want to change, or notice something I missed when I see the bird in different lighting outside my shop. Once I make those minor adjustments, I will declare the bird done. I’ve done something different, something new, and brought the ringed teal to life!

Brad Snodgrass has been carving waterfowl for more than 40 years. He began by carving a hunting rig out of balsa wood from a life raft he found on an Alaskan beach. His carving has evolved considerably since that time, thanks in part to the mentoring of Dennis Schroeder. Brad has won many best of show ribbons in competitions nationwide and is a regular exhibitor at the Easton Waterfowl Festival. 

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