The Great Horned Challenge, Part Two

Finishing up a magnificent owl in full flight.

By: Floyd Scholz
The Great Horned Challenge

In about 40 B.C. the Roman lyric poet Horace wrote: “Art is Poetry without words.” The proper and tasteful application of color to the carved and textured surface of your bird carving is the final and all-important stage of the whole creative process. Accuracy in plumage coloring and subtle variations found throughout the subject’s body must be achieved for you to put forth a believable, realistic result.

In my opinion, painting can either make or break your bird. Over years of judging and attending countless shows, I’ve seen more than a few beautifully carved birds ruined by poor paint jobs, and vice versa. Let’s face it, if you were to ask most of the artists involved in decorative bird carving which part of the process causes the most anxiety, the painting process would most likely be their answer.

From beginner to seasoned professional, I have found this one thing to be true. After all the time, effort, and emotion we put into our carvings, the final stage—painting—can be intimidating. Trust me, you are not alone in feeling this way. But remember: a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. With that in mind, I will be breaking down the process I use into four steps:

  1. Surface preparation
  2. Monochromatic (white/gray) base-tone underpainting of shade and shadow
  3. Application of color
  4. Feather detailing

I also present my four cardinal rules for successful painting:
  • Rule #1: Once the sealer has dried, try to avoid touching the surface of the carving—your hands have oil on them.
  • Rule #2: When using acrylic or gouache paints, always paint from light to dark.
  • Rule #3: Keep it simple; maintain a clean, well-lit work area and keep those brushes clean.
  • Rule #4: Have a clear plan and strategy in mind before you get going; be patient and use the best tools your budget allows.


I get myself into the proper mindset to paint by cleaning and preparing my workspace. I try to eliminate all the dust in the area by wiping down all surfaces with a damp cloth. I use color-correct daylight bulbs to illuminate the area, positioning them to avoid any shadows. For this project, I am keeping my tool selection simple by using only a 3/4" and 1/2" oval wash brush, #1 and #6 pointed sables, and an airbrush—an inexpensive AZTEK airbrush (which unfortunately is no longer available new). My compressor of choice is a Super Silent 20A set at 25 to 30 psi.

The first step is applying up to three coats of thinned gesso to the entire owl, striving for consistent, clean coverage. Then, with a deep gray color, I use an airbrush to subtly deepen the areas where the major feather groups meet. This enhances the visual illusion of depth. Next, using a mixture of 70% raw umber and 30% ultramarine blue, I airbrush in all the feather barring on the flight feathers. This process for me goes easily and doesn’t take much time. Using a little more raw umber mixed into the same mixture, I go back and darken the outer edges of the wings, as seen on the real bird.

Now, my dear friends, the fun begins! “Squiggles” is not a term you hear very often in connection with the serious business of painting your carving, but I have found no better word to describe the technique I will be using for several weeks of necessary, caffeine-driven, nervous brushwork. My tool of choice for this is a high-quality pointed #6 sable brush. I use a mixture of 80% raw umber, 10% burnt umber, and 10% ultramarine blue, adding a few drops of water to keep the paint consistency fairly thin. Also, a drop of flow medium mixed into your puddle of paint is not a bad idea either.

A careful study of the great horned owl’s cryptic, camouflaged plumage reveals a myriad of squiggle lines of varying width and density between most of the barring and up onto the body contouring feathers. Unfortunately, there is no easier way to achieve this plumage effect than settling into a comfortable chair and holding that brush as vertically as you can. For pure ease of access and the safety of these fragile pieces, I prefer to paint all the parts separately, starting with the tail.

The owl’s legs and feet are carved separately and will be attached to the body once completed. The talons are made from A+B epoxy putty.

  1. Preparation is the key! Thoroughly clean your workspace and ensure you have ample color-correct lighting. Surround yourself with top-quality reference photos and know your subject.

  2. I use a soft plastic squeeze bottle for my gesso. My painting palette is a large, oval dinner plate, and I use 2 oz. plastic cups for mixing my paints. When you use acrylic paints, you must avoid touching the carving. Disposable latex gloves are very handy.

  3. The textured and sealed back area is ready to accept the gesso primer.

  4. The underside of the open wings after three thin coats of gesso. I do like to have some coloring from the woodburning come through.

  5. Applying the second coating of gesso to the upper section of the wing using a 1/2" oval wash brush.

  6. The objective is a consistent, even covering on the entire surface.

  7. One down, one to go. Note that I am resting the carving on a small pillow covered by a clean, dry terrycloth towel.

  8. The nonburned areas of the carving will be softly sanded and lightly textured, as the feather structure in these areas is quite different from the top regions.

  9. A polished 1/4” burnishing ball run at 55,000 rpm is used to burnish in the ripple effect.

  10. The results of the burnishing.

  11. Next, I lightly stone in the textured surface using a 3/16” diamond cylinder.

  12. Once all the final texturing has been completed, I brush on a generous coat of a quality wood sealer. Over the years, many have relied on a product called Curt’s Teekay’s available from Jaymes Company or any reputable supplier. You must use a penetrating sealer so you don’t risk clogging up the fine texture.

  13. Prior to beginning and committing color to the carving, I create a test board. For this, you can either apply white gesso to a piece of sanded plywood or purchase a pre-gessoed panel at your local art store. This board enables me to work out my color mixes and techniques before I begin the painting process. I think of it as a sort of “warm up” that can help eliminate any guesswork as the work progresses.

  14. The predominant mixture I am using is 70% raw umber and 30% ultramarine blue.

  15. This contour feather of a real great horned owl reveals the complex plumage detailing that must be done. Pack your patience, my friends—we’re in for a long ride!

  16. Practice replicating the patterning on the test board first. That way, deciding things like paint consistency, mixture, and brush size and shape are resolved here and not on the bird.

  17. Once the sections are gessoed, I layer on a patchwork of underlying color. This is thinned-down raw sienna.

  18. A clothespin helps hold the tail in position so I can airbrush the distinctive feather barring across the top surface.

  19. Masking tape is useful to prevent any overspray on underlying feathers as I lay out and paint the barring.

  20. A small nylon bristle brush dipped in rubbing alcohol allows me to scrub through the layers and bring up the white barring.

  21. After an hour or so of making squiggles using a high-quality #6 pointed sable brush, I have completed the top of the tail section.

  22. The underside of the body has been primed with white gesso, and subtle shadows are airbrushed into the deep areas.

  23. A dry oval wash brush either 1/2” or 3/4” makes a superb pattern when airbrushing soft shadowing to create softness throughout the belly area.

  24. All shadowed and ready for color and detailing. I refer to this as monochromatic underpainting.

  25. Raw sienna streaks are airbrushed on and more feather detailing has been painted.

  26. The entire chest, breast, and belly underside areas are detailed with white and a touch of raw umber using a high-quality #6 sable brush. Thousands of hairlike white lines serve to tie everything together.

  27. The results of many, many hours of fine detailing. Using a #6 pointed brush, I begin the mind-numbing task of detailing each contour feather.

  28. It’s a long road ahead, but there is no easier way to achieve the desired effect.

  29. Careful planning and underpainting combine to give a pleasing look to the textured surface.

  30. It’s time to attach the tail to the body.

  31. I use five-minute epoxy to glue it all together.

  32. The joint area is coated with plastic wood and sanded smooth once dry. Then the feather pattern is drawn in.

  33. When done carefully and correctly, the final appearance is perfectly unified. Remember to keep your woodburner on a low heat setting. Once the joint area is textured, I will apply white gesso and paint it to match perfectly with the surrounding feather groupings.

  34. Plastic wood was used to fill and mask the joint for the wing connection prior to woodburning.

  35. I used A+B epoxy putty on the underside because this area will be stoned, not burned.

    I created the base out of a big piece of cedar driftwood, which I have mostly re-carved and shaped to suit my design idea. I supplemented the support section with carved rock maple and ran a 1/4” hardened steel rod through the center up to the tip. On the bottom, underneath, for weight and stability, I recessed a 3 lb cast iron disk held in with wood screws and lots of A+B epoxy putty.

    My objective was to give the impression of a cracking whip and a sense of forward motion. Imparting a feeling of motion to a static sculpture means avoiding any vertical or flat horizontal lines. All elements, base and bird, must flow in a lyrical way, putting forth an air of urgency and directional purpose as the big owl seizes volumes of air while propelling its way forward.

    Once carved, I seal the composite branch with two coats of wood sealer. Up to five thick coats of white gesso are then applied and allowed to thoroughly dry. Often, I will coat areas of the branch with acrylic modeling paste and, using a natural sea sponge, stipple on a pebbly surface as it is drying. When creating habitat such as this, you are only limited by your own creativity.

    I use my airbrush to deepen the shadowing on the branch then apply many very thin watery washes of a neutral gray (60% burnt umber and 40% ultramarine blue mixed with an equal amount of white gesso to make a mid-tone gray). The 3/16” 308 stainless steel support rod is permanently attached to the owl’s body, epoxied into a hole drilled into the back left leg.

    The support branch has been primed with pure white gesso.

  37. A 1/4” steel rod goes up through the branch for strength and stability, and 308 stainless steel will be inserted permanently into the right leg of the owl.

  38. I set a 3 lb. cast iron disc into the bottom of the branch and use KwikWood filler to fill in the gaps.

  39. The gessoed branch is taken outside, and I begin applying many, many sloppy watery washes of a mixture of raw umber, gesso, ultramarine blue, and yellow oxide.

  40. Use a big wet brush and be prepared to simply slop the mixture on and let it run where it wants!

  41. I use an “el cheapo” brush for this process.

  42. These 2 oz. cups are so handy for mixing and saving colors as you proceed.

  43. The feet were painted with a mixture of raw umber, raw sienna, and white. The talons were painted using a 50/50 mixture of ultramarine blue and burnt umber. Once dry, I coat them with satin polyurethane. The toe pads are darkened slightly with raw umber, and the small spots are a mixture of acrylic modeling paste and raw umber dipped on with a #1 pointed sable brush.

  44. The completed foot has been fitted to the body and is ready for attachment. I drilled a 1/16" pilot hole and, using five-minute two-part epoxy, I attach it to the body and pound in the nail.

  45. The detailed body mounted up on the branch and ready to accept the head.

  46. Again, using five-minute two-part epoxy, I carefully glue the head onto the body. This can be more than a little nerve-racking as the alignment must be perfect.

  47. At this time, all the component parts are now in place. The support rod has been firmly glued into the rear of the left leg. What remains are many, many hours of second guessing myself and hyper-detailing every nuance of the big owl’s anatomy. I don’t finish my carvings—I abandon them!

  48. After 18 months of work, it’s a relief when all the component parts finally come together.


I certainly won’t deny that preparing for and thinking about creating such a large, daunting carving can be a test of one's will and imagination! Stay positive and focused. When doing a large piece, it can be helpful to think of it as a miniature. How would you approach it then? The same rules apply regardless of the size: keep it simple and try not to overthink things.

By breaking it down into manageable sections, I found that it was easier to wrap my head around the sheer size of this project. I like to work big, and I am at a stage in my career where I welcome a challenge. Regardless of the stage you are at, you should too. Good luck!


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