SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS ABOUT PAINTING YOUR BIRD CARVING
Jo Craemer, Wildlife Carvings, Delaware, USA
Editor's note: This article started out as a response to
questions about painting sent to the Woodcarver Mailing List
a while back. Thank you, Jo, for taking the time to put your
responses into article form.
has to be tied in with the surface you are painting on. If your
carvings utilize a lot of fine detail, and if your carving and
burning techniques are similar to Jim Sprankle or Pat Godin's,
then their instructional video's are excellent. Their finished
carvings are so well done, the painting becomes (a large grain
of salt here) almost easy. They give a LOT of thought during
carving about how feathers lay over each other so that, for example,
a feather "split" shows contrasting color under it
from a different colored feather. Both of them use a burning
pen as well as carving (power grinding) with tiny "stones"
to create the surface texture of the feathers. Flight feathers
are usually hard and shiny, and look best burned "tightly"
- that means 70 to over 100 lines per inch. Body feathers are
soft and fluffy, and may look better if textured either with
stones or stones combined with burning pens.
When I refer to "burning" in the feather
lines, that's a little confusing, since you only want to turn
up the heat enough to "iron" the feather barbs into
the wood. (The heat softens the wood fibers, permanently leaving
a fine "engraved" line.) For the most part, the only
color you should get is a very light tan. If you char the wood,
the paint may not stick, plus you'll have to really work at covering
those dark marks with gesso before you paint.
There are 2 reasons to paint first with Gesso. (I've
also been experimenting with using Jo Sonja warm white, which
also seems to work well as a base coat.)
1. Gesso has a microscopically rough texture which gives the
paint something to adhere to.
2. The white color makes your paint brighter and true to color.
Try a quick experiment. Mix some red, yellow and blue
paint - just a little. Paint some of each - first over a brown
grocery bag - and then over white paper. See how much more vibrant
and alive the white base makes the color. Acrylic paints are
transparent, so the light passes through it and bounces back
to your eye from the white paint. Over brown wood, some of the
light is absorbed, and the resulting paint job looks dead.
This is true for any of the pure acrylic paints - Liquitex,
Hyplar, etc. They are transparent.
The Jo Sonja paints are a mix of acrylic paint and
gouache. The Gouache is opaque, so it's not quite as important
to have a white base coat, although it does make a difference,
especially in the lighter colors.
BUT. (There's always a "but.") Jo Sonja paint
takes several weeks to "cure" - and if you paint multiple
coats, one over the other, and if you work the paint vigorously
with the brush, you may lift off the lower coat(s) or cause them
to mix with your current coat - making "mud" colors.
(Drying the paint gently with the air from a hand-held "hair
dryer" will allow you to immediately add the next coat of
paint - just be quick and don't get too vigorous with the paintbrush.)
An aside: I've never seen anything written about using
a combination of Jo Sonja and "pure acrylic paint"
like Liquitex, etc., but have never run into any problems doing
so. I often use Jo Sonja as a base coat, and acrylics for washes
The pure acrylic paints are "cured" as soon
as they dry. Somewhat simplified, acrylics are made up of very
tiny bits of colored plastics suspended in water. When the water
dries, all that's left is waterproof plastic.
If your carvings have neat, crisp, tightly burned feathers,
then you are all set to paint using the multiple "wash"
technique. This means multiple (10 to 60) very thin coats of
acrylic paint. Thick paint will fill up the grooves of the burn
lines, causing a featureless, slick finish. The thin paint of
"washes" will flow into the burn lines, allowing the
feathers to almost paint themselves. The paint should be so thin,
it's almost like iced tea. Slosh it on. Dry it with a hair dryer.
Repeat, slowly building up the color. (This does NOT fill up
the burn lines.) Another advantage to using multiple layers of
"washes" rather than one or two thick coats of the
same color is that you will avoid getting a plastic, shiny look.
Washes tend to dry to more of a matte finish.
If the paint is thinned TOO much with water, it may
tend to bead up rather than adhere to the surface. You'll have
to experiment a little, but try some (or a combination) of these
hints. Add a little Matte Medium to the paint. (Plain Matte Medium
- not the Matte/Varnish combination.) Or use a little of the
Jo Sonja "Flow Medium" in place of some of the water.
Or just make the wash a little less watery.
One helpful hint:When rapidly applying "washes"
of thin paint, some will tend to puddle up. To keep from getting
too much paint into the burning detail, simply blot your paintbrush
on a paper towel so that the brush is just damp. Then pat the
brush tip over the excess paint, and it'll suck up the excess.
You're looking for a faint, even additional color layer. You'll
be building layer upon layer. Don't get impatient!
Use a fairly large brush for applying washes. One with
a good pointed tip will carry a lot of the wash, while allowing
you to still get into small detailed areas. This will allow you
to work faster (and the larger brush, when blotted to dampness,
will "slurp" up any excess paint on your carving more
If you are applying washes to a large area, you have
to be careful not to let the edges dry as you paint, or the paint
will leave a fine "dark line" at the edge of the painted
area as it dries before you get back to it. Or you might want
to blend a wash of one color into the wash of another. This is
easily done using the wet blend technique. Simply "paint"
the border areas with plain water. As your paint touches this
wet area, it will spread out evenly in a thin, diluted, fade
with no "hard edges."
The important concept in painting with washes is to
think THIN. You can always add more layers, but once you get
too much paint build-up or if the color gets darker than you
wanted, it's very difficult to salvage the situation. When that
happens, I usually strip the paint back to bare wood and start
over. (A little rubbing alcohol on a paintbrush will take off
small errors - with care you can "lift off" just one
layer of color. To scrub the entire carving clean - assuming
it has been well sealed with lacquer, gently scrub with the alcohol
and a toothbrush, taking care not to ruin the carving detail.
I've also been told denatured alcohol will work.)
For areas on the carving where you have "stoned"
the feather texture, the thin wash technique doesn't work quite
so neatly. Stoned areas are almost like painting on canvas, and
it takes a lot more artistic skill to create the painted feather.
Paint under the type of light the carving will be displayed
in. Most carvings will not be displayed under fluorescent lighting.
They'll probably (you hope) be in someone's living room or in
a display case, and be seen with regular table lamps and/or daylight.
It makes a BIG difference.
There is just so much to consider when painting a bird carving.
And so many variables - Your technique will be determined by
the surface texture and your carving style. A smooth surface
requires an entirely different technique than a tightly textured
One final caution; Water raises the grain of wood.
Let one drop of water touch that tightly burned feather, and
you will have an instantly smooth surface and will be gulping
Valium by the handful.
You must waterproof (seal) the surface before painting.
A couple of thin squirts of clear lacquer won't do it. If the
first coat starts to dry, it will prevent the second and third
from penetrating deeply. If the carving is small enough to "dunk"
most of us are using a mixture of Lacquer (2/3) and lacquer thinner
(1/3) and immersing the carving in till the bubbling stops -
at least for 30 seconds or so. Have a handful of Bounty (absorbs
faster than other brands) paper towels handy when you take the
bird out and gently dab off any excess (make absolutely sure
you blot off any excess lacquer which might be filling any of
the burning texture) - but you'll see most of the "excess"
absorbed by the wood like a sponge, especially if you're using
Tupelo. Let it dry overnight, and it'll be perfectly waterproof.
Or, if you want to use spray lacquer - hold the carving
over a big trash barrel, and spray continuously, letting the
excess drip off, keeping the wood wet till it absorbs a lot of
the lacquer. Blot as necessary.
After the carving is "sealed" - keep your
greasy fingers off it - wash your hands before handling it, or
better yet, attach it to a paint stick handle. Water based paint
will not adhere to an oily surface.
Oh - and now that it's too late for you to do anything
about it, if you are carving with power tools - Fordom, Gessswein,
NSK, Dremel, whatever - do yourself a big favor and use Tupelo
- NOT Basswood. Basswood fuzzes with a grinder, and you can sand
till all you have left is a toothpick-sized piece of wood, and
it'll be a fuzzy toothpick. Basswood is wonderful for knives,
gouges and chisels, but if you use power grinders, the Basswood
will look just fine till you put on the paint, and then every
danged little fiber sticks up and looks terrible. You can try
all kinds of tricks to get rid of those pesky fibers, but none
work well, and it's a lot of unnecessary hassle.
One final hint: Acrylic paint tends to darken a shade
or two when it dries. Take the time to paint a piece of paper
with white Gesso, or what ever color you are using as a base
coat. Then, on this base coat, paint sample swatches of the colors
you will be using on your carving. You can get a better idea
of how they will look on the finished bird. This will also give
you a permanent record of the colors you used for future reference.
Jot down with a pen or pencil what colors you used to make that
wonderful perfect shade of slate gray. (1:1 Burnt Umber/Ultramarine
Blue) for example.
Jo Craemer, Wildlife Carvings, Delaware, USA