article by

Jo Craemer, Wildlife Carvings, Delaware, USA

Woodcarver Ezine
Back Issues
Carvers' Companion Gateway

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.

Painting technique 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 over it

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 efficiently.)

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.

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