How to Paint Feathers

When chickens losing feathers is the start of something beautiful...

How to Paint Feathers

Ryan McGhee learned how to paint feathers and now uses his wildlife portraiture to bring attention to endangered species.

Ryan has lived on his one-acre homestead in Tampa, Florida for six years. During this time, he has heavily mulched the grass yard with free tree trimmings. Now fruit-bearing trees, including various bananas and citrus, moringa, chaya, katuk (Sauropus androgynus), loquat, pomegranate, jackfruit, peanut butter (Bunchosia argentea), and miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum) trees grow where sandy soil once laid unproductively. He has planted perennial edible greens in a permaculture style around the property and added a greenhouse. McGhee can be seen working in the yard every weekend.  

During his first year on the homestead, he added a flock of chickens and ducks. During molting season, he questioned what he could do with the byproduct of the feathers. Today, feathers from molting chickens are used for pillow stuffing, diapers, insulation, upholstery padding, paper, plastics, and feather meal. Some homesteaders even sell ornate feathers to crafters.  

McGhee soon applied his aptitude of artistry and learned how to paint feathers, specifically wildlife portraits on his poultry’s feathers. Soon parrot owners and neighbors were giving him feathers to be used as canvases. Since he started his homesteading feather artwork business, he has sold them at art shows, zoos, and at an international avian conference.  

Late at night, with an eclectic mix of music blaring out of his laptop, wine glass nearby, he finds his muse. Working out of a large toolbox, which contains nearly 100 bottles of acrylic paint — a hand-me-down from his mother — he sets up the art studio in his dining room. The laptop reveals a portrait of an animal’s head which he studies and occasionally sketches prior to painting. Riffling through a bag of unkept parrot and poultry feathers, he finds one that appeals to him. Using a paintbrush that has a half dozen or so bristles, he starts on the silhouette. Using small amounts of paint allows the coat to dry quickly on the barbs. This allows McGhee to add several coats relatively quickly. 

Julian the cat in Ryan’s art studio.

Chickens losing feathers is a natural process. Healthy feathers are mandatory for creating beautiful pieces of art. Feathers that don’t “zip up” properly are discarded. If the paint causes the feather to separate, McGhee will use his finger to re-hook the barbules and barbicels. Learning how to make tempera paint out of egg yolks is another art project that backyard poultry caregivers can look into. McGhee, though, only uses acrylic paint due to the thick consistency.  

McGhee typically paints one portrait on a single feather. Keystone species may be painted on two or three overlapping feathers. Some of the species he has painted so far include; rhinos, lemurs, bats, macaws, hornbills, manatees, Komodo dragons, giraffes, and owls. While most paintings take several hours, some feathers are started and then discarded only to be finished weeks or months later.  

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To bring attention to the important niche vultures play in ecosystems around the world, McGhee painted the 16 most endangered vultures in a series. The series was very popular among birders and zookeepers. Many populations of vultures are under pressure, with some facing extinction. His feather artwork reveals how attractive the cleanup crew can truly look. Vultures reduce the spread of disease by eating carrion. In countries or areas where vulture populations are declining, rabies and other diseases are increasing. Currently, 16 out of the 23 species are near threatened, vulnerable to extinction, endangered, or critically endangered. Having a cleanup crew is essential in any ecosystem. 

On his Florida homestead, McGhee loves seeing turkey and black vultures and wood storks visit the property. In addition to edible landscaping, he also grows carnivorous plants, orchids, and pollinator-attracting plants. Some of his more unusual plants include carrion cactus and a few Amorphophallus species. Both plants, while in bloom, smell like rotten garbage and decay. Recently when his Amorphophallus was in bloom, a turkey vulture flew down to his deck to get a closer look at a potential meal. After shredding the foot-long flower, the vulture was saddened by the fact that instead of a dead animal it was a purple lily-shaped flower and flew off to continue his quest for sanitation.   

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McGhee finding his muse at Tracy Aviary, Utah.

Ryan’s Tips for How to Paint Feathers  

  • Choose feathers that are clean and zip up easily. Feathers whose barbules and barbicels do not re-hook with a simple finger rub should be discarded. Avoid cockatiel, cockatoo, and African grey feathers, as they have a powder which forms a waterproof — hence, paint-proof — barrier. Chicken, duck, and turkey feathers are great for painting!  
  • Feathers that lay flat are ideal for artwork that is going to be framed. Primary feathers’ shaft many times have too much of a curve.  
  • When first starting, use a reference image to sketch the portrait. Then overlay the feather on the sketch to see if the proportions are acceptable.  
  • Work general to specific. Use paintbrushes with fine tips and small amounts of bristles.  
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Kenny Coogan is a food, farm, and flower columnist. Coogan leads workshops about owning chickens, vegetable gardening, animal training, and corporate team building on his homestead. His newest gardening book 99 ½ Homesteading Poems: A Backyard Guide to Raising Creatures, Growing Opportunity, and Cultivating Community is now available at kennycoogan.com. 

Originally published in the October/November 2019 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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