How to draw feathers

In this article, I will offer some hints and tips on how to give bird feathers a more three-dimensional finish. For more tips, take a look at our article on how to draw animals. I'll be using the example of a drawing of an osprey – you can see the finished thing below.

Hit the icon in the top right to enlarge the image

For this artwork, I used Rembrandt soft pastels and a mixture of Derwent and Cretacolor pastel pencils on Canson Mi-Teintes Touch paper, which has a fine, sandpaper-like texture. I have accumulated a wide range of pastel pencils in various shades over the years, and use Derwent for its softer texture, while Cretacolor’s pastel pencils are harder and can be sharpened to fine point for the details. 

For most of my artwork, I like my paper to have a little ‘tooth’. However, if I’m creating a human portrait for instance, a more absorbent paper – such as Clairefontaine Pastelmat – is better, as it allows for blending to a smoother finish for skin.

01. Draw the outlines and add a base colour

drawing of bird

Blend the base colour with a polystyrene tool

The first step is to draw the outline of the feathers. I work from photos to reproduce details as accurately as I can. Each feather has a base colour applied – I use the photograph to choose the range of colours I need. This base colour is then blended to create a smooth surface using a piece of polystyrene cut to a pencil shape.

02. Use three different shades

detail of feathers

One side of the feather will be darker than the other

The second step is to chose three different shades (light, medium and dark) for the next layer. You need to study each feather to see where the light falls – one side will always be darker than the other. To give the striped effect to each feather, I stroke with the pencil from the feather edge towards the middle. Note the darkest parts are always under the feather. 

03. Add highlights

more details added to feathers

Add fine details with a very sharp pastel pencil

The final step is to add highlights along the central quill using a white pastel pencil – I use Cretacolor white as it sharpens well and gives the best true white available. I then add fine details to the feather using very sharp pencils. I look at the photo again to capture the final touches and give a three-dimensional effect.

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