Want to improve your bird drawings? Learn how to draw a feather, give your drawings the polish they require to help them stand out from a boring sketch. If you want to be able to draw a myriad of birds you have to start with the basics. Let’s break it down into some simple, easy to remember steps so it’s never hard again!
The wonder of birds is their special design that is built for flight. But the function of feathers is more than just flying. There are many different uses for these structures.
Feather Function: What do feathers do?
Feathers serve important functions on a bird’s body, each one adapted to the bird’s activities and habitat. While some birds’ feathers are ornamental, others are built to be most efficient for flight.
Flight: Without their aerodynamic feathers, birds would be walking just like us. Birds have evolved from dinosaurs. Feathers on birds probably began as simple tufts and then gradually developed into complex interlocking structures capable of flight. Scales on a bird can be seen on their lower legs and feet, similar to dinosaurs. As feathers began to evolve they took on different forms for flight.
Display: Male birds are known to have distinct types and colours of feathers. This is helpful for finding a mate. The health of a bird’s feathers is a direct indicator of its vitality. Feathers can also be used as camouflage to protect them from predators.
Insulation and Weatherproofing: Birds also have feathers to insulate them from the weather. Sometimes, feathers are used to line their nests and warm their eggs. Birds like Ducks coat their feathers in special oils to help them stay dry in water. Their feathers keep them warm and protected and help them to maintain a certain body temperature to stay healthy. Flightless penguins rely on their feathers to keep warm and dry in cold climates.
Feather Anatomy: Parts of a feather
Feathers are made of the same material as your hair and fingernails – keratin. This strong and light protein that makes up feathers is perfect for flight.
The parts of the feathers that you can see without aid are the vane, rachis, barbs, afterfeather and the hollow shaft called the calamus. Luckily you do not need to remember all these terms to learn how to draw a feather! However, they will help you to understand the structural elements for better drawing.
The Vane is the plumed part of the feather that grows from the central shaft. Rigid vanes are important for flight; they function as a rudder when in flight and brakes when landing.
The Calamus is the large hollow shaft that attaches to the bird’s skin or bone.
The Rachis is the long central part of the feather that holds the vane.
The Barbs grow from the rachis: as a whole, they make the vane.
Afterfeathers are the downy lower barbs that are used for warmth rather than flight.
There are tiny parts called barbules and hooklets that hold the barbs together. Often birds will preen themselves to smooth out their barbs and barbules for efficient flight. Birds will recover their feather vane by shaking their wings and preening when ruffled.
Types of Feathers
Feathers are remarkable structures that are unique to birds and separates them from other animals. There are different types of feathers because they perform many different functions. Birds have six different types of feathers with unique structures for different purposes.
The Contour feather is one that most of us are familiar with. It consists of a central shaft with barbs that protrude from either side that form vanes. Vanes of contour feathers must be rigid and flexible for flight. The wing flight feathers provide thrust while the large tail feathers act as a rudder when in the air. Smaller contour feathers cover the body and the edges of the wings.
Semiplumes are the second type of feather that comes off the sides of a rachis but are soft and fluffy, unlike the contour feather. Most semiplumes are concealed under contour feathers for insulation but some are enlarged and used as a courtship display such as in egrets.
Down feathers are attached in the skin by a calamus but lack a rachis. Barbules spread from the tip of the calamus. These feathers are short, fluffy and loose. Semiplumes and down feathers are used for insulation.
The Powder down is a special feather that produces a powdery substance. It resembles semiplumes but the barbs grow continuously. Tips of the barbs crumble. Birds apply the powder to other feathers while preening to waterproof and keep away parasites from their feathers. Powder downs are typically found on the chest and pelvic region.
Bristles are short and stiff. They lack barbs except at the base of the rachis. These feathers are found around the eyes and near the base of the beak. They are believed to provide sensory information.
Filoplumes consist of the calamus and rachis but have a few small barbs near the tip. These feathers are found around contour feathers, particularly near the wings. They are thought to provide information about wind and air pressure for efficient flight.
How to draw a feather: Step by step guide
For this tutorial, we will draw a Great Horned Owl’s feathers. We will be focusing on the central tail and wing feather. If you follow along and practise with me, you should be able to draw any feather as the principles are the same.
Here are the 7 easy steps to draw a feather:
1. Let us start by drawing the central part of the feather, the rachis. No matter the type of feather, the rachis has a slight bend in it. Make sure it’s not stiff straight. The wing rachis is bent a bit more in comparison to the tail feather.
2. Outline the feather. Draw the vane as lightly as possible as this will serve as a guide as you fill in the rest of the details.
3. Notice the angles the barbs take in different areas of the feathers. They are short and steeper towards the top and more random and loose towards the bottom. Notice how the barbs curve like an ‘S’.
4. Fill in the vane with the barbs that give it its characteristic texture and shape. Add barbs that are more random and erratic at the ends of the feathers.
5. Add a base colour of light beige and add a few sections that are brighter in hue.
6. Add the characteristic stripes, keep the edges uneven and irregular. Make sure to add a few darker areas, especially closer to the centre of the rachis. Certain areas that might appear grey are really muted browns. Avoid using pure black as it might ‘dirty’ your hues.
7. Add the highlights. Notice certain barbs are highlighted and have patterns in the feather structure. Paint those in with white with a slight opacity so that it does not overpower the rest of the artwork.
Exercises To Try:
Now it is your turn to try these methods. Attempt drawing a feather, try drawing as many different types as possible.
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I hope this tutorial helps you draw better. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below. I would love to see how your drawings turn out. Tag me on your favourite social media @drawingwithpri when you use this tutorial.