Monday, January 25, 2010

Birds of a feather

Yesterday we walked together over the hill, Robin, four dogs and me. The land is clothed in winter colours and as we walked through the rattling bones of heather flowers small snipe rose up with shouts and flew fast and low for safety. And then we saw a woodcock. Bigger than a snipe with a beadlike eye, coloured so like the moorland they blend so well and sit tight and still almost until you stand on them. Then they fly so fast.

Today I was supposed to meet Daf on the beach to pick up pin feathers from a woodcock he had shot, plucked and put in a pie, but had a strange assignation outside the surf shop instead as chaos had ensued at home and I was late. A small package exchanged hands and I went home happy with my feathers. I had heard that calligraphers had worked for centuries with brushes made from the pin feathers of woodcocks. They were supposed to be hard wearing and capable of producing very finely detailed work.


I painted a eulogy to a woodcock, so wrapped in my work that I forgot to go and pick up the kids from school, watching the paint leave the brush feather, amazed at how fine a detail I could get. I have always loved medieval painting and it was good to feel close to this ancient tradition of illustration. It seems that these feathers have been used for many things, including painting gold detail onto Rolls Royce cars. The only thing I used another brush for was the block detail covering behing the gold leaf, for the feather brush would work as a good wash brush for smaller areas too, very fine.


I am told that the birds have a wonderful flavor. I love to see them fly though, love the way they hide. They have an air of the ancient about them, a subtle magic.

detail from a medieval manuscript showing a woodcock.

Looking on the web for more about the feathers I found another painter who loves to use them, Colin Woolf.
Back to work on The Ice Bear tomorrow.


  1. Fascinating! I had not known about painting with feathers, and it makes a beautiful looking brush - using beautiful tools to create is such a pleasure...
    I also love the symbolism of painting the woodcock with the woodcock's feather - almost as if it might capture the spirit of the bird in a kind of ancient shamanic way...
    like the ancient cave paintings of deer, horse and buffallo do...
    Can't quite explain what I mean so I'll stop rambling!! But thankyou for showing us Jackie, wonderful!

  2. no, I know just what you mean Carrie. And I haven't been so engrossed in my work for ages. It felt so right painting the woodcock with this and am tempted to get John to frame the brush with the painting, but I want to paint more with it. It is so fine a point and the feathers hold the paint so well. Just perfect. I am going to get the word around to all the people I know who shoot to try an dget more, but it is the end of the season now. Birds start nesting soon. And I would hate to see the numbers on the hill behind my house being reduced by shoting. Happy to take ones that are shot, but not for someone to shoot them for me.
    And it did have a shamanic poetry about it.
    Going to see how it feels to paint other birds with it.

  3. I love wonderful tools, especially simple ones that have not changed in ages and also glad to know other artist get so lost in their work they forget things like their children, momentarily of course!

  4. Hi Jackie,
    I love the idea of framing the brush with the painting... my husband & I are both picture framers and I can just imagine how good you could get it looking, great idea...
    I love all your bird paintings but the feather brush takes it to a deeper level somehow..?? Shamanic poetry says it perfectly.
    I'm desperately trying to rekindle my poor neglected artwork so this has been a great bit of inspiration, thanks...

  5. I was searching the web to find out about these feathers.
    I have been given a couple and I cannot wait to try them.
    I had never heard of them before.
    I have read your very helpful info.

  6. A fascinating post! Who knew? A lovely painting, too. I would love to see a post on how you do the gold leaf; where it's purchased, how you apply it, that sort of thing. Really amazing technique--both of them!

  7. I love the woodcock picture. We found a dead one in the edge of the wood yesterday and I am busy writing a poem about it. They are very mysterious.