In this drawing lesson, we'll take a look at rendering a feather with graphite pencils. The approach explored here can be applied to any subject and many of the principles are relevant to drawing any subject. Drawing a feather is an excellent exercise for developing your understanding of texture and how it is communicated through value and line.
The following video demonstrates how to draw a feather with graphite pencils. (More on this lesson can be found under the video, further down the page.)
We'll use three graphite pencils to develop the shape, value relationships, and texture of the feather. The pencils that you choose may vary depending on the amount of pressure that you naturally place on the surface as you draw. In this example, "H", "HB", and "4B" pencils are used. The "H" pencil is applied in the early stages with a light touch. As the values are developed, the slightly darker "HB" and much darker "4B" pencils are used.
The surface texture of the paper will always play a role in the texture that is produced within the drawing. Because the goal is to create smooth transitions of value in this drawing, a paper with a weaker tooth is used. Smooth Bristol paper makes a suitable surface, although any drawing surface with a smoother surface will do.
Blending stumps are also used to smooth graphite applications. Blending stumps are simply pointed sticks of compressed paper. Blending stumps allow the artist to work the graphite into the tooth of the paper, creating an even distribution of the material. Since they are pointed, the artist has more control over the resulting mark. Blending with a finger is discouraged since you have less control and the oils from your finger can produce an uneven distribution of the medium.
The drawing begins by first establishing a line for the center shaft of the feather which is called the "Rachis". The length and curvature of this line varies depending on the type of feather. In almost all cases, this line will curve slightly.
Light, sketchy lines are used to "find" the curvature and length of the line with the "H" pencil.
Using this initial line as a guide and for comparison purposes, we can draw the outer contour of the feather. At this point, we aren't concerned with the smaller shapes that happen within the body of the feather. Again, light and sketchy lines are drawn to "find" this shape.
With the outer contour defining the shape of the feather, we can now focus on the smaller shapes within the body. The smaller "hairs" of the feather are called "barbs". Collections of barbs on the feather are tightly compacted in areas. But in other locations, they are sparse. Each shape that is formed by the tightly compacted barbs forms a shape that is similar to a flattened "s". These shapes are defined with light marks made with the "H" pencil.
Now that the smaller shapes within the feather are defined, we can begin the process of developing the value and texture within each collection. Marks are pulled outward from the rachis, extending out to the end of each shape. These directional strokes mimic the overall shape of each collection of barbs. An "HB" pencil is used initially before blending with a blending stump. The "4B" pencil is used to darken values after blending occurs.
We'll continue with this process working down the body of the feather. In this case, the feather becomes progressively lighter in value closer to the quill (the base of the feather). For this reason, the amount of graphite and the pressure placed on the pencil is adjusted.
The upper portion of the feather consists of stiffer, rigid barbs, but the lower portion is made of softer, wispy ones. Additionally, the barbs on the lower portion are very light in value. To reflect this, these barbs are defined by drawing the weak shadows around them with the "HB" pencil and softly blending with the blending stump.
Next we'll add a bit of cast shadow on the surface, underneath and behind the feather. An "H" pencil is used since it provides greater control of the transition of value from dark to light. These cast shadows are darker closer to the feather but fade quickly. Since the light source originates from the lower left, these shadows mainly exist behind the feather above and to the right.
To complete the drawing, the shadow on the upper portion of the rachis is strengthened with a strong application of the "4B" pencil.
As mentioned before, drawing a feather is a great exercise for developing your skills for capturing texture. It's a simple process - draw the rachis (shaft) with a simple line, define the shapes, and then develop the value and texture with directional strokes.