Carve and Paint a Wood Pigeon


Carve and Paint a Wood Pigeon:
Mike Wood explains how to shape, detail and colour a familiar garden bird

Mike Wood explains how to shape, detail and colour a familiar garden bird

The wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) is the UK’s largest and most common pigeon and is part of the dove (Columbidae) family. It is largely grey with a white neck and wing patches so it’s clearly visible in flight.
Its cooing call is a familiar sound in woodlands as is the loud clatter of its wings when it flies away. They are found across the UK in fields, woods and also towns and cities where they frequent parks and gardens. Wood pigeons are known to eat crops like cabbages, sprouts, peas and grain, but also buds, shoots, seeds, nuts and berries. The wood pigeon can be found across Europe, Eastern and Northern Asia.
Even though they are seen often, unfortunately few of us take the time to look at them more closely. They are, in fact, a beautiful bird that are well worth taking the time to carve. 

Did you know?
• Pigeons have lived alongside humans for thousands of years, with the first images dating back to 3000BC
• The pigeon was often used in both World Wars, carrying messages over enemy lines. Their use as a messenger in wartime resulted in many pigeons being awarded honours by both the British and French governments
• Some religious groups in India believe that when a person dies, their soul assumes the form of a bird, normally a pigeon
• GI Joe is a famous pigeon from WWII, having saved the lives of thousands after British troops established a position in an Italian town that was due to be bombed. GI Joe delivered a message after communication systems went down

Things you will need
• Rotary carving unit
• Handpiece to hold cutters and sanding units
• Drum sander and abrasives to fit hand unit
• Coarse and medium grit tapered rotary cutter
• Medium grit ball rotary cutter
• Fine grit small ball rotary cutter
• Fine grit pointed ruby rotary cutter
• Fine grade flame/tapered cutter
• Airbrush/brushes as appropriate
• Coloured artist’s paints
• PPE and extraction
• Pyrography unit and shading and incising/scalpel-type tips
• Body in jelutong (Dyera costulata) at 300 x 160 x 200mm
• Head in lime (Tilia vulgaris) at 70 x 50 x 60mm
• Eyes – the ones I use are glass and special wood pigeon eyes with an oval pupil

Colour swatches

1. Payne’s grey and white gesso for a light grey
2. Violet red and white gesso for the pink breast feathers
3. Payne’s grey added to the light grey mix, for the darker grey to use for individual feather detail
4. White gesso is used for breast detail
5. Thinned down grey mix – No.1 – is used as a wash over the back and head
6. Thin down the No.2 mix for a wash over the breast
7. Mix Payne’s grey and burnt umber to create a dark brown to use on the primary feathers and the dark markings on the tail and neck feathers
8. Use a green iridescent paint to edge the small feathers on the neck
9. Mix a small amount of white gesso with rose-coloured paint to colour the feet
10. The bill is painted with cadmium yellow as a base, then this is mixed with a small amount of cadmium red which is blended into it to create the colour grades towards the head


1. First, cut out your sections of wood for the head and the body pieces using the drawings to create your templates. Once cut, rough cut the body and head to represent the main profile lines and sections as best you can. I use a bandsaw, but you could use a chisel to do this. Sit the head on the body section and swivel its position around until you find the angle you want the head to be at

2. Further refine the head and body shape using a rotary carving unit fitted with a tapered burr to achieve a rough shape. If you are hand carving the bird, the process of shaping and detailing takes longer but there is still dust production as with power carving

3. Now the head needs to be refined and a combination of burrs can be used to do this. Once you are happy with the overall shape and look, mark the position of the eye sockets and cut them in. A rotary ball burr makes this process nice and easy, but it can be done using a drill bit, followed by a gouge. The socket size cut needs to match the size of the eyes to be used. I use glass eyes obtained from taxidermists specifically made for pigeons which have an oval pupil. The next stage is to sand everything smooth. This can be done by hand or power sanding. Be careful with power sanding though. It can very quickly remove wood you do not want removed

4. Once the head is shaped and sanded, refine the body shape with a tapered burr and then sand it smooth. After sanding, draw in the wing positions using the pattern provided

5. Now mark in exaggerated breast and underbody feather positions and use a high speed grinder or gouge to rough shape these, using a small round burr. I call this detail some ‘lumps and bumps’ on the body

6. Use a drum sander, or another suitable method to refine the lumps and bumps…

7. … then sand the undertail coverts and tail

8. Now permanently fix the head in place and blend the head joint into the main body. Mark in the body and tail feathers. Now fix the eyes in place with plastic wood…

9. … and shape around the eye. Next, blend the head into the main body and then carve in the head detail and neck feather detail

10. Now you can start shaping the body and tail feathers using a tapered burr

11. Refine the feathers cut using a very fine ball-end or flame-shaped cutter

12. Now it is time to move to the underside of the bird. Drill two holes where the legs will fit in and then draw in the feathers on the undulations. Use a pyrogrpahy unit fitted with a scalpel-type tip and carve in the feather detail

13. Once the underside is done, turn the bird back over and pyrograph in the central feather detail

14. It is up to you, but I chose a branch, cleaned it up and using a combination of wire or rope, and either bought or homemade copper sheet leaves, create an ivy running around the branch. This gives a realistic looking perch on which the pigeon can sit. Copper sheet can be primed and painted to suit your requirements

15. I make my own feet, but you can buy suitable feet from many specialist bird carving suppliers instead. Position your feet where you want them to sit on your branch/pedestal. Position the feet to make sure everything looks right. Once you are happy with the position, drill holes in the branch in the right position to accept the feet later on and then fix your feet into your pigeon

16. Now it is time to sort out the colouring. Start by giving the whole piece a couple of light coates of thinned down white gesso. You can, of course, use brushes for this and the following colouring processes. Coat the bulk of the body in the light grey colour mix – labelled No.1 described in the colour palette earlier. Keep the beak white. Now paint the feet with the rose colour mix – labelled No.9 on the colour palette. The ends of the wings and tail need to be given a coat of the pure Paynes grey or black. This might seem stark at the moment, but will be softened down somewhat later

17. Having given most of the bird a coat of light grey, define the feathers both underneath and on top. Use cardboard templates cut to the right shapes to allow you to create white highlights – using gesso – on the back feathers. Use a mid-grey to create some of the fine line feather details, followed by the darker grey mix – No.3 – to create fine-line detail

18. The outer edges of the wings are painted white and then give the back a thinned down coat of the light grey, to mute down the high contrast

19. Paint the breast area with the pink mix No.2, and once dry, use white to create detail on all the underside feathers (except the tail). When the white is dry, give the whole breast area a light wash of the pink No.2 colour so it looks like the colour swatch No.8

20. Put in the tail feather detail with the No.7 colour mix in the palette and once dry,  apply a white band to the underside of the tail feathers

21. The neck has a white band – where the join went and grey feathers above and below it. There is a distinct section – a small featheed area on the back and side of the neck which is an iridescent green. Highlight the feather detail using the colour mix No.7 and when dry, coat these feathers with irridescent green

22. The end tips of the tail feathers need to be given a dark coat of Payne’s grey. The end section of the wing tips – primary feathers – need to be detailed with white

23. Paint the beak with colour mix No.10 – which is cadmium yellow – then mix the cadmium yellow with a tiny amount of camium red and working back to the head leaving the tip yellow, use light overwashes to create an ever-darkening graduated red. Add darker highlights using colour mix No.7. The overcover of the beak is white

24. This view shows the bird from the top

25. The finished bird


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