Carving and Painting a Red-Backed Shrike


Carving and Painting a Red-Backed Shrike:
Mike Wood gives a step-by-step guide to carving what is one of the world’s most fascinating and macabre birds 

Mike Wood gives a step-by-step guide to carving what is one of the world’s most fascinating and macabre birds

The red-backed shrike is a bird that is not only striking to look at, but also a clever bird. It will perch on fence posts, telephone wires, the tops of bushes, anywhere to get a good view of potential prey. A male red-backed shrike is unmistakable with its bluish-grey head, bright chestnut back and a thick black bill. The red-backed shrike is now virtually extinct in the UK as a breeding bird, but they can be seen in the spring and autumn across the south and east coast of the UK, and as far north as northern Scotland. Although this bird can’t be bred anymore, it can be carved in fine detail. Prior to carving, gather together as much research material as possible. 

About the red-backed Shrike
• The red-backed shrike measures approximately 170mm in length, meaning it’s slightly larger than a house sparrow.
• Although males are easily recognisable with their black eye mask, females and young don’t possess this mask. Their mask is a ‘dull’ brown and the young have bars on their back.
• Their nests are built from plant stems, roots and grass and are usually located quite low down in thorny bushes in order to protect them from predators. Females also lay eggs between the end of May and late July.
• Although most red-backed shrikes used to breed throughout most of Europe, they migrate to tropical climates through the winter, typically southern Africa. 

Things you will need
• Rotary carving unit
• Handpiece to hold various 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
• Medium sized fine grade ball-ended cutter
• Airbrush/brushes as appropriate
• Coloured artists paints
• PPE – facemask/goggles, dust mask and extraction
• Pyrography unit, and shading and incising/scalpel-type tips
• Body in jelutong (Dyera costulata) 180 x 60 x 60mm

Colour Swatches

1. White gesso and a small amount of burnt sienna for the under coat, then thin washes of burnt sienna
2. Burnt sienna wash
3. Payne’s grey and white gesso to under coat the grey on the back
4. Payne’s grey wash
5. White gesso and raw sienna for edging the secondaries
6. Dark mix black and burnt umber for the primaries

1. First, following your templates, cut out the bird shape on a bandsaw, coping saw or similar.Once cut, mark the main large features on the bird and then rough cut the shape of the body and head to represent the main profile lines and sections as best you can

2. Rough down the bird following your previous markings using coarse rotary burrs. Once the main features are in place, further refine the head and body shape using a rotary carving unit fitted with a tapered burr to achieve a rough shape. Make sure all of the main body forms and shapes are correct and in place before moving on to the next stage

3. Sand smooth the bird all over using drum sanders or by hand sanding. Remember, any dust is potentially harmful to health and using powered sanding techniques, it can throw the dust a long way from the work. Use PPE and suitable extraction to minimise inhalation

4. Now mark the positions of all the feather patterns. Check your resource material properly to make sure the positions and sizes are correct

5. Using a high-speed grinder and a small ruby point carve in all feathers

6. Using a small round diamond burr ‘soften’ all edges of feathers

7. Here you can see all of the feathers carved in. Rough cut in the eye holes and affix a small metal pin in the end of the bill

8. Carve in all the undertail feathers using the same diamond burr and add texture to the underside

9. Using a round-ended stone smooth all feathers over the underside of the body. These need softening to create the soft pillow-like effect a bird’s feathers usually have. Now you need to position the feet. I make my own feet, but you can buy suitable ones. Again, check reference material to make sure you get them in the right place and cut the right angle to the body to give a naturalistic stance

10. As you can see, this is a close-up of the head, eye socket, beak and top body feathers before refinement. The next stage is to soften the feathers a little, but not as much as on the underside of the bird. You need to retain the defined outline to accentuate the various feather clusters, ready for burning in the defining detail
later on

11. Use a fine-grade flame cutter – I used a diamond one – to soften the feather clusters. The bird is now finished and ready for ‘burning’. Note the feet, their position and fixing post underneath to glue into whatever supporting material you opt to create. Also be sure to test fit the eyes, then fit them in on a bed of Plastic Wood. Once bedded in, shape and remove any excess bedding material as required. There are numerous types of fixing/bedding material. The key to success is finding one that not only holds the eyes perfectly in place, but can be easily moulded and shaped without being excessively sticky or gunky

“You need to retain the defined outline to accentuate the various feather clusters,
ready for burning in the defining detail later on.”

12. Using a pyrography unit fitted with a combination of a standard wire tip and scalpel-type tips – you need to use a wire tip for rough outlining and the scalpel-edge blade to incise and score precise detail into the feathers – start burning in and refining the look of the feathers

13. This picture shows all feathers burnt and defined, and since the shrike sticks its prey on sharp spikes, a thorny shrub-type branch sitting in a weighty base worked well for the composition. The choice and look of such is your choice, but I always go for a naturalistic display

14. Here is the view of the opposite side of the bird

15. To accompany the bird I made some insects – I made two beetles and a bumble bee – and stuck them on the spikes. Again the choice is yours, but whatever you make, do your research and get your composition right. It’s a pain if you fall at the last hurdle with something that isn’t quite right

16. First paint the bird with a thinned coat or two of gesso, then block in the main colours. The grey is Payne’s grey and white gesso mix, the red area is burnt sienna and white gesso, the dark colour is black and burnt umber

17. Use burnt sienna in several thin washes on the red area. For the grey area edge all the feathers with white gesso, then give it several washes of the grey mix. The secondaries are painted with the dark mix and then edged with a mixture of raw sienna and white. The bill is grey at the base, I would recommend airbrushing the tip black. Paint the feet with thin washes of Payne’s grey to finish

18. Paint the breast white and the lower part of the belly burnt sienna

19. Insert some bristles in front of the eye, fit and allow to dry, then trim

20. The finished bird

Great grey shrike
• Small numbers of the great grey shrike come to the UK in autumn and spend the winter here.
• Very territorial, the great grey shrikes don’t usually stay together. It’s rare to see more than one at once.
• The great grey shrike is the largest bird of the European shrikes. They have very long tails and tend to sit on the tops of trees.
• Like the red-backed shrike, the great grey shrike eats beetles and other insects. However, they also eat small mammals and birds. They usually store their food by sticking it on a thorn.  

21. Here is a carving of a great grey shrike I have just finished. I used jelutong, 180 x 70 x 80mm


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