ART ON A FEATHER
By T.L. Petersen
Deb Ottenstein of Cove cringes a bit at the term "feather painter" as she shows off her small, detailed, vibrant masterpieces.
"I really want to be known as an artist," Ottenstein says, "not just a feather painter."
But yes, most of Ottenstein's canvases are feathers Â— originally white turkey feathers to be precise, purchased by the pound from art supply mail-order businesses.
But nearly everyone who takes more than a glance at Ottenstein's feathers soon is paying more attention to the details, the colors, the shading and the attention to detail, than to what it's painted on.
A painter of nature for more than 30 years, Ottenstein and her husband, Michael, moved to Cove from Idaho about four years ago.
In a back bedroom of their Conklin Lane home, Ottenstein has set up her studio Â— a flat table surface, a small cylinder to hold brushes, a piece of foil to mix drops of colors on and a blue cup with water. On a bookshelf near the bedroom door are recently completed paintings of a bald eagle, a quarter horse, an owl and a portion of a mountain lion's face.
How did Ottenstein find her way to painting on feathers? It wasn't anything amazing, she says.
"I didn't know until I was in high school that I could paint," she says. "I needed an elective and it had to be home ec or art. So I took this art class and I found out I had some talent."
Since then, Ottenstein has taken some art classes, but admits that when she went to college "I didn't consider art as a way to make a living."
Instead, Ottenstein's interest was caught by the health care field. Thinking about nursing, Ottenstein discovered that "I couldn't handle body fluids."
So she became a medical data coder, a job she still does at Grande Ronde Hospital.
Her hospital schedule, though, allows her to get home in time to take advantage of afternoon light.
Up until five or six years ago, Ottenstein usually painted in oils on traditional canvases. Then her brother-in-law, "a big supporter of my art," asked her to paint him an eagle.
Her brother-in-law, since deceased, never quite got the picture he'd requested. Ottenstein says she has trouble to this day painting commissions.
For each feather, she explains, "I have to be passionate about the subject. I have to really like it (in order to sell it). As time goes on, I think I'm getting better."
But she did decide she could paint a small picture of an eagle in the foreground and then surround the smaller picture with a large eagle in the background for her brother-in-law.
The whole episode led her to painting on feathers, after she did some Internet research.
"Quill feathers seemed to be the thing," she said, starting her efforts after purchasing a few feathers at an art supply store.
As its turned out, oils are not the best for painting on feathers, so now Ottenstein uses acrylic colors.
And Ottenstein, whose work is often noted for its close-up intensity focused on only a portion of an animal's face, discovered something else Â— it was difficult for her to miniaturize an entire animal.
Best, she found through trial and error, was to paint an animal's face at more the size she'd use for a regular-size canvas, and use just a portion on the feather.
"I really struggled," Ottenstein confesses.
But she's discovered that people seem to like the close-ups.
Ottenstein's light-weight masterpieces aren't for the casual art buyer looking for a way to fill an empty wall space. Each work, depending on the size and complexity, is usually sold in a shadow box built by her husband. And the price tag ranges from $149 to $189 or more.
And don't expect to see an Ottenstein seascape on a feather.
While she likes painting seascapes on canvas, the feather works focus on animals.
"I am a wildlife artist," she says. "That's how I consider myself. I love to do seascapes, but animals are my passion."
Ottenstein's framed feather paintings Â— signed in tiny letters along the edge of the quill Â— can be found at Marie Josephine's in La Grande and at Kelly's Gallery on Main in Joseph.
Studying the details on a mountain lion painting in progress, Ottenstein considers a comment that her feathers seldom seem to look like paintings.
"I love to hear people say it looks photographic," she says. "I love the details."