Great Horned Owl painting on feather, by Wenaha Gallery guest artist Deborah Otterstein

Featherlight Touch — The Wildlife Art of Debra Otterstein

Great Horned Owl painting on feather, by Wenaha Gallery guest artist Debra Otterstein

Great Horned Owl painting on feather, by Wenaha Gallery guest artist Debra Otterstein

Frequently, our biggest life decisions are the result of little things.

For wildlife artist Debra Otterstein, her determination to paint intricate animal portraits on domestic turkey feathers came about because of

  1. her lack of success in home economics and
  2. guilt.
Calliope Hummer by wildlife artist Debra Otterstein

Calliope Hummer by wildlife artist Debra Otterstein

“I did not find art when I was young, nor did I know that I would be a wildlife artist; I had to discover art,” the Cove, Oregon painter says. In high school, when presented with the elective choice between home economics and art, she chose the latter, because her earlier foray into the former “didn’t go so well.” Quite fortunately, she was not doomed to repeat the experience.

“The first day I picked up a piece of charcoal and started to draw, my life changed, and art has been with me ever since.”

A subsequent associate of science degree from Boise State University led Otterstein to eventually adopt a dual identity — medical coder by day and wildlife artist by night — and although these two pursuits seem at variance with one another, they are surprisingly compatible:

“Both are very detailed endeavors, both take into account anatomy, and both require that you spend many hours  working alone after doing much research,” Otterstein explains.

If you’re wondering by now where the guilt factors in, it has to do with Otterstein’s brother-in-law, who regularly found photos he wanted to see developed into paintings.

“One day he brought me the strangest eagle photo and he wanted me to create, using this reference, a very large painting,” Otterstein recounts. “This photo did not inspire me, and I could not bring myself to do as he asked, so I painted a tiny painting.

Cougar Cub, by Debra Otterstein

Cougar Cub, by Debra Otterstein

“Then I felt guilty.”

A second attempt resulted in further dissatisfaction, and more guilt. Daunted by the prospect of permanent mental turmoil, Otterstein decided that the third time would definitely be the charm.

“I knew I needed something really fun and interesting, so I painted an eagle on a feather.

“My guilt went away, and I found feather painting.”

It is an unusual substrate, one that requires intense concentration, unlimited patience, a steady hand, and a light, yet firm approach. Viewers and purchasers of Otterstein’s work observe that she paints with a feather-light touch, capturing special wildlife moments on a canvas of feathers. One of the first questions many people ask is where she gets the feathers upon which she creates her art.

“I am an upcycler, as I use domestic turkey feathers,” Otterstein explains.

“Many people do not realize that there is a law that protects bird feathers and nests: it is called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This act makes it illegal to possess feathers and nests.” Designed to prevent decimation by commercial trade in both birds and their feathers, the act lists some 800 species on its protected list, which pretty much means that, unless the feather is from a domestic bird (turkey, chicken, or duck), or from a non-native invasive species (sparrow or starling), it’s not something one picks up, or paints on.

The Otterstein painting which wildlife artist Terry Isaac calls "a Masterpiece."

The Otterstein painting which wildlife artist Terry Isaac calls “a Masterpiece.”

With collectors throughout the United States, as well as in international locales as far flung as Australia and Qatar, Otterstein works closely with some of the top wildlife artists in the world: John Seerey-Lester, Terry Isaac, Daniel Smith, and John Banovich. Isaac labeled one of Otterstein’s works — depicting, on traditional canvas substrate, a cougar crossing a river — “a masterpiece.”

“From these top artists, I have learned the importance of always conducting research before I start to paint, by doing field work and studying the physical appearance of each creature and its environment,” Otterstein says.

“I have learned that this is truly the best part of being a wildlife artist.”

In the 14 years that Otterstein has participated in the Wallowa Valley Festival of Arts at Joseph, OR — one of the premiere art exhibitions of the Pacific Northwest region — she has garnered numerous awards, including multiple First and Second Places, and People’s Choice. Other accolades include being named gallery featured artist in Baker City, OR, and receiving the Artist of the Year Award by the Eskridge Family Trust.

But what matters most to Otterstein, she emphasizes, is the subject matter — the wildlife with whom we share this planet, and which depends upon us to maintain a harmonious, peaceful, coexistence. If she can capture the viewer’s attention and evoke a sense of awe, then she has truly succeeded.

“By using a feather as my canvas, it symbolizes the balance of how delicate nature is, but also how strong it must be to survive.”

Wenaha GalleryDebra Otterstein is the featured Pacific Northwest Art Event artist from Monday, September 12 through Saturday, October 8.

Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at

Wenaha Gallery is your destination location for Greenwich Workshop Fine Art Prints, professional customized framing, and original fine art paintings and sculpture by notable Pacific Northwest artists.   Books, gifts, note cards, jigsaw puzzles, and more are also available. Visit at 219 East Main, Dayton, WA.