Painting Bufflehead Gunners

A Butterball painting tutorial

1 Butterball 2011

The Bufflehead – what I learned as Butterball on Great South Bay – is a beautiful bird.  I have carved several drakes over the years – but I believe this is the first pair of gunners I have ever painted.


The “blanks” are Homer Goldeneyes – for which I carved the original head.  After I mailed a finished Goldeneye Drake (Whistlers on Great South Bay) out to Ohio, I remarked to Tony Homer that the decoy would probably make a nice “giant” Bufflehead. He quickly mailed back a photo of one already dressed in Butterball plumage.  What follows is my interpretation.

The Drakes

For a gunning decoy, one needs only Black and White for the Drake – but one can always get fancy if one so desires.  Similarly, the Hen needs just a bit of Brown mixed in with the Black and White paints to suggest her somber dress.

3 Butterball Drake schematic

I started with a pair coated with my usual epoxy + sawdust – for the tougher skin and the shine-killing rough surface – and then primed with a Grey oil primer.

2 Primed Pair

The topcoats are acrylic latex – aka house paint.  As usual, I buy the Behr sample jars from Home Depot in a flat finish.

I used a half-inch “flat” bristle brush for most of this paint job.  If I were painting a whole rig, I would use larger (1-inch or even 1.5-inch) chip brushes for the larger areas, like the breast and sides.

I begin by marking out the major areas of color on the head and back with white chalk.

4 Drake head chalk

5 Drake chalk lines

The Black areas get paint first.

7 Drake  back black

To look right, the rump should be blended, shading from darker up on the back to very pale just before the tail feathers.  I work with both colors wet and work them back and forth about midway.

7a Drake rump B

7b Drake undertail

I first painted the bill the same pale blue-grey that I use on Broadbill (and Wigeon and Pintail and Redhead and Ringneck) but later covered it with a medium Grey mixed in a dixie cup from a bit of Black and a bit of White.  The thing to remember is that mixing Black and White without any other pigments gives a cool Grey – which is appropriate for this species.

Slide Show 1 – Painting the Drake

6 Drake head black

1 – Paint all Black areas first

8 Drake head patch A

2 – The White head patch can be just a splotch on the back of the head – but I like some style.

10 Drake head patch C

3 – Here is the top.

9 Drake head patch B

4 – The bottom.

11 Drake neck

5 – If the head is high, separate the head from the back with a band of White.

12 Drake back pattern

6 – On the folded wings the White covers the Coverts and Secondaries (aka speculum).

13 Drake head & back & rump

7 – Pure White on the breast and sides. Use a bigger brush here.

15 Drake side

8 – The upper edges of the upper row of side feathers are Black.

16 Drake rump

9 – Making the primaries (wingtips) Black helps them stand out from the blended lower back.

14 Drake bill

10 – Black nail and nostrils on a Grey bill.

I added the actual colors on the head even though solid Black is sufficient.  I just mixed some colors I had on hand for other species.  Once the bands of color are in place, I soften the edges by stippling with the ends of the bristles.  When the eyes are painted – not glass – I often paint a White dot on the eye at about 1:00 o’clock to suggest a glint.  However, I was working with some varnish on another project so coated the entire eye with it.  It gives a more realistic effect – and much less work than installing eyes.

17 Drake head colors

The completed Drake.

C Drake - complete


The Hens

19 Butterball Hen PAINT

The 3 warm Greys – Behr’s Intellectual, Elephant Skin and Graceful Grey – are all handy to have in your decoy painting kit – because they can be used on lots of species.

As with the Drakes, use chalk to mark the 2 White patches – on the cheek and the speculum.  Otherwise, you can use the molded-in contours to separate the back from the sides, et cetera.


Slide Show 2 – Painting the Hen


20 Hen head

1 – Begin with the dark Intellectual on the head, back and tail.

22 Hen wing patch

2 – Keep the cheek patches and speculums open for the White later on.

21 Hen back etc

3 – The rump is blended as it was on the Drake.

23 Hen rump

4 – Drag the Intellectual into some Graceful Grey and try for a dark-to-light transition.

24 Hen back

5 – The speculums are White – but not the wing coverts.

25 Hen head & bill

6 – The White cheek patches are largest on first-year drakes and smallest on first-year hens.

26 Hen neck and breast

7 – Graceful Grey extends from the neck collar down onto the breast.

27 Hen neck and breast A

8 – I try to suggest the pattern of the feather edges.

28 Hen flank feathers

9 – Finally, soften the flanks with some Intellectual.


Here is the completed Hen.


C Hen complete


29 Hen head closeup


And here is the completed pair – rolled a bit so you can see their backs.

C Drake rolled

32 Hen complete rolled

And here are some more at work…


As always, I hope this information is helpful.

All the best,



Bufflehead logo BRIGHTER