Going Sideways, painting crabs

Whenever I practice bamboo stalks I often slide right into painting crab; their bodies can be done with the same graded brush load and their legs rely on a series of bone strokes similar to bamboo.  Crab are so much more fun to create though, and they are forgiving subjects: missing parts or warped shapes can be attributed to their combative nature.


While the uneven ink tones in the victor’s right legs mars the overall effect of this painting, placing a detached claw from the loser out of position adds interest.

Crab bodies can be done in two or three overlapping sidestrokes, using the bamboo stalk triple brush load of light through darkest ink.  ‘Thinking sideways’ is hugely important to creating lively crabs, as you not only need those graded tones on your body strokes, but also legs leading to pointy toes that suggest sidesteps.  The lowly crab naturally steps sideways, and much the same as a ballet dancer, he points his toe in the direction he’s heading.

Crabs are a fun subject with little symbolism associated with them, according to most of my sources.  Jane Dwight notes the significance of the crab varies from region to region in China; she observes that in Sichuan it is considered a “plague-bringing demon” yet elsewhere dried crabs are hung over doorways to repel bad magic.

For my part, I associate crabs with many a delicious meal. The best had to be a feast on huge Dungeness crabs sold from the back of a truck in an Alaskan campground some years back.  Table manners and consideration for a ‘balanced’ meal vanished with the fisherman, and we used our week’s ration of butter in one sitting.

Crabs are often painted with shrimp or other sea-based items in a realistic setting.  They can be stunning in shades of red with stark black nail-head eyes.  And you can convey their feisty nature by depicting a few in challenge or grappling stances, with spare body parts strewn about.  Another common treatment is to portray a dinner setting.

My Resources:

1.   Bird Woman’s little book dedicated to crabs. Shown are several methods for depicting the carapace: outline, two stroke in mirror image, and the more conventional three-stroke box.

2.  Workshop notes (Nenagh Molson)

3.  Two entries in Jane Dwight’s spiral bound The Chinese Painting Bible (p. 184 is titled Crab and done in green; p. 218 is titled Seafood Supper and features a red crab on a dinner plate.)

4.  The Chinese Brush Painting Handbook, also spiral bound and edited by Viv Foster, has two pages on Crab with a step-by-step illustration in black, followed by two compositions in very different styles. Curiously enough, the second one is done by Jane Dwight! Foster advises crustaceans are a good practice subject for repetitious strokes.

5. Wing K. Leong in his Chinese Painting Step-by-Step demonstrates a 24-stroke crab. (He favors a three-stroke body.)

Order for painting crab:

1.  Body

2.  Forelegs with claws or pincers

3.  Legs, four per side with two joints plus toes

4.  Eyes


1.  Body—Load a large soft brush and paint a thick side stroke for the centre of the body stroking from head to hind end; add two strokes, one on either side of the first side-stroke to complete the carapace, lifting your brush slightly to taper the body so it is narrower at the hind end. In the study below I used two side-strokes done as a ‘mirror-image’ to get darker outer edges.

My little nameless book borrowed from Bird Woman has numerous paintings of the undersides of crabs and several pages on anatomy.  Lucky for me several art group friends have backgrounds in biology and readily filled me in on what the Chinese captions probably conveyed.  Apparently the female carries her eggs on her underbelly and that multi-lined midsection is aptly called a “carrot”.  (A quick look under “painting vegetables” in Dwight’s book confirms you do indeed render the carrot in a similar manner: a series of curved, over-lapping strokes tapering from top to bottom forms the familiar root vegetable.)



2.  Forelegs with pincers—the leg parts are rendered with single sidestrokes (wider than the other main legs) and the pincers can be done in several ways. I like using outline strokes with jagged edges for the “teeth”.


Different ways of showing pincers are possible; I prefer the contrast of using the outline technique shown on the crab on the right.

3.  Legs—while a study of crab anatomy reveals their  legs actually have a “shoulder” where they exit the body, and each leg has a joint between the longer leg bones, when painting them two long bone strokes seems to capture the basic elements. A darker colored “toe” is suggested at the end of each leg with a slightly curved stroke starting like a bone, but ending with a point.


This study sheet includes some extra practice of the nail-head eyes, and some single legs at the bottom.

4.  Eyes—whether you choose to do a colored composition with your crabs in red, green or a more natural pinkish-orange, the eyes are all done in dark black using a small detail brush and a flicking, nail-head stroke.  You should try and ‘plant’ the eye into the hard shell, and not leave it floating.


The bodies of these pink crabs were done in three strokes; black dots were added to the slightly damp shells to suggest texture.


1.  Dwight renders her “seafood supper” crab body with four sidestrokes, and conveys the pincer teeth with a series of black dots.

2.  Foster notes that the angle between the upper leg and the body should be varied in order to create more “excitement” in your painting.

3.  “It can be hard to avoid painting crabs that resemble large spiders”  is a marginal note I scribbled on my workshop handouts from Nenagh.  Note to self: compare  body shape and proportions for spider and crabs.

4.  Foster also notes the attitude of the legs and pincers can be very expressive.  I have discovered that painting crab gets my brush moving more quickly and the resulting painting is less “contrived” looking than other subjects. I suspect it has something to do with the repetitive leg strokes, or the fact bone strokes require a pause and hence a moment of thought, or maybe that crabs themselves look rather “sprawly” and hence I am not as set on conveying their parts “correctly” as I am with other subjects.  Whatever the reason, crabs are fun.  They seem an excellent subject to help overcome the desire to conserve paper.  Artists do need to paint freely, fluidly, and without constraining budgetary thoughts.

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