Courting the Frog

One of my favorite childhood songs was ‘Froggy Goes a Courting’.  It was so much fun to do those ‘woo woos’.  Now when I set out to paint frogs in the Chinese Brush method I anticipate doing ‘woo woos’ to celebrate my successes.  Something about those plump little springy bodies that just seems to scream “hey, look at me!”

And then there was Kermit, singing his ‘it ain’t easy being green’ song. Let’s face it: frogs are fun.

The Chinese symbolism

According to Jane Dwight’s “The Chinese Brush Painting Bible” frogs represent the unattainable.  They also signify “earning money’.

I chuckle at that as I recall endless hours spent chasing frogs in the muskeg on our farm in northern BC many long years ago.  In pre TV years free-range kids had to invent their own entertainment, and that we did.  There was a very long-legged species of frog/toad that favored the warm, mucky lowlands approaching the Fraser River at the south end of our cow pasture.  When we did manage to catch one, we tried to contain it in a two-quart sealer jar.  Our Granny showed us how to substitute perforated cardboard lids for the glass tops, and later introduced us to the concept of catch and release.

Nevertheless, for the few hours we tormented each other with the threat of slimy frog down your shirt, those frogs with their magnificent hind legs that afforded such graceful high jumps from swampy hillock to hillock, were objects of much admiration.  And yes, they sometimes were quite ‘unattainable’.

Frog body parts

In interpreting any object with a Chinese brush you observe the significant parts to its construction and convey them on paper with brush strokes that convey roundness, or length, smooth skin or textured, and so on.  Frogs have distinctive pointy snouts, bulgy eyes, rounded muscular thighs—all shapes that are fairly easy to render with minimal brushwork.  They can be done in outline method or the “boneless” style.

Order for painting frogs in outline method:

1.  Most instructions start with the snout and eye; the head follows next.

2.  Trunk and lower body

3.  Fore-legs

4.  Muscular hind legs

5.  Feet

Johnson Su Sing-Chow notes the fore limbs have four toes each that are short and weak; the longer and stronger hind limbs have five webbed toes.  Jane Dwight’s Bible shows three webbed toes on the hind legs.  This could be simply a fact of different species. The delightful looking tree toad with buggy eyes and red body coloring so popular with some artists has three toes on his hind legs.  Some artists like to render those toes with the “nail head”  (“flick stroke”) moving toward the foot.  This results in a strong dotted toe.  Others use a wispy stroke moving away from the foot, which results in a pointier toe.

Frogs can be done in a variety of postures, either sitting still as they tend to do, waiting for a bug to venture near, or leaping in a hasty escape.  One of my helpful little (Chinese language only) books shows a dozen or more on one page, complete with variations in back/leg markings.  Those little books can pack a lot into one illustration.


One of my books provides lots of suggestions for posing frogs; I tried these six and also filled about six feet of practice paper.

I chose two poses and followed through with colors.

I chose two poses and followed through with colors.

With the outline method, you progress to shading in the body with darker mixed greens on upper skin surfaces, lighter yellowing to white on the undersides.  The eyes have white completely surrounding the iris to enhance the protruding, “buggy” look.  Johnson Su Sing Chow in Vol. 3 of his four-volume set  Vegetables, Fruits, Insects, and Aquatic Life Painting shows six poses as well as several full compositions of frogs in outline style.

Methods for painting frog in boneless style:

Among my resources I have discovered three approaches to rendering a frog with minimal strokes.

1. Jane Dwight executes one in shades of green, mostly using a small firm brush upright and sidestroking for the wider thigh muscles.

Frogin JD

Dwight gives directions for creating this frog in just three steps: stroke in the main lines for head, body, and limbs; detail the feet, fingers, belly, and eyes with a fine brush; add stripes and spots, and lastly the eye highlight.

2. Another source renders frogs in shades of black, starting with one stroke of a large medium wet brush for the snout, then two strokes for the upper body, single extended long strokes for the hind legs that are bent midway, similar two-part strokes for the fore legs, completed with toes done with a smaller brush.

Loading a large brush with medium ink tipped in black helps convey tonal differences.

Loading a large brush with medium ink tipped in black helps convey tonal differences.

3.  A third source shows an interesting pairing of two, four-part strokes that both start at the snout and run the length of the frog body, each widening for the main body, tapering for the rear end, and then veering off with a widened part for the muscular thigh, and finally bending again and narrowing for the  “shin” section.


The “plan” for painting a frog this way has merit, but achieving the muscular thighs doesn’t work too well.

Context for frogs paintings:

There are some common elements to put in a composition with a frog:  reeds, lily pads, rocks, logs, water.  A fun one to execute are lily pads done with two over-lapping drop brush strokes, enhanced while slightly damp with vein marks done with a fine brush and ink or darker green. And of course any common froggy food—dragonflies, water bugs, and so on.


Time for those woo-woos….

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