Little Brown Birds

While editing a monthly newsletter for an assortment of outdoorsy people in the 70s I made a habit of asking questions when I didn’t understand the text crossing my desk.  So it was that I learned from the “birding” reporter that birders kept life lists where they recorded everything they spotted and identified.  And on those lists the customary shorthand note for an unidentified observation was LBB or “little brown bird”.   I’ve found the expression to come in handy now that I am studying Chinese Brush Painting.

Often the exact identity of the bird species in a painting is difficult to discern.  I remind myself that this art form aims not for realism but more for conveying the “essence of bird”.  Sometimes there are telltale details—distinctive bills, giveaway feather markings, and so on. More often as not, though, birds in older Chinese brush paintings tend to fall into the LBB category.

Nevertheless there are a some commonly painted birds that are readily identifiable: chickadees, wrens, sparrows, crows, owls, eagles, hawks, loons, ducks, grebes, cormorants, cardinals, and of course the many barnyard cousins, with chicks, hens, and roosters being common subjects.  Little black ducklings were a hallmark of the acclaimed 20th century artist (Lou Shabai) many local artists are quite familiar with through the teachings of son and local art teacher, Andy Lou.  Shabai’s youth spent on a farm in northern China had a lot to do with his ability to paint ducklings in so many characteristic postures.

Several of my art books note that the history of painting birds in China dates back 2000 years. By the Song dynasty (960-1279) emperors commissioned bird paintings and even created lavish royal aviaries to encourage bird paintings.  The ghongbi or detailed brushwork style developed at that time was also called the Royal Court Style. Birds were increasingly painted with flowers as a way of introducing movement within a painting, and this led to a genre called “Flower and Bird” painting.  The bird often represents the mood of the artist–happy or sad, active or contemplative.  The kind of bird in a painting can also have symbolic meaning: paired mandarin ducks represent marriage, cranes stand for longevity, the eagle conveys strength, and the kingfisher beauty.  Sparrows are usually painted in a playful manner, sometimes with humorous intent.

In learning to paint birds (LBB or otherwise) there are some basic principles I have collected:

1.  Birds come from eggs, eggs are oval-shaped, and therefore the shape of most birds is based on the oval. (Nenagh)

2.  Baby birds like human infants tend to have plumper, more exaggerated shapes.  Their eyes are bigger relative to their bodies, just as we find in humans.  Their skin covering is downier than in adults, and their beaks are shaped differently. (Roland, my first teacher)

3.  Paint the eye first, and then construct the head around it.  This one might be paraphrased as ‘there’s no point in proceeding if you’ve messed up the eye’! (Bird Woman)

4.  It is easier to create one bird in a composition than it is trying to get the proportions similar for a couple of birds. (Delightful Lotus)

5.  First birds are best kept simple. (Andy Lou)  LBBs can be executed with a handful of strokes and make nice greeting cards.

6.  Painting from life or photographs will result in more accurate representations than attempting to recreate a composition.  The latter practice is deeply ingrained in the study of oriental brush painting but does have this one drawback—you can unwittingly be misguided.

There’s another important lesson acquired vicariously from an art group friend that I’d like to include, but I’m not sure how it fits.  Basically it’s a reminder from Dormouse that if you try to dress up a painting with calligraphy acquired from a friend, that friend of course being an excellent calligrapher, do mark the reference piece so that you remember which end is up! As yet, I have not ventured into that world of adding calligraphy.

My main resources:

1.  Jane Dwight’s The Chinese Brush Painting Bible

2.  A little Chinese book from the Monterey Club library (which I discovered is titled Chinese Painting self-paced How to draw a chicken by Ben She Yi Ming after entering the ISBN number online.)

3.  For the LBB I relied mostly on excerpts from The Chinese Brush Painting Handbook edited by Viv Foster.  The author provides a good discussion on the purpose of birds in Chinese Brush Painting in general, and addresses two of the most frequently occurring: sparrows and ducks.

4.  The ultimate in creating birds with minimal strokes is covered in Let’s Try Sumi Painting by Takahiko Mikami.  The Japanese approach often can illuminate CBP, as the methods are so similar.

Preliminary envisioning:

Most instructions for painting birds start with two ovals, one for the body and another roughly half that size for the head.  I have acquired several (unsourced) study sheets in my art files that show many typical avian postures.  These are most helpful when planning a bird composition or in systematically studying bird paintings.  I have recreated some of the sketches below.

BirdShapes BirdShapes_0001

My first birds

The first birds I attempted to paint were LBBs, kind of sparrow-like, done in just a few broad strokes with added details.

1.  Here’s one of my first bird practice piece based on an entry in the Viv Foster book:


2.  Here’s my first  sparrow based on the same resource:


3.  As I rather like the simplicity of monochrome sumi-e I tried a examples  in the Mikami book.

BrownBirds_0003 BrownBirds_0002 BrownBirds_0001 BrownBirds

4.  This painting Birds Playing in Bamboo by contemporary artist Cai Xiaoli is provided in several of my art books to illustrate using sparrows in a a composition.


Her style of sparrow is done with only a few strokes; so far my efforts have yielded more anonymous-looking LBBs.

This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, how to paint birds, sparrows. Bookmark the permalink.

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