Barnyard Birds 2: Roosters

When I left home to live in the big city (Winnipeg) I frequently had reason to wonder why country folk were stereotyped as ‘dumb yokels’.  City-raised college mates often revealed very strange notions indeed.  One of the funniest was the idea that for every hen in our farmyard we also had a rooster.  Just imagining all that clucking and crowing, not to mention the flying feathers and boisterous skirmishes of territorial battles made me envision a hen yard filled with mayhem.  Anyone growing up around chickens knows that ONE rooster strutting the turf is quite enough, thank you very much.

When it comes to painting them however, it is very difficult to stop at one.  Roosters are such colorful subjects, with brilliant red combs and wattles, fantastic tail feathers (sickles) to swish in place, and puffy chests (hackles) to plump out like down-filled pillows.  Even their scaly feet and pointy toes hold great potential for individualizing. They are a favorite oriental art subject.

Symbolism and inspiration

The rooster is one of the twelve Chinese zodiac animals.  One resource attributes the following characteristics to people born in a Rooster yearacute, neat, meticulous, organized, self-assured, decisive, conservative, critical, alert, zealous, practical, scientific, responsible and a perfectionist. Can be over zealous and critical, puritanical, egotistical, abrasive and opinionated.

That summary seemed negatively skewed, so I hunted for more balance. I recently acquired a new ‘used’ book (Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives by C.A.S. Williams) that looks to be VERY comprehensive.  The writing has the ring of “translation” and is a delightful read!   Excerpt:

The cock is the chief embodiment of the element Yang which represents the warmth and life of the universe. It is supposed to have the power of changing itself into human form, to inflict good or evil upon mankind. The Chinese ascribe five virtues to the cock. (Jane Dwight also mentions these in her ‘Bible’) He has a crown on his head, a mark of his literary spirit; and spurs on his feet, a token of his warlike disposition; he is courageous, for he fights his enemies; and benevolent, always clucking for the hens when he scratches up a grain; and faithful, for he never loses the hour. 

Jane Dwight notes that a crowing cock represents achievement and fame.  (So, we should paint roosters to celebrate graduations?)  Williams has a few paragraphs on what seems to be folk wisdom regarding the consumption of hens and roosters.  I see my family is not the only one that quibbles over light versus dark meat!   More applicable to my painterly interests is this last paragraph:

A cock and a hen standing amid artificial rock-work in a garden of peonies is common pictorial design symbolizing the pleasures of country life. A fowl on the roof of a house is regarded as a bad omen, and it is very unlucky if it thunders while a hen is sitting on eggs.

I am glad our artist-mentor friend Nenagh reviewed rock-painting just last month; peonies I have not tackled, but The Other Barb (TOB) recently completed an exquisite composition of peonies.  They don’t look easy.  For now, my roosters and hens will have to settle for a hint of dirt and bit of grass.  Maybe a rock.

Old red roosters of yore:

My urban neighborhood allows backyard hen coops and there is one right next door. The ‘ladies’ are all plain brown hens, very industrious, very quiet, good layers, but alas not too inspiring to this painter.  They are probably Rhode Island Reds (Rhodies).


Their male counterparts have fairly good coloring for painting, but the tail feathers are rather short and “tufty”. The roosters of my childhood were often Rhodies, and sometimes New Hampshires (brownish body and black tail feathers with a dark green sheen) and occasionally the all white Leghorn.

NewHampshirerooster         Leghorn

These other varieties have tail feathers with more ‘swish’ appeal to a painter.  While we also sometimes had a little black hen, a veritable Higgley-Piggley, I’m not certain if there ever was an all black rooster.  The artist in me favors those with more color and swish.

Lucky for me, my community boasts a number of petting farms, and the annual Saanich fair attracts numerous poultry entries, common breeds as well as exotic. I now realize the little bantam hen and rooster my uncle once brought to our farm to tease us about the perils of leaving chickens out in the rain, was likely the bantam version of a New Hampshire, given the coloring.


A visit to a petting zoo often leads to a few good photos for further study. This handsome fellow lives in Prince George and is likely a Dorking.Dorking

Having refreshed my knowledge of rooster breeds, I see that most subjects in my oriental art books are not that unfamiliar.  A few of them might well be a breed called the Dorking—they have very large, many-pointed combs and wattles, white feathers on their hackles, and black breasts and longish black tail feathers.  For interest sake some artists have painted the all-over grey and white  “speckled” hen we know as Plymouth Rocks or Barred Rock hens. 


My research led to the discovery that the Kellogg’s cereal box icon was based on a rooster breed from Holland called Welsummers.


And I was pleased to discover there truly is a rooster variety (the Japanese Shokoku)  with tail feathers so long they trail behind him on the ground; the depictions in oriental art I thought were exaggerations, or perhaps attempts at humor in the manner of those infamous ‘rabbit-bird’ taxidermy concoctions of decades past.



Several of my art group friends have studied painting roosters, Nenagh did a workshop on them just last year, and they are a favorite CBP subject, so examples abound.  Hence, I have much to sort through before embarking on my study.

Because of their nature and the brushwork required, painting roosters tends to loosen up an artist’s approach.  (Should someone be working on ‘bettering their bamboo’ for example, and the whole weight of trying to apply a host of principles to each and every leaf stroke be getting you too ‘uptight’ to make much headway, then painting roosters is highly recommended.) Paint on!

1.  A little book from our Monterey Club library called “Chinese Painting self-paced how to draw a chicken” proved most helpful.  The text is all in Chinese but entering the ISBN in an online used book database yielded a listing from a merchant in China ($40 plus $20 shipping!) and what I thought was the author’s name (Ben She, Yi Ming).  Now that I see that name with over 3,000 listings I suspect it is a publisher.  Steps are clear and helpful, albeit all text is Chinese.

2.  Jane Dwight’s four-step approach in The Bible of Chinese Brush Painting is easy to follow and results in a recognizable bird, probably a New Hampshire.

3.  Notes from Nenagh Molson’s workshop 2012.  (Good details on achieving roundness to the legs and making sure the feet are flatly splayed for a firm stance.)

4.  My prize resource is a book called Methods of Drawing Chickens in Chinese Painting by Chan Kam Wai.  Parts of the book are translated to English, and from that I learn the artist really loved chickens. He spent almost a decade studying them at various ages from egg through old rooster or hen at numerous farms and markets across China.  He is the creator of the oft-mentioned “Painting Scroll of One Hundred Chicks”. And it is shown in full in TEN panels in this book! The preface notes he had produced a similar scroll in 1962 called One Hundred Chickens.

I can completely forgive him for taking artistic license and depicting NINE roosters happily posing in one composition, which he maintains is a ‘harmonious blend of activity and serenity’.  He painted it to demonstrate nine different postures and breeds, and that aspect is realistic.


I found TWO great books on painting rooster!

My finding this book was accidental.  I had seen another book by Chan Kam Wai showing numerous rooster compositions created by his students, in many different styles, and took a chance on ordering the manual based on minimal information.  According to the preface, Chan Kam Wai was ‘forced to teach’ and in order to lessen the drudgery of his forced indenture, he turned to study of his beloved creatures.  He also ascribed to an ideal from Confucius: “never become tired of learning and never feel weary of teaching”.  This man knew his material.

Rooster Anatomy

Many of my art books preface the study of painting some creatures with an outline sketch and labels of the several body parts.  This can be helpful when discussing how to render body parts, or should you consult more scientific descriptions to clarify how unfamiliar anatomical parts function or change with maturity.  ‘Knowing the subject’ is important to me, so I checked various online charts and images.  My Kam Wai book also shows photos and paintings of chickens at various stages of maturity which I found helpful.  Here’s a sketch where I have labelled some of the less familiar parts. (I wonder how scientific is the term ‘fluff’ for that feathery rump section at the rear?)


Like other birds the rooster sports both primary and secondary flight feathers extending from the wing bow and wing bars.

Six decades away from the farm and a review confirms most of my jargon is intact. I also discovered some new trivia and chuckled over some oldies:

1. The red wattles serve as temperature control systems for roosters, not just as female attractions, and the combs do likewise for both genders.

2. Like fishes, reptiles, amphibians, and certain mammals, birds have but the one, all-purpose body cavity (the cloaca, from the Latin term meaning sewer) into which intestinal, urinary and generative canals all open.

3.  Hens do NOT have teeth as a rule, hence the idiom “rare as hens’ teeth”.  They carry the residual ability to grow them, and scientists in recent years have done that…because they can.

4.  The idiom ‘running around like a chicken without its head’ is more vivid for those of us who grew up actually witnessing old Rocky departing the chopping block.  (The phenomenon has to do with local reflex arcs) Thanks to the internet I now learn of Mike the Miracle rooster who lived some 18 months after attempted decapitation, and at least six other creatures who retain ‘nervous’ ability after decapitation.  Ugh.

5.  Other ‘chicken’ idioms come to mind: up to scratch, get your hackles up, chicken-hearted, count your chickens before they hatch, chicken out, chicken feed, no spring chicken, if it ain’t chickens it’s feathers, go to bed with the chickens, when your chickens come home to roost, a chicken and egg situation…, my, my!

6. Chan Kam Wai compiled a lot of Chinese chicken lore, including numerous idioms and proverbs.  Some examples have a familiar ring: ‘even chickens and dogs become immortal’ and ‘better to be the mouth of a chicken than the anus of an ox’.

7.  The animated film “Chicken Run” is good family entertainment. Love it.

8.  Who cares why chickens cross the road; I’m focusing on the rooster, right?

Sequence for painting rooster:

1.  Beak and Eye, outline only

3.  Comb and wattles

4.  Head

5.  Breast (hackles)

6.  Body

7.  Tail feathers

8.  Legs and feet

9.  Color in the beak and eye and do touch-ups such as refreshing outlines, adding wispy bits, enhancing the green sheen on sickles, colors on the hackles.

My notes from Nenagh’s workshop advise double-dipping your big brush in green after loading with black for depicting the big tail feathers (sickles).  She advised blue added to the black mix for detailing feet after you have them outlined and colored yellow. And she stressed aiming for a ‘rounded’ look to the toes and feet with shadowed undersides. These subtleties were also visible in Chan Kam Wai’s illustrations.

My rooster study sheets:

1.  The head–start with a tiny stabbing stroke of a detail brush loaded with black ink to establish the end of the beak. Continue to outline the beak, dab in a nostril, outline the eye and place the round black pupil in the direction your bird is looking.  Tip in two circular shapes to suggest the ear.  Using a small brush with a suitable deep red go around the eye, continue up and start the most forward placed “points” to the comb.  Swoop up into the remainder of the comb for the more pronounced points, and then stroke from the front of the ear down into a wattle.  (Some artists later speckle these two red body parts with a darker red or yellow to suggest the texture.)


2.  The body–using sidestrokes with a dry brush suggest the feathers that form the hackles and chest.  Nenagh suggested brown mixed with black, some artists allow the red left in a brush from painting the comb and wattles to blend into the black, others work with various techniques to compose feathers.


For my first roosters I used some simple strokes to suggest feathers; there are MANY feather styles to play around with when painting roosters.

3.  The tail–using a large brush dipped in black (plus green if you want to try for the sheen) you paint arching large and small tail feathers.  These should taper off and may require touch-ups later to enhance their wispy look.  Restraint may be in order if you’re not concentrating on proper placement of just a few well-conceived strokes.

4.  Feet and legs.


Inspired by Chan Kam Wai’s book I tried the three methods he illustrated: outline, layered color, and bone-less or moku. The first two methods were done in three steps.

Considerations for rooster compositions:

1.  Paint them as in life: ONE per hen yard, one per composition.

2.  Strive for attitude…. mid-crow is a good stance.  Those few eye strokes can tell a LOT. They are the bosses of the hen yard, after all.  I don’t know where the Chinese got the idea the rooster calls the hens over to share choice grains.  We used to pick potato bugs to toss to the chickens, thus serving dual purposes, and old Rocky scrambled as much as the hens for those prize morsels.  My sense was they bragged about their good luck at such tasty finds. I see that Chan Kam Wai depicted the five virtues of roosters in five paintings, and he too insists the birds call their friends over to share their discoveries, hence the fourth virtue of ‘benevolence’.

In this study I tried my hand at several different postures and aimed for a nicely tipped beak. Getting the beak 'right' is very important to a good rooster composition. I've yet to try the 'mid-crow' stance with an open beak showing the tongue, the head thrown back, the hackles plumped, and other muscle groups thoroughly engaged in the action.

In this study I tried my hand at several different postures and aimed for a nicely tipped beak. Getting the beak ‘right’ is very important to a good rooster composition. I’ve yet to try the ‘mid-crow’ stance with an open beak showing the tongue, the head thrown back, the hackles plumped, and other muscle groups thoroughly engaged in the action.

3.  Family groups are fun and traditional.  (I may have to learn to paint peony as it is a common setting item.) Here are my first two rooster paintings, without settings.

RoosterStudyFirstFull  RoosterStudyFull2

4.  You can never paint just one rooster…I’ve lined up over a dozen to consider for my next painting afternoon!

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

2 Responses to Barnyard Birds 2: Roosters

  1. Tami Lanford says:

    I paint with acrylics. PLEASE tell me how to master that green sheen look on feathers. Thanks, Tamo

    • Tami:
      I don’t use acrylics so I don’t know how the paint behaves. In Chinese brush painting the green sheen can be achieved in two ways–loading your brush with green dipped in ink and then stroking it on, and secondly applying a thin green wash over top of dried painted feathers which could be painted with the black ink or with color. Perhaps you’ll have to try both ways with your acrylics and see if it works out similarly? Chinese pigments come in color chips (basic reds, blues, yellows) that you activate with water and mix as needed; Japanese paints come in a great array of pre-mixed colors in small containers–again you activate with water and mix in white porcelain dishes so you can best see the color you’re achieving. These are the kinds of paints used in brush-painting.
      Let me know if you can get results with your acrylics.
      Regards, Barb

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