The king(fisher) and I

Farm kids as a rule are taught not to bestow names on the animals they care for; not having named them is supposed to make it easier when Bossy is led off to the abattoir or Reddy Rooster is taken to the chopping block.  When it comes to Chinese brush painting, I’m inclined to think naming a creature enhances your chances of capturing its spirit when you try to paint one.  Some years ago Delightful Lotus developed a fondness for painting kingfishers in her ‘flower and bird’ compositions and she named her little fellow ‘Charlie’.  Her Charlies inevitably appear perky, colorful, active, joyful, or sad, depending on the mood of her pictures.  But they always definitely add life to her pictures.

Who is ‘Charlie’, what is he?

Kingfishers are a group of small to medium sized, brightly colored birds in the order Coraciiformes. There is some controversy surrounding their classification. The group is treated either as a single family, Alcedinidae, or as a suborder Alcedines containing three families, Alcedinidae (river kingfishers), Halcyonidae (tree kingfishers), and Cerylidae (water kingfishers). There are roughly 90 species of kingfisher.  The most common species in China according to my C.A.S.Williams’ book Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives is the White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) aka the White-breasted Kingfisher or Smyrna Kingfisher.

The Smyrna kingfisher is smaller, and more colorful than the Belted Kingfisher commonly seen in Canada, near lakes or streams, as well as on some of our five-dollar bills. All kingfishers have relatively large heads, long, sharp, pointed bills, short legs, and stubby tails. One of my art instruction books suggests a teardrop for the basic shape of this bird and recommends the head be about the same size as the overall body.  Most species have bright plumage (blue, teal and turquoises) with little differences between the sexes. They consume a wide range of prey as well as fish, usually caught by swooping down from a perch. They often hunt in pairs. Like other members of their order they nest in cavities, usually tunnels dug into the natural or artificial banks in the ground.

The Smyrna kingfisher is a great subject for painting.  It has a bright blue back, wings and tail. Its head, shoulders, flanks and lower belly are chestnut, and the throat and breast are white. The large bill and legs are bright red-orange. In flight, large white patches are visible on the blue and black wings. Sexes are similar, but juveniles are a duller version of the adult.  In Chinese brush painting the kingfisher is often painted as a bright splash of color among lotus or willow.

Not only did Chinese painters see beauty in the exotic looking plumage; for centuries jewelry makers sought the kingfisher’s feathers to craft fine brooches and hair combs. Even today such items can fetch high prices among collectors.

I was expecting the kingfisher common to Chinese brush painting to be the ‘river’ variety, but was pleased to learn it was the ‘tree’ species with ‘halcyon’ in its name. According to Greek legend (and referenced at least twice in Shakespeare’s plays) Halcyon was a bird that nested on the sea, which it calmed in order to lay its eggs on a floating nest. Two weeks of calm weather could thus be expected around the winter solstice at the time of the bird’s nesting period.  Somehow over time the word ‘halcyon’ has morphed into a term for peace or calmness, and has acquired nostalgic connotations (see Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman)

One online definition for ‘halcyon’ reads:

denoting a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful. synonyms: happy, golden, idyllic, carefree, blissful, joyful, joyous, contented; flourishing, thriving, prosperous, successful; serene, calm, tranquil, peaceful.


To little surprise the kingfisher symbolizes beauty, and in China apparently it is a compliment for women to have ‘kingfisher eyebrows’.  Given their habit of hunting in pairs, they also represent married love.

My resources:

1.  (Painting Birds and Insects is my guess at the title) by Lingmao Caochong Juan features step-by-step visual instructions for the kingfisher. He also includes a few compositions, but his several pages showing a dozen different poses are most helpful.

2.  The Beginner’s guide to Chinese Painting by Mei Ruo.  She shows two methods—one using light ink as a base, the second using direct color application—in easy steps, and adds a page of different poses.

3.  There’s also a satisfactory illustration in Jane Dwight’s Bible of Chinese Brush Painting for painting kingfishers  (she uses grey for the bill and indigo for the head whereas I prefer sky blue as the base color for the head and orange for the bill) and of course a host of lotus compositions in many other books with the little bird in situ.


Additionally, I found two Youtube videos with  great music (and an occasional bird call from the little guy in the lower left screen) from Raggedy  One shows the painting of a colored kingfisher, and the second is done in ink shades.  These two videos led me to a more successful way of executing the beak than was presented in the other sources.

Painting the kingfisher:

As with most birds, you visualize the basic shape (teardrop here rather than overlapping ovals) and ink in the beak and eye, then move to the head, body, wings, tail and legs.

1.  Using a fine detail brush and dark ink draw the upper beak.  Jane Dwight illustrates how to combine a single hairpin stroke with a stroke under it for the lower part of the beak. I practiced this method for several days with limited success before looking at alternative approaches.  The videos posted by RaggedyBird showed the use of two long converging strokes, with a third to finish the lower half of the beak. I also turned to a smaller fine brush.  Paint the eye as a black dot surrounded by a circle. Use a small firm brush to place two strokes of blue for the head.  Sky-blue (ink chips) tinted with a bit of white yields a realistic color.


2.  When the head has dried tip in mineral green/blue dots. (Remember that mineral paints must be applied over other colors.)   Add black ink around the base of the beak and the eye for a face. Use dark orange for part of the eye and line above the eye.  Wipe the bill with grey.  Load a medium brush with light orange, tip it in dark orange and then create a chest section extending from the base of the bill; place the loaded brush tip down and swipe the heel in a fan shape.

3.  Use black and grey brush loads to create wing and tail feathers.


Steps 1, 2 and 3 using Dwight’s method, my colors.

4.  Fine details such as fluffy ink feathers on the chest, white cheeks, green/blue on the back, and bright orange feet and toes finish the bird.  Two attempts at all four steps:

KingF4  KingF42

My halcyon days:

It is fairly easy to find varied poses of kingfishers, as they are a favored subject in CBP. My book by Lingmao Caochang Juan  provided a good dozen such images with very pronounced eyes contributing to lively expressions. My lotus books also offered several inspiring compositions and after only a few painting sessions I was confident enough to try completing a bird with lotus.  After a few final touch-ups (such as back washes and mineral blue dotting on the heads and backs of the birds) these two compositions would be ready for gluing.

kingfisherstudy_0001  kingfisherstudy

The combination of bright colors and swooping feather strokes that make the bird, plus the big brush loads of multi greens curved and splashed into the layered tumbles of lotus leaves easily lead to hours of ‘idyllically happy and peaceful’ times—halcyon days, indeed.

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

7 Responses to The king(fisher) and I

  1. Hello… Im very flattered to see you used my Two Kingfisher Videos for representation of painting a kingfisher. 🙂
    My Name is Neil Birley-Armstrong, my URL is and the blog I write is or
    Best wishes…..

  2. Incidentally, I currently Study Lingnan Style and can be found on 🙂

  3. Diana says:

    These kingfishers are very pretty, one of them even is one of my wallpaper backgrounds. But I want to know: there was an ancient paintings of kingfishers, or these wonderful birds were only killed for making jewelry of their feathers?

    • Hi Diana:
      I have seen kingfishers depicted in old monochrome brush paintings, but do not know their earliest use. Sad,indeed they were killed for their feathers. Will keep an eye out for further insights while I research other things. Thanks for visiting!
      The Rat

  4. Diana says:

    Hi, Reluctant Rat. Sorry I missed your answer :(. I found one picture ”Kingfisher, Cicada and Willow-tree” of Qing dynasty, the 19th century – but I don’t know how to send it for you. Also, I researched in Wikipedia – Wiki says that the tradition of bird-and-flower paintings began in the 10th century (though I don’t know if then were the pictures of kingfishers-and-lotuses, too). These painting are the landscape of my dreams – a quiet pond\lake\river with pretty lotuses and kingfishers. I was over-shocked when I learned about the kingfisher feather’s usage. I mourned about those misfortunate kingfisher birds about 6 days. My head couldn’t fix how they could treat the kingfishers the way they did, how can somebody rise a hand to kill at least only one of these birds, with no mention of exterminating them in millions for the sake of some***(maybe you’d be angry If I abuse, so I’ll keep silent). A jewelry lotus in the style of “tian-tsui”, pasted with kingfisher feathers – it is the top of the most vile hypocrisy: for the symbolism of such a landscape of “beauty and harmony” – destroying the feathered symbol of beauty in such a savage way and glue its feathers on a carved flower! GRRR! (here, I started to growl like my character which I created – Bird-savior Lung, a female Chinese dragon with wings such like European one’s; she attacks the hunters, defeats them and later frees the kingfishers from the nets). It is sad, but the masters who are engaged in this fanaticism (despite the official ban of “tian-tsui” in the 30’s), still have not died out as a species: look here what the present-day master Xiao Guangchun and his daughter Yumei are doing with the rare Black-capped Kingfishers –
    . I already complained about them to PETA, Durrell Wildlife Trust and Humane Society International.
    Now their clients are not the rich wealthy people, but the Beijing Opera’s actors. But it doesn’t change the matter, because only for one stage headdress for only one actress it is required to kill 80 kingfishers. The actress (Liu Guijuan) showed it off on her Weibo account, as well as how many thousands of yuan she paid, but, instead of ecstasy she met a flurry of criticism. I would like to find her critics, if one of them also has account in Facebook or\and in Twitter: in my fight, it would be very useful to enlist the support of the Chinese animal-protectors (because of the danger of disturbances such as “The non-Chinese, non-Chinese foreigner dares to criticize our 1000-year tradition”).

  5. Thanks Diana: The painting from the Qing dynasty is in the Metropolitan museum–lovely.

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