On the trail of the Red-crowned Crane

Storks, swans, and cranes—they are all big birds that have worked their way into myths and legends around the world. Many of those myths involve carrying humans in their beaks (storks delivering babies) or on their backs (Mother Goose). In ancient Chinese culture it was believed that cranes provided transport for the immortals.

For me, cranes are the transport into a world of free brushwork and many happy hours painting.

The species most often depicted in CBP is the Japanese or Red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis). While it appears to be an ungainly bird with long legs supporting a rather blimp-like body, it in fact can be quite agile.

Some time ago I discovered this short Youtube video of red-crowned cranes dancing in the snow, and can’t resist playing it before painting sessions.  And recently I found another that includes more of their chirping and calling to one another.  While I tell myself I watch in order to be more familiar with the bird’s anatomy and proportions, I know part of me is totally captivated by their beauty and joyfulness. Black and grey ink with just a dab of crimson seems a simple recipe for capturing their spirit on paper. If only it was that easy!

By contrast, here’s a more scientific presentation of the creature to provide clarification of its anatomy. My several CBP books offer good anatomical reference diagrams but with the text in Chinese my learning is limited. (The painting technique is easily grasped visually.)


Next to the phoenix, the crane is the most celebrated in Chinese legends, according to my C.A.S. Williams’ book on oriental symbolism. Reputedly the ‘patriarch of the feathered tribe’, it is one of the most common emblems of longevity, often depicted with that other symbol of age, the pine.  Other favored accompaniments  include peonies or peach trees, and often a rock. The figure of a crane with outspread wings and uplifted foot is sometimes portrayed on coffins to assist in carrying the soul of the departed to heaven. Its role reminds me of the Greek goddess Iris, who served a similar function.

That the gangly creatures with their long necks, legs and wings are favorite painting subjects should be no surprise. Depicting their body parts is done with fairly easy brushwork. Cranes are a common subject in CBP instructional books and it is easy to find books dedicated to them. In The Chi of the Brush Nan Rae devotes several pages to the crane, elaborating on its symbolism. She describes it as the ‘great bird of happiness’ (move over bluebird) saying it also stands for love, loyalty and good fortune. She also urges direct observation of the bird in order to grasp its nuances. And she notes it makes a good subject for either rough, expressive strokes OR smooth, elegant ones. I like both styles.

My resources:

1. The Chi of the Brush by Nan Rae provides excellent direction and illustrations. She furthers her discussion of painting crane to using tea washes for a background, painting background enhancements, and working with opaque white—all helpful sections.

2.   How to paint immortal crane, a book dedicated to painting crane that is crammed with illustrations for layouts and an abundance of postures for the birds. TOB (the other Barb) pointed out this book includes several sketches of baby cranes with the parent birds, not commonly shown in CBP books. As I acquired the book sight unseen from eBay I am pleased it is such a worthy addition to my library.

3. The Chinese Brush Painting Bible by Jane Dwight has an excellent four-step guide to painting the crane. She uses a slightly more elaborate method for showing the legs: ink outlines, light indigo wash, and black lines for scales.


After skimming through various borrowed books dedicated to the painting of crane I ordered one of my own and it quickly became a treasured resource.

Order for painting crane:

1. As with other birds or animals, start with the eye. Paint the pupil using a fine detail brush and dark ink. Outline the circle with paler ink and feather a few tiny strokes away from the eye in the direction of the body.

2. Add the beak. Use a very dry brush and medium ink; strive for a slight curve to the beak and execute it with a single hairpin movement, followed by a light dividing line and nostril. When dry it may be colored a pale orangey yellow.

3. Define the head. The head is done with a series of strokes, all moving away from the beak toward the body. You can sketch the general shape in with very light ink and follow with darker ink, or if more confident in your brushwork define the head with fine lines in darkest ink. It is a good idea to practice painting cranes in poses from instruction books so that you get the proportions of body parts embedded in your inner eye. The crane’s neck is best done in one or two strokes that end with dry flying white. Getting a realistic curve and width to the crane’s neck takes practice. Tip in a dark red crown using a fine brush.

Steps 1-3 for painting crane; notice how the eye is positioned immediately behind the beak.

Steps 1-3 for painting crane; notice how the eye is positioned immediately behind the beak.

4. Define the body. Ideally cranes are depicted with minimal brushwork. Using a fine brush and light ink outline the basic large slanted oval, then whisk in what you might think are tail feathers but are really not. The real tail feathers are hidden under that distinctive mass of dark secondary wing feathers. When you paint cranes in flight, landing or taking off, these dark wing tips are more obviously wing feathers. You’ll want to suggest the tops of the legs with a few light ink tufts as well.

5. End with legs and feet. Bird Woman likes to remind me that artists who have difficulty with feet simply place their bird in water and avoid the necessity altogether. There are essentially two ways of depicting them—with outline strokes you later color in, or with solid dark ink strokes. Either method requires an understanding of where to get the bulges and the thinner parts in order to have legs of the right proportion and posture. As with all birds, you want the foot firmly flat to the ground, not leaving your bird on tiptoe as it were. The solid look can be achieved with black ink, a detail brush, and dry bone strokes. Be sure to hold the brush vertically.

As for those baby cranes in my un-named CBP book, they appear like most baby birds—smaller, fluffier, covered in downy yellowish feathers. Their beaks and legs clearly are longer than on most chicks or baby birds, and their bodies very oval like.

My first crane studies (content warning: no violence or sex, but a few mis-proportioned body parts!):

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My dedicated crane book has many helpful illustrations (positioning of the eye in line with the beak and relative to the roundness of the head, oval-shaped crane bodies sketched in a clock-like circle to show the changing angles, an eight-headed bird sketch to show various neck and head positioning with the same body posture; a series of cranes illustrating lifting off, powering up, gliding, landing, and swooping, for example.) I replicated some of them hoping to train my inner eye to the content.

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A large format book on cranes I borrowed from another CBP artist featured numerous compositions done in a very expressive style, with stylized eyes and strong lines. The images are tantalizing and seem to call for a very bold, aggressive approach. After reflecting on my small studies above I determined to focus on the proportions of the legs and feet more carefully. Maybe tackling some of the larger, looser birds would be just the practice needed before I take on a serious full composition of cranes in a pine tree setting. The bird brings many happy hours indeed.

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

2 Responses to On the trail of the Red-crowned Crane

  1. Barbara Szenes says:

    Hi, I love your crane studies. I am writing a children’s poem (2nd grade level) and want to use the word “crane” as in “he craned his neck around.” I have been online looking for a drawing of a crane that shows why we took the name crane — his neck stretches and turns (also the machine).
    Your crane with his head turned 180 degree is perfect! Would it be possible to have permission to use your crane drawing that has his head around as an illustration (I was thinking of doing a glossary and besides the words want a drawing — I am a very visual learner myself). Yours is the best I have found and would love to have permission to use it. I have never published anything and this book may just be for my grandchildren but I would like to get your permission in the very off chance it should ever have an audience. Thanks!

    • Hi Barbara:
      Thank you for your interest and do go ahead and use the crane for your project. Love the idea of grandchildren receiving such a lovely gift from a grandmother. Let me know how it turns out!

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