Pairing for a lifetime: the Mandarin Duck

In the world of waterfowl surely there’s nothing more exotic looking than the Mandarin Duck. Its Latin name (Aix galericulata) is totally forgettable; the Chinese “yuan-yang” or “pin-yin” that captures the essence of the radical contrast in appearance for male and female of the species, seems more apt.

It is related to our North American wood duck, sharing in a preference for nesting in trees and dietary habits. They feed on plants and seeds, snails, insects, and small fish. ‘Mandarin’ was allegedly given as a name to recognize its superiority over other ducks and its extreme beauty.

The adult male is indeed a striking and unmistakable bird, and makes for a delightful painting subject. It has a red bill, large white crescent above the eye and reddish face and “whiskers”. The breast is purple with two vertical white bars, and the flanks ruddy, with two orange “sails” at the back. The female is similar to a female wood duck, with a white eye-ring and stripe running back from the eye, but is paler below, has a small white flank stripe, and a pale tip to its bill.

Mandarins are usually painted in pairs. The Chinese believe they mate for life, unlike other duck species. Hence they are regarded as a symbol of conjugal affection and fidelity. And further, they have become a favorite subject for wedding paintings. Common painting accompaniments include the lotus (among its dietary staples) and willow, both subjects I’ve given some attention.


I started my study of the Mandarin with two resources at hand. One was a borrowed book on ducks by artist Ling Mao Caochong Juan from our Monterey Club library; it has excellent instructions for black ducks, swans, cormorants as well as the Mandarin. This study of painting the duck’s head was helpful in just getting a feel for the shapes and gestures of waterfowl heads.


A second source I found most helpful in learning the intricacies of painting Mandarin is Chinese Painting 2 in the Walter Foster series. The artists are Chow Chian-Chiu and Chow Leung Chen-Ying. My copy was a “find” in a used bookstore and cost me $1.25. Original price was $2.75 so I imagine the publication was decades ago. The featured mandarin painting had great swirly water effects.

Steps in painting Mandarin

Both artists approached painting the Mandarin in much the same manner, first laying down shades of ink and then adding color. The less striking female has brown added, whereas the male requires crimson, green, purple and brown.

As always, start with the eye, which for both is a dark ink circle; be sure to leave white around it. The male Mandarin’s head has a distinctive shape, quite different from its mate or any other waterfowl; his head takes on a slightly bashed-in look because of his distinctive swishy headpiece. He also sports a pair of orange-hued “sail” feathers as part of his wings.

When artist Nenagh Molson did a workshop on painting Mandarin for our Goward House art group, several of us were motivated to learn more about those sails, and found they apparently serve as mating attractions. It’s hard to believe they don’t have some extra mobility advantage.

The female:

1. Get the eye right—central dark ink circle at the centre of a roundish shape.

2. The head—define its shape with dabbing strokes of a soft brush dipped in grey in. Dab in neck feathers at the base, stroking away from the head. Be sure to leave a white eye patch extending back from her eye.

3. Chest and body. Continue to shape the chest and body with dabs of light through medium grey ink, moving to darker ink for wing feathers and tail.

4. Lightly outline a foot or both if needed.

5. When the inked female is dry, add a warm brown coloring and orangey beak. Their feet are also orange if visible. Painting them in water is common; the Foster book shows the male mandarin’s blurred orange foot swimming slightly beneath the surface. Looks tricky but is probably easily done with a mixed value wash and some careful placement of white space.


My first female inked ready for color


My first male mandarin inked ready for color

The male:

1. Do the eye as above.

2. The male’s head is ideally done with one broad dark ink stroke swooping back with some flying white. That gets covered later with an emerald green so you don’t need to fuss over the black swoop.

3. Chest and body—because his chest appears more solid brown when done, it’s best to use darker ink, but you dab in ‘feathers’ with light and medium ink as per the female. Outline the sails lightly, leaving white ‘faces’ so that the color overlay will fill the spaces.

4. Do his feet just like hers, maybe bigger?

5. When the base ink is dry add the brown, orange and green. Let it dry and feather on crimson over the chest to “pull” out feathers. You could wash over a light blue green to enhance the green head and green tipped wings. You can also try to capture the purple sheen to his chest feathers with a purple swipe over the dark chocolate colored chest.


Color added plus common setting details

Beyond the basics:

After my first study following the instructions in my two books I started on a larger (18 x 20) composition of a pair of mandarins under willow with swirly water effects. When my water got messed up with the annoying presence of gritty bits from my aging color chips, I stepped back to reflect on the entire project. If indeed I had to start afresh (damn the gritty bits) then what else would I do differently on the next one?


This was my first attempt at a full composition of mandarins; my fowl went ‘afoul’ when the yellow-blue mix for the water turned gritty

I flipped through numerous other CBP books, looking carefully at any compositions involving mandarins. There were discrepancies over the foot color (orange, yellow, green and brown all showed up). Likewise with the beaks: some said orange, others red, some even pink. I went back to my workshop notes and then recalled Bird Woman’s usual advice: don’t trust artistic licence, search for authentic photographs.

In my workshop notes I found a stunning example of Nenagh’s using an outline approach; she loaded a large soft brush with an emerald green, dipped both sides in black ink and then set it down in a heel stroke again and again, to define a stunning back to a diving Mandarin.  A few extra lines plus colored feet resulted in a marvelous diving male Mandarin. Stunning as it was, I still wanted a definitive guide to the distinctive features of a Mandarin duck before tackling such variations.

What the research showed:

Online research led me to this wonderful slideshow posted on Youtube. It even has some good musical accompaniment by Smokey Robinson.

My research quickly confirmed the different head shapes for the male and female, the importance of the white eye patches (hers is narrower than his but both extend back the length of the head), and the basic coloring as per my two artistic approaches. I also learned there are two vertical black strokes separated by white on the male’s upper body, and that his wing tips extend into black and white markings. On a Wikimedia Commons site with copyright free images I found this wonderful image of a pair of mandarins:


Armed with greater knowledge, I next determined a CBP book dedicated to the Mandarin would perhaps provide greater attention to these distinctive details. As luck would have it, my search yielded just such a resource: Masters Teach you how to Paint Mandarin by Shang Zhu arrived in my mailbox ten days later. I sat down for an afternoon of quick brush studies and was immediately satisfied with the outcomes.


The Walter Foster book on the left features a mandarin composition with great water effects; the dedicated mandarin painting book on the right has inspiration for months ahead

First I inked out his exercises showing quick sketches based on egg shapes:



Than I tried some of his quick outlines of a pair of mandarins:

pairsMandarin_0001  pairsMandarin

Next I followed his four steps (compressed into three) to painting a female:


Shang Zhu offers several very helpful step-by-step visuals to painting the male mandarin in approaching, retreating, and from a side angle views.


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With these studies completed, I feel much more confident going back to my large composition; I’m just waiting for the arrival of new yellow and blue ink chips to avoid further gritty mishaps.

And the Shang Zhu book has tons of inspirational compositions to boot. It includes two-step illustrations for painting weeds, blue flag iris, lotus, lily pads, and other such setting items. And his many compositions provide endless variations for mandarin paintings–in different seasons, with young ones, dozing languidly under a leafy bower, taking flight, canoodling in numerous poses.  My love affair with the mandarin may last a good long while, perhaps a lifetime.





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