And James was a very small snail…

How delightful to discover parallels between Chinese brush painting and some of my favorite children’s lit. Among the lesser-known poetry of A.A. Milne (creator of Winnie the Pooh and pals Eyore, Owl, Tigger and Roo) is a poem titled Four Friends. The five verses describe an unlikely friendship, one occurring only in a nursery for sure, among an elephant, lion, goat and small snail. And it ends with poor James ‘reaching the end of his brick’.

While discussing the painting of snails with Bird Woman, she reminded me of James’ fate. The fact he was one of four friends had echoes to my current studies, the four gentlemen of CBP. The parallels stopped there, but we both were surprised how much of Milne’s verses rattled around in our brains.

I immediately wanted to revive poor James, and considered his short journey as I practiced delicate swirling shapes for his shell.

The Four Friends

Ernest was an elephant, a great big fellow,

Leonard was a lion with a six foot tail,

George was a goat, and his beard was yellow,

And James was a very small snail.

Leonard had a stall, and a great big strong one,

Earnest had a manger, and its walls were thick,

George found a pen, but I think it was the wrong one,

And James sat down on a brick.

Earnest started trumpeting, and cracked his manger,

Leonard started roaring, and shivered his stall,

James gave a huffle of a snail in danger

And nobody heard him at all.

Earnest started trumpeting and raised such a rumpus,

Leonard started roaring and trying to kick,

James went on a journey with the goat’s new compass

And he reached the end of his brick.

Ernest was an elephant and very well intentioned,

Leonard was a lion with a brave new tail,

George was a goat, as I think I have mentioned,

but James was only a snail.

Why paint snails?

Snails are common ‘guests’ to include in CBP compositions; they are added like bees, butterflies, and other bugs to add ‘noise’ to a flower-bird painting.

While researching the Happy Buddha for an earlier blog post, I read a delightful tale about snails in my C.A.S.Williams book on Chinese symbols and art motifs. Apparently the characteristic spiral curls on Buddha likenesses are a tribute to the lowly snail.


The Indian legend has it that one day Buddha wandered around lost in thought, pondering how to solve the woes of the world, and he alas was oblivious to the fierce heat of the sun’s rays. In short, he was sunburned on top of his head. “The snails, in gratitude to Him who loved and shed his blood for all living things, crept up and formed a helmet of their own cool bodies” says my book.

My art friend ‘Anne of the townhouse’ (AOTH) has a profound love of snails. (She kept two as pets for several months when they arrived in her home along with some fresh lettuce!) There’s not much about snails she doesn’t know and she has two big binders full of illustrations and helpful ‘facts’. For my studies I thought basic anatomy and some inspirational art would suffice.

As sometimes happens, the inspirations attracted others—the poem, the Indian legend, and the children’s animated movie Turbo are all snail-related delights I revisited on this quest. And I was somewhat heartened to know this conventional symbol of laziness and sloth in most western cultures, is not universally associated with negative concepts. Those in my garden leave telltale trails in the bracken that glisten in the morning sun and surely cannot be doing harm.

Snail Anatomy:

So, what is a snail? Wikipedia says “...a common name that is applied most often to land snails, terrestrial pulmonate gastropod molluscs. However, the common name “snail” is also applied to most of the members of the molluscan class Gastropoda that have a coiled shell that is large enough for the animal to retract completely into. When the word “snail” is used in this most general sense, it includes not just land snails but also thousands of species of sea snails and freshwater snails.”

I quickly found an abundance of information on snails, so narrowed the field to a few ‘most likely’ reliable sources, one being this one.  In short, a typical snail would have a slug-like body bearing a spiral-shaped shell, and sport what appears to be two sets of antennae or feelers on the head (one set are actually his eyes) Colors vary; the ones in my own garden have striped shells and greyish bodies.

Painting Resources:

  1. Some excellent directions for painting snail were found in book 3 of a four-volume set by Johnson Susing Chow (Insects—vegetables, fruits, insects, aquatic life paintings)
  2. Jane Dwight devotes a page in her Bible to the snail; she shows two methods, one starting with line and adding color, the other involving a broad color stroke with details added afterward. Both yield attractive snails.

I conjure up friend James

First I tried the two methods given in Dwight’s book, one starting with a lined shell, the second starting with a wide circular stroke in color with lines added:



Then I executed a few in the manner of Susing Chow; he used a green wash for the body. I liked the depth and texture achieved by dotting black ink on the still damp green.


I tried my hand at a small composition from Susing Chow’s book; the snail’s body here was painted with an orange wash.



And lastly, I created several poses for snails based in line only with an added green wash over the body.


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These last ones I used for an experiment with paper borders as discussed in a an earlier post.

GreenPaperSnails copy

For a small creature, the snail can add considerable impact to a composition. I am grateful ‘James’ chose to re-enter my consciousness, and maybe his other friends will get some time in my art room soon as well.  I am contemplating an elephant…







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