A bird tail/tale

Learning from our group’s last CBP art show that whimsical subjects can set tongues wagging (and lead to sales!) I decided to try to emulate the ‘edgy blackbirds interacting with orchids’ recently re-discovered in a friend’s art book on plum and orchid.

Bird Woman had finagled an invitation for us to strut our stuff in the Victoria Orchid Society’s annual celebration of ‘all things orchid’

I spent days considering how I could possibly make huge strides in my painting of Chinese orchids in a very short period of time. Then I remembered the orchid compositions featuring wide-eyed, somewhat stylized blackbirds as ‘guests’. They held huge appeal. They were whimsical. They just might draw eyes away from less than wonderful orchids.

The exaggerated features of big eyes, solid yellow outlined beaks, and scruffy feathers looked easier to achieve than more realistic coloring and proportions. Their feet also conveniently disappeared into the mossy rock tops.

Recent headway in rendering the arcing, graceful strokes that are the trademark of the marsh orchid, gave me courage to forge ahead. It was getting satisfactory flower clusters that still eluded me. I understood the shapes of the five petals, the brush loading, and how to sit them on stems. But as yet I couldn’t see how to portray the flowers other than in profile; the three-quarter turn and back view were puzzling.

I pulled out my notebooks on painting Chinese orchids (both lan and hui), rifled through my numerous instruction books, and practiced the several key parts—petals, pollen dots, stems, leaves.

What the crow said

Several birds later I had garnered a short orchid lesson from art friend and mentor John Nip, acquired several hot tips about bird feathers from Bird Woman, and confirmed my rocks were recognizable rocks.

Add a little blue or brown to your ink for the bird feathers, suggested Bird Woman. Be sure to load water in your brush before dipping it in black ink, to get a variation of tone in the feathers, advised John. I picked up my brushes and painted some quick studies of similarly posed birds to try and apply their ideas:

birdfeathersBL birdfeathersBLUjpg birdfeathersBR birdfeathersTones


I then spent a bit more time on defining the bird, gave him a decent rock to perch on, and relaxed before stroking in the orchid leaves. My orchid petals still need some work, but I do like what’s happening with the birds.


This pose of a bird peering curiously at something can be useful with any number of other subjects–flowers, bugs, other birds.

Reflecting on John’s pointers on orchid flowers I had two more ‘aha’ moments. Very much a traditionalist, he reminded me the pollen dots looked more striking if done as little tick-mark strokes. And he also demonstrated how one petal of a fully opened flower could be shaped in a stroke pulling away from the flower base. That just might be the secret to my three-quarter profile and back views, I thought.

Going back to my books on orchid painting, what do I find in one  (Chinese Painting in Four Seasons by Leslie Tseng-Tseng Yu) but a page of orchid petal details, and way down at the bottom of the page are back views, with petals painted AWAY from the calyx just as John had shown me! How had I missed it.

So I spent a fun afternoon in the art room exploring bird feathers and it led to some insights into my orchid flowers, confirming yet again that sometimes you get to your goal by indirect pathways.

Here’s my final bird study of the day, complete with orchid. (Note his blue-black feathers.)  My discoveries about rendering the petals in more interesting ways will have to wait for another day.



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

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