A leg up on luck: the rabbit

Distracting a grandson at the mall while Number One Daughter (aka the Easter Bunny) does her mystery shopping is easy in early April. The nearby pet store has an abundance of bunnies.

Yes, bunnies tend to proliferate wherever they go. And thank goodness for that! While my three-year old companion sees only furry cuteness, I am looking at a means of survival. A recent epiphany in my genealogical studies was that not only my ancestors occasionally relied on the ‘bounty of bunnies’ to make it through tough times. (And I can attest that a cooked rabbit looks and tastes remarkably like chicken.) After learning some people saved rabbit’s paws for luck, we children better understood why the uncles teased us that luck had run out for the rabbit in our particular stew pot.

Knowing the rabbit is one of the twelve Chinese zodiac animals and therefore a common CBP subject, I used the time in the pet store to ponder my knowledge of rabbits and consider some compositions.

How do they differ from hares? Was Richard Adam’s 1972 novel Watership Down far-fetched or not? Furthermore, is the pricey angora yarn in my local wool shop obtained from rabbits or is there also an ‘angora’ goat?

My rabbit research

I have ventured into painting rabbits in the past. A study of snow on pine required a ‘guest’ rabbit in the composition, the trials of a new Bif brush resulted in wonderful furry texture that smacked of bunny tails, and more recently deep blue paper led me to depicting white rabbits in moonlight.  Here’s two of my ‘blue bunny’ studies:

bunnycomp_0001  bunnycomp_0002

Each time I simply dropped in a few curved strokes, bulgy eyes, and large ears, relying on my early childhood memories of rabbit anatomy.

Surprisingly, good illustrations of rabbit anatomy seem to abound mostly on cooking sites! Here’s one:


and here’s a fun one more in keeping with my grandson’s likes:


The Ohio State University has an excellent one showing skeletal parts and another with names of body parts. which you can see at the links.

For a painter, the important things would be that only does (females) have a dewlap under their chins, and the size and shape for bunny ears is important if you wish to render a certain breed of rabbit.  Do note the large eye and its location that allows an extended view of many directions.

I learn rabbits are related to both hares and pika, together known as the family Leporidea. Rabbit babies are born furless (in nests) but hares are born with fur and in the open, hence the need for arrival fully clothed no doubt. I learn the dewlap offers a doe extra skin surface for plucking fur to line her nest, unlike in other animals bearing similar appendages (snoods, caruncles and various forms of dewlaps which all seem to function in mating rituals or boundary marking). I also discover there are indeed angora rabbits and angora goats, both so-named for their origins in Turkey, whose main city’s ancient name was Ankara, hence angora.

The rabbits of my youth were white, had pink eyes, powerful hind feet with fewer toes than on their front paws, and could squeal when threatened, usually by the family dog. I later discovered brown woodland bunnies, and eventually large hares that seemed to bounce on pogo sticks as they hurried away in the distance. My early paintings of rabbits do seem to pass muster.

Symbolism and superstitions

Quickly discovering my uncles were not alone in believing good luck came to owners of rabbit feet (ancient Celts bestowed that attribute only to the left hind paw), I find Chinese traditions associate ‘good fortune’ as well as ‘longevity’ with the rabbit.

I learn my own English ancestors may have behaved oddly upon waking on the first of any given month, shouting out “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit” hoping thusly to attract good fortune for the entire month. Thank goodness the uncles were unaware of that one; they surely would have extended the habit to every morning, or whenever some young niece should happen to be napping.

Just how ridiculous some old superstitions related to rabbits got are illustrated by this old sales ad quoted by a fellow blogger:

“…the left hind foot of a rabbit killed in a country churchyard at midnight, during the dark of the moon, on Friday the 13th of the month, by a cross-eyed, left handed, red-headed, bow-legged Negro riding a white horse.”

And once again I am fascinated to discover cross-cultural concepts, such as Chinese legends linking rabbits to the moon, in much the same ways as our western traditions. Just who started these ideas and how exactly did they spread. Or have they indeed emerged concurrently in various settings?


Despite the rabbit being a Chinese zodiac animal it is not widely addressed in CBP instructional books. I have one very detailed source and at least four other passable ones:

  1. Fang Zheu-shiung’s Painting Cute Animals
  2. The Art of Chinese Painting by Caroline and Susan Self
  3. Jane Dwight’s Bible of Chinese Brush Painting
  4. Yolanda Mayhall’s The Sumi-e Book
  5. An OAS courtesy lesson from 2011

While the last four provide directions that result in recognizable bunnies, the first one offers more details, compositions of greater complexity and good illustrations of two different approaches. Zheu-shiung shows how to render rabbits using outline strokes with added washes, and a method (meant for using brushes such as my Bif) based on dry texture strokes covered with colored washes.

When I hunted for online images of CBP rabbit images, I found mostly compositions based on Dwight’s, Zheu-shiung’s or the OAS lesson. One artist whose work stood out was a Simon Chan who has many bunny portraits on his site, but also a very whimsical composition showing bewildered “parents” with a dozen or more offspring in the foreground. The humor is refreshing!

My bunny studies:

For our last rabbit year (2011) I tried a bunny card based on the steps given for one of the methods in Painting Cute Animals:


On my current ‘trip down rabbit lane’ I decided to explore his second method which relies on dry brush work to convey fur texture, and an overlay of color.


1. Paint the eye with light wash of red; indicate mouth and nose with light ink lines.

2. Paint ears with thick ink and rough in areas for the head, body and tail with dry ink (this is where to use that Bif brush effectively, or splay the bristles on a soft, thick one)

3. Add light red for inner ears, dark ink for the eye outline and iris, dark ink for paws.

4.  When the first layers are dry, wash over the furry body parts with an ink and burnt sienna wash.  Whiskers and other furry edges can be touched up with ink.

I discovered that it was important to leave some white around the eyes, and at the mouth.  Here’s my attempt at emulating his “two rabbits amidst grass”. I also used the Bif brush to create the light inky wisps of grass, adding darker ones with a detail brush.


Rabbit compositions:

Most commonly rabbits are painted in pairs—a black with a white companion provides contrast—but they can also be shown as a group, the appropriate collective noun being “drove”. Given their soft fur and round shapes, these creatures are easier to paint than those with smooth skins or feathers.

Zheu-shiung indicates in several of his titles that his bunnies are “chatting’, which I take to mean “interacting”. Another common pose is to have one or more in a scene “on alert”, i.e. resting on his haunches, head raised, front paws hanging loosely, eyes wide open scanning for danger, ears perked and likely pointed in different directions. I prefer that more natural pose to placing a bunny with a carrot. Should you like that scenario, then Jane Dwight’s illustration or the OAS lesson would meet your needs.

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