Out of the blue: the Common Loon

While my compositions on deep navy blue paper were drying I was inspired to consider other potential night scenes. The white plum blossoms framed in a small white metallic frame sat on an easel nearby; I knew I would tackle some more of those once I found suitable frames. Bunnies had some appeal, but my mind seemed to be wandering over other midnight blue memories–black silhouettes against sky, moonlight streaks on water, and then a laughing sound came to me, the tremolo of a loon.

I doubt if there is a sound more symbolic of our Canadian wilderness than that of the Common Loon. I’ll allow that the beaver is our designated national animal for various reasons, all deserving, and the Canada goose should surely be next in line, maybe the moose or caribou next… But these animals have a long way to go to evoke the same measure of deep soul-touching awareness the loon does with a simple lilting call across water, in the moonlight.

I was moved by my deep blue paper to try and paint a loon. Other bloggers (such as this one) give us lots of good loon images and information.   The image below is a sampling of her excellent photography.


And there are an abundance of nature sites to investigate.  Here’s such a one.


Chinese brush painters have tackled waterfowl of all kinds—swans, ducks, herons, egrets, mandarins, cormorants, and pelicans—but not the loon. I have a few small specialty books on single bird species, and even one larger volume dedicated to swimming birds. I suspect Asia may not be home to a loon, at least not the one we know as the Common Loon (Gavia immer).

A quick check in my Peterson Field Guide confirms there are only five species worldwide, and they all are found mostly in North America. The Arctic and the Pacific loons do spend some time on the northern coasts of China and Japan. Arctic shores, Iceland, Greenland, some northern parts of Europe, and supposedly as far south as the Mediterranean are visited by one or more kinds of loons.

Lucky for me I own a copy of The Loon, Voice of the Wilderness, written and illustrated by Joan Dunning.


This American artist-farmer-botanist has compiled a most delightful and comprehensive compendium of information about our Common Loon. Her ink sketches and luminous watercolors offer insights into every conceivable detail associated with the loon—a true feast for the loon lover. You know you are on to something meaningful when you read on the book flap:

“Have you ever heard a loon…deep in the night? The sound is often distant, coming from some remote, inaccessible corner of a lake…And then it comes again—the call known as a wail—but heard the first time it isn’t neatly called by any name. It is a sensation up the spine, a chill to the skin, a creator of that little gap in the mind through which one sees eternity.”

Time spent painting loons at home meant I could also play my DVD of loon calls. (It used to drive our poor cat frantic running from windowsill to windowsill, hunting for the birds!) But for the time with my art groups I had to rely on the silence of our retreats into zen-like concentrations to conjure loon memories. I’m not a fan of ear buds, and time in the wilderness has taught me much about the power of silence. I’m blessed to be part of two CBP art groups comprised of painters who also grasp these concepts.

Loon Mythology:

It seems only fitting to look at our North American heritage for legends pertaining to the loon, and several have been documented. The National Film Board even put together a short animated film about how the loon got its necklace back in 1949.  There is a strange version (it has audio issues) which seems to be on Youtube here.  You can activate subtitles which helps somewhat, but then you miss the sound effects, and some ‘translations’ leave you guessing: Laura for Kelora, balloon for the loon, cholera for collar, etc. The colorful animation and use of masks makes the viewing worthwhile. Further research led me to a black and white version, with much better sound quality at this site owned by the American Indian Film Gallery.

The story is that an old man befriended the loon, and when he lost his sight the loon restored it. In exchange the loon received the man’s most precious possession, a white shell necklace. Hence to this day the loon has white speckles on its back and white markings on its throat.

In some Northwest Coast tribes, loons are symbols of harmony, generosity, and peace. In some Algonquian tribes of the northeast, loons are regarded as divine messengers. No doubt this last concept stems from its amazing diving and ‘sinking’ abilities. One legend has it that Loon dived to the bottom of the prehistoric Great Water and brought up soil that was then fashioned into Mother Earth.

Even non-outdoorsy people may have good knowledge of the loon, given the choice to place it on our currency. In the 1980s when Canada planned to replace the paper one-dollar with a coin, they learned from an American experience in late 1970s that the costly venture could fail if people did not embrace the transition wholeheartedly. All design decisions made were for the better, Canadians widely accepted the change, and the term “loonie” quickly entered our national lexicon. We love the loon!

Limiting my loon-acy:

I can’t begin to distill all of the helpful details about loons that Dunning provides. I’ll sum up here only the ‘need-to-knows’ for someone like me wanting to paint one on blue paper using Chinese brushes, black ink, white paint, and maybe a dab of red for the eye.

–loons are basically black with white markings, the most recognizable being a ‘necklace’

–they are born with brown eyes that turn red as they mature

–males and females appear alike

–both genders sit on the nest and in fact late night calls across the water are usually the nest–sitter calling for its mate to job swap sitting for fishing and/or look-out duty.

–their beaks are described as ‘dagger-like’, designed for efficient fishing

–they have a range of calls/songs; Dunning documents the tremolo, the wail, the yodel and hoot as major parts of loon language. Hence they are often painted with head slightly raised and beak ajar, supposedly calling out to a mate.

–the neck in silhouette forms a large S curve

–in flight, the back appears hunched and the legs sweep backwards, rudder-like

–their young sometimes enjoy a ‘free ride’ on the backs of parent birds, hence another common composition shows one or more riding plus another one or two tucked in swimming ultra close to mom or dad.

–the legs of a loon are situated nearer its rear end than on many other fowl; this facilitates diving.

–the leg positioning encumbers walking on land so they do little of that

–Dunning shows and describes many different postures for the loon: preening, fishing, diving, flying, resting, feeding young, egg-turning, swimming, lifting off the water, running across the water, emerging from a dive, landing, as well as many mating rituals such as bill-dipping, head-turning and circling. A unique pose for a loon, as opposed to other waterfowl, is to partially submerge the bird in its ‘sinking’ posture.

Painting strategy:

For my loons on blue paper I prepared pools of light ink, dark sticky ink, and white. I had the full strength white at hand as well as red chips. I planned to show two loons with heads uplifted, sitting on water, looking away to a distant moon.

I first outlined the bird shapes with some light ink, starting with their heads. I moved on to inking in their silhouettes with dark ink. Their beaks were tricky, but turning my paper upside down allowed a freer hand to pull slightly curved lines away from the heads. I had to be careful not to leave too much water in the heel of my brush in order to maintain sharp edges to the bird silhouettes.


To make painting this slight concave curve easier, I turned my paper upside down.

I roughed in some water swirls in light inks and darks and then tackled the moon. Wanting a round full moon, I hunted for a suitable object to serve as a template. One of my porcelain dishes seemed to be an appropriate size, and so I slipped it under the paper.


For nicely rounded objects slip a ‘template’ under your paper. You can crease your paper slightly with a thumb and then paint OR paint directly over the object’s impression.

I outlined the moon in a white wash, gradually bringing the moon up to full strength white, and avoiding the black tips of my loon beaks, which I wanted superimposed slightly. This positioning helps the elements in a composition look more ‘connected’.

Once the birds were dry, I dabbed in the white feather markings with thick white ink, softer on the far bird. The necklaces were done with very thin strokes using a very fine brush. I used the same fine brush to limn the outer edges of the bird’s silhouettes, and sharpen the little red eye.

Here is my first loon comp on blue paper. It is ready to glue and chop.



After a few days considering this first Loon painting I saw several places for ‘improvements’—the white wing markings on the closer bird are all too similar in size and should have one or two rows of larger dots; the white water marks are also too similar and should widen as they move to the foreground, my water lines on the left side are getting ‘too busy’.

And while these thoughts swirl I also try to reconcile the haunting loon calls with possible loon messages: Marty, where aaaaaaare you? Marty, it’s your tuuuuuuurn. Why oh why oh why do I always have to sit the night shift? Marty, I’m getting a butt blister…come on hoooooome… I need a neck massage. Maaaaarty……where are you?

I do love the loon.









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