Hung out to dry: the cormorant

No other bird displays quite as many quirky bits as does the cormorant. Its beak has a distinctive downward curl at the tip, its neck in profile while flying is not a smooth curvy line but rather a zig-zagging stroke, and when perched on rocks it often spreads its wings akimbo to air dry. If you spend any amount of time observing birds, you learn how to identify them in different ways. Here’s an illustration showing profiles of several I have painted:


The cormorant strikes a distinctive pose for sure. Here is an image from Wikipedia of a Great Cormorant in Hyoga, Japan and we can see his yellow cheeks, hooked bill and S-curve neck clearly.


And to add to the painterly appeal, the cormorant prefers company; hence you rarely paint a loner. You can arrange a small assembly of mostly black, yellow-billed, gangly fellows in assorted interactions. Several Chinese brush painters have absorbed the essence of the cormorant and painted in an almost comical, exaggerated style. Artist Li Kuchan (1899-1983) displays that style in all of his birds—cranes, quail, eagles—but in this gallery you can see a few compositions with cormorants.


The cormorant is featured in a few of my CBP painting books, most notably

  1. The former OAS listing # 20 Painting Swimming Fowl in the series Chinese Painting for Beginners by Chien Hsing-Chien (1990). It seems to be out of print, but I was lucky enough to find a used copy. The artist illustrates beak, neck, webbed foot details, and body shapes before moving on to a few compositions.
  2. Jane Dwight also demonstrates a cormorant in The Chinese Brush Painting Bible. She simplifies the bird’s shape and gets you started with understanding the curves and lines.
  3. Online images by Li Kuchan. There are a few books of his art ‘out there’, but they’re priced waaaay out of my budget! His cormorant paintings feature large eyes painted as circles with a black dot iris. His beaks are also proportionately longer than in real life. The resulting ‘expressions’ on his bird faces are quite appealing.
  4. A few images by Wu Zuoren from Selections of WuZuoren and Xiao Shufang.

Two of my books with cormorants; the one on the right is out of print but well worth hunting for.


Cormorants as human helpers

In some parts of China and Japan there is an ancient tradition of using trained cormorants to fish. On first learning of the practice, I assumed it to be cruel and inhumane. The bird’s neck is encircled with a metal ring or tied with sinew to prevent it from swallowing his catch. Fishing with several trained cormorants is done at night with lanterns from small boats, and in some locales the activity has become a lucrative part of the tourism trade. Reading about the long-term pairing of birds and fishermen and the loving attention given to the feathery helpers, my horror at the ringed neck lessened.

Then I discovered that in some parts of my own country cormorant populations have been known to get out of hand. Problem birds?

The colonizing birds have literally taken over small islands, to the detriment of other creatures. My mind flits to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s line “Nature, red in tooth and claw” and I decide the thinking is getting too heavy for a painting session. Better I get back to considering the gangly shapes of my subjects.

Distinctive Features:

Jane Dwight tackles the cormorant in her Bible of Chinese Brush Painting. Her approach seems to be to accentuate the quirky shape of the bird’s neck. She defines a very strong C-shaped neck, and uses a dot for the eye.  Here’s my study based on her lesson:


One of my favorite compositions of a group of cormorants on a rock by Xu Zuoren (shown in my book image above) also seems to exploit the simple black outlines with several odd postures. The posturing reminds me of the manner of showing vultures in cartoons. Their shapes definitely command attention and have appeal for the artistic eye. I tried my hand at painting a group in profile:



Painting strategy:

  1. As always with birds, start with the eye and the beak.  Use dark black ink and a fine brush; be sure to get the distinctive hook on the end of the bill. Place a dot for the eye.  (OR draw a circle around a dot.)
  1. Define head and neck. Place the tip of a larger soft brush loaded with dark ink above the beak and define a reverse-C shape for the head, continuing down for a long, curved neck in one stroke. Mixing a little indigo with the ink has a nice effect.
  1. Wings, body and tail. Depending on the pose—profile with wings tucked in or maybe the characteristic wings akimbo—you add dabbing brush strokes to create feathers, using lines for the top of the wingspread.
  1. Feet. The cormorant has large scaly bird feet similar to other birds. An important thing is to make them flat to the ground (they do not stand on tip toes) and show some webbing. This bird’s feet are chunky looking: three toes point to the front, a shorter one points backwards, and all have claw tips. Outline with yellow coloring seems to be the common method in CBP, and looks ‘right’ with the exaggerated bills, and googly eyes.
  1. Coloring. Simply adding yellow to the beak is one way of finishing the birds; several CBP artists use blue on the beak and light yellow on the face, noting they are portraying the Common Cormorant.

I practiced some of the bird features in the manner described in the book Painting Swimming Fowl:

CormStudy_0001    CormStudy_0002


Compositional considerations:

Cormorants in groups allow for fun with painting distinctive profiles of birds resting on rocks, branches, weatherworn wooden railings and piers. I found a few compositions showing a group of them crowded together, seemingly all gabbling away, as their beaks were open and pointing in different directions. One showed such a boisterous bunch opposite another fellow who had the look of a frustrated leader. In these days of provincial elections across the country, I can’t help but think of politicians when I look at those.  I did a few more studies, this time using circles for the eyes.

CormStudy_0005  CormStudy_0004

Initially I planned to paint a lone fisherman on a small raft-like boat, with a few cormorants resting on a shoulder or gearbox…but the exaggerated features of Li Kuchan’s style beckoned.  Here’s my first study of a single bird, ready for color:

final corm

And now I’m ready to take on a colony! There’s something about the cormorant just makes you ‘wanna have fun’.


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