Turtles, turtles–yeah, yeah, yeah.

Of all the many creatures that have inspired artists around the globe, surely the turtle is among those with the longest history. We find their images in tombs, on cave walls, and among all manner of ancient art. An oval shape with protruding legs, neck and tail is unmistakably a turtle or tortoise of some kind. The distinction lies in choice of habitat—the tortoise favors land while the turtle prefers water.

Recently the discovery of not one, but TWO record-sized Western painted turtles in Regina’s Wascana Marsh set the biology buffs buzzing. As usual, while under the scrutiny of cameras and humans, the turtles simply blinked and bobbed their heads a bit in their age-old quiet, unassuming way. Turtles are like that, unflappable.

These two specimens were estimated to be over 100 years old. They were fitted with micro chips and released into the urban wetland ostensibly to ‘live long and prosper’. There’s another well-known turtle/tortoise quality—they are associated in many cultures with longevity. In actuality they do have a relatively long lifespan, some species living over a hundred years or more.

Turtles and tortoises are both reptiles in the family Testudines. Most of us discover the tortoise in early childhood as part of the parable of the Tortoise and the Hare. Both make excellent painting subjects and have expressive features; a tilt of the head, a pursed lip, or an exaggerated circling to an eyeball can result in comical appeal.

My first turtle was encountered in the wild, basking on a log near the bank of a river. I’ve since pulled a large snapping turtle up from the bottom of a lake, examined a huge tortoise in North Dakota’s famed Reptile Gardens, and snapped photos of the resident specimens in a number of public gardens such as Victoria’s own Abkhazi Garden. Their propensity for sunning in groups on a floating log presents a natural composition with popular appeal.  Here’s an image of sea turtles in a refuge in Hawaii my son sent to help me understand their shapes; he was hoping a bed-size quilt would soon follow.


Chinese symbolism

The turtle holds a special place in Chinese culture, being one of the ‘four fabulous animals’ said to rule the universe, each governing one of the four cardinal points as well as one of the four seasons. The Black Tortoise is associated with the North and symbolizes strength, endurance and longevity. Some ancient Chinese myths also assign a role to the turtle in creation legends, much as we do in North American native cultures. And a turtle placed near a doorway allegedly brings good fortune to the household.

Turtle Painting Resources

Despite the turtle’s significance in Chinese culture, his relatively simple body structure, and his popular appeal, the creature does not get much attention in CBP instructional books. My resources for an afternoon of turtle studies:

  1. a small Chinese book dedicated to the turtle.
  2. Volume 4,  Aquatic Life in a series by artist Su Sing Chow
  3. Two pages found in a CBP kit by Pauline Cherrett
  4. Workshop notes and illustrations by Nenagh Molson
  5. Hokusai sketches


The little specialty book has monochrome ink studies only, and offers lots of variety in compositions. The second book shows ink and color turtles where the color washes are put down first and then details added with light through dark ink shades. I like both effects, so mixed up some suitable pools of color and ink and then played around with turtle shapes.

Cherrett’s method was to start with the eye and outline a head, body and legs around it, adding color to the shell and body afterwards. She stressed painting the turtle as the strong Yang in a composition, contrasting with the more ethereal Yin quality of a dragonfly. Whether or not you ascribe to that duality concept matters not—the two share habitat so why not put them together in a composition.

My stash also included some sample sheets from a workshop Nenagh delivered several months back. She showed how to paint the turtle emerging from water as well as diving into water—both studies looking more difficult than they proved to be. Her style is a loose spontaneous approach and she outlines very expressive eyes and lips similar to the way she does frogs.

Su Sing Chow sheds some light as to why the turtle has not had painterly attention on a par with other animals. He notes that during the Tang dynasty turtles were so popular that parents often included the word “gui” (Chinese for tortoise) in naming children; however by the time of the Ming dynasty a rumor circulated that female tortoises secretly mated with snakes, and thenceforth unfaithful women were called tortoises in ridicule. The poor creature lost favor and even artists avoided association with the luckless tortoise.

Chow goes on to observe that because of its association with long life, it is often referenced in birthday wishes: may you live as long as the tortoise and crane. For a birthday card that carries a very solid message then, one could paint a monkey eating a peach while riding on a tortoise under a pine tree.

My turtle studies:

First I followed the three-step process illustrated in Su Sing Chow’s book:

  1. Using a wash of ink-tinged burnt sienna and a soft brush I swiped side strokes, defining brownish shapes for the turtle’s back. Chow suggests five sections down the middle with four on either side. You need to fore-shorten those on the far side and might consider darker shading for the near side.
  2. Use light ink to sketch in the head, neck, neck socket, four legs, and tail. You can dot in the textured reptilian skin of head, legs, and tail.
  3. Use yellowish brown (or even greenish brown to color the neck and soles of the feet.
  4. Darken the shell and while damp use dark ink to enhance the divisional lines. Enhance details such as the skin-dotting, toenails, neck skin contours, and shell markings.
  5. Side swipes of dark ink on a dry brush can enhance the shell texture.

My first full turtle following Chow’s three-step procedure was encouraging, so I did more.


I painted a threesome using a composition from the little monochrome book:



And then tried a single fellow under bamboo:



Gaining confidence with the pleasant mixes of greens, ink-tinged burnt sienna, and blending of the shell outlines I decided to tackle Nenagh’s lesson on showing a turtle emerging from water.

Not having my spritzer handy, I wiped water across the lower half of my paper where the ‘water’ would be with a large brush, and then dropped in my turtle as before. This time though I wiped water across the lower part of the turtle to blur his form. I quickly painted in some medium ink water ripples. When I got to the stage of outlining the shell and body parts I simply kept those above the water line sharp, and blurred those below the water line.



Painting turtles reminded me of playing with kittens—it is pretty difficult to stop. With kittens you just have to keep stroking them and touching their pointy little tails, velvety ears and furry coats. With painting turtles there is similar appeal to dotting the skin, pointing the tail and toenails, cocking the little head at interesting angles. I daresay they’re quite addictive.  And as luck would have it, they did bring good fortune to my art table this week–they helped me break out of a slump where few paintings emerged as intended.


Two ceramic turtles hang out by our patio door, perhaps attracting good luck.

Like eating the delectable gooey candy that bears their name, you can never paint just ONE turtle.   I love turtles.













Black turtle of the north.


turtle at the door brings luck



Brent sea turtle image from Hawaii


Western Painted turtle found in Regina


The western painted turtle is so named because of the bright yellow stripes on its head, neck, tail and legs, and the glowing red on the shell covering its belly.







http://www.diffen.com/difference/Tortoise_vs_Turtle for turtles vs tortoise.

This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting tortoise, painting turtle. Bookmark the permalink.

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