Flying high: painting eagle

“Majestic in flight, regal in appearance, dignified in manner; its hunting is like that of the noble falcons—clean, spirited and dashing. “ Thus wrote American ornithologist Arthur Bent in his 21-volume encyclopedia on North American birds back in 1937. The Golden Eagle (genus Aquila) had moved him to such language.

The Bald Eagle (genus Haliaeetus) which the American people chose as their national emblem in 1782, did not fare so well. Bent noted the latter’s “carrion-eating habits, and its piratical attacks on the weaker osprey hardly inspire respect and certainly do not exemplify the best in American character.” Contrary to its name, it is not truly bald but has white feathers on its head and upper neck.

Both birds are members of a larger group known as “raptors” from the Latin rapere, meaning ‘to seize by force’. The term refers to all ‘birds of prey’ and includes hawks, falcons and owls.  Here’s a comparison of the two birds, and for pointers on identification there’s lots of information out there.

Hunting habits aside, both creatures make excellent subjects for Chinese brush painting. With the keenest eyesight among birds, their eyes are rounded with a sharp black iris. Their beaks are stubby with a pronounced hook, and their talons– remarkably equipped for stabbing and grabbing prey—also catch an artist’s attention.

Furthermore, they perch strikingly on tall trees or rocks for long periods of time while sweeping the countryside for opportunities. With wingspans up to seven feet, their soaring and diving profiles are both distinctive and commanding.

No wonder poets and songwriters praise the eagle’s prowess. Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1851:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.


John Denver in the 1970s:

I am the eagle, I live in high country
In rocky cathedrals that reach to the sky

I am the hawk and there’s blood on my feathers

But time is still turning they soon will be dry
And all of those who see me, all who believe in me
Share in the freedom I feel when I fly

Come dance with the west wind and touch on the mountain tops
Sail over the canyons and up to the stars
And reach for the heavens and hope for the future
And all that we can be and not what we are

I found a fellow blogger self-identified as an ‘eagle nut’ and her posts are full of eagle lore, images, and stuff that guides my brush while painting eagles. Gotta love this techno world!


In her Bible of Chinese Brush Painting Jane Dwight notes that an eagle in a pine tree makes a great gift—the pine stands for longevity and the eagle for strength. My big book on Chinese symbolism goes further, and states the eagle represents heroic effort. Considering how popular the bird has been in heraldry—on shields, family crests, etc. in many cultures, the association seems to stem from their boldness and keen vision.

Among most indigenous North Americans the eagle is highly revered. The feathers are believed to hold special powers (curative, healing, and/or good fortune). It is said that the Creator chose the eagle as the master of the skies and a means of communicating with mankind. Since eagles fly higher and see better than other birds, they are considered to be closer to the Creator than any other Earth creature. It is believed that if one sees an eagle while praying or participating in a ceremony, prayers will be answered. The eagle is a symbol of power, leadership and prestige. It also represents wisdom since it flies high above the world giving it a broad perspective of everything. Its feathers or down represent peace and friendship.


My eagle studies were initially prompted by paintings of the acclaimed horse painter Xu Beihong. I couldn’t help but notice his lively eagle paintings when flipping through albums looking for his horses. He portrays solitary birds soaring in the empty sky or perched on pine branches.


Learning can come from strange places–an artist known for his horse paintings also did great eagles, a book on waterfowl held secrets to portraying the golden eagle’s sheen.

Then I tripped over some intriguing paintings of eagles by Li Kuchan wherein he exaggerated the hooked beak and stern eyes. His cormorants had been most inspiring with their exaggerated eyes and beaks, so I studied his eagles more closely to see what he did.

And I found some great heads in one of my general instruction books on birds and flowers, the Ling Mao Caochong Juan book shown above with the magpie on its cover.

Ever mindful of Bird Woman’s mantra, I turned to photos and bird books to check out reality. Raptors of the West captured in photographs by Kate Dunlop, Rob Palmer and Nick Dunlop already sat on my art room bookshelf. It is filled with many splendid photos and the captions reveal raptor facts to consider when painting eagles, golden or bald.

Special features of eagles:
1. The eye

The eagle’s eye is round as opposed to oval or almond shaped, and photographs show the feathers above the eye provide a brow or overhang. Depicting the eye with a straight line overlapping the top part of a circle seems to work best.


I found some excellent online information about  the eagle’s remarkable eyes and how they function.  One even shows the eye covered by the protective membrane, which gives it an eerie look. the site explains that the term ‘aquiline’ used to describe a person’s longish nose ending with a downturn or ‘hook’ is derived from the Latin family name for the golden eagle. The term originally was used to describe that glassy look of the eagle’s eye while the membrane was wiping the surface.

2.  feather sheen 

Even when you know how many feathers a real eagle has, artistically you may not show all of them; sometimes less is more. Striving to portray a golden sheen to the feathers of a Golden eagle is also desirable, but the bald (American) eagle has mostly chocolate brown feathers.

Painting strategy for eagle:

Minimal colors are required—several pools of light and medium ink, burnt sienna mixed with ink, dark ink, yellow for the eye, beak and talons. Some artists use bluish grey on the beak and feet. Head and feet details are outlined but the body is done using spontaneous style brush strokes.

You could outline the body shape with very light wash to help guide your feathers, keeping in mind that a female is slightly larger than a male. Using the burnt sienna mixed with ink helps suggest the Golden eagle’s distinctive coloring.

  1. Start with the beak and eye. Ling Mao’s style uses a line above the eye to indicate the brow overhanging the eye. He defines other beak and head features with a detail brush and dark ink. It is important to get the beak shaped with a sharp curving hook, and indicate the nostril. You want these lines crisp and dry looking.
  2. Dab in feathery strokes of medium and light wash to define the head. While damp, add darker dabs to achieve a mottled effect.
  3. Upper body. Wing feathers, tail feathers. Depending on your chosen pose, these parts require slightly different treatments. Work from the head down the body. Direct wing and tail feather strokes toward the body. Add darker dabs on the slightly dry under feathers to create dappled effect.
  4. Feet.       Outline with dark ink and then add color. Be sure to define tough looking toenails with sharp curved ends.       Eagles have four toes with three pointing toward the front and one back. All have the nasty claw-like toenails. Some have ‘hairy’ toes, so fluffy feathers at the ankles are in order.

In the Xu Beihong album a caption for his 1944 painting called “Airborne” offers insights:

The eagle is a predator whose threatening eyes best reflect its innate character. Striking features of the eagle are its looming posture and the intensity of its focus. The eagle looks ahead, searching for it prey. Its eyes are bright and piercing. The artist used a big brush, pressing, lifting and dabbing the side of the brush to portray the strength of the eagle’s large wings. The texture of its thick feathers is depicted with a variation of heavy ink and grey ink.

My studies:

I worked on heads one afternoon, striving to understand how the hooked beak looked from various angles and how to render ‘piercing eyes’.

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Then I tried a few with colors added.

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Quickly finding difficulty with the size of irises, the proportion of beak to head, the shape of heads, and the line thickness above eyes I spilled out the ink and washed my brushes. These birds were challenging! I decided a few more ‘heady’ days would be in order before I tried full-bodied birds. My inner critic also needed a reminder that I’d not studied eagles to the extent of other subjects (so, shush!)


And, as often happens in the art room, while feeling humbled by something as simple as the head of a bird, my escape behavior (flipping through resources) led to a pleasant discovery.

A recent purchase is Painting Waterfowls # 19 in the series Chinese Painting for Beginners from OAS. Artist Chien Shing-chien demonstrates numerous common waterfowl—herons, egrets, bitterns, avocets—and when he tackles the Purple Heron he shows TWO different ways to paint the feathers.

One he calls ‘flattened brush’ technique and the second is called ‘splashed ink’. Both result in interesting effects, the second yielding a lustrous silky finish to the bird’s exterior!   Now I have occasionally achieved a similar effect with the furry surface of cats or muscular bodies of horses, but Shing-chien’s brief notes AND great illustrations suddenly advanced my learning. It’s back to the art room for me….

Oh to be an eagle and simply determine your goal, then ‘seize by force’.







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

2 Responses to Flying high: painting eagle

  1. irene tull says:

    have seen a painting of a bald eagle zooming in for prey with Chinese writing. seems to sparkle. It is in a Chinese buffet.

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