The whole bird: painting eagle

One summer I spent endless hours up a ladder scraping and sanding log siding at our cabin on Lake of the Woods. Some days I had a CD playing for distraction, but most often I relied on the almost continuous ‘chirping’ for food drifting down from a nearby eagle nest. Eaglets whistle for their dinner. And ma and pa fly back and forth, delivering the goods.

That pleasant sound echoes in my mind as I concentrate on trying to line up the feathers depicting a full-bodied adult bird. I recently acquired a CBP instruction book dedicated to eagles, and it features both Golden and American bald eagles. The book has pages and pages of posed birds and a dozen or more in settings. I am inspired!

Painting Strategy:

From the pictures I could see the artist (Hao Bang Yin) broke his painting into five steps:

  1. shoulders
  2. back, wing feathers
  3. tail feathers, then undercoating washes for beak, head and legs
  4. details on face (eyes, beak, head markings) and feet (four toes with sharp talons)
  5. extra black on beak, eyes, feathers, and claws to accentuate features; final tweaks to any feature and then create the setting (branch, rocks, pine, etc.)

Influenced by the bird painters around me (Bird Woman, Lotus, The Other Barb or TOB, who all learned from brush painting masters of considerable skill) I am inclined to start with the head and beak. Their testament that you’ve got to get the eye and beak ‘right’ or the whole bird is pointless seems valid. But with my new bird book before me, I decide to follow the steps and see what transpires. Perhaps the reasoning behind ‘shoulders first’ will divulge itself.  I suspect it has something to do with proportion.

Setting up:

Having at least three pools of ink washes (light, medium and dark) prepared in advance is helpful. That way you avoid adjusting ink colors as you load a brush. One of my bird books suggests beginners work with a brush on the dry side, given that a wetter brush is trickier to judge in terms of how wide/long your strokes will be when they settle. To get a lively look to your birds you want the feathers created with single quick strokes, not a lot of messy dabbing.

Color requirements are simple—a little gold for the eye, beak and feet (some like to use indigo on the feet), a burnt sienna wash to apply over your Golden eagle once he’s feathered in, and greens for pine or other setting elements.

A key thing with eagle features is to slightly exaggerate the business parts; the beak and claws are best over-painted at the end with blackest ink to accentuate their nasty curved tips. Nenagh always reminds us when doing birds to run a similar darker line of ink along the bottom of their feet to enhance the solidity of their stance. In flight birds may look airborne, but when perched on land or limb you want then to look firmly weighted down.

Here are my study sheets, steps one through four, scanned in sequence after I completed the stage. (Hao Bang Yin showed a new sketch for each of his steps, instead of building up the bird and capturing an image after each step; reading his steps was therefore a bit challenging.)

Step One:  Considering the bird’s shoulders from behind, the first strokes are put down in a circular fashion, darker along the upper shoulder edges.


Step Two:  Leaving an arc of  ‘white’ space below the shoulders, you define the two wings with strokes directed toward the tail, using darker ink than was used in the shoulder area.  The wings are done with a first arc of shorter strokes, and a second arc of longer strokes; I noticed the wings seemed to be defined by three strokes each.  My strokes are running together a little more than they should, but I’ve kept the separation of white, and have achieved some tonal variation.


Step Three:  Using lighter ink, an under-painting of wash is stroked in for the beak, the top of the head, and the neck.  Notice the white space left behind the beak for placement of the eye. Broader strokes are dropped in below the closer wing in a series of overlapping lines, to depict the leg.


Step Four: Using a detail brush and darkest ink the outlines for the beak, eye, top of the head and the neck feathers were all painted over the sightly damp wash.


Step four (showing the color):  At this stage my artist also tweaked his overall birds with a few dabs of color in the legs, some dark lines in the wing and back feathers, and a few dabs of light wash to bridge across the white arc left below the shoulders.


Still pondering the brush work and shaping of the eagle body, I did not add setting elements. I went on to paint several more individual birds in the same pose, trying to get more variation in tonal values, and keep my feathers distinguishable as individual feathers, not masses of dark ink.  On my third bird, I noticed an improvement; here he is:



  1.  Thanks to some tips from Bird Woman and a coffee break spent with a few bird books, I’m gaining a better understanding of bird bodies.   The shoulders on an eagle can be more angular than rounded; one of Hao Bang Yin’s illustrations of the above pose looks very triangular (base across the shoulders).
  2. The eagle’s facial features did look more dynamic when the outlines went OVER top of the slightly damp washed areas.  It can be tricky to plan just where the white space for the eyeball should go.
  3. Laying the dark strokes into the eagle’s neck while wet resulted in the right kind of scruffy feathered look.  His body done with the bigger brush and overlapping strokes did seem covered in glossier feathers.
  4. I think I’m ready to move on to planning for an overall ‘golden’ wash and setting elements.  Lucky for me this new book has tons of eagle poses to choose from.
  5. I’m thinking the ‘shoulders first’ allows for the placement of the washes for beak, head and neck such that they blend into the dried shoulders, AND that the addition of facial details with dark ink INTO the slightly damp wash contributes to the animated look of the bird.  Could you get that animated look doing the whole head first? Probably. But if you paint head first and add shoulders, do you get the same look as Yin does with head AFTER shoulders? Hmm….will have to return to these thoughts once I’ve done some more.



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