Painting bitty birds in a flock

‘Not walking in those shoes’ I say to myself as I pass by all those stacks and racks of adult coloring books popping up in stores like puffballs on the lawn after rain.   My granny’s advice not to judge another until I’ve walked a mile in their moccasins goes by the wayside when I see the trappings of this latest fad. Mindfulness achieved through coloring in blanks? De-stressing, unwinding, Zen-finding?

I shouldn’t be so disdainful. After all, I aim for all those things in almost daily dabbling in ink marks on paper myself. What I can relate to is the obsessiveness of the activity. There always seems to be some new aspect that is totally captivating.   The simple placement of eye dots on paper as a starting point for painting a flock of birds that will be artfully ‘arranged’ and inter-connected when done, is my latest inspiration for hours in the art room.


This surprising little secret to a pleasing placement of birds in a group was part of a recent workshop, courtesy of artist/mentor/friend Nenagh Molson. She had whizzed through the basics on painting birds—the order of parts; the shapes to eyes, beaks/bills, bodies; ways to check alignment; guides to color values for body parts; perching and flying tips; mixing wet and dry strokes; variations on feather and claws; how to convey expression or mood; when to dot the eye. And then she took up a new piece of paper and carefully set down half a dozen similar-sized round black dots. Then she took a small detail brush dipped in dark ink and defined beaks for each of the dots/eyes. (Yes, in traditional bird painting you do the beak first and then place the eye—‘behind and above’ is the rule of thumb—and move on to a one-stroke head.)


Steps one and two are done: dot in eyes, add beaks.

Then she loaded her brush (a medium soft brush) and wiped off the excess water. She proceeded to stroke in bird heads. Some of them ‘bloomed’ a bit, and she explained the catch-22: a soft wolf brush loaded will last long enough to do all of the heads in most flocks, but the moisture level is harder to control. You’d like them to all end up similar in tone/color so a single load is desirable. A stiffer brush will be less of a challenge water-wise, but then achieving similar tones becomes a concern.



Steps three, four and five done: heads, bodies, details are added

She went on to defining the backs for each of the little birds. At this stage it became very obvious the placement of the eye dots was NOT random. In keeping with the principle of comprising a large number of creatures (shrimp, birds, fish for example) of several linked groupings of different sizes (three groups of two, three, and four respectively, for a total flock of nine is one such plan) her dots, once furnished with beaks, heads, and bodies, revealed the smaller groups within the whole.

Placing the beaks determines which direction the birds are looking—up, down, left, right, forward, away. And as the bodies go in, your bitty birds should overlap, some coming forward while others go behind. You might have a loner off to himself; just give him an appropriate nuance. (And you can convey gender, in a very subtle way perhaps only noticeable to a bird-watcher: boys are slightly larger than girls.)

Simply wetting the brush used for the backs softened the color enough to do breasts and bodies. We noticed Nenagh was using a mix of indigo with black for darker body parts, and a burnt sienna/orangey-brown for the lighter feathers. For little birds, single strokes can convey full bodies. With a detail brush in dark ink (mixed with indigo) wings and tails went in across the flock. Similarly the little feet were defined with quick line strokes.

At this stage one usually moves on to setting elements. Nenagh had a composition showing a flock of quail among banana leaves on the display board.


This flock has three sub-groups (one, three, one) with interactions between them

It was now clearly obvious she had painted it using the ‘dot-plotting’ technique just demonstrated. There were more than a few ‘Ahas’ around the art room as she pointed that out.

My own dot-plotting studies:

The very next time in an art room I simply had to try this technique. I pulled two suitable compositions from my files to act as a guide. One had a sprig of plum blossom above four birds on a rock. (I could continue to explore plum blossoms as well!) I observed the delicate blossoms contrasted with the angled rocks; I could make them in blue to contrast further with the orange-brown rock faces.



I’ve placed eye dots on the paper



Beaks are placed so that the eye is behind and above an imaginary extension of the beak line.


I had to widen some of them; one stroke was not doing it. Bird woman reminded me later that bird heads are not round, but somewhat flattened. I tried to get backs and bodies painted in. Then I dropped in the tails, wings and finally feet, and lastly the setting elements.



My first composition done from an ‘eye dots’ starting point

Reflections on dot-plotting and bird-painting:

1.  You have to really think about the dot placement, considering which direction you’ll point each bird and which ones are snuggled in a smaller group within the whole.

2.  Single dots for eyes are okay, but dots within inky circles seem to yield more expressive birds.

3.  The fun of following a formula and seeing where it takes you adds to the creativity yet pushes you to finish the composition. Too often beginning artists tend to have over-active inner critics and they scrap compositions before finishing.  More experienced artists will heed the critic yes, but then step back and consider ways to adjust what’s happening on the paper.  Knowing how to extend a too-thin stroke, how to hide a boo-boo with a bug or branch, or perhaps simply how to crop a painting and frame a smaller portion of it are all ways to salvage work not proceeding quite as planned.

This small demo within a larger workshop on painting birds led to many happy hours in the art room and numerous discoveries.  To think it all stemmed from a ‘connect-the-dots’ parlour trick was surprising.  I now look at all bird paintings quite differently.





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