When water will not flow, paint green heron

Sometimes when you have a goal in mind and the path you take to get there just seems to be less and less productive, the best course of action is to give it up. Yes, as Kenny Rogers would tell us, you simply ‘gotta know when to fold ‘em’.

While working on studies of the Great Blue Heron I encountered several dead ends. First off I couldn’t find a pose for the bird that didn’t seem cliché. It’s in his nature to stand perfectly still in an open spot, often on one leg, while fishing or hunting for other prey. And he fishes a lot. To me, the pose is simply overdone.

Then I developed ‘bad beak syndrome’—I couldn’t for the life of me get the GBH’s strong, pointy, dagger-like beak executed to satisfaction. And thirdly, my necks kept fattening out of proportion. My ‘blue period’ seemed to have come to a halt.

I did find the answer to a troubling question left hanging at one of Nenagh’s fine bird demos several months back: what is the difference between a bill and a beak? Someone called Owlet posted this great response, complete with visual.

Birds of prey and in general all those who strike or peck at their food have ‘beaks’ and all our smaller songbirds apparently have bills. Then there’s a bunch of oddities like crows, finches and sparrows, that fall in both camps.

In CBP unless you execute the beak and eye absolutely ‘spot on’ there’s no point in proceeding with the rest of the painting. So I did what needed doing, and sat down to practice, practice, practice

Beak studies and the GBH

A page in Painting Waterfowls by Ch’ien Shing- Chien was helpful.


He offered numerous outline sketches of various bird beaks: spoonbill, ibis, coot, avocet, purple swamp hen, and flamingo.


On another page he showed an outline for the colored stork with the line of the beak clearly leading to the position for the bird’s eye. His instructions however, were minimal: draw a bold outline sketch with charcoal.

While instructions fell short, the artwork certainly was telling. All of his cranes and herons sported crisply pointed beaks, clearly painted in single back-and-forth strokes. They were dagger-like. They meant business.

I also consulted my trusty Peterson’s field guide. And another nature sketchbook on my shelf drew attention to a bird’s gape, the line showing where its beak hinges. That certainly gets more attention when painting baby birds with their gawps open. Or maybe adult herons actually doing something other than standing still…could I paint one squawking?

That would be in keeping with the CBP principle of injecting some ‘noise’ into the picture. And Bird Woman had told me of spending endless hours watching several herons fishing together on a beach near her summer retreat. Research told me they do cohabit in ‘heronries’.   But now I was creating a bigger problem for myself—considering painting not one but several blue herons on one page. All those beaks to get right!

Green Heron to the rescue

The Painting Waterfowls book is jam-packed with all kinds of birds, some known and many previously unknown to me. A composition showing a green heron beside a waterfowl appealed to me for several reasons—the heron offered a different take on the ‘heron on one leg fishing pose’, the setting showed good rock and waterfall movement, and my research of the Green Heron led to some unusual poses for herons.

Could it be that Green Herons, being smaller than GBHs are more daring in their fishing methods? I found photos of green herons balancing precariously on reeds in acrobatic poses, stepping nimbly on to the back of a turtle, and splashing into unknown waters after some tasty morsel. These were photographs, so the poses were not ‘unlikely’. And the poses offered so much more character than the statue-like sentinel pose favored by the GBH. I followed the steps in Painting Waterfowl (excepting that I did do the eye and beak before the rest of the head) in my first effort:


Mr. Green appears to be a fine candidate for some mineral paint on his back. I could also crop the left for a less symmetric composition.

And then with green and rusty brown paint remaining in my dish, I went on to try the Green Heron in poses similar to my photo finds.

Here is Mr. Green about to step on a turtle


and here’s a simple head study (note: my beak is improving!)


I also tried posing Mr. Green precariously on a reed as per one of the photo finds. The legs aren’t quite right, but the beak is definitely getting more dagger-like.


What I learned:

Before returning Painting Waterfowls to my bookshelf I thumbed through the introduction to learn more about the artist. In the forward he cites an old Chinese proverb: without a source, the water will not flow. His observations pertained to the relevance of studying traditional CBP methods before moving ahead to original creations. But he could also be talking about bird beaks; without a good beak the bird simply doesn’t evolve.

I may not have painted a Great Blue Heron to my satisfaction, but did discover the Green Heron. And lo and behold a few pages away, Chi’en shows a Purple Heron. Just maybe I can sneak up on the Great Blue Heron with some color distractions.  With first the green and next the purple, can the blue be far behind?

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