Sentinel of the swamp: great blue heron

For years a highlight of my working week was heading to the lake on Friday night or early Saturday morning. One of the things I most looked forward to was spying our lakeside ‘greeter’, usually perched on one leg on a small marshy hummock just around the same bend in the off-road from highway to waterfront home. Much like the famous Walmart greeters, ours wore blue! He was a handsome Great Blue Heron. And his consistent appearance in that marshy corner of the off-road clearly said ‘welcome to my wild, folks; have a good weekend’.


This fine fellow was spied on a recent walk enjoying some early spring sunshine.

My study of CBP has largely been whim-driven; I go where the brush wants to go. I’ve wanted to paint herons, and have tried my hand at a few compositions, but with little satisfaction. The long neck wouldn’t curve just right, and I found posing him in profile was all too common. He is a popular painting subject for western and oriental artists alike. While entirely accurate, such poses come across to me as still and somewhat ‘waxen’. The bird’s spirit is not often apparent.

Then recently while hunting for a composition of lotus, some striking blue herons leaped out at me.


Beautiful Summer by Huang Yonguy 2002

A contemporary CBP master in China named Huang Yong-guy (also Yongyu) is largely self-taught and paints herons, cranes and owls in a most distinctive style described in several places as ‘abstract expressionism’.

Look at his work here

and learn more about the man here.

His owls appear comical, almost cartoonish, and yet have great appeal. They also allegedly were devised with a sociological message in mind; their ‘one-eye-closed’ presentation supposedly is critical of a corrupt government that turns a blind eye to certain activities. Now really, he could be just a cute little bird whose likeness sells well, couldn’t he?


Huang’s herons, egrets and cranes are all painted large and loose, with stylized feathers, necks and feet. The eyes are exaggerated black dots in yellow orbs, the wings and feet are thrown akimbo in dynamic poses, and the lotus settings are charged with vivid red flowers and mineral green splotches. His herons are loaded with feathery appeal; they are alive.


This composition by Huang Yonguy had my art group buzzing; the style held great appeal for many.

I had to try painting heron in the manner of Huang. But to paint in this style, you truly need to know the bird. Huang’s details may be exaggerated, yet they are true to the bird.

What is the Great Blue Heron?

He is a ‘stately’ bird says my trusty field guide. And he can be found at riverside or in marshes, usually standing quite motionless, scanning his surroundings for prey. The distinctive grey-blue plumage and relative size contributed to his name, I would guess. In flight the GBH’s profile is also distinctive—he pulls his neck back to form a tight S-curve, and lets his long legs trail behind.

He is the largest of the North American herons and has a significant wingspan as well as black swipe through his eyes and into the head area. The dagger-like beak is useful in spearing fish or gophers, and when thus motivated he moves with lightening speed. So that statue-like appearance hides a coiled-spring of powerful bird muscle. More about the bird can be found here.

How to pose him?

I think it’s because so many artists have painted the bird, and most of those paintings do depict him in that same statue-like pose, that I thus far had resisted painting him. How does one capture the essence of this fine specimen, yet stand out from the crowd. Painting him with wings spread would be interesting, but also challenging because of all the feathers.

My CBP library yielded three resources of interest:

  1. Painting Water fowls by Chi’en Shing-chien. This book includes a host of water birds found in Asia and all have bodies similar to our Great Blue Heron. Chi’en paints in outline and boneless styles throughout, tending to create expressive eyes, beaks, and plumage. He includes excellent step-by-step instructions for herons, cranes, ibis, egret, storks, as well as many smaller shore birds. There’s even a section on composition with lots of tips as to creative placement of these typically long-legged and long-necked birds.
  2. An introduction to Chinese Painting by Danny Han-lin Chen. His version of the blue heron leans more to the realistic, and following his steps is helpful if you want that look.
  3. I also had some fine illustrated notes from a Nenagh Molson workshop.


And given my recent research into Huang Yonguy, I had several dozen examples of his work with egrets, cranes and herons. Once I got into exploring his compositions I realized one could adapt any Chinese brush painting illustration for cranes rather easily, and so I pulled out my files and books on painting crane.

Learning about the great blue heron:


I discovered a host of silhouettes of herons in flight, landing, taking off, and standing on one or two legs at a royalty-free site called shutterstock. These seemed extremely useful in understanding how the neck muscles worked, how the feathers collapsed to form a hunched-back look, how the wings spread, and so on.


I spent some time just sketching these shapes with a charcoal pencil on Moon Palace paper.Then I moved on to some hasty compositions of herons in flight and standing still, just to familiarize myself with the bird’s shape.

Bird Woman offered some ‘keepers’ from her files: photos of Harry (the Heron who lives in Beacon Hill Park) and other no-name herons in flight. For more about Henry/Harry and his heron mates see this site.  I’ve only seen Harry high in a tree but he has posed by the pond for other local bird-watchers.


Bird Woman also regaled me with tales of lazing away hours near her summer retreat watching whole heron flocks fishing in the ocean. That would be a LOT of necks and beaks to get right, twice as many wings to feather out in the right directions. I actually scoured online images for heron flocks. I found even photographers seemed to prefer single birds as subjects.

I decided to simply try the heron pair Nenagh had used in a recent workshop, one from the Painting Waterfowl book. In the end I didn’t get past doing one of the pair.

Order for painting:

Painting a GBH should follow the usual bird-painting regimen—eye and beak, then one-stroke head (for moku style), followed by neck and back feathers, continue with wings, body and finally tail; then with careful attention to the ‘line’ from beak to tail, paint in the legs and feet. With heron, as with rooster, be sure the feet are flat, not on tippy-toe.

1. As with any creature I started with the eyes, then added the beak. It’s important to get the right shape to a spear-hunting bird’s beak, and to position the eye behind the beak with an appropriate ‘gape’ (that line at the hinge of the beak). The GBH has a tiny round black eye inside a circle, with a yellow beak. For artistic purposes, the eye can (and probably should) be exaggerated in size.


One should practice strokes to the left and to the right; you can also turn your paper about 90 degrees to position the ‘down-right’ beak if you can only master the stroke horizontally.

Nenagh reminded us that one could convey a considerable range of emotions in birds depending on where in the eye you place that black dot.


Once I had the stroke somewhat ‘mastered’ I started a full bird:


The master painter Li Kuchan (1899-1983) developed great skill in painting birds with a wide range of expressions. You can study some of his examples here or here.

His albums are filled with compositions of eagles, herons, and other birds; this classic shows up in numerous albums or instruction books.  Just look at that eye!


2. As per Nenagh’s approach, I roughly sketched the GBH’s shape with very light indigo/ink: head, neck, upper body, wings and tail. I dropped in the facial black mask. and added color to the beak and legs.

gbhstep2 gbhstep3

3. While checking a brush loaded with indigo and tipped in dark ink, I discovered how I wanted to feather my bird.


Getting the moisture level just right on an orchid brush so that the stroke blended only slightly and didn’t disappear into a blur once pressed to the paper proved tricky.

gbhstep4 gbhstep5

While I was working on herons, more photos of Henry aka Harry showed up in a local art show. Bird Woman suggested a nesting pair with chicks, and a neighbor showed me a marvelous life-like carved bird she had purchased on Wolf Island, located across from Kingston, Ontario.

It wasn’t for lack of ideas that I wasn’t zeroing in on a heron to call my own. Then, while rifling through art books in my library, I tripped over an artist describing how she injected more radiance into her traditional watercolor bird paintings: she applied washes over feathers done with an ink pen.

Very much like Chinese brush painting, I thought. I turned the page.

And there was a pair of great blue herons facing off in courtship ‘bobbing’. I liked the pose. Her necks weren’t quite right (too fat like some of my early ones), but the interaction between birds was inspiring. Painting two was likely easier than taking on a fishing flock. The wing feathers and even the feet would not require much attention as in most fishing poses. And furthermore, the full side profile (an easier envisioning) would have more impact than an angled view.

The Painting Waterfowls book is filled with a range of oriental birds related to our GBH—egrets, cranes, ibis. As I thumbed through the pages I realized the settings contributed a lot to the impact of the comps. Then I noticed that I could easily alter the birds in those comps—flatten the head, add a black swipe and wispy topknot, elongate the neck, add blue plumage—and thus have a GBH painting. Aha, I could make by GBH more distinctive than the typical statuesque profile pose. So I played a bit with the layouts. BUT, would a GBH really be seen under banana leaves? This is when a classic Japanese screen painting of a white egret against a willow tree came to mind.


In this screen painted by Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858) it is hard to say which grabs your attention most, the bird or the willow.

Another comp from the book that held appeal showed a no-name oriental heron fishing behind a swath of bamboo. I gave it a quick brushing on to paper. Would our GBH be seen next to bamboo?

The other Barb (TOB) suggested he could plausibly be fishing in Brentwood Bay next to our Butchart Garden….

It matters not, the paintings had merit; it was time to take one through to completion.

Here is my first composition showing three great blue herons in willow.  These are painted in outline style posed in the manner of Li Kuchan and I think they merit gluing.


Before putting the paints away for the day, I started another comp of a heron in moku (boneless) style.  The head and neck worked out okay, but too much water messed up the body.  He holds promise for another day.


This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, great blue heron, how to paint birds. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sentinel of the swamp: great blue heron

  1. jasneskis says:

    Fantastic as always. I appreciate your effords to show, educate and encourage other painters.

    • Thank you! I am so lucky to be part of TWO art groups from which I gain a lot of knowledge, inspiration and encouragement. Thanks to technology it’s possible to do much the same via the Internet. Bottom line, though, is that I am a lifelong scribbler and by gathering together notes and ideas, practice pieces, etc. I mentally acquire a mindset that helps direct the painting. Happy painting to you too!
      The Rat

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