All in the eyes: painting sparrow

Shuttlecocks. That’s what many of the sparrows appearing in Chinese brush paintings look like to me—just extremely round heads with a trailing splay of feathers. Their heads are too big for their bodies. Sorry, I don’t think the effort to capture the spirit of the bird with such portrayals is working.

Sparrows have long been a favorite choice to paint with willow or bamboo, probably right back to the Song dynasty when the bird-and-flower genre was invented. They are indeed a cheerful little bird, one that twitters and hops around a lot. They also seem to throw themselves into the breeze for the sheer fun of it. They are painted perched on branches or rocks, usually in pairs or groups, and often airborne just after lift-off or just before landing. Those last two postures take some understanding.

I’ve been looking at a lot of old and newer paintings that feature sparrows and I’m not certain who decided they should be painted so ROUND, and ill proportioned. Generally, sparrows are small, plump, brown-grey birds with short tails and stubby, powerful beaks. (They actually have an extra bone in their tongue to aid in picking up seeds.)

What does draw my attention in sparrow painting is the eye treatment. There seems to be two basic ways of portraying them—one involves an outlined oval with a central black pupil (which can also be enhanced with a white highlight), and the second is to use a simple black round dot.  I’ve tried both methods as shown in these two small studies..

SparrowStudyRB  SparrowStudyYB


About the bird:

The differences between sparrow species can be subtle. Members of this family range in size from the chestnut sparrow (Passer eminibey) at about 4.5 inches long to the parrot-billed sparrow (Passer gongonensis) at about 7 inches. A fellow blogger named Jennifer Stone has a post dedicated to differences between two common varieties—the tree sparrow (Passer montanus) and the house sparrow (Passer domesticus). She includes lots of details as well as distinguishing photos here.

Sparrow folklore:

For a seemingly small and ordinary-looking bird, the sparrow has certainly amassed a range of significant meanings to mankind from different cultures and in different times. One flying into the house in my grandmother’s day meant an impending death in the family. In Greek mythology the sparrow was associated with the love goddess Aphrodite and deemed a symbol of true love.

The Indonesians saw the sparrow as a good luck omen, portending everything from imminent rain to fortune in love. According to the ancient Egyptians, sparrows would catch the souls of the recently deceased and carry them to heaven. Sailors often acquired sparrow tattoos in hopes the image would thus carry their souls to heaven should they be lost at sea.

Chaucer and Shakespeare both relied on the sparrow as symbols of lust and lecherous behaviour. My reading also revealed that sparrows were sold as food in Elizabethan times, and of course biblical references abound, mostly exploiting the sparrow’s small size to show heavenly regard for even the tiniest of creatures. Others employ the sparrow as symbolic of pious behaviour, hope, fertility and resurrection.

One surprise to me was discovering a tale from the brothers Grimm that exploited the cleverness of a sparrow to illustrate the triumph of goodness over evil in a rather graphic manner. It reads more like an Aesop’s fable.

In China the sparrow was supposedly a candidate for the national bird, losing out to the much larger and perhaps more exotic, red-crowned crane. Sparrows were perceived as a symbol of humility, their feathers being simple and relatively unadorned. For many, the fact this species of bird would rather starve itself to death than be bred in captivity showed great spirit. Together with their symbolic associations of strength, vitality and perseverance, it was thought that this would make the sparrow an appropriate symbol of the Chinese people — despite the fact that Mao Zedong attempted to eradicate sparrows in the 1950s.

Painting the sparrow:

Until recently I had few resources addressing sparrow painting that I liked. As mentioned, several artists render these little birds in a plump manner with ill-shaped bodies and wings. (Even worse, the wings are sometimes curved concave; cute they may be to some viewers, but how they fly with wings caved in boggles the mind.)


Many good bird books will include outline sketches (such as those shown below) to illustrate the correct ratio of head to body size and suggest postures for painting.


A rather basic book on bird-and-flower painting I picked up on eBay doesn’t name the bird illustrated in their simple step-by-step instructions, but it can only be a sparrow based on the images. It is shown on the left below:


The book on the right, which addresses several birds commonly used in CBP, is the one I used as a guide for sparrows with black dot eyes.


(TIP: Delightful Lotus admired the book for its several pages of kingfishers, but discovered the treatment of bird feet was not always accurate. One has to consider all resources critically and trust your own “creature knowledge”.)

It was an online resource that I used for the study based on outlined eyes. The artist also employs distinctive spotting on the bird’s back. His tutorial can be found here.  His manner of painting the eye certainly adds to the expressiveness of his compositions. Here’s my study again, but do check out the video which shows five on a branch.


My preferred sparrow characteristics:

–expressive eyes, yellow on the eyeball for contrast

–sharp beak

–spotted back feathers

–a head to body size ratio close to realistic

–wings curved naturally (not concave in flight, puh-lease!)

How to paint my ideal sparrow:

  1. Eye and beak—using a detail brush dipped in black ink paint a black pupil within an eye outline. A straight line across the top of the eye helps contribute to a focused appearance; leaving white or adding a white highlight after the pupil is dry also helps yield a piercing stare to the gaze. Strive for a short, sharp beak executed with a firm stroke. Train your eye to ‘see’ where the bird’s eye should be placed relative to the beak—behind and slightly above the ‘gape’ line. When dry, add yellow mixed with burnt sienna or a minute amount of ink so the eyeball really stands out. Raggedy Bird artist Neil Armstrong mentions white will also have the same effect, but I prefer the dull yellow.  I made this quick sketch to show how placement of the pupil can alter the bird’s look:


  1. Head and body (upper back)—using a larger soft brush loaded with dark brown touch the brush to the paper and ‘plant’ a stroke for the head. It takes practice to control the moisture and color in the stroke. Some blurring of the edge is okay, but you want the pointy part that will be ‘forehead’ to hold the darkest color to the stroke. You place this stroke with the ‘prow’ aimed in the direction the bird is facing. The body lies behind the head, is made with one large and maybe two smaller strokes on either side with a ‘wipe’ stroke that may be slightly curved to convey the roundness to the bird’s body. You are not filling in the entire back of the bird, just suggesting the fullness of the shape and allowing a viewer’s eye to pick up the overall sense of the bird. You want these strokes made quickly and confidently. Again, it takes some practice to get the moisture level, color placement, and ‘swish’ just right.

The bodies on these three turned out a deeper indigo than I intended, but their postures are useful to try again. This trio is on the cover of my general bird book mentioned earlier and I love  that head-on pose on the far right.

  1. Wings, lower body and tail. Using a lighter brown for the under body, and dark ink or really dark brown for the wing tips and tail seems to provide good contrast to your sparrow. Depending on whether your bird is perched or flying, you may have to define more wing feathers. Yang O-shi’s book Bird and Flower Painting offers six poses of the sparrow perched (sitting) that are very useful to learn; she also offers several in-flight poses for practice. In some of the compositions in the same book her sparrows have open beaks and appear to be ‘speaking’ to each other.
  2. Legs, feet and back dotting. Paint the legs and feet with the detail brush dipped in dark ink. The sparrow clutches on to branches with three toes forward and one pointing to the back. In flight, the legs hang loosely below the body, angled by the air draft with toes slightly curled as well. The artist at Raggedy Bird touches up his sparrow body outlines, adding feathery bits at the beak, the top of legs and along outline edges. He also sprinkles dark dots across the sparrow’s back topped up with white paint. These final touches contribute significantly to the character and spirit of his birds.


  1. Although the eye painted as an outlined oval with a black pupil is striking, sometimes the eye done as a simple dark dot can be effective.
  2. Getting the eye placed properly with respect to the gape line, that being the break between a bird’s upper and lower mandibles, is getting easier for me.
  3. Rendering a sharp little sparrow beak with a single stroke takes practice. Moisture level, the precise curve, length and speed to the stroke all must be ‘just right’.
  4. Painting sparrows in bamboo requires planning and coordination of TWO creative processes—the birds plus the bamboo. A simpler setting that can be roughed in after the birds are finished is easier to execute.
  5. A single sparrow (or maybe two?) with head cocked just so, eyes brightly focused on something, and body poised for action, can make a nice little scene.

One comp I was sort of pleased with; for little birds they are a BIG challenge!

Now that I’ve studied sparrows more fully in order to try and capture their essence on paper, I can see why they might be considered as ‘soul-catchers’. They do move about busily and seem to be aware of every movement in their immediate surroundings. Animated, perky, and energetic—they truly are all these things. That they could sense the passing of a soul is entirely credible, but I question they’d stay ‘on task’ long enough to carry one to its destination. I’d be more inclined to trust my soul to one of the big water birds. Just look at the steady wing beats and determined stare of a heron, cormorant, or pelican as they take off across a stretch of water. Sparrows flit. Soul-carrying strikes me as much too serious a business for such a little bird.

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