I just love it when I’m on the hunt for something specific, say a bamboo grove, and my searching leads me to a website with other items (fine figures) that simply command my attention, things I would have looked for if I had known they existed. Recently I poked around all kinds of sites that carried artworks by Huang Yonguy, a contemporary Chinese brush master known for abstract herons and egrets among lotus. His large, free-flowing blue herons certainly got my attention. And so did his ‘winking owls’.
Here are two of my early attempts at emulating his owls:
Even though my main interest is the art, sometimes I can’t help but check out the context and stories associated with the artists. I mentioned in my post on the blue heron that Huang Yonguy was believed to be making a political statement with his trademark owl representing authority figures turning a blind eye to wrong doings. I tripped over one of his owl compositions showing six owls in a large tree, with several of them winking and blinking, and looking very somnolent. I saw them as owls doing what owls do: hanging out in the boughs of an evergreen, languorously leaning against one another, and occasionally opening one eye to scan the surroundings.
I do love owls—the barn owls we knew as children, the horned owls occasionally spotted hunting at dusk, the tiny burrowing owls at home in Manitoba’s Carberry Desert. And I have tried painting them. How shocked and saddened then, to learn that Yonguy was subjected to three-plus years of ‘hard labor’ by China’s Gang of Four in the early 1970s for his winking owl paintings! Right has triumphed over wrong to a degree: the artist now in his 90s paints on, while all four of his accusers are long gone. (For more about the controversy over his winking owl see here and for more on the gang of four see here.)
Owls in art and culture:
Most often associated with clandestine activities such as magic and witchcraft—they are nocturnal creatures after all—owls have inspired artistic endeavors for centuries. I own this wonderful book showcasing porcelain, stone, wood and soft-sculpture owls, some laden with jewels, feathers and other adornments. It is a compendium of owl-based art from around the world, chock full of inspiration.
Aboriginal people of the North American plains once wore owl feathers to protect them from evil spirits, and in Middle Eastern cultures the owl was seen as a sacred guardian of the afterlife. This site offers a lot of information about the owl in Japanese culture (where it is largely seen as a good fortune omen) and has some lovely photos to boot!
In China the owl is seen largely as a bad omen, its cry denoting an impending death. Of course that brings to mind one of my favorite novels focused on the Pacific North West, Margaret Craven’s The Owl Called My Name. She envisioned a story centred on the old superstition held by some Aboriginal peoples in Canada as well as across much of Europe, that certain owls call out at the time of a soul passing. After reading any of her work you can never hear an owl’s call in the dusk without a shiver up the spine.
Another book on owls I keep for reference relates that some ancient Chinese believed that individual owls were ‘soul-keepers’ for individuals, and hence people revered all living species of owls. Too bad such beliefs were not held in North America into this century, and then we wouldn’t be facing near extinction among burrowing owl populations and dwindling numbers of others.
In Renaissance England the hoot of an owl flying over one’s house was an evil omen, and meant impending death for someone inside. Shakespeare refers to the owl as the “fatal bellman” because it was the bellman’s job to ring the parish bell when a villager was near death. It was thus called the “passing bell,” and was a signal for all hearers to pray for the dying person. Scholars plumbing Shakespeare for such owl references find ample evidence of owl calls used to foreshadow a death. Here’s a blogger who has collected more than a few.
Oddly enough, the owl is not as popular a Chinese brush-painting subject as the eagle. I can only speculate as to why, surmising it has something to do with that nocturnal behavior and association with magic and bad luck. The eagle, with its highly visible weaponry—nasty beak, sharp talons—is a favored subject. Does anyone have any insights into that peculiarity? (Owls=not popular while Eagles=favored subject)
People do love owls:
Another owl resource book on my library shelf notes that the owl is probably the most recognized bird worldwide, because of its distinctive features: the large head, the stout body, the large eyes surrounded most often by feathered disc-shapes, and the manner in which it turns its head for auditory purposes. The author suggests the owl’s appeal is partly due to its human-like features—large eyes with drop-down upper lids, central beak sufficiently hidden in feathers so that it resembles a nose and looks less like the deadly weapon it is, similarly disguised talons looking more like toes, and so on. Its long time association with wisdom, learning and all things academic is believed to stem from the focused and penetrating stare bestowed on all who approach.
It’s been noted that the owl is probably the bird most known to children, largely due to its presence in so many children’s stories. It’s distinctive call (who-hoo variations) and its face dominated by large forward-peering eyes, often surrounded by feathery circles and accompanied by tufts (not ears, those are usually hidden in the facial feathers) also make for commonly known markers. Curiously though, when asked to rank birds by preference, people tend to place the penguin, flamingo, peacock, and others ahead of the owl; it simply cannot escape its association with impending death. Even the eagle enjoys greater human admiration than the owl, and yet the eagle’s predatory weaponry is more evident than that of the owl.
Just WHOoo is the Owl?
Owls generally belong to the family Strigiformes, with two main categories within, the Strigidae or true owls, and the Tytonidae, those we consider barn owls and recognize mostly by their heart-shaped faces. The latter have other anatomical differences from the true owls, but those faces are the most obvious. For more details about specific owls to be found in Asia consult this site called The Owl Pages.
Under the menu item Physiology (then hearing) on that site is further explanation of where owl ears are to be found, and again those ear-like tufts on some species are presented as ‘display’ features. The feathery discs surrounding an owl’s eyes actually aid hearing more so than seeing, serving to funnel sound waves into the owl’s auditory sensors on either side of his head.
With so many different kinds of owls having different feather markings, eye shapes, head tufting, and so on, for purposes of painting one should consult a reliable bird book. I must admit that I was so impressed by the loose style of Huang Yonguy that I did not grab my bird book when I first sat down to paint owls. His owls definitely looked ‘owlish’ to me, with all the right body parts in the right proportions and feathery surfaces. When I did check my reference books on owls, I was surprised to discover so many truly different feather markings among the numerous species. Rendering those could prompt many afternoons of experimentation with dry and wet brushwork, I’m sure.
Painting the owl
Jane Dwight includes a simple procedure in The Chinese Painting Bible for painting an owl; I’ve added tufts to her bird in the final step.
I also tried a ‘sketchier’ version demonstrated in one of Pauline Cherrettt’s teaching books. I liked the line work and the washes, but was uncertain as to the body shape. (Bird Woman’s advice to always consult a reliable bird book or a photograph came to mind as I put this one aside to dry. )
Here’s my technique for trying to emulate Huang Yonguy’s trademark ‘winking owls’.
- Out of habit I started with the eyes—two large circles painted in medium grey, with large black pupils. Those need to dry before you can color in the eye with an orange-yellow. To portray a winking or sleeping owl, indicate the closed lids with a dark horizontal line and then cover the eyelid with a bluish green.
- Using dark ink and a large orchid brush I dropped in the tufts, a few forehead feathers, and the beak.
- Returning to medium ink with the large brush I rounded out the sides of the head, wings at the sides, two stout legs.
- Feet and tail. Both of these were painted with dark ink, keeping the brush dry for the tail and making sure the toes had exaggerated talons.
- Chest feathers. These were done with a splayed dry brush using some light, some dark ink. I also filled in around the eyes, across the head and down the sides with medium ink to fluff out the full body. Yonguy used some indigo on his birds.
- Once the bird was finished I turned to filling in the surroundings: branches or a rock for perching. Yonguy seems to favor stick-like branches (to contrast with the fluffiness of the bird?) and moss dots that pick up the indigo in his feathers, or terracotta branches with black moss dots.
My Six Owls in a tree, in the manner of Huang Yonguy:
The progression of this composition from inspiration to completion was a fun experience, and benefited tremendously from art group critics.
The painting fits perfectly into a thick dark brown frame a friend gave me and is now ready for chopping. These little fellows are just like potato chips–you can’t stop at one! I’ve also found several more Yonguy owl paintings and may even take on the detailed feather work of the one featured in my owl book with wings spread to their fullest, almost five feet across.
Even the owl species unfamiliar to me hold appeal; just look at the feathers in this stocky guy.
These birds do have a way of ‘calling out’ without uttering so much as a peep, let alone a hoot.