Spreading peace, love and joy: painting peacock

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know I like stories that illuminate the spirit of the creatures I study. The older and more legendary the story, the more appealing it is for me.  Several gorgeous peacocks greeted us at a local lavender farm recently and  prompted me to consult my art books.


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The peacock, is probably the most striking and the most fabled bird of all time. Most legends concern its association with pride, its distinctive so-called “tail feathers” or its prowess at killing snakes. I found one blogger has already collected a host of such tales,  which made for delightful reading. My favorite story is one that explains how the peacock acquired its distinctive train feathers. See this link.

The tale ends by asserting the gift of a peacock feather spreads peace, love and joy. My CBP books claim it represents beauty, dignity, and high rank; it is also believed to ward off evil. That said, who wouldn’t want a peacock painting on their wall!

Primer on peacock:

Before delving into painting techniques I had to check out the bird’s anatomy. My first insight had to do with the peacock’s distinctive fan of brilliantly colored feathers: it’s NOT comprised of tail feathers, but is an appendage on his back that he allegedly uses in courting the ladies. Such a feathery construct would suggest to me the peacock is related to the Mandarin duck, which also has an unusual back appendage called a ‘sail’. I found no such proof or discussion.


This photo of a peacock posted in an art group forum on Facebook clearly shows the wing feathers with the collapsed ‘train’ lying along the bird’s back.

I learned there are primarily two species of peafowl in the genera Pavo. They both hail from Asia—the blue-headed or Indian peafowl (pavo cristatus) is originally from India and is designated the national bird; the green-headed peafowl (pavo muticus) is from southern Asia.

Oddly, both males and females of the green peafowl have brightly colored heads and feathers, whereas in the blue-headed variety, only the males sport the colors, with females presenting in drab brown-grey feathers. There is a third African species only found in the Congo Basin and aptly called the Congo peafowl, but it is not as widely known as the main two.

The exotic bird enthusiast who owned the lavender farm we visited had several peacocks strutting majestically through his meadows. He told us the white peacock is NOT an albino, but another species entirely. That recognition has only recently been made among ornithologists.


Both males and females of the green-headed one sport colored heads and the distinctive feathered train.

The function of the elaborate train on peacocks has generated much debate; Charles Darwin launched the ‘sexual attraction’ theory. Others have expounded on significance of the size, coloring, and number of ‘eyes’ in the fan. If only peacocks could talk!

What an artist needs to know:

Now knowing there are basically blue-headed (male only) and green-headed (both genders) peafowl, I’m not as confounded by different head or body colorings depicted in paintings. I suspect the authors of at least two of my books on painting peacocks were not fully up to speed on these facts, as one shows blue-headed birds with and without trains (hence falsely depicting the female as blue-headed) and the other shows pairs of green-headed ones, with the supposed female lacking a train. (Oh boy, do let me keep the coloring sorted out properly!)

The bird’s head is triangular-shaped with a short, pokey beak and eye markings. The head sports a tassel. The train that can be raised into a fan-like structure extends off its back; wings are often speckled with wispy bits trailing from the coverts. The peafowl’s feet are scaly-looking like most bird feet, with long toes showing toenails on the tips (three forward, one back).

I am glad to have lots of photos from our recent farm visit to help guide my studies.

Resources and methods:

Painting peacock is addressed in many general CBP books that include birds, likely because of the bird’s popularity. Jane Dwight includes it in The Chinese Brush Painting  Bible and so does Yang O-Shi in her Flowers and  Birds: a perspective. Birds depicted in both those books have muted tones which I find less appealing than colors used in some specialty books I found. (See below)

Artist Ng Yeesang is featured in The Art of Peacock Painting (the large format one on the right) and it was his birds I chose to emulate.


As one might guess, the peacock will consume large amounts of bright colors. It also takes careful consideration to choose an appropriate setting. Traditionally in CBP the bird is paired with peonies or placed on a tree limb, such that the bird’s spectacular train is displayed.


These close-up photos of real peacock feathers reveal train feather details.

As with any bird, starting with the beak and eye helps establish the bird’s nuance. Building the head and then neck and chest after that, works well. Sketching the body shape and array of feathers lightly is next. Then comes detailing of the head, chest and wings. The exotic feathers take several stages, starting with shading and definition of the ‘eyes’.

  1. Rough sketch outlines for your bird/s using very pale indigo/ink.
  2. Build up the sketch with a fine brush loaded with dark ink to show main head features such as eyes, tassels, markings; drop in details for body feathers (overlapping scallops), the main wing feathers that extend in arches, and horseshoe shapes for the eyes in the train.
  3. Continue to define the body feathers and the long feathers of the train. Each ‘eye’ on the train needs a dark ink ‘pupil’ with three concentric lop-sided ovals.
  4. Only when your inky under-painting is fully defined and you have shaded areas that will appear denser/darker, do you bring out the colors.
  5. Paint the (male) head first, a deep cobalt blue; consider using mineral paint on top. You can blend sky blue and indigo with the cobalt in your brush to suggest sheen to the short, bright feathers. Then treat each ‘eye’ to turquoise, yellow and orange markings. When the eye colors have dried, go over the whole train with shades of yellow-green, darker towards the feather ends. Any breast and wing feathers in sight should be shades of brown, orange, and grey.
  6. For a female bird, your sketch will NOT show a train. Her body should be slightly smaller than for a male, if you paint a pair. Her feathers are brown, grey, and orangey.

My first peafowl studies:


Wanting to define some of the fine details of the long train feathers with fine ink lines I played with using a horsehair brush on my Dragon Cloud paper.  I wasn’t too pleased with the subdued colors, but decided to try a full comp on that paper, hoping to bump up the intensity of the colors.  Here’s how my first few steps looked:


The female’s feathers need some tweaking as does the edge of the male’s train. I’m not happy with his wing treatment, but the foundation comp is worth finishing.


As I sat back to consider the end result (did the rock need more color? should I employ a background wash? etc.) I realized I had painted the female’s head blue, as it appeared in the Ng Yeesang book; I’m not certain that is totally realistic! Wasn’t it the green-headed peafowl that presented with colored heads on both genders and the blue-headed variety only had color on the male’s head?  My armchair critics raised no objections, so maybe I will glue it after all. (I’ll get it right on the next one!)

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

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