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Bird painting techniques from Mustard Seed Garden

Part of a series of articles on painting techniques from ‘Mustard Seed Garden’ manual and encyclopedia of chinese painting.

Flower and Bird are always popular subjects for Chinese painting students. In our previous posts, we have introduced quite a lot of tips regarding how to paint flowers. In today’s post, we will follow Chinese artist Wu Peng 吴蓬 to learn bird painting techniques from Mustard Seed Garden.

Cover Picture

Golden Pheasant and Cotton Rose Flowers by Emperor Huizong of Song (7June 1082 – 4 June 1135), personal name 赵佶 Zhao Ji. Emperor Huizong is so famous for his flower and bird paintings that no one can ignore him when talking about Chinese art history. Inkston once published one post about him. If you want to know more, please click and read: Emperor Huizong of Song and His Work of Art.

Materials Preparation

Xuan Paper: Expert Flower and Bird Xuan Paper, Extra Fine Flower and Bird Xuan Paper.

* We recommend you to learn painting with raw Xuan papers. If you find it is difficult to paint with raw paper, you can also try to start with half-cooked Xuan paper. However, please never try to paint on newspaper when you are just a beginner. Knowing well how the Xuan paper works with ink and brush is essential for you to learn Chinese painting.

For professionals and people who would like to go for the top Xuan papers to reach the best painting effects, we recommend Inkston Perfect Series Xuan Papers.

Brush: 0903Ws Gongbi detail “Flower brush”, 0903WsWl Traditional White Cloud Brush, 0901WsWl Traditional White Cloud Brush, 0200WsWl large Combination brush. If necessary, you can also consider to keep a set of Gongbi detail LangHao wolf brushes.

Small White Cloud 0903WsWl brush works fine for all level painters. This brush is made with very fine natural animal hairs. If you feel like, you can also prepare one more 0903Ws Flower Brush for small tiny details. The 0903Ws brush is especially helpful for painting details such as beaks, small hairs, tiny feet etc.

Ink: If you are experienced with bird paintings, we would recommend you to try fine pine soot ink which produces fine deep black colour and amplifies the fine details of hairs. For beginners when you are not very familiar with traditional Chinese handmade find inks, we would recommend you to start with some very affordable handmade pine soot inksticks such as Yellow Mountain Pine Soot Inkstick which is a very classic student pine soot inkstick. We like using black ink and cinnabar (or cinnabar red) a lot to painting birds. Have these two inks ready beforehand is very helpful. And deep indigo is also widely used when painting bird, especially it is a classic colour to paint crane’s long beaks.

Techniques to Review:

  • Five Colours of Black Ink, see how Chinese artist Wang ZiRang talks about ‘five colours of ink’ 墨分五彩. French artist Eric Marié also made some very good suggestion on how to learn this important Chinese painting technique: five grades of ink.


  • Learn how to use brush to ‘break strokes’ to depict special tiny detailed hairs. For example, use 0903Ws brush and paint with dry (light or dark) black ink. Lightly apply the dry brush on paper to paint some tiny hairs.


  • We also highly recommend you to practice some Chinese regular script. This helps very much to control your brush freely. For example, Yan ZhenQin and Zhao MengFu are the two classic calligraphers whom we refer to mostly for regular script.
  • Lastly but almost the most importantly, observe birds by looking at various birds photos or spend one weekend with family and friends in village to look how birds enjoy their lives. If possible, bring your sketch book to make some rough sketches of birds, and/ or write down some of your observations.

Key points to keep in mind

  1. Generally speaking, if the bird has a short beak then it would probably have long tail, and vice versa;
  2. Try not to paint bird bigger than their real size, unless it is really needed; otherwise you might find the bird turns into a goose.
  3. When painting feet, try to paint it like you write Chinese regular script if you are a Chinese painting beginner.
  4. Many birds have some reddish feather on head. Use cinnabar or cinnabar red instead of red pigments since cinnabar/ cinnabar red matches perfectly with pine soot black colour.
  5. When ink is try, the colour is lighter than when it is wet. Therefore, you might need to add extra black ink to the areas which need to be dark black when dry.

Bird Painting Instructions:

Step 1: eye. Don’t paint it as a circle. The eye will help position the whole picture. To be more specific, you can start with the upper eye lid.

Step 2: position beak according to the position of eye. Similar to painting eye, start with upper part of the beak. Remember to add small short hairs on the upper beak if the type of the bird you paint has such feature. Lower part of the beak normally has lighter-coloured tiny hairs. Nevertheless, this is not a strict rule. The purpose is to make the beak fine and well-structured.

Step 3: upper head.

Step 4: lower part of head and neck.

*Tip: make balance of strong and light black ink. refer to 5 blackness. 

Step 5: wings. Paint short feathers first and then add long hard feathers.

Step 6: tail. Paint with light dry ink to depict the details of tail. Then use strong black ink to paint long tails. Start with strong black ink but use light black ink for details.

Step 7: feet. Paint feet like you do regular script if you are a beginner; otherwise, please do not restrain your creativity.

Step 8: standpoint. This mostly means tree branch or anything which the bird is resting on.

*Tip: if the brush is dry then try to paint slowly. This will create a very fine effect and pass strength smoothly to paper.


Below is artist Wu Peng’s tutorial video clip which has demonstrated how to paint birds of different gestures. We have listed specially locations of different subjects and have also made some short notes of the video clip to help you locate better when watching it.

(21:40 – 26:00): how to paint feathers? 

Please use small detailed hair brush, such as 0903ws pure weasel brush. Follow the same steps of bird painting: eye, beak, hairs near eyes, upper part of head, lower part of head, neck… and end up with feet. Bear in mind: keep light ink, deep black ink well balanced. For beginners, practice painting fine feathers is very useful because this will further help you paint other styles of Chinese painting.

(26:57 – 35:45): How to paint crane?

Use big paper and big brush. Brush: long pointed brush. For example Red Star Long Pointed brush. Use dry ink to paint eye. Be aware not to paint it round. When painting neck, not to paint the line too straight, instead, paint the line like they are a string of small dots. When painting feet, remember the techniques you have learned about painting bamboos. They are very similar.

The red head of the crane is cinnabar red. You can try it with cinnabar inkstick mixed it with red colour. Or you can use cinnabar red paint. The beaks are colored in hua qing. You can add a bit yellow colour un the bottom of the crane eye. This colour can help balance

(35:50 – 38:35): How to paint egret? 

Egret is smaller than crane. Please use big paper and white cloud brush 0901WsWl. Start with eye, then beak, head, neck, etc, and end with feet.

(38:40 – ): How to paint wild goose? 

Wild goose is a very beautiful bird to paint. Paint with 0901WsWl white cloud brush, Extra Fine Flower/ Bird Xuan paper or Expert Flower/ Bird Xuan Paper.

Mustard Seed Garden Video tutorial by Chinese artist Wu Peng 吴蓬, who was born in 1941 and currently researcher of Shanghai Calligraphy and Painting Institute. He is especially famous for calligraphy (Oracle) and flower paintings.

【芥子园画谱技法讲座】 28(三)花卉翎毛(09 10)翎毛


Related pictures from the Mustard Seed Garden book volume 3, page 151 – 164.



Nice Bird Designs

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