Painting White ~ The Great White Egret that is!

It’s long been a challenge for artists to paint something white, whether it is a white egg, a white clapboard house, a snowy white landscape, or a white bird.  In my relatively short time painting birds, I have yet to tackle painting the Great White Egret, but I’m looking forward to the challenge!

Recently, I’ve been fortunate to watch and photograph Great White Egrets from a close distance.  When they are busy preening or actively hunting for fish, they become very focused and the otherwise shy birds aren’t that easily spooked.  

Photographing a bright white bird is difficult too, because it’s so easy to overexpose, in which case you lose all of the fine detail in the feathers.  If you underexpose, then when you manipulate the photo to brighten it up it can become more grainy and not quite as clear as you’d like.  Without a good photo with well-defined feathering, it’s hard to paint with confident brushstrokes.

How do you paint white?  Some artists would start with a colored canvas and then develop the white areas.  Others might leave the white areas white and paint around them.  If you want a white to really pop, it helps to not have a dark undercoat.  

To develop the Egret, creating the right shades of gray can be difficult.  If you take black paint and mix it with white paint it may look too gray.  So mixing paints becomes very important, keeping in mind value gradations and tones.  

I’m anxious to give it a try.  I have taken many images of the Great White Egret in the last year.  I’d love to do a portrait painting of an egret close up, where I can focus on the eye and beak.  I’d also enjoy painting it in an elegant pose.  

I am always fascinated with how other artists tackle such a challenge.  John James Audubon is quoted as saying about the Great White Egret that it was “the most difficult to imitate of any bird I have yet undertaken.”  He undertook the challenge three times to try and get it right.  Here is one of his watercolor works of the Great White in a backward preen position, that I find amazing.

John James Audubon's Great Egret, 1821

John James Audubon's Great Egret, 1821

Below are a few photographic images that I’ve taken of this magnificent bird.  To think that it was close to extinction at one point in our history is unimaginable.

Great White Egret, photo by William R. Beebe

Great White Egret, photo by William R. Beebe

The Contemplator, photo by William R. Beebe

The Contemplator, photo by William R. Beebe

Egret in Flight, photo by William R. Beebe

Egret in Flight, photo by William R. Beebe

Egret profile, photo by William R. Beebe

Egret profile, photo by William R. Beebe

Fishing the Falls, photo by William R. Beebe

Fishing the Falls, photo by William R. Beebe

A whole lot of shaking going on, photo by William R. Beebe

A whole lot of shaking going on, photo by William R. Beebe

Up Up and Away, photo by William R. Beebe

Up Up and Away, photo by William R. Beebe

I’m not sure when the Great White Egret will be on my easel, but when it is I’ll let you know how I decided to tackle the “painting white” quandary.  Until then, thanks so much for following my blog and my art!


One of the joys of being an artist is having the freedom to follow my passion...
— William R. Beebe
What's next? Drawing by William R. Beebe

What's next?

Drawing by William R. Beebe