I have wanted to paint the Australian brolga ever since I saw of flock of brolgas flying over the wetlands of Kakadu in the late 1980s. At the time I was attending a tourism meeting at the then new Crocodile Hotel and had a wonderful opportunity to explore a section of the World Heritage listed National Park. The brolgas’ graceful flight just blew me away!
I have featured birds in many of my paintings over the years – the Western Australian bustard, the emu, the kookaburra, pelican and Adelé penguin have all starred. More recently eagles have made an appearance in my works as smaller elements of my landscapes. So finally, I have decided that my wonderful memories of Kakadu, featuring the magnificent Brolgas, should become a major work.
Featured Australian birds within six of my paintings.
Brolgas (a popular name derived from its official scientific name of Gamilaraay burralga) are also known as the Australian crane. They are the world’s largest of the crane family with a wingspan of up to 2.4 metres and often standing tall at 1.4 metres. They are the heaviest of all birds on the Australian mainland, with males larger than females, the largest weighing in at 8.7 kg.
Brolgas are monogamous, breeding pairs mating for life – a lifespan of approximately seven years. Brolga pairs are known for their synchronous calling, usually initiated by the female. Like all cranes they offer an incredible display of ritual mating dancing. They are found plentifully throughout northern Australia – particularly the Northern Territory and northern Queensland, with limited numbers occurring in Australia’s south-east – Victoria and New South Wales.
Wetlands are an important element of their habitat, with breeding pairs utilising freshwater wetlands as their breeding ground and nursery, and defending it against other brolgas. The close-knit family unit is all-important for the brolga, and though they can join flocks of up to 1,000 birds, within these flocks family units often still remain together.
To start the project, I used photographic reference to draw a male and female brolga, a mating pair flying across its wetland territory in Kakadu. The birds are the central feature in this work. I have chosen the format of a diptych, two paintings acting as one. Each painting features one of the brolgas – the lead left hand painting is the larger stockier and older male, who is being followed by the younger slender female. They are in tandem flying over their wetland territory seeking nesting materials.
Through charcoal drawings below I familiarised myself with each of the brolgas salient features and hopefully this work highlights the extraordinary grace of these birds in flight. Please see below.
Brolga Study 2 and 1 combined, 2020 - charcoal and chalk, 24 x 66 cm.
I am now well into working on these hyperrealist paintings. I started by redrawing each bird from my initial drawings on separate canvases – each 140 x 100 cm. – the diptych in total measuring 240 cm. across. The paintings are designed as a major wall feature. My painting strategy is to first paint my memories of the spectacular Kakadu wetlands – not a specific place but the imagery that still lingers in my mind after 32 years.
I have now completed the scenery, and have here near completed the base coat for the two brolgas. Next I undertake the detailed layer of bird feathers and flesh. Finally, the colours of the late afternoon sky will complete the work.
This is my current work-in-progress – a 100 x 240 cm diptych oil painting.
Work-in-progress: Brolga I , 2021, oil on canvas, 100 x 120 cm.
Work-in-progress: Brolga II, 2021, oil on canvas, 100 x 120 cm.
I will be updating this story as my work progresses over the next months. So stay tuned!