The Shimmer

Did you know that a group of hummingbirds is called a shimmer? Hummingbirds don’t “flock” together, the way many bird species do, so several names have come to describe them as a group. You can also call them a charm, a glittering, a tune, a bouquet, or a hover. Truth be told, I have only seen hummingbirds individually of late, but painting several in different positions seemed a better way to capture their movement, beauty, and vitality.

The Shimmer, watercolor, 8×10″

Tips and Techniques– When you are painting birds, do you ever overwork them to the point of killing them on paper? With such complex feather patterns and colors, that’s not an uncommon thing to do. It’s exactly what happened on my first attempt at painting hummingbirds last week. I immediately got too tight, and soon the birds looked static and lifeless. Even though I had invested several hours in the painting, I decided it would be better to start over than to press on. I began again by doing gesture drawings (right) from life and from videos which forced me to convey the bird’s incredible postures and movements, rather than details and colors. From there, I started a second painting (above), working more loosely this time. The lesson: don’t be afraid to let a bird go and begin again if your painting isn’t working.

Join me for FACING BIRDS HEAD ON (via Zoom), a free program on Friday, September 17, 10:00-11:30 AM Pacific Time/1:00-2:30 PM Eastern Time at
Winslow Art Center, and TAPPING AUDUBON’S PASSION: Sketching Birds in Watercolor
Thursday, September 23, 2-5pm (via Zoom) at
Currier Museum of Art. Details on the Workshops page.

27 Comments on “The Shimmer

  1. What a gorgeous page, Jean! You’ve captured so much of their lightness and grace (and a bit of the fierceness, too, lol). I love the little mother-to-be; she has great energy— momentariIy still but ready to spring into action, as mothers must. I frequently do exactly as you said, deadening them on the page. I’m really looking forward to your upcoming class!

  2. Oh Jean, this page is so delightful, and you taught us something new about hummingbirds too!!!! Thank you for sharing.

  3. This came out beautifully and I do understand that moment when you know you’ve gone to far with the watercolor. Lots of those moments.. but I see that you did what helps me: do lots of studies of your subject and then try again. Usually, the second time around is a success, like your hummingbirds. 🙂

    • Isn’t it funny how you sort of see the line coming and you can’t keep from crossing it? Sometimes, I’m able to retreat and rescue, but usually it’s best to freshen up. Some birds are more forgiving, too. Not so with hummers. But starting again has me inspired to do a few more.

  4. Beautiful work Jean! I have found birds very tedious to paint….and after reading your post here, I suspect it’s probably because I try to include too many details. I like your idea of “gesture paintings”.

    • Part of the problem is that we can use photos for reference and they always show more detail than you would see in the field. It’s easy to get into the weeds and then realize that you’ve missed the proportions or the overall structure or the life of the bird.

      • Well that is some excellent insight that makes sense now…… because I work exclusively from photos. Sounds like I need to try some outside work . Thank you!

  5. What a wonderful lesson here in this post! The most hummers I’ve ever seen together at one time was when I was camping in Colorado. We were in ‘cabins’ and each cabin had a hummingbird feeder on the front porch. Loads of these little birds would come every day to feed here. Early one morning during our trip I was sitting outside playing tunes on a fife….and had this little swarm of birds leave the feeder to come hover around me while I was playing. It was a bit unnerving, but they seemed rather curious about this human with a musical beak! ha! It was the most incredible hummer encounter I’ve ever had. Would never have imagined that 15-20 of these little birds would be surrounding me at one time. Here in my own garden they are rather territorial. If I’m out there painting, they are especially attracted to anything red….& there’s usually one that will buzz by, hover for a bit to see what I’m doing, then buzz back off to the flowers. I could go on with the hummer stories….they are the most charming little birds, making me feel like I live an enchanted life!

    • Wow. You are the queen of hummingbird stories. Your experience in Colorado is amazing. I wonder what it was about the pitch or music of the fife…but what a special encounter! I figure we have another week or two of seeing them before all the migrants make their way south.

      • I’m going to miss them when they head south! They truly are an incredible wonder! And though they are a wonder, they are also FIERCE! When we lived in San Diego, our back yard, teeny as it was, was filled with them -and they went after each other like fighter jets! Yikes! Your page has inspired me to try these gesture drawings (and from videos too, when they aren’t hanging around the garden!). Once my crocosmia, honeysuckle, and other flowers tucker out, they start venturing to other places. Thanks for sharing all your inspiring work!!! It’s truly exciting to have new ways of looking at life around us!

  6. Even though my medium is different, I absolutely know what you mean by the need to keep things as light as possible, especially with birds like these. Your advice is excellent and you certainly succeeded! Plus you conveyed the shimmer (what a cool idea for a flock of hummers!) in the ruby throat so well. I like the way the blue – such a pretty hue – ties them all together while keeping that lightness. There are so many great poses in your sketch – you should do another painting! 🙂

    • Thanks Linda. I would like to keep going with this and try a whole new set of poses. I’m glad you like the blue– that was a big decision to make at the end. They were okay without it, but I like it, too.

  7. I never tire of your hummer sketches. I was just about to do my annual hummingbird sketches to mark their departure. I’m always sad when they leave. Ours for the most part have left our area here in N. Michigan. Thank you for these beautiful paintings. I love the soft blue background. It’s a compliment to the greens.

  8. Jean, these are awesome!! Thank you for sharing about over working. It’s just so easy to slip into realism and lose sight of the importance loosening up.

  9. Such visual collective words – and so appropriate for these lovely creatures. We don’t have hummingbirds in Singapore – we have sunbirds, which are their cousins.

  10. Fascinating creatures. THey used to get pretty close to me at our old house. If you were quiet under the feeder, they sounded like a helicopter, their beating wings so loud. Happy fall.

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