oxpeckers on a zebra

2 oxpeckers birds on a zebra's back


I wondered if I could find a photo that showed animals helping each other. Googling took me to this YouTube video, which included this powerful scene WHICH I SUSPECT IS NOT REAL. Thinking about it, I realized I wanted to paint a more believable scene.

There are many animals that have mutually helpful relationships. After reading that article, I decided to paint two oxpeckers on a zebra. I wanted to include more than one bird. There are many images where multiple birds are on the backs of an animal. I didn’t want to get too complicated, but I found two reference images from which to work: bird close-ups and nice zebra positioning. The birds eat ticks and insects from the backs of large mammals (both wild and domesticated). Both species benefit.


Combining the two layouts was my first challenge. I needed to establish the angle of the light. Another challenge was creating the zebra mane. I used black for that (along with the white of the paper). The birds were in brown, pink, yellow, red, and orange (most of the color comes in the eyes and beak).

Creating this image was difficult. Each time I painted, I felt like I was not in control of the brush and made many mistakes.

  • it bugs me that:
    • the beaks got so sloppy.
    • the mane – which was my attraction to that particular image – wasn’t well painted. (I couldn’t wrangle a skinny brush.)
    • The background around the birds is muddy.
    • I used new paints, which were not as transparent as I would have liked.
    • The head of the bird on the left is dark and blobby.
  • I’m happy about:
    • the bird on the left does have some dimensionality.
    • I scumbled in the background at the upper left. I thought it might be overworked, but I think it does work as a leafy background.
    • The bird on the left looks like it is standing on the zebra. There is shadow below it.


  • I am inspired by the beauty, variety, and resilience of nature as it is. I’m not interested in fake images, no matter how dramatic.
  • My struggle painting this image has led to some good ideas for the coming year.
  • I am renewing my commitment to show my true artistic process. The dominant culture would like us to present only the skilled and perfect. Art, for me, is a way of seeing and responding to the beauty of the world and of learning from it. So here I am, warts and all, inviting you (the viewer) into the adventure.
  • The animals these birds interact with are huge. One bird by itself might be overwhelmed (if birds think like that). By flocking together, the birds are able to do a big job. Bug by bug, the mammal is made more comfortable. If we work together, steadily, we can accomplish daunting tasks.

Posted on

October 3, 2023


  1. Warren Wolfe

    Hi, Kate — You used a word — scumbled — that I don’t recall seeing before. So I had to look it up. There must be a way to work that into my conversations about something other than art — he scumbled the description of his accomplishments with extra words so he didn’t seem to be bragging.

    scumble \SKUM-bul\ verb. 1 a : to make (something, such as color or a painting) less brilliant by covering with a thin coat of opaque or semiopaque color applied with a nearly dry brush. b : o apply (a color) in this manner. 2 : to soften the lines or colors of (a drawing) by rubbing lightly.

    Scumble Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster

    • Kate

      I’ve never read an official definition. I am using it the way I heard an art teacher use it as she demonstrated: putting a color into a space using light, random brushstrokes. Thanks for the vocabulary lesson.


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