The Fable of the Stork

2009 Mother’s Day card
May 2009


This was my first Mother's Day card which didn't contain the words "Happy Mother's Day". It's a riff on the theme of motherhood and childbirth, inspired by the myths that babies are brought by storks or angels.


As usual, I used the GIMP for the digital editing, and my Wacom tablet. Season 3 of "House, MD" was playing in the background. I always put on "House" when I do anatomically-inspired artwork.

The first element was the sky. I found a suitable image of clouds on the Web, but didn't like the blue of the sky, so I created a gradient using a desaturated dark blue. I then put a grayscale layer of the cloud image on top, in Hard Light mode.

The rib cage was from a disc of old anatomical illustrations, published by Dover. I extended the spine downwards to make the anatomy look subtly wrong. I didn't actually "erase" the regions where the background shows through -- instead I used a layer mask so I could fiddle with the edge at any time. I rely heavily on layer masks.

The wing on the left is from a photo of a bird's wing found on the Web. The original wing was dark brown; when I inverted the color it gave me an almost perfect bluish-white. I then stretched it to double height to match the proportion of the rib cage.

The wing on the right is from a diagram of wing anatomy also found on the Web. I flipped, inverted, and rotated the same diagram for the top edge of the wing on the left. Both wings are joined at the shoulders of the ribcage.

Next came the face and arms, from a vintage illustration of a woman on another Dover disc. I flipped her left-to-right because the composition was better, then edited out the plate and reconstructed the sleeve. I decided to have the sleeve "float" instead of including the arm: I think it gives the piece a nice Dali-esque feel. Parts of her are semi-transparent to make the ribcage and wings show through. The coloring of the skin and lips were done with additional layers in Multiply mode.

The "Mom" tattoo was another element found on the Web. I had to warp and rotate it to match the angel's shoulder. I was originally going to put this element where the angel's heart should be (except floating above the breastbone), but it didn't work when I added ...

The egg. I tried using a classic sketch of a fetus to suggest the womb, but it just didn't look right and it was difficult to define the border of the womb in a visually clean way. I played around with having an egg-shapped outline for the womb, then tried just having the egg itself. I think the idea comes across perfectly, and it furthers the bird theme suggested by the title "Stork". The source image is the "Millenium Egg": a golden egg made in 1988 to commemorate one thousand years of Christianity in the Ukraine.

The radiance around the egg is a GIMP-rendered gradient flare effect. I blurred the final result so the spokes weren't so stark. The golden color unified some of the design elements nicely. But there was one more key element I had to add ...

The halo. This was a flash of pure inspiration. It's a round dispenser of birth-control pills. I chose a soft blue treatment so it would read as a sky element and not fight with the radiance around the womb. The source image was (mostly) desaturated, superimposed on a copy of the sky in Divide mode, and then the deepest sky color was made transparent. The images was then copied into three layers that sit on top of the sky in Screen mode -- normal, slightly blurred (at 50% transparency), and very blurred.

A hint of bones. Finally, I thought the skeleton was too abruptly "chopped off" from the flesh, so I added a bit of the cervical spine and the lower arm, each from different skeletons than the ribcage. Both are actually layers above the flesh. The c-spine is in Soft Light mode.

The heart. Originally the angel didn't have a heart in her chest, and after years of staring at the finished piece and feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the emptiness of the anatomy I decided she needed one.

I played with adding lungs (even ones made of flowers) but nothing worked; however, I did use a highly transparent layer of the lungs to give a slight reddish shade to the interior of her chest. It makes the background wing recede a little, which increases the sense of depth, so I kept it.

The Legend

What is the origin of the "babies are brought by storks" myth? (Excerpted from an unknown source):

  • Storks are migratory, which means they could be fetching the baby from some mystical place;
  • They like to live on rooftops, perfect for delivering a baby down the chimney;
  • They mate for life, the same as humans do (sometimes);
  • They are big enough to imagine them carrying an infant.

"Storks are fertility symbols and are associated with springtime and birth. Children throughout Europe and America are taught that the stork delivers newborns to their mothers. In some areas, it is thought that the stork can cause a woman to become pregnant merely by looking at her.

It was believed that the souls of unborn children lived in watery areas such as marshes, wells, springs, and ponds. Since storks frequented such areas, they were thought to fetch the babies' souls and deliver them to their parents. In Germany, storks found human infants called "stork-children" dwelling in caves hidden in rocky steeps called "Adeborsteine" or "stork-stones," and carried them to their expectant parents. Children who wanted a baby brother or sister were encouraged to sing their desires to the stork. Naughty little boys were carried in the bird's bill while nice ones rode upon its back.

The stork is found in pictures of the Annunciation, not only because of its association with babies, but because of its association with spring. The coming of Christ was equated with the coming of this season which is often heralded by the arrival of the migratory stork. Its return to its northern nesting grounds each spring along with its connections to new life and rebirth make this bird an emblem of Easter and the Resurrection."

"Its migratory habits made it an emblem of the traveler. Along with other migratory birds, storks were biblical symbols of sensible backsliders who knew when to return to the straight and narrow. [Jer 8:4-7] In the lands they departed from, storks were believed to become people and dwell as humans when they arrived at their winter destinations. It was thought that they cried human tears when hurt or saddened.

Storks are commonly believed to bring good fortune. In Germany, they were known as "Adebar" which means "luck-bringer." In the Netherlands, a stork nesting on one's roof is welcomed as a good omen, but in Morocco it is a sign that the house will be abandoned by its occupants."

"In Scandinavia, storks - gentle birds with strong family ties, habitually nested on top of peoples chimneys. So when Scandinavian parents needed to explain to youngsters how babies arrived, the stork was a handy answer. This traditional tale was spread in the 1800s by Hans Christian Anderson, in his fairy tales."

"This species nests on roofs and it is considered good luck to have a stork on your house. They use the same nest year after year, adding material so that some nests are 97 inches in diameter, 6.5 feet high, and weigh 1100-1980 pounds! The Dutch once believed that if a stork was encouraged to nest on a house it would leave one of the young ones for the owner. The returning of the mated pair of storks made them a symbol of fidelity and it was thought that when a stork became old, it was cared for by one of its offspring."

"Storks were sacred to Venus in Roman mythology. If a stork builds a nest on your roof, you have received a blessing and a promise of never ending love from Venus. Aristotle made killing a stork a crime, and Romans passed a stork law, saying that children must care for their elderly parents."