Kwong Kuen Shan
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- About Chinese Brush Painting




The art of Chinese painting began about 2,000 years ago.


There are two distinctive painting styles: meticulous and free-style. The meticulous, or gongbi, style is detailed and painstaking, involving ink line drawing and then application of colour washes. The free, or xieyi, style is spontaneous and looser, and is more of a performing art. The result may be simple and striking.


There are always barriers to understanding the art of another culture, and a few simple explanations may aid appreciation of Chinese paintings.


Chinese painters seldom paint from life, but from memory and the inspiration they get from the subject: they seek to depict the subject through their inner feeling and life philosophy. Although outward accuracy is striven for, the goal is not to produce a photographic likeness of the subject but to capture the chi, the vitality and the spirit of the subject, and to reflect the feelings, thoughts and mood of the painter at the time.


Perspective in traditional Chinese paintings, particularly in landscape paintings, is presented in a symbolic way, and is not scientifically accurate. For example, distance is conveyed in a vertical way; the higher up, the further away as seen in Contemplative Mood in my Somewhere In China Gallery.


Each painting may tell several stories - a multi focal view. The viewer looks into the painting rather than at the painting.


Very often there is empty space in a Chinese painting. Space is used to give balance, to harmonise the messages in the painting and to give prominence to concrete images: an example of this is Two Brothers in my Collection from "the Cat and the Tao" .


Some in the West believe that Chinese painting is only imitation and copying. It is true that students of Chinese painting learn by copying masters’ works, to acquire their knowledge, methods and techniques. However, the gifted and the inspired ones develop their own styles, and produce original work.




BRUSHES: The brush is the most important tool as brushstrokes are the backbone of Chinese calligraphy and painting. Chinese painting brushes are made from the hair of various animals, including sheep, goat, wolf, horse, rabbit, and badger. A Chinese brush has a great capacity for holding water, ink and colour. It can form a fine point, and can split and spread out to produce the desired brush strokes.


            goat hair brush, dry       goat hair brush, wet -         multiply loaded  


INK STICKS: These are made of charcoal mixed with gum to make a thick paste, which is then poured into moulds and dried in the open air to form ink sticks. The stick is then ground on an ink stone, with some water, to make the ink.





ink stick


ink stone



INK STONE: This is a piece of stone or slate with the centre carved out to provide a grinding area for the ink stick. (Bottled ink is nowadays widely used.)


Both sticks and stones can be ornately decorated to make delightful objects, like the ones shown, The most decorated stones are collectors pieces, and cost a great deal of money.


PAPER: There are many varieties. The main ones are made from reed, hemp, mulberry wood, bamboo, grass and cotton. They are produced with different degree of permeability; raw paper, alummed paper and partially alummed paper. Raw paper is highly absorbent and is more suitable for the freestyle work. Alummed paper is better for meticulous work. The most commonly used is xuan paper, which is made from bamboo pulp.


COLOURS: Chinese watercolours are made from vegetable and mineral pigments. Glue is added during production to prevent the colours from running.





In Chinese painting there is a long tradition of using black ink (and all its gradation between the lightest grey and deepest black) on white paper (see 4 below). This provides the most striking contrast in the simplest possible way. Colours are often added only where it is necessary to complement the ink work.




Painting may be meticulous or freestyle, or a mixture of both. Meticulous style is detailed, precise, painstaking, and bears some resemblance to some western watercolour painting, with line outlines and colour fills. Examples of these are The Disciple, and Do Not Disturb, in the Cat and the Tao Collection, and The Chinese Figurine, and Mandarin Cats in The Philosopher Cat Gallery.


The freestyle, on the other hand, is entirely different in use of materials. Whole structures may be depicted with single brush strokes, using a brush perhaps loaded with several colours, or with colour or ink and water. The multiple loading creates gradations of colour and ink in the painted brush-stroke, which may be straight or curved depending on the structure drawn, and may spread interestingly through the absorbent paper.


The wet brush shown above is multiply loaded, and the colours can be seen changing from tip to base. When it is drawn across paper, the effect is shown at 1, below. When a differently loaded brush is moved in a circle with it red tip stationery in the middle, as in 2, the result is shown in 3. A brush loaded with ink and water produces the dramatic effect in 4.












You can see that 1 could be a sunset, 3 a rose petal, and 4 night sky with mist. Have a look at My Rose Garden in the Philosopher Cat Collection for some rose petals and leaves painted this way. Other freestyle paintings are Rain and Distant Mist in the Somewhere In China Gallery, and Homer and my husband's favourite, Bumper Harvest, in The Cat and the Tao Collection. In that painting, the body of each grape is painted with a single brush stroke!


By the way, the little gaps in the paint, in the middle of 1 or right at the end of 4 above, are called "Flying White".


Many of my paintings are a mixture of meticulous and freestyle, such as Benson and The Understudy; and some are meticulous, but not the in classical style of that technique, such as Memories, Focus, or The Secret. I think there are as many variations as there are painters, and hope you enjoy looking for, and at, the different styles.





Seals often seen on Chinese paintings are Chinese characters carved from jade, ivory or soapstone. They are pressed into a cinnabar paste and then pressed on the painting to produce the character. There are two main types of seals, the Name seal and the Mood seal. The Name Seal shows the name of the painter. The “Mood” (or “Leisure”) Seal shows characters which reflect the mood, inspiration or philosophy of the painting or the painter.


The position of the seals on the painting is a vital part of the painting, as it can enhance or destroy the image. The ability to carve expert “artist” seals is a highly respected skill in China.


There follow some of the seals you can see in my work:





All images and text are copyright Kwong Kuen Shan and cannot be reproduced without her permission.