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 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
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
"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
the desired brush strokes.
goat hair brush, dry
| goat hair brush, wet
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 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.
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
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
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