One stroke challenge from The Old Man Crazy To Paint

Towards the end of his life, acclaimed Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) went by the name Gakyo Rojin Manji, meaning Old Man Crazy to Paint.


HokusaiSelfPortait OMCTP

Hokusai painted many self-portraits; this one of him in his eighties is probably a fair representation of his bedraggled appearance and wrinkled visage. I see in it a huge zest for living.

With challenging health issues (not the least of which was partial paralysis from being struck by lightening during his 50s) combined with a lifetime of poverty, he nevertheless painted obsessively into his old age; on his deathbed he was said to have pleaded for ten more years…five more years…more time to become a real painter! He simply was never satisfied with his own accomplishments.

In his life he is believed to have created over 30,000 works of art, an incomparable feat when you consider the life’s work of other lesser artists. But the Old Man Crazy to Paint had set a very HIGH bar for himself: he believed he could do more, do better. That surely is the ‘crazy’ part. His body of work is truly amazing in both volume and quality. Only recently I discovered this website dedicated to his work.

Among the paintings, sketchbooks, and other published books of lessons at that site is one that reflects the Old Man’s playful artistic nature; it is comprised of nothing but single-stroke compositions. That’s right, he painted page after page of nothing but human figures, animals, flowers and entire landscapes employing a SINGLE carefully loaded and manipulated brush stroke.

Consider the challenge

For years math and drawing puzzles have circulated in university classes and textbooks (and now via social media) to challenge creative minds with drawing games designed to foster ‘out of the box’ thinking. (Often they involve connecting dots with minimal lines or finding shapes,) That’s basically what Hokusai did for himself–he spent countless hours studying how to paint different subjects keeping his brush moving in a continuous line and only adding a few details or washes to augment the composition.  Here are a few examples from his book.





The task forces you to decompose subjects, break them into their most basic shapes. You need to consider primarily the lines that comprise the drawing. And you also must see where those lines can be connected or redirected into other parts of the drawing. Then there is the additional challenge of loading a brush sufficiently to go the distance, not to mention control the moisture in the brush as it traverses its long journey to the completion of a single-stroke composition. Whew, one can get tired simply considering the challenge!  (Yes, he does add a few details occasionally to flesh out a sketch.)

My studies

Three subjects in Hokusai’s book grabbed my immediate attention as examples to try: cranes, turtles and figures.  The turtles seemed to be the easiest and luckily a subject I know well.  (I also used a turtle motif to do continuous line quilting on a blanket for a grandson just a few years ago–very similar thinking involved.) Adding the light washes Hokusai used enhanced my first  little painting quite nicely.  These I can do.

myturtles in one

I next tackled his cranes. I painted almost a whole roll of practice paper, trying all the different poses Hokusai obviously had fun devising.  I had difficulty positioning legs, getting thick and thin lines as desired, placing eyes relative to the beak as they should be…I tried pre-planning the body shapes using indigo ink and then over painting with the dark ink. I changed brushes.  I came back to the table later after a break and tried again.  The birds eluded me. This was NOT an easy task!  The Old Man’s task was driving me crazy.


I painted several single-stroke cranes together and added the light washes Hokusai used to punch up the composition; managing the thick and thin lines needs a lot more practice!

Painting human figures using a ‘continuous line’ approach worked better for me. As with the cranes, a few extra details were necessary to enhance the small paintings. I also liked the addition of washes for the clothing.

I intend to get back to the cranes and will definitely do more figure painting in this manner. Now back to the website with the treasure trove of his sketch books!

Everything Hokusai is here.  The book with the continuous line drawings is here, and is helpfully titled Pictures Drawn in One Stroke.



Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, continuous line, painting crane, painting figures, painting turtle, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

What is old is new; lessons (circa 1812) of Katsushika Hokusai

I like to keep a watchful eye on numerous online booksellers, paying special attention to their oriental art instruction and collective works. Every so often I am rewarded with books on my favorite topics or containing work of acclaimed artists.


One of my all time favorite finds in a used-book store was this compendium of Hokusai sketches; it is a great resource for browsing subject material.

Just when I thought the well had dried up and there were no more such treasures to be found, I tripped over yet another incredible find.

This week I learned that prolific Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) had created a three-volume set of art lessons in addition to his huge volume of work. His Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawings were published in 1812 and have not been lost with the ravages of time. Better yet, they are fully accessible online at this wonderful site dedicated to the master of the ukiyo-e:

Another blogger explains the contents of the three-volume set at this link.

While the lessons are written in Japanese, they are also well illustrated and it is possible for the non-Japanese reader to follow. Volume One guides the artist to drawing based on common geometric shapes; Volume Two explores contour and line; and Volume Three shows the application of different types of brush strokes.

As often is the case, ink painting with a Japanese brush is very similar to “drawing” with a Chinese brush. I would agree with the managers of the first website linked above: “Hokusai’s lessons are a treasure for any drawing student or professional artist interested in learning the craft from one of the most respected artists of all time.”   Warning: there are MANY book collections of Hokusai’s work at that website and this three-volume set is but a sampling of his amazing talent as both artist and teacher!

Drawing from the Hokusai Well of knowledge

In my early days of studying Chinese Brush painting I often studiously worked through a new instruction book from start to finish. I would read through the steps, examine the illustrations for greater understanding, and practice, practice, practice.   Now that I have developed some skills, I am more selective with instructional material. Hokusai’s ‘quick lessons’ seem to have much to offer for artists at any skill level.

My first insights were purely subject based—horses, figure drawing, irises, insects—because of my own preferred subject matter. But I can see there’s much to absorb on pretty well any subject. Hokusai was both prolific and dedicated to perfectionism.

For my first dip into Hokusai’s Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing I looked at what he did with horses. I found several such items.


Hokusai “simplifies” subjects into basic geometric shapes in his first book.


In his second he focuses on recognizing the major contour lines in a subject.


You have to be willing to hunt when you dip into Hokusai material–he has included two little horse lessons on the far right of these pages together with cranes, snakes, flower details…..wave curves….a smorgasbord of sketches.

Hokusai Horse Lesson One:

The horse with rider was in Volume One and hence is about breaking down a subject into geometric shapes—circles, squares, rectangles, trapezoids, etc. You may have heard before that Chinese brush painting is about “dividing up the white space” on a piece of paper, that the artist arranges elements on the page in a pleasing manner that takes into account parts left vacant as much as those that are filled with shapes and color. This process takes into account those other usual principles of design any artist who has studied formally (whether fine art or graphic design) strives to consider: emphasis, balance and alignment, contrast, repetition, proportion, and movement.

Breaking complex subjects into geometric shapes (simplifying) is a means of helping SEE and UNDERSTAND how the thing is constructed, how the parts relate to one another, and of course how you can PUT one together yourself, from scratch. Basic shapes are easy to draw; most of us learn to draw triangles, squares, ovals, and rectangles as children. We may even use them as building blocks like this:


I first replicated Hokusai’s ‘man on a horse under pine in winter’ as he mapped it out using basic geometric shapes. Do note the drawing is in profile, i.e. you are seeing the horse, rider, and tree in side view.


There are several different ways one could use such a compositional “map”. For strictly learning purposes you could enlarge this map on a copier, then trace the map onto paper with a pencil, and paint over the map to establish the full picture. The end result would be somewhat messy, but you would perhaps gather some insights into painting ‘a rider on a horse under pine in winter’. Your end result would NOT be entirely your work, but it would be a ‘lesson’.

Another way of using the map would be to draw your own version using Hokusai’s as a guide, enhance the lines with dark pen/ink and slip your ‘map’ under a piece of painting paper and proceed to ‘paint’ your composition using the faint lines showing through your paper. The end result here would be more your work—your mapping, your painting. It is still the teacher Hokusai’s idea for what elements to put where in a composition. It would still be a ‘lesson’ for you. Ideally, with practice behind you, you can “see” the shapes with your mind’s eye and draw such a composition with round shapes where they should be, sharp triangles in the hooves, and so on.


A sketch of the composition using basic geometric shapes can used underneath most painting paper as a painting guide.

Yet another way for a Chinese brush painter to use the Lesson map of ‘a rider on a horse under pine in winter’ is to sketch out your map, slip it under the painting paper, and using a detail brush dipped in pale indigo, paint the outline of your elements.   Then you remove the map from underneath and continue to develop the pale indigo outline into a painting.


The pale indigo lines get ‘over-painted’ and virtually disappear as you continue with the painting. (Should any remain visible they are very faint and will look like slight shadows; some even blend into background washes).


Here is my completion of this Hokusai lesson, using the last mentioned technique (my map based on his, slipped under the paper, outlined in pale indigo, painted through to completion.)


Some of the pale indigo lines are still visible on the man’s body and should be colored or washed over.


  1. I have already studied drawing and painting horses (based on their anatomy) as well as  two different ‘formulaic’ approaches. Hokusai’s lesson merely reinforced a few things such as the sharp triangular depiction of the hooves, the enlarged (small circles) for leg joints, etc. For someone who doesn’t know horse anatomy and proportions this lesson could be helpful.
  2. Hokusai’s lesson also reinforces the importance of alignments. I have discussed before in blog posts on painting birds how you lay a pencil or brush stick through the head into the body and then again down through the legs to check you have lined up their body parts correctly.
  3. Hokusai’s meticulous attention to showing each cluster of pine needles as a circle, and his overlapping and arrangements of those circles reinforces the importance of heeding the conventions of pine cluster and branch placements for a pleasing overall effect.

Hokusai Horse Lesson Two:

The two other ‘lessons’ involving horses were both in Volume Two and hence about contour lines.

Hokusai’s many sketchbooks are virtual databases or libraries of small paintings. In his early life he focused on depicting common workers and villagers; at one point he worked up endless pages of malformed and ‘ugly’ people, at yet another he painted fantastical beasts. In this particular three-volume set titled “Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing’ he sometimes sketched out the STEPS to a painting, and in others he surrounds a painting with the component brush strokes.

Here are my replications of these lessons showing the preliminary indigo outlines:

That last horse lying down looks to be badly contorted; no horse I know would settle down in such a position!


Again, because I have studied horses, Hokusai’s use of contour lines in these two lessons came as no surprise. The lessons do reinforce how one can quickly depict a horse with a few swiftly placed contour lines that capture the major muscle shapes in a horse. One can practice these small drawings repeatedly, building up confidence with the strokes and shapes. You can concentrate on achieving lines that look ‘thick and thin’ in the right places. You can get those lines to look spontaneous and fluid, as opposed to stilted and awkward.

Note that the horse being released from a magic bottle is viewed in an angled profile, yielding a more interesting composition; if you place a rider on this horse you will have to take time to consider how the human body—seated—should be turned.

If you love horses (and never got much satisfaction from endless pages of bamboo leaves or orchid petals) then take Hokusai’s horse lessons to heart. They are such fun and can be rewarding in building your skill level with contour lines demanded by other subjects.

my Sumie horses

Simple outline horses painted in the manner of Hokusai’s lessons can be used effectively in small compositions; the one above was the first in a series I painted for Christmas gifts to my horse-loving siblings.

After working through Hokusai’s few horse lessons I quickly moved on to see what his figure-painting lessons were all about. This three-volume set has much to offer and then there is an entire book of figures (at the website linked earlier!) titled Quick Pictorial Dictionary Vol. 1. That one has sufficient material for several years of blogs, I am certain!


Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, Lessons, painting horses | Leave a comment

Building bridges right: consider both ends

For my first year at university I lived on the fifth floor of an all women’s residence overlooking a bend in the Red River.  Every morning I awoke to sunrises over the muddy waters, occasional glimpses of wildlife, and often the wafting mists lifting from the river’s surface. I took countless photographs.

On my first weekend home my uncle/guardian did his own version of ‘misting up’ when he checked out my photo album.  It happens that the very bend in the Red that so captivated me was where he had trained as a soldier back in early 1943, learning to build Bailey bridges with ‘lickety-split’ timing.  He told me how he and his platoon mates trucked in all the materials, packed most of it on their backs, then ran down to the river bank and practiced constructing–and then deconstructing–the temporary structures which were to serve the Allied forces so well in deployments in France and Italy later on.  One of the tricky parts, he said, was to select just the right spot on either side of the river from which to build, aiming to meet in the middle.

His recollections came to mind this last month as I worked on studies of simple arched bridges to serve as focal points in my Chinese brush-painting landscapes.  Having recently discovered the intriguing water village paintings of contemporary artist Zhang Shipei, I returned to examine this unfamiliar staple of Chinese landscapes, the stone arch bridge.

All of the bridges in my childhood had been wooden or steel structures, crossing everything from simple streams on up to the raging torrents of the mighty Fraser River in Hell’s Gate Canyon.  I have since strolled over a few arched structures made of stone in parks and formal gardens, and of course took photographs.  Below is a photo of  the official opening of the Emily Carr stone bridge in my city’s Beacon Hill Park; her sister Alice and other dignitaries pose atop the slightly arched structure.  Studying such photos helps understand lines as well as stonework.



I have previously examined the rudiments of bridge-painting (See post here.) and discovered then that despite being a staple of Chinese brush-painting, bridges are not commonly addressed in instruction books.  Typically in compositions bridges connect two sides of a mountain gorge or stream and lead off to some precariously-placed stone stairway, or they are the showcase for a traveler on foot or donkey.

Depending on direction headed, the traveler is either at the start of a journey or trudging homeward and other elements seem to reinforce the mood of joyful expectation (beginning a trip) or weariness (heading home). Such bridges are usually simple arched shapes, made of stone with or without low railings. Bridges with higher arches are built in regions with frequent boat traffic, such as near the mouths of rivers or in river villages.  The Chinese have been constructing bridges for centuries and there are many very old bridges still in use across the country.  The oldest bridge still in existence and standing strong in China is the Anji Bridge constructed during the years between 595 and 605.  Throughout China stone bridges such as the one shown below in Yemen province are both major tourist attractions and popular painting subjects.


Bridges can also be mere stepping-stones placed in a low stream bed or structures made of bamboo or other such materials. In the water village paintings of Zhang Shipei, both single span stone arches and precarious-looking bamboo structures on stilts connecting small houses (also on stilts) to rocky or marshy shores are featured.


This Zhang Shipei composition includes three variations of simple bridges typically found in water villages.


In my early studies I merely sketched in bridges ‘in the manner of Zhang’ trying to understand the relationship of his different elements. With the bamboo slats on stilts connecting houses to shore I was relatively confident in depiction and placement. With the single span stonework bridges I started to feel confused.

Part of my problem I realized was that Zhang’s style was somewhat more stylized or impressionistic than mine. Whereas he brushed in an inky few strokes to convey an arch with a flat “bridge” across the top, joining what had to be intended as two sides of a waterway, I was concerned with greater realism: where should that top stroke start and where should it end, how did the bridge meld into the shore, what part of the arch was viewed head-on and how should the water under it be shadowed? I also seemed inclined to put more depth of field into my composition than Zhang; his are typically one-dimensional, head-on views.  Most importantly, I needed to understand the relationship between details on one bank of the waterway relative to the other side.  Like my uncle and his Bailey bridges, I needed to coordinate planning at both ends of a bridge, in order to meet pleasingly in the middle.

Limited resources:

Despite being a basic landscape painting element (used primarily to indicate Wu or the presence of life) the bridge is under-represented in CBP instruction books. And when you do find some direction, it is minimal. Trees, rocks, mountains and waterfalls—the other predominant Chinese landscape painting ingredients—get all kinds of attention.

The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (MSGM) devotes only a few pages to bridges; Jane Evans gives them but one page in The Chinese Brush Painting Manual. (Diana Khan in The How and Why of Chinese Brush Painting does offer instruction on bridge-painting, but her material is basically the same as what we find in the MSGM.)  From the MSGM I learned that rustic bamboo, rope or wooden bridges were more commonly used in water villages and that the stonework arched constructions were favored in other provinces of China. Zhang’s paintings feature both.



My trusted resource on symbolism in Chinese culture by C.A.S.Williams (Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs: A Comprehensive Handbook on Symbolism in Chinese Art through the Ages) makes only a passing reference to bridges, while addressing man-made structures. A bridge is a physical and symbolical link between two different pieces of land. In a painting it often symbolizes a journey, a transformation or the transition between life and death.

An online search for bridge symbolism from a global perspective will boggle the mind. Other cultures seem to have attached much greater significance to the significance of a bridge, whether depicted in a painting or conjured up in a dream. (Freudians love bridges!)

Here is a link that shows the limitations of bridge symbolism in Chinese culture.

How to paint a stone bridge:

Once I realized Zhang’s single span, stone arch bridge was shown in profile (flat, one-dimension) and that many other bridges in Chinese landscape painting were angled, and thus contributing the third dimension of depth to a painting, I set out to understand how to do the latter. The MSGM proved helpful to a degree. Below are my earlier bridge studies (based on the MSGM) from four years ago:

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This time I focused my ‘bridge studies’ on realistic depiction of the two ends of a bridge.  The first line drawing shows a bridge viewed head-on–you do not see an underside.  Notice that as soon as you add any detailing of the “underside” at one end (the second sketch has an underside on the right) THEN you should be showing part of the walking surface leading UP on the topside at the other bridge end.  The third sketch shows an underside on the left end with the CORRECT detailing of the upper surface on the right end.


Simply put: the trick is to be sure your LEFT hand side of the bridge knows (reflects) what is happening on the RIGHT hand side of the bridge.

Once I had figured out this concept I moved on to practicing the brick work Jane Evans showed, and also the stone work I have discovered in other paintings.  Ink or color washes can also be used to enhance the painting.  These sketches are based on those in Jane Evans’ book and show undersides at one bridge end but not the upper surface at the other end.

And at long last I found I could push through a composition (in the manner of Zhang) with an arched bridge as the focal point, simple figures providing the Wu, and large textured areas over-painted with mineral colors.  My figures are less stylized than his, my water has more detailing, and my bridge injects more depth of field.  I also know that the left hand side of the bridge must take into account what is happening at the right hand side of the bridge.


My first attempt at a more realistic stone arch bridge; my people seem to be floating across the top precariously and the left side screams for details of an upper surface


And now my people are clearly walking across a stable stone bridge.

Study-Zhang'sto Mine

Above is the Zhang Shipei composition I am  taking as inspiration and below is my more realistic detailing as I prepare to paint a full composition of this bridge scene.


The ink work has been done, and now needs to dry before I add the mineral colors on the foliage. The other coloring can wait too.  I just may have a keeper!

I still admire Zhang’s more stylized style of painting water villages; figuring out all the little nuances he engages to achieve it is mind-stretching.  Such is art.















Posted in bridges, Chinese Brush Painting, water compositions | Leave a comment

The ripple effect—painting net water

I’ve spent hundreds of hours in the bow of a canoe staring at water. I’ve seen the wind whipping small wavelets flat as it gusts, the afternoon sun glint off gently rippling diamond-shapes, and many ugly greys and greens of tossing swells as we push across open stretches, zigzagging across a lake. I thought I knew every imaginable nuance a water surface could present.

So when I jumped into painting water village scenes in the manner of Zhang Shipei, I thought I could handle all the elements: rocks, trees, marsh grasses, rooflines, small figures, resident animals (dogs, ducks, water buffalo, hens) and water. Okay, so I knew up front I might have to take some time to investigate the details of small Chinese boats (sampans) in order to get things “right”. And I wanted to play with applications of mineral colors to emulate the fabulous color treatments this contemporary artist does so well. But water depictions? Just swabbing in swirls of light wash, right? Dropping in a few well-chosen wavy lines perhaps.

Not so easy, I found.

My study of sampans led to the discovery of some landscapes painted by Hua Sanchuan, a noted landscape and ‘beautiful lady’ painter, which featured sampans and included several swaths of water ripples. I showed them in my last post and repeat them here below.



It took some hunting through my Chinese brush painting (CBP) library to find exactly what I wanted in the way of direction. A few books gave small examples of rippled water (Jane Dwight’s Chinese Brush Painting Bible, Oriental Painting Course by Wang Jia Wan and Cai Xiaoli) but it was in Chinese Painting Techniques by Alison Stilwell Cameron that I hit the mother lode.


First off, Stilwell Cameron provides several classifications for water depiction—waterfalls, rushing streams, quiet pools, ocean waves, ocean crests—and gives a name to the style that’s caught my interest: net water. She says it takes its name from its resemblance to fishermen’s nets.

How to paint Net Water (undulating ripples)

The ink should always be a very light shade and the brush wet, according to Stilwell Cameron. And the finest detail brush you own will be in order. Her directions are these: It is painted by holding the brush handle slanting at an angle, resting the arm and side of the hand lightly on the table and pulling the stroke from left to right. Alternate pressing with lifting and let the brush move in a smooth undulating motion.

My first study of net water in the prescribed manner of Stilwell Cameron:


She continues: After you have completed one wavy line, the second should be placed just under it, with the crests of this line of ripples touching the troughs of the first line. This is continued until as much area as you wish has been covered, but be careful to keep the area in the general form of a diamond.

Jane Dwight’s instructions were simpler: paint a net of connecting wavy lines to represent undulating waves. She reminds us that water symbolizes yin, the female principle, and is thus painted as soft, pliant and rippling. Her “net water” was accompanied by two variations: rough water and swirling eddies.

Net water is typically used near the banks of rivers or lakes, or placed around boats, rocks, or reeds. My inspirational Hua Sanchuan paintings involved light green washes painted over the patches of net water.

I worked up to figuring out where/how to insert an oar, tapering the net at the sides and then played with adding color:

Stilwell Cameron cautions that square patches of net water look too stiff; one should pay careful attention to the progression of a diamond-shaped pattern. In subsequent illustrations she also demonstrates how to place reeds in the troughs of the wavy lines for a marshy effect.

My Observations:

  1. A very small detail brush is hugely important to success in ripples painting
  2. You want the ink diluted and you must take care in blotting the excess from the brush before touch down.
  3. Decide whether to push on the downside of the strokes (the troughs) OR the upsides (crests) of your ripples: don’t mix both or your ripples appear chunky.
  4. If several patches in one composition, those closer to you will be larger than those further away. Those in the distance may also appear flatter.
  5. It takes some practice to get a rhythm to your brushwork.
  6. Adding a pale green wash toned down with ink that extends beyond the netting helps the eye visualize “water”; it helps hide some irregularities in brushwork, or at least deceive the eye.
  7. I may now be ready for a full sampan composition with better net water than the last session!


Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, water compositions | 1 Comment

Water village necessity—painting sampans

“It is more skillful to paint half a boat than a whole one.

A common load on a sampan is the wine that will encourage the composing of poems.

This boat would never be shown in rough waters; place it in reeds, shallows, calm lakes or rivers.”

These three things I learned from the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (MSGM) as I sat down to study a boat I had been arbitrarily depicting in paintings without knowledge of its parts, proper proportion, placement, or methods of propelling. As I continued to investigate the mesmerizing water villages of contemporary artist Zhang Shipei, a more detailed understanding of this quintessential Chinese boat became necessary.


Sampans in various profiles are featured in Zhang Shipei’s water villlages.

The MSGM was its usual helpful self, but I also poked around the internet in search of other tidbits to increase my confidence in painting the small watercraft which is so common in Chinese brush painting (CBP) water-scapes.  In the two compositions below by artist Hua Sanchuan a sampan is partially hidden behind trees along a shore.  His treatment of the water and the willow are also noteworthy.


What is a “sampan”?

Wikipedia provides a straightforward description: …a relatively flat-bottomed Chinese and Malay wooden boat. Some sampans include a small shelter on board and may be used as a permanent habitation on inland waters. Sampans are generally used for transportation in coastal areas or rivers and are often used as traditional fishing boats. It is unusual for a sampan to sail far from land, as they do not have the means to survive rough weather.”

Interestingly the boat derived its name from two Cantonese characters, one meaning three and the other meaning planks, obviously from its typical construction. The name referred to the hull design: a flat bottom made from one plank, joined to two sides (the other two planks). While not all sampans are precisely sized or include the same components—seats, covered sections, and sails seem to be options—they have many similarities.

From an Encyclopedia Britannica entry are a few more tidbits:

Some have sharp bows, and nearly all have large sterns, with the after portion of the gunwale and deck nearly always raised. Sampans are usually rigged for sailing, sometimes with two masts; otherwise they are rowed with large sweep-type oars. They are usually open or partly decked, with a shelter or cabin aft. In Japan, Hawaii, and Taiwan, a powered boat has been developed out of the traditional Japanese sampan, with a flat-bottomed midsection.

More to learn from Wise Geek at this link:

The sampan is smaller than the type of boat called a junk, with which it is often compared and sometimes confused. Different styles of sampan have developed to fit different purposes, meaning that a sampan is not one, specific type of boat, but a group of boats that may have modifications to fit their locale or use. The most well known sampan, however, is one that is rather long and flat with ends that slightly curve up from the water and some kind of roof that can provide shelter to the passengers. The sampan originated in China, but more recently, use of this type of boat has spread to other countries in East Asia and beyond.

Sampans have a particular type of hull construction that is referred to by several experts as “Chinese hull design.” The hull design generally includes three vertical partitions that create separate compartments on a vessel. The bulkheads are watertight, and the first and last may be allowed to fill with water to act as temporary ballast, steadying the boat in heavy seas. Sampans also feature a characteristic flat bottom without a keel. The traditional model is propelled by an oar or a sail and steered with a rudder.

One site I found that zeroes in on a particular sampan design, the Hungtou or Shanghai Harbour Sampan, has an abundance of curious facts and illustrations. It includes this very helpful sketch.


An artist named Ardon has gone in the direction I was aiming for—he pulled together this illustration of ‘how to draw a sampan’:



Other Sampan facts gathered from various sources:

–in some parts called the Chinese shoe-boat

–design is similar to a punt or a skow

–it is sometimes confused with a “junk” but those are typically larger

–appears rather long and flat with ends slightly curved upwards

–the sampan has no keel; it is typically steered with a long oar stuck in a slot at the stern (rear) of the boat; hence the oarsman commonly seen standing at the back of a sampan

–sampans commonly have three sections partitioned off below deck and the two endmost can be filed with water for ballast; hence their appearance to ride low in the water

–the long sculling oar is called a yuloh

–typically sampans are in the range of 11 to 14.5 feet long, so proportionately an average Asian adult propelling one would appear roughly a third the length of the boat (the boat would be three times the oarsman’s height).

Getting on with ‘floating my boat, the sampan’

Sampans are commonly depicted as simple line drawings. And as friend and mentor Nenagh Molson demonstrated years ago in a workshop on small figure painting, you paint the boat ON the blank paper without a water line; let the eye envision the water around your lines.

Here are some of my quick sketches of sampans based on the MSGM entries:

The oarsman may be sitting or standing. (As a long time canoeist who knows enough not to stand in a boat I had to remind myself sampans have no keel, and are thus more like a raft in terms of stability.)

You may have one or even two arched covers over the midsection and when fishermen are out at night, lights may glow through the covered area. Sampans are commonly used in cormorant-aided fishing and a bird or two may be perched on the small boats. The nets may be indicated with a pull line, or a four-point holder. Sails may be shown furled or not; in a river the small boat may even be seen pulled by land-based men or oxen.

Compositions typically place sampans among reeds, grasses, willows, and similar shoreline elements. And yes, the MSGM does say it is more skillful to paint half a boat! The reasoning is that the boat’s proportion (3 x the height of a person) could result in a painting being dominated or over-crowded by the whole boat. As always, the power of suggestion is more enthralling, and thus painting a sampan emerging from the reeds/willows is more interesting than showing the whole boat.

SL-sampanComp 1

From The Art of Stephen Lowe is this stunning example of ‘half a boat is better than a whole boat”.  He titled it ” I sing,,,the moon encourages me”

Also from Stephen Lowe is another example of using a sampan dramatically in what he titled “Today is Like a Small Year”:


The MSGM helpfully gives examples of sampans moving in different directions. Movement at an angle injects some depth into a painting and the postures of the oarsmen/women can provide tension or indications of the weather.

My Sampan studies:

Inspired by Lowe and Zhang’s depictions of sampans, I started with individual boats and pushed myself to show a host of them anchored at shore, outside houses on stilts, and in transit. And yes, it helps if you consider the freight could be casks of wine while you ‘bring home’ your little boats. Here’s my first sketch in the manner of Stephen Lowe’s


and then I pushed that composition along to this stage:


My figure and moon were too messy for gluing.  Working with such a fine detail brush takes practice to achieve even tones and stroke widths.  A Facebook art group friend shared these compositions by Hua Sanchuan (1930-2004):


I love his treatment of willow and water, and of course there’s the ‘half-boat’ treatment to entice the eye in the first one.  Here’s my start on that comp:


Clearly I need to practice the cross-hatching water treatment before moving along with my sampans.  The dotting treatment of the willow is deceptively time-consuming as well. Must do more.  (And Hua Sanchuan was known for his lovely ladies, so I will have to go check that out.)

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The gift (horse) that keeps on giving: a Japanese Ema board

Sometimes when I trip over a legend, myth, or traditional belief from another culture I am totally amazed at the complexity and the “rightness” of the various nuances to the concept. Thus my appreciation of the Ema or Japanese Shinto prayer board has progressed.

Ironically my introduction to the Ema was as a true gift; fellow Chinese brush painter June had acquired numerous mementos from her time in Japan and among them was a small hand-painted board showing a prancing steed. After I presented a demo on horse painting, June “gifted” me the treasure in appreciation of the experience. I loved it, and placed in a display case in my art room.


My first Ema board was a true gift from a painting buddy; I love it.

Only later did I learn that the “gift” was called an Ema, that it has an ancient history in Japan as a means of communicating with the gods, bringing down good wishes upon oneself or others. In fact the kanji for Ema consists of two elements, one depicts “picture” and the other “horse”.  For more info, check this site.

In the beginning, so the story goes, back about 700 AD, people donated horses to shrines so that the gods would bless them with good health, wealth, or other desires. Horses were seen to have special access to the gods. With the creatures being rather expensive, over time the practice of gifting a real horse morphed into simply presenting a depiction of a horse on small boards (made of paper, clay or wood), which were placed at shrines. They would periodically be burned in ritualistic fires.

With even more time passing, the images on the small prayer boards have broadened in scope to include many other animals such as bunnies, pandas, foxes, and so on. And of course, human nature being such as it is, an entire industry emerged associated with the creation, sale, and presentation of Ema boards. In modern Japan well wishers seek special Emas for different life-events, including some associated only with exam writing. How fitting is that!

A fellow CBP artist I’ve met via Facebook recently posted numerous Emas featuring horses. Nancy has acquired a collection, given her strong interest in horses. I fear I may soon be following in her footsteps—there is much to love about horses painted on Ema boards.

My (virtual) collection:

Once introduced to Ema boards, I HAD to find as many examples online as possible. The drawings are typically very dynamic—exactly the kind of horse one wishes to depict. They are mostly line drawings, hence revealing the essential muscles and bones to the equine structure. Often they include fancy harnesses, saddles, and other parade accoutrements. And sometimes even a human companion. Here is a sampling of my findings:


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My first Ema:

I sat down with several images of horses on Ema boards and tried to paint likenesses. My initial results were not satisfactory, as it had been several months since I last painted horses. To further distort a term (crow-fu) used by Bird Woman when she had lost her touch and for a time could not paint crows, I had lost my “horse-fu”.

Aside: Before Hollywood and Disney influenced the term ‘kung-fu’ such that for most people it refers only to a form of martial arts, the term had broader meaning: mastery or expertise of a specified skill or area of knowledge, not just one of the martial arts forms.

Now most dictionaries tell us adding the suffix –fu to a noun is SLANG when in reality users are simply returning the word to its original function!

Not to worry about lost “fu”, emulating horse paintings from Ema boards has a built-in advantage: the depictions are typically line drawings and distill images into essential lines only.


Once I got to this stage of a sketch I realized the feet were placed incorrectly!


I corrected the feet but felt the animal was still rather static-looking


I worked up to adding environmental detail on the next attempt


I considered creating small Ema boards….and discovered I would need to seal the boards before proceeding.

Abandoning the board painting,  I sat down to try some larger compositions involving horses, and before long was back to painting horses in motion, with spirit in greater evidence.


I guess one could say that June’s gift Ema board helped with my wishes: I was producing frame-worthy horse paintings again. My “horse-fu” had returned. Maybe the small Ema boards will yet get finished.











wishing board, votive, prayers board, Ema, Japanese Shinto boards.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, Ema board, painting horses | 2 Comments

Capture the breeze—painting kapok trees

While studying the body of art by contemporary artist Zhang Shipei I spied a distinctive tree appearing in his village scenes. In most instances the tree was large, spreading limbs almost horizontally near the tops, and frequently sporting red dots. Other scene components suggested spring or summer as the season, and I knew his setting was likely his home province of Guangdong, located in South China with capital city Guangzhou. With that in mind, I soon deduced the tree could be none other than kapok (Bombax ceiba).  


Zhang Shipei uses the strong red color of the kapok in bloom to contrast with other strong color in his water village scenes.

It is a kind of tropical tree known to Chinese people as mumian or “cotton tree” and sometimes “silk tree”. For centuries those living in Guanzhou have used the “cotton” (i.e. the fluffy substance kapok produces to disperse its seeds, similar to our familiar cottonwood fluff) for clothing, and the blossoms for herbal tea.  According to one website I found, kapok is the official flower of the city.

As a painting subject, kapok is usually depicted as a branch sporting five-petalled RED blossoms with yellow throats and black stamens. The branch often has a bird or insect as “guest”. It is not commonly treated in CBP instructional books, yet one may discover it in older compositions. Several red flowers could perhaps be confused with kapok—hibiscus, camellia, azalea for example—if one is not careful to note the details.


A more common depiction of the kapok tree as a branch only is this composition by renowned artist Zhao Shao’ang (1905-1998), founder of the Lingnan school of painting.

Zhang depicts kapok mostly as a mature tree and thus as a large, domineering shape rising above other smaller trees and shrubs. Most of the time he also dots in the distinctive red blossoms, but even the bare trees can be recognized by their silhouettes.

My research also revealed that kapok petals can carpet the ground under young trees in much the came way plum and cherry blossoms pile up on boulevards in my hometown each spring. In Hainan province, an island just off the south coast of Zhang’s home province, kapoks are a favored boulevard tree, because that distinctive red petal drop attracts tourists. This site shows the tree in various sizes, sporting lots of blossoms.  (The Wikipedia site linked earlier has lots of detail photos showing buds, flowers, bark, and tree shapes.)


I discerned how to depict kapok trees largely from studying Zhang’s paintings. The very characteristics I observed as distinctively “kapok”—tall in size, sturdy dark trunks, horizontal branching, deciduous, red-blossomed—were also the key elements to put into a tree I wished to say “kapok” to an observer. Depending on proximity, one might also dab in black centres to the red blossoms. Research revealed the bark of the kapok is prickled when young (resembling the surface of a pineapple) with the prickles wearing off with age; hence the bark on mature trees appears mottled, somewhat in the manner of pine, but not as colorful.

For individual branches of kapok—best addressed in another post some other day—I have a note package from former mentor and friend, John Nip.

My kapok tree studies:

Zhang uses kapok trees in three main ways: (1) as a single dominant feature such as in this stunning composition:


(2) as the means of injecting strong color into a landscape with several trees such as the composition shown earlier in this post (see below)


and (3) as an interesting, contrasting shape among other trees and shrubs in a landscape:


I started with Zhang’s big red kapok with the bridge in the background. I was comfortable with  depicting the water buffalo, the small human figures, the dog, the arched bridge, and even the strong red sun.  The tree was totally new to me. As often happens, it took several attempts to discover the best procedure to follow.

On my first attempt I tried depicting the tree first, adding the red blossoms and other elements afterwards.  As shown in the detail shot below, trying to place red blossoms after painting in the trunk, limbs and branches did not yield a satisfactory tree; the red appeared muddy over top of the dark trunk.


I tried painting a kapok tree by dabbing in the red blossoms first, and then adding the branches, limbs, and trunk.  Below is a close-up of the tree using that method.


After my second attempt I realized working ‘top down’ for the tree was indeed a good idea, BUT it was possible to work simultaneously on red blossoms and tree parts (branches, limb, trunk) keeping two brushes in my left hand, switching them out as I worked down. Otherwise (red first, OR tree parts first) I couldn’t work on a pleasing dispersal of the blossoms AND get the branching to look right.  It was important to achieve different tones of the red among my blossoms, different appearances to the flowers (some face up, some down, some show their backs, etc.) and get the right SIZE for the blossoms.

This last concern is very tricky–you are representing a WHOLE tree in bloom with fewer than a realistic number of blossoms, you want the proportion of blossom to branching to look “right”, AND you want the tree parts to typify the kapok–sturdy trunks and limbs, inky branches, and rough bark!  Dabbing in black dots on the blossoms suggested the presence of black stamens, adjusting blossom clusters with dabs of red worked well as long as I aimed for smaller dabs (buds) near branch ends and kept the blossoms stretched out along the branches (they don’t cluster like other blossoms such as apple, peach and pear).

Here is my third take on the kapok tree, with the red sun, the bridge, some figures and animals.  I am liking how the dominant tree looks.


I set it aside to dry before adding skin tones to the figures and touching up the bridge. I dropped a mat over the partially completed comp to check how elements were working (or not).


I am ready to move on and try several kapoks in a village scene, or maybe a single, spindly one such as Zhang Shipei painted in this composition:


The distinctive branching and red blossoms are fun to put together with other water village elements.  What’s not to love with this man’s style!










Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, kapok trees, painting trees | Leave a comment

Part 2: Under my scope–Zhang’s Treatment of figures and animals

Instinctively I knew there were many aspects to Zhang Shipei’s painting style that I loved. For the sake of greater understanding I set out to assess individual elements and then try to emulate them. I also recognized that his style was probably best described using the term “stylized”, a relative term meaning he’s not striving for a realistic (or naturalistic) subject portrayal.

Truth be told, I poked around my art resources and online hoping to find a definitive discussion of visual art style descriptors, specifically an explanation of “stylized”. It is all “relative”; the most helpful summation being this: the less a work of art resembles something in the physical world, the more stylized it is. That meant I was on my own with a structured approach to deciphering the elements that made Zhang’s style so appealing to me.

Knowing my own preference for figure and animal painting, I recognized Zhang favored those subjects as well. He also painted predominantly water village scenes. In his landscapes I recognized foliage and tree shapes that were clearly depicting banana trees, willows and kapok trees. So my study thus zoomed in to what was this artist doing to portray such appealing figures, animals and village scenes.

Zhang’s Animals

His repertoire includes water buffalo, chickens, black geese, white ducks, dogs, Asian deer (at maturity they have dotted backs the way our western fawns do) and pigs (I found those in a few paintings done in honor of the last year of the pig, 2019). In each portrayal he basically reduces the “essence” or distinctive features of the shape of the animal to minimal lines and/or minimal coloring.

The chickens are dark silhouettes with obvious “drumsticks” for legs, the black geese have long, curved necks, the deer are even further “stylized” with pointy snouts, delicate legs, and even dark tails and spotted backs. All are rendered with minimal strokes. Little dabs of red complete the chicken outlines, watery dark marks show the big liquid-y eyes on the deer, rough brushwork ending in business-like tips depict the true texture of water-buffalo horns.

Here are my first hens and black geese in the manner of Zhang:

Then I tried his dog shapes, leaving a bit of white to separate the head and flipping up the tail in a friendly manner:


I went on to deer silhouettes (without the spots for now), and then tried a few waer buffalo.


Zhang’s Figures/people

Zhang typically paints a dark blob for the human head, roughly depicts body sections and limbs, and adds minimal splotches of skin color to convey faces, arms, and legs. He typically poses them in casual activities like fishing, doing laundry, harvesting, picnicking, or engaging in any familial or farm function (cooking, eating, playing a musical instrument, relaxing, harvesting, etc.)

Initially I tried a few figures based on small scenarios in some of Zhang’s larger landscapes—people walking, swimming, buffalo herding and fishing.

MyZSfigures1   MyZSfamPicnic




I tried a few family scenarios; this one uses the dogs and hens.


When I moved on to emulating his musical concerts I discovered a few things.

I had to depict the instrument FIRST before creating the body around it; otherwise I was losing the instrument in the silhouette. I also found I tended to depict a face, whereas Zhang uses a black oval for the full head (hair plus face). Somehow his neck-less ovals work.

Of all the animals I thought my water buffalo were working out best, and I was happy with people in domestic activities.  I found several of his less complex village scenes that held appeal, and started to grind ink… I can see many more happy days spent studying this man’s art.





Posted in children, Chinese Brush Painting, painting figures, painting water buffalo, people, stylized style | Leave a comment

When you fall in love, deconstruct.

Every so often in my exploration of this ancient art form known as Chinese brush painting or CBP (so called because the brush you use is handmade in China according to traditional ways) I trip over an artist whose work I absolutely LOVE. In this regard I am not alone. Sometimes even two or more of us in my art groups fall for the same artist.

This is what happened recently when June and I discovered the work of a contemporary painter, Zhang Shipei. The LOVE was both intense and instant.


Sometimes when we study art in books we fail to truly grasp the true scale the artists prefers for working.  Zhang Shipei’s trademark stylized deer are huge in this image of him at work.

For the sake of greater learning from Zhang’s amazing body of work I took the time to amass images of his work and plan for individual studies of different aspects to his style. I found a considerable number of his paintings at this website as well as a bio.

As discussed in a recent post, there are numerous hallmarks to an individual’s artistic style—subject preferences, color choices, treatment of details, brushwork, compositional elements, etc. What follows are my insights into the appeal of Zhang’s paintings.

His methods:

Even though I cannot understand the Chinese commentator, this Youtube video (which appears to be a regional television spot about Zhang and his work), reveals a basic preferred method to producing a painting.

He works on large papers with a large soft brush and some smaller ones for detail work. He first does some line work in dark ink and then applies several shades of grey ink tones to further define shaded areas in buildings, shrubbery, trees, rocks, and clouds. He adds some flesh tones to any figures, and scuffs in color as desired. (More on his manner of painting figures and certain animals later.) In any landscape he usually has one dominant color such as mineral green, vermilion, yellow, mauve or blue. He has a website featuring his work here.

His favorite subjects:

To no surprise, this painter from a rural province in China paints what he knows—mostly water village scenes with houses, boats, trees, people and animals. His repertoire of animals includes water buffalo, dogs, deer, geese, chickens and ducks. He also paints groups of people, often family groups engaged in common domestic activities and clusters of musicians. His landscapes feature obvious banana trees, bamboo, pines, and marsh grasses.

My first TWO attempts at emulating his landscapes are these:


In both compositions there are aspects to love:  the use of white space, simplicity of elements, color choices. Neither of these met with my total satisfaction, but I learned a lot in taking them both to completion.


I discovered that lovely night time color in the LEFT composition could be achieved with indigo and one of my four reds, and will employ that again. I dropped in the yellow moon and its reflected light before using the mauve color; next time I’ll do those horizontal moonlight strokes in the water simultaneously with the mauve, aiming for stronger color and finer lines.  I should have put a yellow dab in the boat out front as the fisherman is clearly ‘at work’.

The inspiration comp of Zhang Shipei’s I used for the comp on the right above used yellow as the dominant foliage all over color; I chose vermilion (to complement the turquoise of the mineral green paint and appear fall-like).  Next time I’ll use the same color scheme but aim for more consistent foliage texturing in the larger trees. Here I had quickly scuffed in the textures, not maintaining consistent moisture levels, ink tones, or brushwork as carefully as I wished.  The figures on the lower left turned out smaller than those in the mid distance, which is unrealistic enough to bother me.

Overall, my first two landscapes ‘in the manner of Zhang Shipei’ were encouraging. And in the manner I have been taught by another mentor, I will ‘do more’.


Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, landscape | 2 Comments

Sponge-dabbing for effect

My recent experiments with bubble and mono printing reminded me of the fun effects you can achieve with sponge-printing. I hadn’t done this since childhood and never using my CBP tools. 

Sea sponges are best for this as they have a more random pattern to the holes than manufactured foam sponges. The technique is simple: you wet a sponge with clear water, squeeze dry, dab into a small puddle of color, then apply to your paper surface.

Okay, so that is where some measure of control has to occur: you may want to place the texture in certain spots, to achieve a range of values, and definitely avoid a build-up of color that you could have achieved with a wide brush stroke. Sponge-dabbing takes some practice and definitely takes an openness to serendipity. Plan for an “anything can happen” afternoon. Of course you get better results if you have some concepts of what subjects lend themselves to texturing and how colors work in compositions.

Here are two of my recent experiments using sponge-dabbing; each exploits a different aspect to the procedure.

  1. Sponge-dabs for textured surrounding or background.

In this experiment I had painted a mermaid on a rock, my inspiration being a very old woodblock print illustrating a Greek myth in an old book. After a rock painting demo I searched through my file for something to inspire a different kind of rock setting. My intention was to render a very jagged single rock with lots of moss dots, maybe metallic blue ones.

The procedure with depicting rocks (outlining, modeling and then washing over) is fairly straightforward. I painted the mermaid first and then set about to depict the rock she sat on. As I extended the long lines of rock below her, my lines were more curved than jagged. But this was an experiment so I went with the flow.

Once my lady and her rock were dry I mixed several shades of indigo and sky blue on a large plate white “dish” (a former meat tray). I wet and squeezed out a sea sponge, dabbed it into the blues, dabbed off excess color on paper towels, then dabbed at the sea around my lady. Care had to be taken not to get color TOO heavily applied in any one area. At first I just dabbed in the surrounding sea water (working from the back), then deliberately dabbed more of the indigo values over top of the rock from the front side of the paper as well.


Studying the overall result, I decided heavier moss dots were needed on the rocks. On discovering that a blue oval mat suited this Water Lady more than an oblong black one, and the mat fit into a standard pewter frame, I then considered silver metallic moss dots on the rocks…. metallic paint only sticks/shows when applied OVER other paint.

The end result:


  1. Sponge-dabs for masses of color (landscape)

In this experiment I chose to work with several colors, staying close to the true values of indigo, yellow and vermilion in my paint pots. Sponge-dabbing can result in curved shapes that are very suggestive of deciduous tree foliage. (If more rectangular shapes are needed, one could mask areas using strips of scrap paper. I’ve made simple pine tree shapes on Christmas cards using a triangular stencil.)

I planned this comp to include several tree shapes in fall colors, with a building roofline emerging above the trees and some sky effects in the upper regions. One should also consider leaving lots of “white” or empty space in a painting for balance and focus.   First I mixed the colors on my flat white Styrofoam tray, rinsed my sponge, and dabbed in tree foliage. I added a few swishes of water and pale blues where I planned the sky (shown on the right.)


Now this is where a “happy accident” occurred and led to a better end result than had been planned. I let the sponged paper dry and took it to art group with me. When I set out my table and sat down to paint, I inadvertently placed my paper UPSIDE DOWN on the painting felt. I prepared my ink and picked out the tree branches, the tree trunks, the building roofline…and then hovered over the “sky” to the right of the building. Where had my sky swishes gone? Were they too pale now that they had dried?   Then I realized the mistake; my sky swishes were now at the bottom of my painting!


Without realizing it, I had oriented my prepared background so that the “sky” was on the bottom.

What to do? Consulting with art group friends, I decided on a serendipitous save: use the light blue planned sky now showing up at the bottom as a lake (add a boat or water fowl) and paint a new sky. I added NEW sky swishes and dropped in high-flying nondescript birds, then a simple boat in the lower region. Here is the final comp.


And with some clever cropping, I could use parts for different scenes for cards.



  1.  I want to go back and try to get that rock more jagged; still planning to sponge texture for the water around it.
  2. I LOVE the landscape effect; another few attempts with different color schemes would be fun.
  3. Just discovered there is a Japanese term for preparing marbled paper which can be used for backgrounds (suminagashi); so my experiments with different methods of treating paper before painting have not ended.  And there’s also the ‘poured or splashed ink’ aka ‘po-mo’ technique which has been around since 1495.  Stay tuned.
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