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.
Posted in background painting, Chinese Brush Painting | Leave a comment

A matter of style

I’ve been feeling like the ugly duckling in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, a “strange bird” among fellow artists all diligently painting beautiful compositions with a Chinese brush. Where those around me sit down with the four treasures—ink, stone, paper and brush—and create magnificent paintings I have struggled to vary ink tones, control moisture pooling, lay down outlines that are thick and then thin in just the right places.

I was drawn to this art form by its simplicity of form and elegance of design. But I quickly learned how utterly challenging and difficult every single brush stroke could be.

inspiring CBP

A wall scroll similar to this one  with plum blossom and bamboo first drew me to the art form.

After almost a decade of wielding the brush I can at last say with some measure of confidence: I am a Chinese brush painter.

And I think I may have stumbled upon what is ‘my style’.

A long and winding road

Years ago when I first heard that the traditional path to becoming an artist in China meant 20 years of calligraphy, followed by 20 years of the four gentlemen, then 20 years of various subjects, BEFORE one could dare to cultivate an individualistic approach to the art form, I was both amazed and humbled by the discipline. But not deterred.

After a career in communications and teaching, I was fairly knowledgeable about the process of learning and creativity, especially among adults. I was also hugely aware of my own preferred learning style. When you consider I simply did not have another 60 years to my future, you can understand why this self-awareness was important.   If I were to develop some adeptness at any new activity, I would have to buckle down and get on the fast track: take lessons, study art, attend galleries and showings, join art groups, seek out mentors, invite critiques, and practice, practice, practice.

Those who can, do

I am frequently amazed to see a pragmatic and single-minded approach to art demonstrated by others. They discover Chinese brush painting for example, take a few lessons, and then QUICKLY zero in on the precise subject and style in which they excel. I have only to look around my art groups to see several examples of this.  Consider John Hart whose floral sprays and vases are influenced by his Hawaiian holidays. He knows what works for him.

Then there’s Delightful Lotus whose gongbi masterpieces are large and detailed, and Bird Woman who interprets western landscapes with a distinctive Chinese brush flavor. Her mastery of many shades of green based solely on traditional ink chips is amazing. They know what they like, the colors they prefer using, the brushes that work best for the desired results. And their individual subjects are no accident. These are among the hallmarks of an artist’s style.

This is not to say that artists with a distinctive style don’t stray from their preferred path. The three I have named above DO try other subjects, they do play with colors, and like me, they do succumb to the purchase of a yet another book, brush, or odd fancy paper. But they also DO a number of things that lead to development of individual style.

Zero to ninety, the artistic way

Earlier in this post I noted things a wannabe artist can do to move along the path to individualism in as short a time as possible. For that is the goal of most who tentatively approach our art groups or demo tables, and purchase their first brushes and ink. To repeat : take lessons, study art, attend galleries and showings, join art groups, seek out mentors, invite critiques, and practice, practice, practice

Then there’s the necessary “winnowing”. Listen to your instincts and ‘paint what you know’. If you are drawn to flowers—their form, their colors, their nuances—then stick to floral subjects. If you have a thing for dogs or cats, birds or beasts, elephants, penguins, turtles…even pigs, then paint them and only them until their shapes and distinctive details become second nature. If you spy an artist whose work intrigues you, then study their work to determine WHY.

Scare yourself, take a stretch

Every so often it doesn’t hurt to step outside your comfort zone. If like me, you are not fond of mums, then you might just learn something if you take an open mind to a demo on chrysanthemum painting. It IS one of the four gentlemen for good reason. Last time out the take-away for me was: be sure to paint the vein line in mum leaves right to the edge of the leaf. The veins in the leaf on the left below do not extend right to the leaf edge; in the two examples to the right those veins go right to the outermost rims of each leaf AND the side veins emerge clearly from the central vein.

Aha, what a difference in the look of the leaves! One simple TIP makes a huge difference in all kinds of things…on another occasion it was: use indigo for the veins instead of dark ink.

Last year Lotus and I ‘jumped to the front’ for our group leader who had been “asked” by the House to promote our group with an open house/demo series. We are both former teachers, so delivering demos on subjects we love was not too ‘scary’ for either of us. But we did witness some ‘scary’ endeavors on the part of two other artists, which were duly noted.

A highly skilled realistic floral painter who happened to be on volunteer duty in the tea room made a point of dropping in for part of our demos, just “to show some support” he said. (Right. He was there for the ‘stretch’.) Afterward he disclosed his amazement at how simply and effectively I rendered a bamboo cane complete with shaded stalk, darkened nodes, crisp leaves, and delicate tips in a matter of minutes with only a few careful loads of my big soft Chinese brush. His approach to bamboo in acrylics is far more tedious and painstakingly detailed. Maybe that will change? He also was astute enough to know my bamboo painting was a well-honed parlor trick, deliberately included as a warm-up to horse-painting. It caught everyone’s attention as intended, and put me at ease for the challenge to follow.

The other ‘scare’ that day was to have a mentor/teacher join our little audience. Yikes! Was she there to intimidate? Of course NOT. She is a very accomplished Chinese brush painter with a diverse repertoire at her command and solo shows to boot. She also has had a longtime love of horses, but alas her own CBP lessons did not include the painting of horses; the horse hadn’t been in her own teacher’s repertoire either.

I had chosen the horse as my demo subject because I knew it well, I had studied it thoroughly (ten books and counting, all ‘worked through’ to boot.) and I have practiced prodigiously. The presence of such an accomplished artist nevertheless pumped up my adrenaline, and pushed me to do better. It did take a few self-reminders: you are doing the demo because you can, you know how to do horses, whatever you achieve will be more than those in front of you know already, you don’t have to achieve perfection…etc. etc.

Laugh and the world laughs with you

One of the biggest challenges for some adult learners is to get over their fear of criticism. Public criticism.   My advice is to just ‘get over it, you’re a big kid now’, IF you can. I’ll admit that some of us do take a bit of coddling, but the quickest way to overcome fear of criticism is to join a group and seek out the feedback. Take baby steps—ask first for the opinions of others on compositions in books: what do you think of this artist’s bamboo? Any idea how that one got such a good expression on the cat? THEN you can gradually move to asking someone whose judgment you trust to opine on YOUR brushwork, your composition, your dear-to-your-heart attempts to emulate greatness.

And you just might learn a few things about the foibles of others. I know I have, and they remind me that others too have made booboos, stretched to recover a slip-up, overcome weaknesses, and often moved on to much greater things.

I’ve heard of the legendary ‘cock-up’ performed—before my time—by a group member who obtained the correct calligraphy for the word “peacock” to accompany one of her comps, only to get it turned around in the transfer from bulletin board to painting. She rendered the final wording upside down…and then sold the painting. The mentor who attended my horse demo showed us this Mum comp in which she ran out of paper. Some of us do that routinely with trees painted top-down, in the traditional manner.


Look carefully just below the vase base (and above the red chop) to see if you can detect where the artist added paper after the painting was near completion.

Those among us who have had to ‘add a bee’ or other insect to cover an ink blob or color stain is probably uncountable. Here’s a recent rooter painting of mine in which you might admire the splatter painting background. That was not part of the plan, but it had to be done once I dropped a splotch. That sort of thing should really be part of the ‘never apologize, never explain’ experiences. Let your viewers think what they see was all neatly planned and executed.


And it doesn’t hurt to ask others ‘what do you think’. There’s so much to learn about this complex subject of CBP, after all it has grown over many centuries of study. If there’s a way to save a painting, then why not open your mind to possibilities. Many cooks can indeed save a broth.

Recent insights of mine from a range of sources: mixing burnt sienna with a bit of indigo for a pale greenish wash over a rock face may be just the finishing touch to a ‘bird on rock’ comp. If you have one bit of bright blue or red in one area of a landscape (worse yet, inadvertently drop or smudge some in) then deliberately place the same value in two or three other spots as well. Overcome the nasty ‘parallel lines’ or railroad track look that distracts from the subject with some clever over painting of foliage. Limit your color palette. When starting a lotus leaf outline quickly with pale indigo ink leaving a thickened line on the inside curves, thin on the outer curve. (Nenagh’s example is in the upper left corner, my simulation below it, and a textbook sketch with obvious thick/thin treatment is on the right.)

My tip sheet is always growing.

So what IS my style?

Here is one man’s definition of style from a random online source:basically the manner in which the artist portrays his or her subject matter and how the artist expresses his or her vision. Style is determined by the characteristics that describe the artwork, such as the way the artist employs form, color, and composition, to name just a few.”

On reflection then, the hallmarks to my emerging style include:

  1. Wonky birds and animals, as opposed to realistic interpretations. Here are “my” kind of crows:
  2. Animal portraits: horses, donkeys, monkeys, roosters, cats, dogs, mandarins, herons, owls, eagles, frogs, gold fish, water buffalo, perhaps all zodiac animals.


    I have painted cats often enough to dare to paint freehand right on cardstock, or in this case, fancy petal-infused paper. Every stroke has to be just right to pull this off.

  3. Landscapes featuring mountains, trees, rural villages both Asian and western.
  4. Figure painting. I love the classic laughing buddhas, seven sages, pretty women, children, musicians, common folk in rural scenes.

    4. InTheGrove (sages)

    Depiction of the Seven Sages in a Bamboo Grove is a conventional composition in CBP; this must be my tenth such interpretation.

  5. Set pieces.   I can flesh out an animal portrait with bamboo, pine, willow, grasses, lotus, splatter, washes, the suggestion of sky or amorphous back-ground.

Perhaps my style is also defined by some aspects to CBP that simply aren’t me:

  1. bird and flower comps where both are interpreted quite realistically
  2. anything gongbi style—moku and outline methods hold greater appeal.
  3. Landscapes featuring Asian-looking mountains. (Perhaps that would change if I ventured to those region and inhaled that mountain air.)
  4. Complementary calligraphy.

To conclude this post’s reflections on ten years happily spent, I invite any insights my friends and followers can offer; what’s my style?

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, style | 3 Comments

When ‘mono’ means more—a print as background (part 1)

If you should ever feel ‘stuck in a rut’ or simply uninspired for a subject with Chinese brush painting (CBP), then some serendipitous means of doing backgrounds might just provide that needed ‘kick start’ to get you going down a new creative path. Working with a monoprint is one such method.

In this context the term ‘monoprint’ refers to the unique impression you create on a piece of paper by pressing it against a randomly distributed mess of ink and/or paint on a surface such as glass, plastic or roughened plexiglass.

I have played with background washes in the past, even applying some from the back of a painting to great effect. I’ve also done some background texturing using the ‘crumpled paper’ method and various means of texture-dabbing: sponges, erasers, vegetables, wadded paper towels.

These methods have for the most part involved careful placement of the desired treatment around or over a finished subject. (Painting on crumpled paper so that the ink is captured on the raised portions, then flattening the paper and completing a composition with that textured area as a rock or tree is usually done with a pre-planned comp in mind.) In my last blog post I reported on my first attempts at using bubbled ink to create an arbitrary background that I then used to inspire the actual composition. Here I will talk about my discoveries while creating monoprints to use as composition “starters”. I’ll focus only on the actual printing in this post and address the “picking out a composition” in a second post.

Mono magic

There are basically two ways you can integrate monoprints into your CBP repertoire. One is to aim for a marbled or swirly mix of soft colors that becomes the “sky” to a traditional bird-and-flower or landscape painting. You are essentially painting the background before the main subject, rather than dropping a wash or other sky treatment into a finished painting.

The second manner, and this one tends to be more creative in the true sense of the word, is to create a monoprint and THEN look at the shapes and textures determining what subject the print suggests or tells you it can become! Yes, it’s kind of like creating your very own Rorschach blots and adding lines and shapes to reveal a more complete and recognizable image.


  1. I first encountered the use of monoprints as the foundation for a painting in the work of a highly skilled Chinese brush painter in my local community, Arlene Davey aka Delightful Lotus. She shared some of her techniques with me. Here are a few examples of her work:

For these three compositions Lotus used “starter” images created by pressing paper on to a hard surface where she had dropped colors and a spray of water.  Once dry, the images served to “suggest” what composition could be painted to incorporate that particular background.  Look closely at the swirls of marbling and see if you can deduce why the snake is positioned as he is, why the wisteria is suspended just there, and how the lotus composition elements are “extracted” from the background print.

Below is one of the first flower paintings Lotus completed after acquiring a new tube of paint: can you guess what color that was?  More to the point, study how the rock and foliage is shaped over areas of marbling.


Here are two more examples from Lotus’ art files of monoprints developed into compositions :

You can see in the pumpkin patch that a moon emerged from a white space in the upper left; the flying birds enhanced the depth in the comp, as did the curved lines added in the upper right. On the right is a detail shot of several experiments Lotus engaged in with a single monoprint as the starting point. She used a resist to achieve the white swirls later picked out as rough water on the left, the blue dots in the trees were in advance of using such dots in another landscape painting, and the opera pink under-glow was likely just seeing what might be done with it in a background.

  1. Henry Li of Blue Heron Arts has also addressed using monoprints (primarily for landscape painting) in several Youtube videos, two of which can be seen here and here.

General Method:

In addition to your usual inks, paints, brushes, papers, etc. there are only a few extra items needed for creating a monoprint:

  1. a textured surface (I used an old glass bottom from a microwave; Henry Li used a small sheet of plexiglass purchased online. )
  2. a balloon
  3. an eyedropper

Basically the procedure consists of spilling ink and some colors (Henry Li also incorporated a wheat starch mixture which would serve to create “white space” in the resulting print) on to a hard surface, pressing a paper against it, then lifting that paper and setting it aside to dry. Henry Li pressed a balloon against his spilled mixture and then pressed the balloon against a sheet of paper in random placements.

Falling into a monoprint or two:

For my first experiments with monoprinting I aimed to create some interesting marbled or textured splotches that could be turned into landscapes with judicious addition of brushwork. Faced with a couple of saucers of greens left after an afternoon of painting lotus leaves, I spilled them on to the smooth plastic surface of my gluing board. I recalled that Lotus had told me she used plain glass as the surface for her monoprinting; I hadn’t as yet tracked down roughened plexiglass or plastic. I pushed the colors around the board a bit.


I took two impressions from the green spills using plain rice paper, and set them aside to dry. The first dried to this rather intense marbled sheet:



The second is much softer in tone and has only a few distinct shapes:


On another afternoon (after viewing several of Henry LI’s Youtube videos on monoprinting) I overturned an old glass bottom from a microwave, spilled ink and added some vermilion paint with the hope of generating a few prints to use for landscapes.

I pulled three prints from the one spill before my ink appeared to be used up.

I squirted some water on the remainder and pulled one more print.


(As mentioned earlier I’ll reserve discussion of my “picking” out compositions for a second blog post…coming soon.)


  1. Intensity matters. The all-over, intense green (first) print I pulled could be used for a patch of lotus leaves, maybe. A print of softer tones would be easier to develop into a composition. (That intensely colored print could be used as a background to a painting by bonding it to the back of a completed composition; especially if the top painting was done on more fibrous paper like Dragon Cloud.)
  2. Placement matters. I saw that Henry Li judiciously placed textured smudges leaving white spaces between them (as you do in placing mountain peaks in the far distance). He also used the blotchy fan-like shape coming off a balloon in “repeats” that again could be easily foreseen as future mountain or rock shapes. My balloon manipulation didn’t get past circular blots on my first experiments, but I see the potential.
  3. Expectations can go unmet. Sometimes a blob is just a blob, and you need to edit out what doesn’t speak to you. (Easy for me to say; knowing and doing don’t always align in my art room!)
  4. Keep the colors simple; there’s less chance of a muddy print that way and you can always add color later.
  5. I dropped water on my hard glass surface to try and dilute some of the ink. Perhaps premixing saucers of ink in different values, AND THEN dropping the toned ink in different areas would help lead to more varied “values” on the end prints.
  6. Some of the painting principles you “know” help guide your print-making: the conventional Z-shape of a CBP composition dictates an effort to drop the ink on your plate in threes, roughly at the points of an imagined triangular shape. Do be aware of the need for white space.
  7. Lotus used a casein resist in her sparkle print eventually turned into water; Li used wheat starch for a resist. I have yet to explore just how a resist could be exploited in this whole process.
  8. My vermillion color rapidly disappeared as I played at the print process. One has to be prepared to use colors and paper more freely in this activity.
  9. Use colors you like and you will have more fun. I don’t like browns and golds as much as the greens and blues, so trying to “see” the potential in a print of greens is easier for me.
  10. Do more, do more, do more. (I hear you, dear friend John!)







Henri Li on monoprint bgs:


the above is part 1-1 running about 22 mins. Very talky.

Part 2 is about 12 minutes. With Cliff Brown in Sa Diego 2017

Henry uses plexiglass sheets, he sands them to create a ruff texture.

He mixes up wheat starch with boiling water 10-1 ratio to make a translucent mixture.

He drops inks on the plexiglass surface, smears in some wheat starch mix. Then blows up a balloom to press on to the surface to spread out inks in textured and toned manner. Press paper to the surface, or press the balloon to a surface, or press two sheets of plexi together and pull apart…..


Create a textured surface and then use brushwork to define plants, mountains, flowers, etc.


See 7- 8 minute mark of the second video for how he controls placement of the ‘smudges’ for mountains with trees in front.



Posted in background painting, Chinese Brush Painting, composition, monoprinting, painting landscapes | Leave a comment

Backgrounds that Bubble

I’ve been thinking of Lawrence Welk these last few days. Not because of any great love for big band music of old, vintage television, or even the fact he was a distant cousin of my mother-in-law. It’s his trademark ‘bubble machine’ I’ve been pining for, that strange contraption he employed to generate meandering champagne bubble special effects. I’m wondering if such a machine might be found on e-bay and at an affordable price…

A few weeks ago a posting on one of my Facebook art group sites caught my eye. A Chinese brush painter based in San Diego, California (Clifford Brown) had created a clever little composition of a tropical fish on a ‘bubble-painted’ background.


He briefly noted his ‘recipe’ was something like two-parts Phthalo blue, two-parts Colorado River water, and one-part Dawn dish detergent. I was intrigued.

Years ago I did a lot of sponge painting with groups of children at summer camp, and later in primary school art classes. We also did quite a bit of print-making with poster paints and kitchen things like potatoes and various utensils. Those creations were just playful, serendipitous arrangements of colored imprints on paper. Mr. Brown’s bubble painting had an all-over splotchy background in blue tones that looked more controlled, and also more ‘deep-ocean’ like. So I Googled ‘bubble-painting’ and got out my dish detergent.


From several Youtube videos and other assorted art/craft sites I deduced Mr. Brown’s formula for a mix of color-water-detergent was fundamental. Other essentials were also in my art room or kitchen: small container, paper, spatula, drinking straw. You mix up the solution, blow bubbles with the drinking-straw, and transfer bubble clusters to your waiting paper, where they are then left to pop and dry. The dried image can then be used as a background for painting.

Mr. Brown painted a tropical fish on his composition and I too went for a blue creation as my first bubble background comp. I’ve studied under-water plants before and have had a mermaid sketch on file for several years that was easy to find.

My first bubble background

I mixed my paint, set out some paper and blew up a mass of bubbles.

I transferred bubbles to the paper, setting them down at random…

…and watched them as they popped, depositing colorful splotches on the paper.

The paper was left to dry. (Remember: one can always use a hair-dryer to speed things up!)  I hunted for my mermaid sketch and considered the drying bubble blotches; those solid blue areas might prove difficult to paint over.  Here is the composition as it came together at art group:


Later in the day I glued the composition and of course my colors are brightened:



  1. I love the result of dried bubbles! You can get a very lacy texture from careful placement of bubble clusters; larger ones that pop and leave more solid blobs of color aren’t quite as appealing for backgrounds.
  2. My first experiment involved only the one mixture of blue; mixed tones and perhaps mixed colors could result in some interesting effects.
  3. I painted my mermaid over top of the dried background and had to contend with larger blobs of color. Fellow CBP artist Delightful Lotus suggested that when ‘picking out’ the underwater plants I could have used those blobby shapes as guides for the curved vegetation. The blobs would then look like darker underwater patches between plants. (Lotus has played more with mono-print backgrounds than I and she has experience “seeing” what the background can “tell” you.)
  4. I am wondering if I couldn’t paint something featuring lotus plants (they typically emerge from muddy surfaces and the stems lift flowers, leaves, and seed heads above water surfaces.) and mask the plants so as to drop the bubbles into select areas, thus avoiding painting over a colored background.

Perhaps it is time to go back to that internet search and check prices on a real bubble machine?


Posted in aquatic plants, background painting, bubble painting, Chinese Brush Painting | Leave a comment