Brush magic, weaving baskets

My first lessons in Chinese Brush Painting (CBP) addressed primarily the four gentlemen—bamboo, orchid, plum and chrysanthemum—and introduced me to the four treasures—ink, stone, paper, and brush. One moment near the end of the ten weeks particularly stood out. My teacher was explaining the attributes of his various brushes and demonstrating with a few quick drawings what they did best. The name of the brush did not stick with me, but what it DID left an indelible impression in my mind.

He dipped the brush in sticky black ink, tipped it off and blotted the heel; then he marked out four rough lines in somewhat of a trapezoid, with a zigzag stroke below. Then he added a few details with a smaller detail brush. Voila—he had thus painted a marvelous basket, which he promptly filled up with cherries. The basket’s handles and woven basin appeared rough, textured—just as raffia should be. The bowl part had dimension to it, the ties that marked joints were tight and efficient.

I now realize he was demonstrating a page right out of Jane Dwight’s Bible of Chinese Brush Painting (page 212 Basket of Cherries).


At the time I was mesmerized by how quickly the basket emerged on the page, and the rough, realistic nature of the woven material. With the benefit of more years of study, and greater knowledge of Chinese brushes, I surmise the brush he used so deftly all those years ago was likely a horsehair brush, which comes in several sizes (small, medium and large).


When dipped in dark ink, then blotted very dry, the bristles of these horsehair brushes make lovely textured lines on paper.

The paper I know to have been simply a good quality practice paper (Moon Palace) and the ink came from a bottle. (Mind you the ink had been sitting out for some time and had likely dried back to what is called a ‘sticky’ stage, something you can also achieve by grinding your own with minimal water.)

There was a time when I played at using (western) watercolors, and I considered paintings of the traditional ‘still life’—an artfully arranged grouping of fruits tumbling from a bowl (or basket) on a rustic table or linen cloth. I never truly saw much appeal in the composition, and never managed to convey textures of any kind—smooth, shiny, rough or fibrous. I laugh at myself now, as I follow my CBP instructor’s lead and quickly brush out lively baskets with a few strokes, sticky ink, common paper, AND the amazing horsehair brush. It’s all in knowing the right tools (and how to use them).

Here’s my version of Jane Dwight’s ‘basket of cherries’:


In my growing library of CBP books I’ve found numerous compositions that include baskets done in similar manner.  a few of my favorite basket-artists are Qi Baishi, Jia Pao-min and Johnson Su-Sing Chow.  The stages in a basket comp are simple enough: rough out your basket, color it in, and fill with fruit.

Planning and executing the basketry can be a challenge; you want to ‘get it right’ in one stroke!


Here’s a stab at one by Johnson Su-sing Chow:


Then two illustrated by Jia Pao-min:

I quickly found I had to carefully think through how much of the basket would be visible in the final image. I had to consider where the upright shafts would show darker (forward) and when they should be lighter (behind or inside).

And of course, the fillers for baskets will need some attention as well.  Peaches and grapes I have done before (you can find the posts using the search function in the upper right corner of this blog), but not cherries and pomegranates.  I have been working on a large comp involving small children, some carrying baskets, which I now realize are all similarly constructed; I think I now have the perfect opportunity to practice more baskets.  The fruits will have to wait.   Jia Pao-min also offers this rendition of a cricket basket, which is unfamiliar to us westerners, but nevertheless a basket that is ‘calling my name’.


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Spitting image, the Bactrian Camel


The camel and I have something in common: we’ve both been called ‘refractory’. The camel in a memorable poem by T.S.Eliot titled The Journey of the Magi, and I by my paternal grandmother on more than one occasion. (She knew using ‘big words’ would get my full attention, more so than a whack or a holler.) There the similarity ends.

I could fade into the sea of grey-haired grannies in my city with ease, but a camel sauntering down the street would attract a crowd. They are such clownish-looking mammals with many features to excite a paintbrush or sketch pen. The camel was a favorite subject of one of China’s late, great painters, Wu Zuoren 1908-1997), renowned supposedly for his ‘depictions of natural scenery’. Most of us who study Chinese Brush Painting (CBP) think of him as the ‘camel guy’.


I’ve looked at Wu Zuoren’s work before, admiring his pine and crabs. I saw examples of his camels, but never truly LOOKED at them. That all changed when a FB friend posted a video of Wu rendering a pair of his favored mammals. I was struck by two things: he started with body strokes (not the eyes and head) and he manipulated the ‘halo’ effects of overlapping grey washes to define muscle groups in an amazing manner. He also had a lot of fun defining comical facial expressions with those distinctive eyelashes, nostrils, and lips. Why hadn’t I noticed before?


Now I wish I could ‘share’ a link to that video but unfortunately it was posted to a Chinese website I can’t navigate (See blue screen above). Wu’s method is enlightening to watch, and I was able to see his ‘process’.


Once I was attracted to painting a camel, I had to research what the critter was all about. I knew they were affectionately dubbed “ships of the desert” and were once believed to store water in their humps. (It is fat they stock in reserve in those humps—one for the dromedary and two for the Arabian or Bactrian—and they can go for long periods of time without consuming water, and then they will slurp up gallons at one go.) I found a couple of books on camel painting in the CBP manner, and pulled out all my Wu Zuoren references.

  1. Selected Paintings of Wu Zuoren and Xiao Shufeng
  2. Mix Painting Camel (Chinese ed.) by Li Heng Cai

Camel Books

Distinctive features:

The Bactrian camel has numerous features that lend themselves to the nuances of Chinese brush painting. The long, upward-curving neck holds the head at a funny angle, contrary to the smooth neck of a horse, donkey, or even water buffalo. The head itself has those big flaring nostrils (that can be closed to keep out sand) and marvelous eyelashes. The animal also has numerous sets of eyelids to protect the eyes, including one set that wipes sideways like windshield wipers. The head topknot and small rounded ears also contribute to a haughty, disdaining demeanor. Add the fact they spit regurgitated stomach contents when in a bad mood—who wouldn’t be in a Zoo or after long trek over the desert—and you’ve got a most arrogant beast.

The following illustrations are from Li Heng Cai’s book; even without command of the Chinese language I can discern significant anatomical features and their relationship to other body parts.

Camel LiHengCai

Camel LiHengCai 1


As for the rest of the body, Wu  zeroed in on the hairy clumps atop the humps, the head, the chest, shoulders, knees and toes for great brushwork. He depicts many rear-end views of camels likely because of the ying-yang effects of slim tail contrasting the rounded butts. He also captures the gangly stride (camels walk with the two legs on each side in concert, unlike horses; this result in that distinctive swinging motion some say is the reason for the ‘ship of the desert’ metaphor.) The leg bones are shorter than in horses, and the feet appear flatter (two-toed and heavily padded for efficient walking in sand).

My camel studies:

I first had to spend time with my sketchbook, working out the proportions and relationships among all the distinctive camel facial features. The only real life camels I’ve examined were zoo residents who kept their distance and spit if they came close. I had to find photographs as well, as one should never trust another artist’s sketches to be anatomically correct, especially a CBP artist (exaggerating certain features to enhance the spirit of an animal is par for the game.)  Here are some sample pages from Li HengCai’s book that offered lots of fodder for my camel sketching:

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Then I discovered command of ‘halo-painting’ had slipped my mind. So, playing with overlapping grey washes was in order.

Finally I moved on to trying whole camels. I started with the eyes and head, as the approach was more comfortable for me. I cannot see why Wu starts with the body anymore than I can grasp why the great horse-painter Xu Beihong starts with the body and neck, not the eyes or head. My only surmise is they like to establish the ‘rounded’ belly/trunk first in order to position the animal, kind of like squaring off in a wrestling or boxing match.  My first camel paintings:

I want to work on ‘halo painting’ more and using various ink tones for effect.  The comical expressions on camel faces intrigue me. And I discovered I have instructions for painting camels using brown colors in a Rebecca Yue book, should I want to go beyond these monochrome studies.



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Red Bamboo says “boo”

As with so many of the traditional subjects in Chinese Brush Painting (CBP), bamboo has a host of conventions associated with it. Several of them have to do with what colors you use and how.

Diana Kan in The How and Why of Chinese Brush Painting notes that a painting of red bamboo can be placed in your home to ward off an evil spirit. That would only seem to work if you used Vermilion (and not crimson) as your “red”, as per the convention.

To obtain the right shade of “purple” in order to paint purple (aka black) bamboo—the canes are indeed purple but the leaves are green—you mix equal portions of ink with crimson red. Purple bamboo is a variety used for making flutes.

Depicting red or purple bamboo in compositions is another subject relegated to the back pages of bamboo instruction books or the last minutes of a workshop/demo. Likewise, until now, such paintings have only received my ‘last minute’ attention.  The subject somehow seemed fitting for a last minute post for the year 2018.

With Christmas in the air, and lots of red decorations about, I sat down to paint with shades of red on my mind. Some time ago I had ordered the four-color sampler package of red chips from an online CBP supply house. The four colors in the sampler are:

  1. CC04 Red
  2. CC08 Dark Red
  3. CC06 Crimson
  4. CC10 Rouge

I have had Vermilion (CC05) chips in my stash for years, using it mostly for flesh tones. (CAUTION: not all color chips will be exactly the SAME; the widest variation in tones shows up in my Burnt Sienna chips. Thankfully one can mix in red or blue tones to achieve the desired shades.)

My ‘last minute’ colored bamboo studies:

The red bamboo leaves on the left sheet were painted with crimson (the last row is thinned out and mixed with a bit of ink). Those on the right sheet were painted with Vermilion, the conventional shade for any Red Bamboo composition.

In a recent workshop artist Nenagh Molson showed us some color variations for bamboo painting that are occasionally used.  I tried a ‘freestyle purple stalk with freestyle green leaves’, and then ‘freestyle with ink outline for a purple and black combination.

With holiday celebrations cutting into my painting time, and new books providing new inspirations, the colored bamboo didn’t progress to full compositions.  I am still working on satisfactory clustering of leaves in outline style from earlier this month–much more challenging than traditional freestyle in monochrome ink studies.  Bamboo studies could indeed fill a lifetime!

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Most Ancient Bamboo style (outline/contour)

As I push deeper into the mysteries of painting bamboo I discover even more painting subtleties that can contribute to the overall effect of any CBP composition. The latest insights pertain to a style of rendering bamboo that some call “outline”, others “elaborate” or “detail” style. Yet another refers to it as “contour” style. Such paintings are sometimes included in the back pages of a book dedicated to bamboo, but very little instruction is given.

Basically the method entails “drawing/sketching” or “outlining” bamboo leaves, stems and stalks with a fine brush and then coloring in the shapes. When the coloring is done in layers of shades with drying in between, it is an approach I’ve previously learned to call “gongbi”.


I have filed away numerous examples of bamboo painted in the outline manner, but so far have found only one manual that offers some direction: Johnson Su-sing Chow’s vol. 2 Book of Bamboo. He tells us there are TWO types of “outline” or “white sketch method”—Tan Kou or single outline and Shuan Kou or double outline.


I bought the book on the left for its crane compositions but soon discovered the artist Liu Shujun used OUTLINE style bamboo (similar to the treatment of narcissus grass on the cover) in several of his paintings.  The book on the right (by Johnson Su-Sing Chow) is the only one I’ve found that  addresses HOW to paint bamboo in outline style.

Chow’s accompanying illustrations and notes all pertain to what he refers to as Shuan Kou, or simply “white sketch” method.  Alas, he does not mention the Tan Kou method again, or explain the single vs. double line distinction. As my online researching was limited to English-only sources, I could find nothing more on the subject.

In workshop notes from local artist Nenagh Molson, the ‘single outline’ method is illustrated as outlining the outer edge of leaves; the ‘double outline’ method is shown with a second pairing of lines to suggest the central vein of each leaf , emerging from the base of a leaf.


This is bamboo in ‘single outline’ or Tan Kou ready to be colorized. Note the few leaves that end slightly twisted; one has to plan to color those differently–usually darker–to indicate the underside of leaves.


This is an example of bamboo sketched in the “double line” sketch method or Shan Kou. There seems to be some leeway in rendering the second (central vein) line: here the line is a single long stroke, some of my examples have a short little vee stroke, others a two-stroke shape that mimics the outer edge lines.

Earlier this year I purchased a book featuring crane paintings by artist Liu Shujun, and soon realized not only did he render the birds in pleasing postures and interactions, BUT he also used unusual treatments for many of the setting elements, his pine and bamboo in particular. On second look, I determined his bamboo in several compositions was done in OUTLINE style! The leaves in two comps appear done with mineral paints (one is green, one is blue) and that would imply they were painted green/blue first, as mineral paints must be applied OVER a color. A third comp shows bamboo in a soft blend of greens and indigo.


Liu Shujun’s bamboo above features a short vee stroke in the centre of each leaf for the central vein.


Here his double outline bamboo leaves are colored blue, with the central vee not quite as dominating.


The ‘second’ strokes are more prominent in his multi-colored Shan Kou bamboo.

I did manage to find an image of an old bamboo painting online, attributed to a Li Kan allegedly in the Sheong Gu style. (another spelling for Shan Ku?)


I also found a book of animals by an artist named Xu Gu of the late nineteenth century (Qing dynasty),  that featured some loosely painted ‘outline style’ bamboo.


Further research led to a web site for The Mozhai Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to furthering appreciation for Chinese art, where Xu Gu’s paintings were discussed.  Squirrels were among his favored subjects; the notes accompanying the above painting at the Mozhai Foundation site provided some insight into painting Shuan Kou style bamboo:

Stalks of bamboo enter the painting from the upper left. In contrast to the “boneless” brush used in Green Bamboo (cat. no. 3), Xugu employs the “ double-outline” method and fills in the forms with color. But unlike a traditional double outline, which relies on long, smooth, flowing lines, the artist employs a thirsty brush with scorched ink in combination with zhan 顫 (quivering), duan 斷 (broken), and nishixing 逆勢行 (reverse-momentum) strokes to outline the bamboo leaves. The resulting linework—rough, broken, and dry— captures the worn appearance of stele engravings and conjures resonance and rhythm that is simultaneously archaic and fresh.”

I then realized I already had some other XuGu paintings in my electronic files, stashed under squirrels:


At first I found  the squirrels rather cartoon-ish, but loved the bamboo; in time, the quirkiness of the squirrels grew on me.  His use of “contrast” as a design principle (arching tails vs. straight canes, line work for the leaves vs. fluffiness of body fur) and the choice of blue (not green) as a dominant color are obvious deliberate decisions contributing to the overall effect.  Outline style bamboo is “growing on me”!

Principles of painting bamboo in White Sketch (ShuanKou/Sheong Gu) or “double outline” method

According to Su-Sing Chow the tan kou and shuan kou are the MOST ancient methods of rendering bamboo. Incised drawings on ancient artifacts of bone, jade, bronze and stone are all predecessors to painting bamboo on silk or paper in this manner.

The lines should be “straight, clear, and accurate and all details must be shown with meticulous care” says Su-Sing Chow. “To learn this more difficult style of painting start by practicing the small branches or a leaf and do them over and over many times. Then try several leaves in a row until you can do them easily.

Leaf lines must be very fine and not appear like steel threads, according to Chow.  You want to render a leaf edge in a ‘thick and thin’ manner (varying the width of the line) and have the ends meet (not overlap/cross and not leave a gap). You want the end points of stems, on the other hand to be OPEN, not meeting or overlapping. (He would obviously be discussing the traditional double line method, not the Xu Gu variations.)

This is a principle that pertains to painting all trees and shrubs as well, but is often neglected by novice painters. To practice outlining leaves and stems so that you can meet your leaf tips, and leave thin stem ends open, all the while maintaining a thin line of ink that shows no hint of hesitancy or re-directing…..I can see why the method is deemed the MOST difficult.

Another tip regarding painting bamboo in this method is to REVERSE the usual order of steps in a composition.   Whereas in ‘freestyle’ (moku) one starts with canes, adds nodes then branching and finally leaves, in ‘outline’ style it is recommended you start with the leaf clusters, add the branches, and lastly the canes. Such an approach will allow you to better envision distribution of leaves in front of and behind branches and canes, according to Su-Sing Chow. He also urges practicing such compositions in ink only before attempting to add color.

Another principle I tripped over, and is evident in the bamboo in the crane comps of Liu Shujun, is to paint canes with joints, but not with the darker node lines. Small point, but with CBP, the ‘devil is often in the details’ so I will strive to heed the advice.

My studies of ink only, outline style bamboo:

Initially drawn to Liu Shujun’s crane comps I had played with his ‘double outline bamboo’ style before launching into a more in-depth study of it. Oddly enough I discovered on my own that it was easier to START with the leaves  before sketching in the canes! (See principles above.)


There seem to be some variations to depicting the central vein when painting in the ‘double outline’ manner.


Once I acquired Chow’s directions for rendering the single and double outline methods I produced these:

I found the double outlines easier to execute than the single ones, and that control of coloring the leaves was tricky. (Using a specialty brush designed for depicting thin vine tendrils was also helpful.) Then I tried to emulate Xu Gu more closely:


At this point in my studies Delightful Lotus pointed me to some pages in Diana Kan’s The How and Why of Chinese Brush Painting, wherein she addresses a method she called “contour style“.  Aha! Yet again instructions were minimal,  BUT the artist did add to my understanding of the outline methods for painting bamboo.  She provided several excellent examples of single outline leaf clusters AND repeated the direction to render the canes without node demarcations. She also suggested a short VERTICAL LINE above and below a node to further enhance the look of the cane (see below lower right). My Xu Gu study above would benefit from those vertical markings; the canes are rather plain without them.

Traditional ways to color in the outlined bamboo leaves and stalks seem to have emerged (light green undercoat followed by indigo highlighting), as well as some interesting combinations of elements of the “freestyle” and “outline” methods. White leaf veining (in single or multiple lines) over freestyle leaves is one, ink outlining over purple colored stalks is another. Those combinations also seem to be ‘back page’ methods seldom described. And in one inside cover of a book I found this splendid example of outline style bamboo using gold paint:

Gold Bamboo1 copy

Always practice bamboo, they say.  With SO MANY ways to portray it and variations on the coloring of outline style, I see more studies in the near future.

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Snow falling on bamboo

One of the most stunning ways to present bamboo in a painting has got to be with a generous dusting of snow on the foliage. As with all things bamboo-related, depicting such a vignette is no easy feat. I’ve played with this subject material many a time with not much satisfaction. Given my recent successes with bamboo clusters, I thought I’d give snow another chance.

There would appear to be at least three ways in which one can convey the presence of snow on bamboo leaves, branches and stalks. The oldest and most traditional manner is to simply ‘paint around’ imagined white lumps, depicting parts of leaves/branches that stick out of the snow. This method can also be improved with shading some of the snowy lumps with pale indigo or ink.

A second method involves ‘painting’ in the snow over top of a bamboo composition, using some form of white paint. Instruction manuals usually suggest ‘white tempura’ but there are a number of excellent white paints to have in your art bag. I use a brand called Doc. Martin, which is also useful for painting white highlights in eyes.  A small jar can last you a long time!  (You do have to take care not to sully it with ink.)

A third general approach is to compose your bamboo around areas portrayed as snow that are ‘masked out’ with a substance such as a manufactured masking agent, glue, or even milk. One could also ‘shield’ an area with paper and paint over top.


I have numerous books on bamboo painting but most do not go beyond a basic introduction. Two that do address ways to depict snow on bamboo are:

  1. Leslie Tseng-tseng Yu in Chinese Painting in Four Seasons
  2. Johnson Su-sing Chow in Vol. 2 Book of the Bamboo from his four-volume set on the Four Gentlemen

I have also collected examples of snowy bamboo from other books addressing such things as pandas and monkeys.  And then there’s a wonderful video by Nan Rae on Youtube that shows how to render snowy bamboo in front of a moon. See this link.

My Studies:

I first tried using white paint over inky bamboo. I did prepare a medium wash of white paint,  thinking snow should appear lighter in some areas, but quickly found it disappeared.



Yu’s illustration seems to have a slightly grey background which was probably washed on from the back of the painting.

I have used milk as a masking agent in the past with great success. This procedure takes some preplanning as the ink goes OVER the area covered with milk (and allowed to air dry or facilitated with a hair dryer). As the milk can be hard to SEE on white paper, this process requires some trust and imagination. But the benefits can be surprises that work better than you intended.


the milkfirst

Milk on white paper is not easy to SEE! here it is still damp.

Johnson Su-sing Chow’s guidance for depicting snow by leaving select areas white was detailed, but his illustrations did not look too promising to me. Nevertheless, my third exercise was to try and envision how bamboo clusters would appear under snowy clumps. As expected, this exercise offered the challenge of painting PARTS of leaves.



This technique requires not only imagination to envision the ‘snow’ but also skill in portraying parts of leaves. What a challenge!

4. For the next exercise I ripped up bits of paper into rounded shapes and positioned them on my art paper. When the small papers refused to stay put I gave them a bit of spit and re-positioned them. Then I painted clusters as usual right over top of the ‘shielded’ areas. Some ink soaked right through the paper shields, but did so in a random fashion.


spit happens

Spit happened! That seemed a good way to keep the bits of paper in place while I painted my clusters OVER the leaves. I grabbed tweezers to lift the shield afterward to avoid smudges.


Reflecting on my exercises I concluded using white paint gave me more control over both the leaves and the snow mounds; the masking methods and the negative painting method (leaving snowy areas white) took more preplanning in terms of the leaf clusters and composition as a whole.  I have yet to play with the sky washes from behind to suggest white snow mounds on leaves and branches.

Here is an example of bamboo in snow done in the traditional manner of leaving white for the snow. You’ll note the background is given a wash that doesn’t touch the leaves and branches; I would want to cover the white areas under leaves and branches where snow would not have mounded for a more realistic portrayal.



Here are two examples in my files of snow-covered pine.   I find pine needles easier to imagine and position sticking out of snow than bamboo leaves. Getting a brush to cut off the bamboo leaf that is under the snow is challenging.




Perhaps several more practice sessions are in order; I hope to be able to complete more than a single bamboo leaf cluster with snow on it.


At my next art group morning I painted this snowy scene; I set out a few simple leaf clusters, all similarly hanging down as if wet and cold.


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Tips on (bamboo) tips

Always practice bamboo.

That’s one of the mantras often repeated in Chinese brush painting instruction books. It’s the sage advice of many an instructor. And it is advice I’m starting to realize I cannot ignore.

There is the one obvious reason: when you don’t practice, you get ‘out of practice’, meaning you lose your confidence in executing a simple leaf formation needed to finish a composition. Worst of all, if you’ve just spent hours on a complex painting you certainly don’t want to ruin it with a carelessly considered leaf that is too sloppy, too wide, too wet, too parallel to a nearby one, and so on.

Another reason for ‘always painting bamboo’ has to do with its versatility. You may have heard that learning bamboo is fundamental to all Chinese brush painting. If you practice (and study) the several elements of bamboo painting—stalks, nodes, stems, buds, roots, and the myriad shapes to leaves and clusters—you are more likely to discover something new that can be applied in other circumstances.

The last time I attended a workshop on bamboo painting given by friend and mentor Nenagh Molson her explanation of “tipping off” a bamboo stalk led to several insights about finishing paintings, particularly bamboo compositions. And it all started with her showing us the Chinese character for “bamboo” and drawing our attention to the hidden secrets in the calligraphic strokes.


“Writing” bamboo

The calligraphic character involves four different strokes, two of which are repeated. The horizontal one should be recognizable to most CBP artists as the ‘bone stroke’. This time out Nenagh drew our attention to the very last stroke, that little upward stroke at the end of the character—kind of like the end of a J. It is also in the character ‘yong’ I blogged about here.

The stroke is called “gou” aka “yo” for those who want to know. Here’a a Youtube video showing how the character is written and you can also hear the pronunciation of each stroke.

Nenagh then showed us two ways to finish the tip of a growing bamboo stalk, and of course there was that little upwards hook stroke (see 2 below). The second way (number 1 below) was a variation, twisting the brush slightly differently.


From there, we got to talking about numerous ways to define the growing tip of bamboo branches, and different painters seem to have their favourites.  In the following image of a well executed bamboo composition I digitally isolated the growing tips on numerous branches to show their similar completion. This artist has used mostly a slightly curved single leaf (a few are ‘broken’ or ‘split’) and the result is a consistent look to his plant. The weather conditions are probably sunny–not windy or rainy.


I knew from last summer’s studies of Professor I-Hsiung Ju’s Book of Bamboo—the effort that gave me much confidence with defining clusters and even groves—that my own repertoire probably included three:

  1. the slender “new moon”
  2. a single straight stroke in any direction
  3. a long leaf extended and ‘broken’ in the wind

I’ve recently added the upward ‘broken’ leaf treatment to my repertoire for bamboo leaves on branches. It is quite elegant placed next to a smaller slim leaf at the very tip. Do note how leaves emerge from opposite sides of the branch, NOT in opposing positions such as on ash trees.


My repertoire was thus up to five. After Nenagh’s workshop I went back to my books and files, and gained some new insights from various sources.


The Mustard Seed Garden Manual has numerous images showing ways to finish bamboo branches. I was pleased to see they did NOT advocate leaving a tip (even for new fresh growth, in the sun, facing upwards) that held two opposing leaves in a VEE formation.

When I see that in a composition the strong VEES look like bird tracks, and distract from the overall look of the plant. As a gardener, I know that maybe one or two branch tips may have lost their end growth but not all at one time (unless a severe pruning has just been done!).

In the MSGM the artist shows slim little end branch tips, or slim leaves (new moons abound) or long slender split ones. Should there be two opposing leaves at the end of a branch, they angle other than a vee, and they have a tiny bit of stem between them, if not a sheath around a growth tip.


I went on to discover different clusters I had not tried before.

As often happens, the process of filing away workshop notes and flipping through files for specific treatments (bamboo branch tips) led to some new inspirations. I’m trying to get a better grasp of painting bamboo in outline or sketch method, and depicting it in snow. Those studies look promising…and I am trying to get in a habit of ‘always practicing bamboo’.











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Crested Mynha, essential bird

The first few times I noticed a crow-like bird sporting a distinctive tuft where beak meets brow in oriental art I thought it was an artistic expression. Perhaps it was a popular exaggeration of some bird’s spirit that had ‘gone viral’. I soon recognized the attractiveness of a bird that is mostly black and has features that can be rendered with some flair—the eyes, the beak, the yellow legs and feet.


Ling Mao Caochong Juan provides several pages of various crested mynha bird poses for inspiration. His book is in the middle of the bottom row in the next image.

I soon discovered the Crested Mynah is not indigenous to North America, although the species was introduced to Vancouver BC about 100 years ago and thrived for decades. It is classified as a starling (family Sturnidae) and thus not related to the crow (Corvidae) as closely as I guessed. It does measure in the nine-eleven inches size range similar to crows, sports mostly black feathers with some white markings, and then has that distinctive tuft emerging from the top of its beak. It is an easy creature to add to a brush painter’s repertoire.


My shelves include numerous general bird-painting manuals, and several address the crested mynah. I favor the presentations of these five:

  1. Johnson Su-sing Chow, Vol. 2 in his bird-painting manual series.
  2. Yang O-Shi, 100 Birds
  3. Ling Mao Caochong Juan (Chinese Brush painting)
  4. Hao Bang Yi (Bird Painting basics, yellow cover series)
  5. Mei Ruo, Chinese Brush Painting, a beginner’s step by step guide.


All five approach crested mynahs in much the same way and offer oodles of helpful poses. Oddly enough Yang O-shi starts her bird with the shoulders, and then adds the head and beak. The others all proceed in the traditional manner of beak, eyes, head, shoulders, body, wings, tail, and legs.

Bird-painting Tip:

Many CBP artists prefer the beak-first approach to painting birds, saying that if you get the beak ‘right’ then all else follows. Mei Ruo goes a step further and presents an image showing FIVE LINES one needs to envision as you lay down the inky strokes to a bird’s head: brow line, eye line, face line, cheek line and chin line.


Painting Steps:

  1. With a fine detail brush and black ink define the beak; just behind and above the line that heads toward the bird’s throat from the upper bill define the eye (oval shape with dark pupil)
  2. Using black ink paint in the distinctive tuft above the beak and fill in the head. Note that this bird has a flattened oval head.
  3. Continue to define the bird’s shoulders using stabbing dry brush strokes with medium/light ink.
  4. Brush in the body, wings, tail feathers. The mynah has some white markings on its wings.
  5. Using an orange-yellow outline legs, then dab on scales in dark ink when dry.
  6. Paint the environment.

Here’s my crested mynah bird study sheet showing the steps; in the last panel I tried a few different poses.

In two of my early mynah bird comps I encountered mishaps–in one the legs went down too wet and started ‘blooming’ on the page.  I quickly blotted them and scuffed up the color with clear water.  I then dried the paper with a hair dryer and re-did the legs, taking greater care in moisture control.  This is a ‘hail Mary’ effort one should practice so that when you have to save a really complex comp you can do it with confidence. Look closely at this bird’s right leg to see if you can spot where the yellow was lifted from the paper.


In another, moisture control again caused some grief in the final stages (see upper left corner leaf), but the result could not be saved:


And then I painted a successful grouping of crested mynah birds (which realistically should have had yellow legs, but artistically have crows’ feet). These glued well and have now been chopped and framed.


The simple markings of the crested mynha, as well as the potential for playing with the eyes, beak and tuft, hold considerable appeal.  This is one bird I may paint often.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, crested mynah, how to paint birds | 2 Comments