My grandmother often cautioned me that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. If she’s right, then I’m surely bound to go down that road quite soon. Last month saw little in the way of productive painting, and mostly days packed with ‘good intentions’. I blame it all on THE COLD.
Oddly enough some of my brainpower WAS working—when I reflected on my magpie studies, I realized I had little confidence in composing clusters of plum blossoms. I knew the steps to individual flowers, to buds, branches, trunks, and twigs—all of the details. I knew the names of all of their parts, and how they grew.
What was LACKING was understanding HOW to place flowers in clusters, which ones to point up, down or sideways; which ones to paint darker in color, how to tuck in softer tones behind those more forward. Here’s a closer view of the blue plum blossoms I used as context in a recent painting. The clustering is ‘overpainted’. My brushwork was hesitant and some blossoms are downright messy.
I had a pretty good idea which of my books might offer insights into this concern. Professor I-Hsiung Ju’s Book of Bamboo had advanced my bamboo painting tremendously with lots of illustrations, explanations, and compositional insights; I was certain his Book of Plum would do the same for plum.
Ju frequently cited the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, so I hauled my copy off the shelf as well. (My version must be more edited than the one he accessed, as mine does NOT have the discussion of ‘design’ for clusters he cites.)
And for good measure I pulled out Leslie Tseng-Tseng Yu’s book, Chinese Watercolor Painting, the Four Seasons.
Slow of heart, but swift in hand
Ju’s third section in The Book of Plum, The Flower, was limited to painting outline petals and single stroke (moku). I was surprised to read the description of his own traditional teaching—he was urged to learn to paint plum blossom in OUTLINE STROKE first, then in ‘single-stroke’ or moku later.
The reasoning is that once you have UNDERSTOOD or TAKEN TO HEART the teachings, then you can move QUICKLY in laying down your brushwork. Similarly, once you have mastered plum blossom in outline strokes, placing the moku strokes comes naturally.
So I did what the master ordered: I reviewed painting plum flowers in outline stroke before getting into arranging them in clusters.
Here are a few of my practice bits, trying to emulate Ju’s lessons, mixed with portrayals of illustrations from the MSGM:
Basic plum flowers painted in ‘outline’ involve two strokes–one defines the three humps, the second adds the two remaining curved petals to the five-petal flower.
I intended to do them all, I really did. But once I had filled a few pages with circles (as per Ju’s childhood practicing) and rendered a dozen or so of his models, I couldn’t resist trying a larger plum composition, AND I jumped ahead to trying single-stroke (moku) petals in color.
My brush moved much MORE QUICKLY as I dropped in flowers back to back on stems, flowers as seen head-on, flowers turned slightly away, turned slightly down, facing left, facing right…. I kept striving for placements of fuller flowers closer to the trunk, half open flowers as I moved out from the trunk, buds nearer the branch tips.
Power of p’in:
In his section on grouping flowers, Ju cites the MSGM regarding a concept based on the Chinese character (or word) called p’in. The character means ‘a class or order’ and consists of three little squares, one above the other two.
Ju writes: “Our masters are talking about three elements: either three buds or three flowers, either two buds and one flower or one bud and two flowers. These three elements should be placed in the p’in pattern: one smallest element at the top and two larger at the base.” Ju goes on to demonstrate variations of the pattern, and to advise us to look for such patterning in all the ancient masterful plum paintings.
As I looked for the presence of such patterns, I quickly realized it was a triangulation, a pleasing placement of an odd-numbered of elements. It reminded me of the groupings of shrimp one plans for a larger composition.
—practice OUTLINE flowers first, tackle single-stroke (moku) once you have internalized their shapes, placement, finishing with whiskers and sepals
–use the right kind of brushes—stiff medium thick for the petals, very fine detail brush for the stamens (whiskers)
–use light ink for the flowers, dark for the stamens and pollen dots
—control the moisture in your brushes with frequent wipes of the heel; a little ink goes along way
–draw the flowers in TWO parts—one three-petal stroke, followed by a two petal stroke.
–alter the two-petal stroke by turning it into two ovals, slightly fore-shortened.
–fill pages with these shapes head-on, then turn up, turn down, face left, face right.
–arrange THREE flowers on a simple twig structure
–make a small single circle bud (pepper corns)
–make two stroke buds (crab’s eyes)
–make a fatter bud with a half-circle on either side (smiles)
–try a few variations of p’in arrangements of buds, half-open flowers, and full flowers until you think in threes naturally
–Ju does his whiskers based on groups of seven—if a flower is in profile start at the centre at 90 degrees, then paint seven thin, slightly curved lines on the right, then SEVEN on the left. If the flower is head-on, do the same and complete with seven across the front, fore-shortened. Splatter with the dots. He advises not to worry if your SEVEN strokes fail to leave an ink trail, establish a rhythm and count SEVEN, then move on. Likewise, as you drop in the pollen dots, count seven and be sure to vary heights.
–be sure to curve the whiskers toward a central point, the throat of the flower (it was suggested by your original outline strokes for the petals; think of the flower as a cup or bowl shape in three dimensions.)
—keep the peduncle (that little bit of stem at the base of a bud or flower connecting it to the main stem) short; if your distance from the branch appears too far, FIX by adding a twig before you dab in the short peduncle.
–be sure to dab THREE sepals cupped at the base of a bud, FIVE showing at the back of a fully opened flower that is behind a branch/twig.
–add twigs in dark ink toward the ends of branches AFTER you have the flowers and buds all in place.
—START an arrangement with a few head-on full flowers, then add flowers facing in different directions, at different heights near-by, then think about the narrowing of the branch and where buds would be, place a few half-open flower in between the buds and the full flowers
–avoid trying to cluster flowers (like balls on hydrangea, or in lilac spray shapes); plum blossoms do NOT grow like that!!!! They DO appear back to back in twos or threes along a branch/twig.
–work with your ‘half-turned’ flower shapes to convey a ‘depth’ or volume AROUND a branch; avoid similar head-on flowers in a row, as that looks FLAT, non-dimensional.
For future reference, I added Ju’s buds to my MSGM plum blossom pages:
My first post-Ju plum comps:
Below is a vase of plum blossoms I painted BEFORE and AFTER I studied Ju’s instructions and illustrations:
Here is my first plum composition painted in outline stroke applying Ju’s ideas. I am pleased with all but a central section (just above the cub’s right ear) where hindsight tells me I should have left a gap in the main branch and anchored a cluster with a ‘head-on’ blossom, surrounded by flowers facing in different directions. Ju does say that gaining confidence in planning where and how to leave gaps for flowers when you paint branches first comes with experience. So I’ll count that insight as ‘experience’.
I considered that most workshops on plum painting I’ve attended have been INTRODUCTORY, most books I have offer GENERAL instructions geared for the largest possible audience, beginners. Ju’s lessons were serving as ADVANCED TECHNIQUES. I was having a ‘learning moment’, or two, or three…
I thought I was ready for a larger composition of many plum clusters. And that I fully INTEND to do soon…