Ox painting styles

The purpose of my blog has always been to record my journey through the world of Chinese Brush Painting (CBP), to show any progress in technical skill, and to bring together in one convenient spot the resources I collect on each topic.  Any learning others take away from following the blog is a bonus; I like to give back.

My exploration of this ancient art form has primarily been self-directed, with occasional lessons and mentoring when the situation arises.  Preparing to deliver a workshop or demo has also provided learning moments.  While I do structure my studies somewhat—gathering images, consulting instructional books, researching online databases—for the most part I simply follow my heart.  I go where the brush takes me.

Blessed with a thriving CBP art community, in normal times I get to join similarly minded artists at least twice a week.  Members in those two art groups have a wide range of interests and abilities, and they provide a nurturing environment.  There is always someone who can explain or show me a technique, share a resource, or suggests ways to improve a composition.

When it came to ox painting to honor our new lunar year, I was well prepared: lots of inspirational images, reasonable command of the required skills, and more time than usual to spend in my art room thanks to a world-wide pandemic.  And as I recorded my experience painting 100 different ox vignettes on a single paper scroll (see my last blog post), I realized I was developing some style preferences.  I determined it was time to sort through the major influences on my ox-painting and reflect on what aspects had niggled their way into my brushwork.

Key Influencers

Li Keran (1907-1989) was recognized as a major artist in the latter half of the 20th century. In 2012 one of the seven landscapes he painted inspired by a Mao Zedong poem sold for a record high of $46 million US! His paintings of small herders with water buffalo (“ox”) also earned him wide acclaim. He painted the animals in ink monotones and often shows them interacting with the “cow boys”. Several of his paintings feature trees with red petals tumbling down (kapok trees no doubt) and some show the same grove with a distinctively branching tree in which he placed a boy playing a flute. He may well have had a favorite location in mind. Here are some examples of his compositions:

Xu Beihong (1895-1953) was a major artist of the early 20th century and is perhaps best known for his horse paintings. (I own several of his books and browse them often.) He also rendered water buffalo in a manner similar to his horses. He captures the distinctive physical features of the animals and offers a wide range of posturing, with excellent texturing of their hides. Here is a sampling of his oxen:

Cheng Shifa (1921-2007) was an artist who developed a unique style of painting young peasants and their animals. I discovered his work while exploring figure painting as well as sheep/goat painting. Only recently did I notice the water buffalo included in his huge volume of work. His beasts are slightly “cartoon-ish’ in style, not being entirely detailed; like his goats they are very recognizable as water buffalo and provide good contrast to the sweet-looking peasant girls. Below are some of his beasts:

Wu Zuoren (1908-1997) is renowned for his camel paintings and it should be no surprise I own one of his books. The same loose spontaneous style that gives immense character to his camels also results in loose, likeable water buffalo. They are distinctively his creations:

Zhang Guang (1941–) is a contemporary Chinese artist I only discovered recently through a Facebook artist group friend. His water buffalo are usually rendered in grey shades and most often are posed with an uplifted head. Once you’ve seen a few of his compositions it is easy to identify his work. He usually paints them in pairs and often with children accompanying them. Those with the children picking apples are particularly appealing. Here are a several that I tried to emulate as part of my ox scroll.

**Guo Wenhe (Kerk Wen Hoo) At last, with the help of artist friend Vickie Chow, I can identify the ox painter I mentioned in my last blog post whose tremendous body of work shared on Facebook (and elsewhere in Chinese media) has so influenced my emerging style. I included a short slideshow there of some of his work to illustrate how clever he is with placement of the calligraphy as part of the actual composition. Here are some recent pictures of Guo Wenhe in his studio working with students on perfecting their ox-painting:

His compositions tend to include one or more water buffalo (“cows”) with a herder. He paints the beast in a spontaneous style in shades of ink; from videos he has shared on his Facebook page I know he paints in a fairly large scale (about 24 by 24 inches or more) using a single large brush for the grand sidestrokes as well as for the more delicate brush tip detailing. He quickly sketches in the body shapes for the herders and lastly washes on skin tones in a very loose manner. Sometimes he adds a bit of color in the background elements such as grass, bamboo, trees, rainbows, fruit, flowers and occasionally a red sun.

My (emerging) ox-painting style

On completion of my 100 oxen project I felt a certain measure of accomplishment. I had set myself a painting challenge and met it. While I knew it would be easy to achieve my daily numbers by simply painting oxen standing or lying around in groups, I was determined to do more than take the easy road. I forced myself to paint calves (which I had not done before) and to consider difficult poses (running, swimming, raising a head to browse leaves, leaning forward to drink). Preferences did emerge:

  1. I like to rough out my animal and herder in light ink before using dark ink to establish the edges/outlines.
  2. I like the look of rough texture on the hides.
  3. Ink shades are more appealing than swaths of color.
  4. Interactions between an animal and a herder are more interesting than animals alone.
  5. Using skin tones on the herder as the only color in a composition is appealing.
  6. Pushing myself to use a single brush for the wide strokes as well as the tip for detail work is advancing my ‘dancing brush’ technique.
  7. Regular practice leads to more confident strokes. The more you do, the more you WANT to do.

The Year of the Ox has just begun.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, ox or water buffalo, style | 2 Comments

Ten Day Oxen Odyssey: painting 100 beasts

My art room has long been a haven, but never so much as during this long year of restrictions on social gatherings. With a passion for painting the Chinese zodiac animals and the recent connection via Facebook with an artist who excels at Ox painting, my circumstances were ripe for a self-imposed challenge to paint 100 oxen on a single paper scroll.

Lang Shining as impetus

Over 300 years ago an Italian Jesuit priest (Giuseppe Castiglione) was invited to China not to make converts as one might expect, but to share his knowledge of western artistic methods.  He endeared himself to three successive emperors and took the painting name Lang Shining.  As often happens to teachers, he subsequently learned a lot from his “students” and soon developed a painting style fusing European and Chinese traditions.  His crowning achievement was a huge—eight meters long—panoramic scroll painted in 1728 which highlighted 100 horses, many in a “flying gallop” pose he introduced.

Details of the scroll can be seen at this link.

Other CBP artists have since repeated the accomplishment of painting 100 animals of various kinds—chickens, dogs, and so on.

I chose as my goal 100 oxen.

Year of the Ox

Our upcoming lunar year (starting Feb. 12, 2021) is the second in the Chinese zodiac cycle after the Rat, and is assigned to honor the Ox.  As with the Rat year (which generously includes mice, squirrels, and any similar-looking rodent) the ‘Ox’ designation includes oxen, water buffalo, buffalo, cows—virtually any “bovine” creature.  I am told the Chinese symbol for Ox is more accurately translated as simply “cow”.  It looks like a fairly easy calligraphy to replicate and I used it in this small painting:

When using CBP compositions as inspiration once must keep this generous interpretation of “Ox” in mind. Most often the anatomy you see is that of the water buffalo, the beast most common throughout China even today.  His distinctive features (as discussed in my last blog post) include the paired horns (and they DON”T move up and down like the pointy ears on cats, horses, some dogs!), high shoulder, dish-shaped head, large nostrils, chunky build, short legs, and bulbous eyes. 

These are the features you may exaggerate for effect, but you must get them right. The ear has to be a rounded, hanging down kind of flap located just slightly below and behind the horns.  Conveying the hide of the water buffalo can be a bit tricky if you work in spontaneous style while painting the animal swimming.  I have seen such attempts lead to beasts that resemble hippos or rhinos! 

Friends you lean on

The worst part of this nasty pandemic has been the restrictions on social gatherings. One of my art groups was able to adjust facilities and protocols such that we were able to meet well into last fall.  But when that ended my regular source for critiques, suggestions and inspiration significantly waned.  Luckily I discovered the realm of Facebook CBP art groups and that led to the discovery of an artist in China who excels at Ox painting.

At first when I found him via group connections I could only “follow” him, as he was at the 5000 maximum level for accepted “friends”.  Nevertheless I submitted my request. (I also made sure my posts revealed my CBP interests just in case he was looking!) Over time some of his friends lapsed and I guess he reviewed requests. 

My ‘Ox-man painter’ (the best I can decipher is his name may be Shao) appears to be a teacher, he has been painting up a storm of oxen to honor the year, and he has posted dozens of them.  Close to 200 I would estimate. And it looks like he may have done the same with the rat this time last year!

It took me a while to discern he painted in a fairly large scale. (See those on the wall in the photo above.) His ox vignettes seem to be about 24 inches square if not larger.  He typically paints in a loose spontaneous manner: brush loaded with several shades of ink (sometimes color) slathered on a paper such that the sidestrokes appear ‘liquidy’.  He uses the brush tip deftly for lines and smaller details. He posted short videos of his ox-painting on his FB page back in November.

His comps are simple, mostly a single beast with a herder.  He sometimes adds a bit of something like grass, tree, sun, rainbow, birds, etc. to suggest the environment. One distinctive feature I LOVE but cannot ever hope to replicate is his incorporation of calligraphy INTO the overall design.  He scribbles in the “poem” or descriptor along the edge of a cloud, beside a branch, even flying loosely through the air in one where the boy flees on an ox while looking over his shoulder at the characters dispersing behind him.   Below is a sampling of his impressive compositions; do watch for the placement of his calligraphy.

My Ox-man painter treats the herders in a similar ‘quick sketch’ style: just the outline, facial features, a tuft of hair on the forehead, scant clothing such as white shirt and black shorts, and swaths of skin tone wash across limbs.  The lines are not perfect, not strained, and hugely dynamic.

My project readiness

Years ago I studied figure painting rigorously (practicing local artist Nenagh Molson’s workshop methods for weeks!) and I spent time learning the distinctive features for each of the zodiac animals. Starting with those I knew best (horse, cat/tiger, rabbit, rooster, dog) I moved on to monkey, snake, and the mythical dragon, and eventually could command all twelve animals. (Check my blog topics above right.)

I stayed with using a good practice paper (Moon Palace) and sometimes a fibrous one (Dragon Cloud) in order to truly learn how the paper reacted to ink.  I occasionally played with color but mostly worked in ink tones

I tried all kinds of brushes, settling on a few favorites. I tend to use one large orchid brush for the comps that require large inky strokes, and a small detail one for the finer lines. Recently I discovered a brush called ‘Little Dumpling’ that works well for both effects, as long as my comp is not too large (about 11 x 14 inches).  It is handmade and was sold through Sidewinder Studio in the UK. There is also a brush called ‘Medium Flow’ (purchased at OAS and loaned by a friend) that performs well for my needs; alas they are currently out of stock.

While I do admire the spontaneous style of my Ox-man painter, and have practiced following instructional videos by both Henry Li and Professor Ju on painting ox (can be found on Youtube), I have worked out an approach that works for me.  It is basically the approach used in painting rocks and mountains: establish the shape of the object with lines, add texture to the surface, wash over with colors or ink tones.

I use either pale indigo or light ink to ‘rough in’ my animal and herder, then I use dark ink with a detail brush (or the tip of the larger one carefully shaped and loaded) to pick out the body lines. I use the larger brush with very dry shades of ink to enhance the texturing of the beast and finally wash in the skin tones on the herder.

Over the weeks from my last art group sessions until the start of my 100 Ox project I had completed about two dozen ox comps, developing many into cards and my yearly bookmark. I was comfortable with posing my beasts as well as my boys in a multitude of poses.

Some preconceptions

Moments before I cracked the cover to a new roll of 15-inch Moon Palace paper I considered project parameters.  Lang Shining painted an amazing panoramic scene to present his 100 horses in a SINGLE composition. I decided on restricting my efforts to a series of vignettes, simply continuing with the small ‘beast and boy’ kinds of practice compositions I had painted over the last few weeks. I set a goal of ten per day, knowing they could take about two hours to complete.  While I have painted large groups of oxen in order to focus on interactions (have them look at each other) and overlaps (leave white space between them) a scroll of similar groupings would be just practice, and not a true challenge. I determined to have 100 different poses of my beasts. 

Day One January 30 (1-10)

Perhaps the scariest thing about trying to paint 100 of anything on a single sheet of paper is that if you screw things up on one, there’s no cutting or whiting it out.  So I started with scenarios I knew, both in my head and in my brush.  I focused on the planned vignette at hand and gave no worry to the other 99.  Each day I considered only how the ten for that day could be executed, and constantly flipped through the hundreds of oxen images in my ‘idea book’ to refresh my thinking.  Here are the ten for Day One:

Day Two January 31 (11-20)

I made sure to try different poses of the beasts: facing left, facing right, walking, lying down, and advancing head on.  I included a calf.

Day 3 February 1 (21-30)

My project was unfolding as it should.  I had different poses, groupings, and as yet no major disappointments. Usually when figure painting I like to leave white highlights on skin and add rosy cheeks but the technique takes time, so I accepted that simple washes of skin color would suffice. 

Towards the end of my morning’s work I stopped to record the steps I take in painting these vignettes:

At this stage while I was ‘seeking stimulus’ a Facebook friend posted numerous oxen compositions as painted by master painter Zhang Guang, another posted oxen by Cheng Shifa.  Guang’s animals I had never seen before (his technique is for ‘all-over ink shading’) and they offered some new poses (mostly head lifts) that I opted to try with my next ten (31-40). Shifa is an artist whose works are largely pastoral scenes with goats and sheepherders (mostly men and girls) and I had amassed many images of his ‘goats and girls’.  My FB friend’s post was a reminder to review his other farm animals, specifically the ox.

Day 4 February 2 (31-40)

This day’s efforts reflect the influence of comps by Zhang Guang. In my final grouping of six beasts I tried his coloring technique.  I also noticed my day’s paintings were larger in scale than previous paintings; I made a mental note to scale back if I could as I wouldn’t want the entire scroll to look too piecemeal. I liked the scenarios with more context, the apple pickers and flute players provided more color. Here’s the first five of the morning, followed by some close-ups, then the total scroll so far.

Day 5 February 3 (41-50)

I consciously went back to my own ‘tried and true’ method for painting the beasts (maybe another time Zhang Guang) and focused on getting my daily ten different vignettes of boy with beast on to the paper…four beasts swimming (don’t have to figure out the feet!), one caught in rain, one big behind, two standing aside while the herder draws/reads, and one fighting to disengage his lead.  Good day I think, and hurrah for getting to ‘half way’.

Day 6 February 4 (51-60)

From many years of  ‘project management’ I am fully aware that if my project is going to be derailed it is likely here in the ‘just past halfway’ mark.  I flip through my idea book and reconsider comps by the ox-painting master Li Keran.  I re-examine instructional guides. I reflect on what challenges I’ve not yet fully explored (calves, beasts at a waterhole).   The day’s quota is put to paper: first a scene in the manner of Li Keran, then a grouping with two calves in it, and finally another grouping which lacked a focal point until I inserted a farm dog. (Yes, oriental scrolls are created and read right to left.)

Day 7 February 5 (61-70)

I focus on familiar vignettes and then try some totally new ones. The ‘new’ ones result in facial features going wonky (68 and 69 on the upper right below) but I return to a much-loved pose with 70 (boy asleep on beast’s back). The brush has a mind of its own and mistakenly my rough sketching yields an oxen body too long out back…not to worry, in goes some contextual grass/weeds and the boo-boo is painted over. Ta da.

 I now know painting 100 oxen is doable. I am on the home stretch!

Day 8 February 6 (71-80)

Buoyed by the previous day’s recovery on the elongated behind, a self-reminder that the wonky faces don’t really matter in the overall scheme of things, and some influence from my idea book, I start the day incorporating Zhang Guang’s head lifts on a pair of oxen.  I try a do-over of a herd in the marsh inspired by my online FB ox-man painter; I painted this grouping a few weeks ago in green tones but chose morning light/vermilion tones for today’s efforts. 

The art card shown at the top was made from an earlier painting of this herd using green tones: today I gave the scene some burnt sienna for a different look.

My ox-man painter had presented all adult beasts but I sneaked in a calf in both my efforts.  To make up for the huge gain on numbers achieved with the herd, I tell myself to up the ante and try two totally new poses for herder and best with the last vignettes of the day (79 and 80).  The thick-and-thin lines to the boys’ limbs go quickly, the lines in the oxen feet do so as well, and I am pleased with the ease of rendering my vignettes. Alas, the facial features end up a tad wonky again.  I manage to blot up a spillover of skin tone on 79 with water and paper towel; when dry the would-be boo-boo hardly shows.  Good save.

Here’s all ten for Day 8

Day 9 February 7 (81-90)

Overnight I dreamed about my final days and ponder what challenges I might still tackle.  I discovered an ide for the big finale at 100 and am tempted to ‘paint a herd of ten sleeping’ and advance to the home stretch.  Nope, I reign in the temptation and tell myself to consider some more swimmers and working beasts.  85 is a girl facing backwards on a beast and her wayward limbs require another ‘fix’.  (She has flying hair and a hat on her back to cover up a misplaced shoulder. Look for it.)  86 is a working scene involving an adult (not the same proportions as children, so always a challenge when you have just been painting children for the last few days. Adjust your eye.)  This comp (and some in the last ten) is based on one in a small instructional book purchased from Oriental Art Supply (OAS) in California. They stock a series of such small books and are great value for the money; I bought at $8.00 US and now they charge a bit more, but are still good value.

Day 10 February 8 (91-100)

The last day of my project has come.  Again my dreams were filled with ideas for these final scenarios. My idea for 100 has stirred up concerns: there’s only ONE chance at what the brush lays down on the paper and my idea entails facial features on a much larger scale than I have been working for the last ten days.  I have to put that final vignette out of mind while I get 91-99 painted.  This takes some mental disciplining.  My intensity results in 91 and 92 appearing in larger scale than intended.  The first is painted after another of the instructional ones in the little OAS book: beast and boy at waterside cooling off.  I love the thick-and-thin lines in the beast’s backside. I decide his front feet should be showing but can’t work them out to satisfaction, so cover them up with the grass.  While I tend to paint a full head of black hair on my little ‘cow herders’, my online FB ox-man painter usually paints the traditional forehead tuft of hair.  In my 91 the tuft seems to work better with the pose, so tufting it is. In 92 the tufting helps separate the boy’s head from the surroundings.    I paint some of my favorite untried poses for 93 through 98, and then aim for a beast running swiftly to my finish line.  Oops 99 worked out to be smaller in scale…and his face is wonky.  Not to worry, this whole scroll was to be challenging AND fun. It has been.  On to the final.

100 emerges somewhat as planned.  I start with the ox (eyes first, horns, ear, head, nostrils and chin) and dab in positions for the eyes of my child.   Eyebrows, forehead and cheek line, nose, mouth and chin follow.   I quickly sketch the torso with shirt and limbs, then start filling in the hair.  I realize I am forgetting to breathe.  Not good. (The voice of an old friend and mentor reminds me, this is it: the last image. SO DON’T SCREW IT UP NOW!)   I texture the ox, wash skin tone on the child, and drop color where it’s not planned so scuff in more color around the duo to make it appear planned.  Add the date and sign it.  Done.  Let it dry. Clean my brushes…

Reflections:

  1. If you want to paint a large project, start with what you know, think in increments, and go for it.
  2. Gather lots of resource material to maintain the flow of inspiration.
  3. Be confident with your abilities; apply the fixes you’ve learned from others and have done again and again.
  4. Keep moving. If facial features go wonky, finish the vignette and start another. Who cares. Turn off that left-brain critic and calmly clean your brush for the next load.
  5. Avoid the easy outs and face the challenges you wanted to face; you’ll be happier for it and maybe advance your skill.
Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, ox or water buffalo | 5 Comments

Painting cowherds

Favoring animal painting over the ‘bird and flower’ conventions of Chinese Brush Painting (CBP), means I have studied ox painting before.  (See previous blog post here.)

With the approaching ‘year of the ox’ (Feb. 12, 2021) I decided to spend some time building on my repertoire of ‘figure painting’, specifically the little boys that customarily accompany the water buffalo to and from their worksites, usually the rice fields. 

While young boys typically are tasked with tending the beasts, and thus can be commonly found wherever the animals may roam, their presence in an ox/water buffalo composition serves an additional purpose: contrast.  The relative small size of the boys next to huge, lumbering beasts with pointy, curved horns and sharp hooves satisfies that oriental appreciation for opposites (ying and yang).  In reality, water buffalo are very docile, gentle animals, easily manipulated even by the smallest of tenders or cowherds.

When translators mistakenly call them “cowboys” I have to chuckle; these little boys with soft hands and chubby cheeks are a far cry from our true western cowboy, those rugged, leather-skinned, spur-jangling men in high-heeled boots and dusty hats. 

From my files featuring cowherds with water buffalo I have identified ten categories of typical activities they engage in. For each category I set a goal to sketch a minimum of three poses I could later use in compositions.

Figure painting basics:

Cowherds in Asia wear simple clothing—white shirts and black shorts—or a simple white loincloth and no shirt.  Occasionally you see them with a hat. I prefer to give my little boys a full head of dark hair, although many artists show them with only a tuft of hair at the forehead.  

The basic approach is to lightly sketch the shape of the boy using a detail brush and pale indigo paint. I start with the eyes/face, build the head around that, add neck, trunk, arms, lower body, and legs.  Once satisfied with the general sketch I pat it dry and carefully pick out (outline) the boy’s shape with a fine brush and ink. When the outline sketch is dry I add skin-tone color (mixed from yellow, vermilion and a touch of ink) and color in the shorts.  I prefer the look of a loose, quick sketch to one where the lines are exactingly placed and carefully connected.  These little boys tend to be active and alert, so quick sketches portray some of their energy.

I have observed that some artists work from broad strokes in skin tone color, then add outlines for the face, limbs and body. i have tried that method and find that it makes you consider the posture of the boy very, very carefully before you begin. My method allows me to devote full attention to each additional element in turn, once those eyes are in place. If it works, no need to change…but until you try it you don’t know if there is a better way than the one you use!

My Activity List:

  1. Riding (face left, right, back, forwards, sitting, kneeling, etc.)
  2. Leading with a lead rope or switch
  3. Pulling
  4. Bathing and/swimming
  5. Lounging, sleeping
  6. Milking, feeding
  7. Playing music (flute or stringed instrument)
  8. Making tea/lunch
  9. Reading, painting beside
  10. Working in rice field or hauling loads

With this list in mind I completed numerous studies; here are my study sheets for riding, leading, and making music:

I selected a few postures I liked and completed small compositions:

I found that after painting water buffalo in different poses I had greater confidence in painting individual beasts; my familiarity with their body parts (and how to alter them for a different view) increased with practice. You may even have spied a bit of calligraphy on the ‘head-on’ lone ox painting in my second grouping above–the Chinese symbol for this member of the Chinese zodiac is a rather simple character involving two strokes. I have been entertaining the idea of attempting a ‘One Hundred Water Buffalo’ scroll painting to mark the Year of the Ox. The challenge of composing different vignettes with my water buffalo and their cowherds that flow meaningfully across a scroll is intriguing. Giuseppe Castiglione set the standard with his scroll of One Hundred Horses back in 1728. Others have tackled roosters. With several more months of imposed ‘house arrest’ due to a world pandemic, and no art groups to provide structure/direction to my art, a 100 animal painting may fill the need.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, ox or water buffalo, painting water buffalo | 3 Comments

Let it rain (painting atmospherics 2)

My father’s legacy includes a few wise sayings that are often repeated at family gatherings. One was: don’t worry about the rain that might be coming over the mountain, deal with what’s happening on the farm right now.  It made a lot of sense when we were actually living on a farm in the mountains.

When painting a subject that you want to present in a rainy atmosphere—bamboo perhaps, a lotus pond, ducklings, people carrying umbrellas, etc.—you do have to consider how to convey the effect before you even start the composition.  You’ve got to know what’s ‘coming over the mountain’.

With ‘bamboo in rain’ the ancients have figured it out for us and good examples of bamboo leaves hanging down in rain are often included in bamboo instruction manuals.  Johnson Su-Sing Chow in his Book of The Bamboo devotes several pages to discussion and illustration of painting bamboo in rain. You don’t need any slanted lines of rain bashing at the plants to know it is raining; the nuance of the leaves says it all.  

Chow paints each leaf with a downward bend to suggest the weight of raindrops.

Tips from Chow:

  1. At the time of the rain or shortly after, branches are weighted down; short branches bend slightly, whereas longer ones have more obvious bends.
  2. All leaves should point downward, weighted by the raindrops. Leaves often curl up in the rain, twisting at the base or just at the leaf tip.
  3. Thinner canes will bend more than heavier canes.
  4. Paint bamboo in rain in the usual order: canes first, then branches, then leaves in front and finally leaves behind those in lighter shades. Paint leaves on one cane at a time so as to consider their clustering and placements.

For subjects other than bamboo, one has to consider how they are affected by the rain and provide details such as crouching, hurrying, or holding up a deflector of some sort.  All plants will droop and solid objects might show spatter or puddles.

Some time ago while pulling lessons from the great Hokusai’s instruction manuals (See site here.) I collected several examples of people and landscapes in rain. (Those from his lesson books are shown in a slideshow below, and thus have composite strokes shown in the margins.)

Hokusai’s deft touch in conveying a rainy scene primarily relies on slanted lines: close together and obliterating parts of the forest in a landscape, and further apart when dripping down on a pedestrian. He provides umbrellas to his pedestrians (most of the time) and bends their limbs as they strain against the stormy elements. (I truly don’t know what is meant to be happening with the pedestrian encountering a giant snail in that one little scenario!)

My interest in conveying rain in a painting arose this last month when building on my repertoire of water buffalo and the young herders that are often accompanying them.  They are typically out in rice fields or wandering their way homeward in compositions.  Here is the scenario I painted that suggested the animal and his herder were caught in a downpour.

While some elements of the composition suggest rain is falling, I considered how else such misty weather could be conveyed.  I recalled having saved an unusual pose of a kingfisher with rain drops bouncing off his beak.  Clearly rain streaks were painted with white paint over a dried painting.  I tried that with my herder hiding under the lotus leaf:

And then tried to emulate the kingfisher comp.  Bird Woman often reminds me of the old convention that one should never paint a creature larger than it appears in real life.  The ‘larger than life’ kingfisher did come across a little creepy; I considered that had he been painted with more backdrop that ‘creepy’ effect could be diminished.

Rain versus snow?

Winters where I live offer more rainy days than snowy, so I have lots of inspiration for compositions that call for rain. The trick in conveying rain is to paint in white streaks on a DRY composition; painting snow falling involves dropping wet white paint on to a WET composition.

Stopped at a red light last spring I snapped this composition that calls for painting: umbrellas, tulips, puddles, grey skies and fresh green grass all speak to a rainy day. I just have to replace the raindrops caught on my camera lens with white paint streaks.

Posted in rainy weather | Leave a comment

Let it snow (painting atmospherics 1)

P.D. James famously described perfect autumnal days as occurring more frequently in memory than in life. That is how I think of snowy days when folks around me start rhapsodizing about their love of winter and that fluffy white stuff.   But when it comes to painting a card to convey Christmas greetings to family and friends, snow comes first to mind.

I have experimented over the years with painting snowy scenes and the process is quite straightforward: you paint a suitable scene—landscape, a creature outdoors, or bird on a branch—then throw a wash over the sky, and while it is still damp, splat in opaque white paint. 

The white paint splatter lands in droplets, which diffuse (slightly) into the sky.  Your sky can be a warm-colored burnt sienna wash or blue-ish, or any shade you think enhances your scene. I favor indigo tints.  You can also touch up the snowflakes in the sky using a brush loaded with white paint (diluted or not); this takes practice and patience to get a natural distribution and a variety of round-shaped dots.

One of my first attempts at a snow scene was this one of a cat outside in falling snow: hindsight says the snowflakes were a tad overdone.

Another painting from about the same timeframe (2010) is this scene of a favorite building (Goward House), which I made into a card.  Note that the scale of the snowflakes relative to the building would imply these flakes were about four inches in diameter!

Below is a close-up of the sky; note the variety in size and distribution of snowflakes.

A few years later I painted several rural scenes featuring snowy weather and one I made into a card.

Pandas are another subject that can be given a snowy setting as I did with this next one.

December snow jobs

My most recent snowy scenes were again largely attempted because of the approaching Christmas season.  A monochrome painting of Asian deer found online inspired the composition below.  I admired the positioning of the deer and liked the challenge of the variety of poses. 

After painting in the pine, and the addition of snow on branches, I realized that the front quarters of the second from left animal were twisted unrealistically.  I decided to use the painting to attempt a “fix” that would involve careful layering of white paint solutions over a dampened surface to both cover the offending front leg, and also blend seamlessly (without a watermark edge) into the indigo tinted background.  This is the kind of thing you want to be able to execute with confidence when trying to salvage an otherwise really good composition.  (A different kind of “snow job” you might say.) 

I ended up with what seemed to me a glaring white area next to my deer; it can be difficult to judge such “corrections” because once you know it is there, you tend to think it is obvious to all viewers.  Once I had the painting glued and drying on a board I attempted a further “fix” by moistening the area slightly with a damp brush and then applying a light indigo wash to tone down the glaring white.  The dampness was required to help avoid a watermark.  I think it worked.

The second snowy scene to provide challenges this month involved posing horses in a different way.  I have painted a team of horses in profiles as well as viewed from the sleigh or wagon driver before, but not as viewed head-on.  The foreshortening required is tricky enough given the four legs, but then there’s the need to suggest (if not actually show) quite a bit of harnessing materials—those numerous parts needed to hitch your team to the wagon or sleigh.  The most prominent is the breast collar circling the horse’s chest and the hitch extending from the wagon between the two horses.  Then there are all kinds of leather lines and sometimes decorative trappings like bells and brass plates. 

With the aid of a few photos I worked through most of those details, but then took on placing my sleigh and team emerging from a grove of sugaring maples.  Thanks to numerous visits to sugar-bush sites (in Ontario) that have offered horse-drawn sleigh rides I had photos. 

Here is my composition ready for the final step of misting and splatting with droplets of white paint.

And here is the composition once I made snow.

Tips for snowing on your paintings:

  1. Splatter wet paint on to a damp surface. This could be your just-finished painting OR lightly mist and blot water over a dry composition.
  2. Practice with the tools (brushes and tapping tool such as a ruler or another brush) and paint solution before moving to your good painting.
  3. Strive for a variety of droplets and distribute. You don’t want the subject to look like Swiss Dot fabric.
  4. Prepare to blot with a damp towel to remove white globs of paint; most paper is quite tough and can withstand some scrubbing.
  5. You can always touch up the snowflakes (one flake at a time!) with a pointy brush while your snowy composition is on the drying board should you notice glaring irregularities in your snowy scene after final gluing.

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Outfoxed when aiming to paint wolf

Inspired by the acrylic wolf paintings of artist Andrea Moore, and determined to paint wolves in moku style (because it can be more expressive than linear style Chinese brush painting for some subjects) I scoured my library and online sources in search of direction. 

I also brought to mind two very real wolves that had captured my imagination in recent months. One was Takaya, the lone sea wolf who lived mostly on Discovery Island, just off shore from my home town of Victoria BC for the better part of nine years.

Taqeya the wolf, he swims between the islands within sight of Victoria, feeding mostly on seals and occasionally keeping vigil on the rocks, to the delight of people on passing boats. Residents of the B.C. capital say they sometimes hear him howling in the night. (Cheryl Alexander/www.wildawake.com)

The second was Number 8, a runt in a litter relocated to Yellowstone National Park in the mid 1990s from Canada as part of a hugely successful restoration project that not only restored wolves to the wilderness they once populated, but also re-invigorated the entire ecosystem of the park. See this video.

In my research on wolf drawing I also discovered a very helpful blog post from fellow blogger Monika Zagrobelna. She provides excellent illustrations for her insights, including visuals showing fur direction and common wolf coloring.

I thought I was well prepared to sit down and figure out how to paint wolf in moku style.  But before I could advance to that intended goal I found I was sidelined yet again.  This time the tangential creations all had to do with foxes

My side trip to fox painting is understandable when you consider how closely related are foxes, wolves, coyotes and of course dogs.  Add in the fact our creative processes often involve “relational” thinking:  X is similar to Y in this way, X is different from Z in these ways… The part of me I directed to consider wolf painting bogged down with how painting wolf differed or was similar to painting foxes.  I have painted foxes in moku style before.

Although I had not blogged about the experience, I had indeed spent many hours exploring brushwork to convey the ‘essence of fox’ on rice paper.  Here is one successful painting, in the manner of Cheng Yang.

I had also pulled together several resources from my CBP library.

Resources for fox painting in CBP:

1. Cheng Yang in Traditional and Contemporary Chinese Brush Painting using water soluble media

2. Rebecca Yue in Techniques for Painting Animals

3.  Sadami Yamada in Complete Sumi-e Techiques

4.  Fang Chuxiong in  Painting Cute Animals.

Foxy Features:

I suspect another compelling reason my brushes defined foxes and not wolves when I launched into my most recent studies is that I was more familiar with foxes.  The pointier nose or snout, the rich reddish fur, and delicate “foxy” face features were already inside my head. Wolves are a reclusive animals, and my sightings were mostly of creatures loping across highways or meadows. Foxes I have seen up close and personal.

My Fox Studies:

Here are several fox compositions I painted one recent afternoon.

The one up front is the strongest example of moku painting. Only a few ink lines were added to the body after brushing in colored strokes to depict body parts. This little image was painted in the manner of an old Japanese painting showing a silly fox dancing with a lotus leaf on his head. If I painted a wolf in this manner it would quickly resemble the Disney versions of mythical evil wolves and NOT capture the essence of wild wolves as I would like.

Back to the (moku) wolf challenge:

As I pondered the brushwork for depicting a fox and considered how to adapt my color, strokes, and shaping to depict a wolf I realized there were significant differences in their bodies and fur that exacerbated the problem. 

When painting in moku style you depict animal heads, trunks, abdomens, limbs and tails with single strokes wherever possible; you use circles, arches, lines and other blobby shapes to convey the distinctive anatomy of the subject. You overlap strokes and leave selective areas white.  This works well for a fox because it has a distinctive pointed snout with white around the eyes and a triangular head. The ears are pointy, the front and hind legs are slender, its coloring is quite evenly reddish brown, and its body can be depicted with relatively smooth strokes.  Capturing the essence of fox in moku style is relatively straightforward.

But when you take on painting wolf in moku style there are immediate challenges, the most problematic being the fur.  Very young wolves might be easier because their fur at a young age is simply fluffy.  But a mature wolf has fur with a dense under hair as well as an outer hair, and all that hair is directional on the body.  (See Monika’s blog for greater understanding of the importance of that.)  The fur is BEST shown with some texturing, hence is better conveyed with texturing or broken brushwork, hallmarks of the outline style of CBP.

I tried to capture the distinctive thick mantle or cape over a wolf’s shoulders, the muscular legs, the lowered head and fuller nose of a wolf using strokes of grey tones, and then light brownish tones. Here are two quick studies of wolves crossing snowy terrain.

I then tried a head-on pose, striving to get the yellow eyes and muzzle screaming “wolf” and progressed to the furry body.  Again, conveying fur without underlying texturing simply didn’t seem to work.  I finished this painting of a wolf looking out from birches and am pleased with the overall appearance.  But the depiction is NOT traditional moku painting. 

The fur of this wolf is depicted with side strokes but i still had to use ink for the facial features; I liked the effect enough to brighten up the birches, glue the painting and put it into a frame.

Back to the resources:

In months past I have played with the texturing techniques of Fang Chuxiong in painting foxes, kittens, squirrels, goats, apes and monkeys. He demonstrates two approaches—1. Ink in texture and overlay color washes and 2. Stroke appropriate shapes for animal parts and then overlay with darker colored texturing.

I have also played with the techniques Rebecca Yue illustrates in her animal painting book.  She calls the method “broken brush” painting and uses it effectively for a wide range of animals, sadly (for me) no wolves.  BUT, I just discovered she elaborates on her method with SIX different ways of “breaking her brush”.  That warrants further study.

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Not just another dog, painting wolf

We grew up in fear of the “wolf at the door”.  It took me a while to determine my parents and grandmother were speaking figuratively (life altering abject poverty) and not literally (the wild beasts occasionally spotted in our wilderness home environment).  We did, after all, have moose, cougar and bear all stroll into the yard at various times, and the bull moose did clamber up the front steps for a quick peek in the window.

I also had difficulty associating the exaggerated slavering snouts and scrawny body parts of the illustrations in our fairy tale books with the reality of the magnificent furry beasts loping across our fields or highways. Even as a child I understood they were an integral part of the great balance of nature.

A few weeks ago as I puttered at my art table trying to paint the mountain slopes of my childhood, a long ago imagined pair of wolves I conjured in order to match the eerie howling we heard in the valley came to mind.  I could clearly “see” two furry beasts howling from a mid-mountain ledge. Sketching them in seemed only fitting.

Resources:

It is best to work with good photographs of animals you are not familiar with; wolves are a favorite subject of nature photographers and images can easily be found online.

In my Chinese Brush Painting (CBP) studies I have focused on dogs before, mostly concentrating on small breeds.  And out of tradition I studied the Pekingese, that quintessential Asian lap dog. See Links here and here.

For the wolves in my painting I needed only to understand the details that would make them appear distinctly “wolfish”. None of my CBP books address wolf-painting per se, but I quickly found several good photographs at some of the national park websites.

Dogs vs. Wolf

For anyone who wants to dwell on what makes a wolf a wolf, there’s plenty of well-illustrated material online.   Here’s just two such links I found helpful: the first compares wolves, coyotes and foxes, the second zeroes in on wolf characteristics.

This one notes differences largely in behavior and temperament.  Differences in number of teeth, nature of scat, breeding, maturation rates and footprints are discussed, but likely do not affect a painting.

The breeds of dog most closely resembling a wolf are the German Shepherd and the Husky: fur coloring and relative sizes are very similar. However key differences do commonly present and they can be important in a painting. Some of these come to mind:

  1. The tail of a dog may curl upwards, a wolf’s does not
  2. A dog may stand with its head held upright at a ninety degree angle or even “pushed back”, i.e “aloft”; a wolf tends to stand hunching its head with shoulders slightly raised.  Yes, it looks more menacing, which is part of its nature. You want to be sure to show thick muscled shoulders or “ruff”.  Forget the scrawny, wasted caricatures of old fairy tale books—they do no justice to the spirit of a wolf.  Of course posing a wolf with its head pointing at an upward angle with mouth open clearly conveys “howling wolf”.  The prominent teeth should be visible and its snout slightly shorter and fuller than for a coyote.
  3. The wolf’s eyes tend to be smaller and more slanted downwards at the centre than in a dog, important if you are painting a full frontal view.  The eyes will be yellowish if you are painting in color.
  4. The chests on dogs tend to be broader and the feet solidly under the body; they rarely splay.  The chests on wolves are narrower and the feet often splay outwards rather than appear directly below the body.
  5. If you want to depict a specific kind of wolf you may want to check out details concerning fur color, tail size and color, and so on.  There are 38 subspecies under the category of Canis lupus and some are now deemed extinct. I was surprised to learn there are several reddish or cinnamon colored subspecies.  See this link.
  6. Wolf packs are social groups and when you depict a group you will want to show accurate positioning relative to others; using photographs for reference instead of another painting is therefor most important when painting this creature.

Whistler B.C. is home to artist Andrea Moore who paints large scale wolves in acrylics. In the examples of her work below you can see she knows what she is doing! Look at those slanted yellow eyes, the hunched shoulders, and (in the twosome) the slight splaying of the legs.

Painting a Wolf with a Chinese brush:

As usual when painting animals in the CBP manner your first decision is whether to fully line the creature in ink and wash with color or ink tones, OR to depict it in “boneless” manner, using colored/toned brush strokes to define the shapes and body details. 

In both cases I would start with the eyes and facial features. As my first “need” for a wolf in a composition was to depict one or more in moonlight in winter I opted to try several poses with simple inky washes over outline “sketches”.  (Painting in the “boneless” style would result in images more like Ms. Moore’s above.)

Below is the procedure I followed once I had found a few photographs of wolf pairs and groups.  A lone wolf howling at the moon is a classic wolf image; wolves hunting are another

My studies:

I started with a simple pose of a single wolf in profile.

I can see that I will have to work on texturing to define the rounded shapes of limbs, darker where the body part would be shaded behind or under another body part and lighter on the parts that struck by light.

Here’s my second small study:

Putting together my mountain slope techniques with the wolf poses I completed the painting as envisioned and here it is on my drying board.

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Mountains on my mind: Tree lines

The master horse painter Lok Tok often presented his animals in a mountainous setting. The distinctive rugged cliffs of China offer a fittingly magnificent background for singles, pairs, and of course the conventional eight lucky horses. He also depicted mountains in Utah, U.S.A. as backdrops in numerous horse compositions, including one he titled Utopia.

Having grown up in a valley formed by some of Canada’s most picturesque and distinctive ranges—the Rocky Mountains to the north and the Cariboos to the south—I decided I might take tips from his horse painting style, BUT I would attempt to depict my own familiar peaks as settings.  Below is a satellite view of the Rocky Mountain Trench with the wandering Fraser River running from south east to north west along the floor of the valley where my parents pioneered in the 1940s.

RockyMtnTrenchSatPic

The satellite picture confirms snow on the mountain peaks even in mid summer.

In earlier blog posts I’ve looked at techniques for portraying rocks and mountains in conventional Chinese brush painting methods.  See links here and here.  The basic process is to ink in your overlapping shapes (keeping certain principles in mind), add texturing to convey the roughness/smoothness to the rock faces, and lastly wash ink tones and/or colors for effect. To depict my familiar ranges I can follow that approach, but I will have to make some adjustments for differences in the nature of our respective terrains.

Here is a view of my old hometown situated along the Fraser River, as seen from a lookout halfway up the mountain that lies to the northeast. The view thus takes in the meandering path of the river approaching from the southwest (on the left) as it flows along the valley floor northeastwards. Note the horseshoe-shaped oxbow lake that formed east of town (it is aptly named Horseshow Lake.) The view in this direction is of the range of mountains called the Cariboos.

looking-downMcB

Now here is a view of the mountains on the north side of town; they are part of the Rocky Mountain range, which extends from roughly outside of Jasper, Alberta northwest almost to Prince George. They are higher in the eastern portion and much rockier in appearance. Those near my valley farm region are lower in altitude and in many cases have trees growing almost to the peaks.

CariboosByWheeler

The Cariboos as photographed by local historian Matthew Wheeler

The two ranges flank the valley known as the Rocky Mountain Trench, with the mighty Fraser River catching all the off-flow from mountain creeks, streams and small rivers. At the eastern most end of the trench is one of Canada’s most iconic mountain peaks, Mount Robson.

MtRobson

The mountains commonly shown in Asian art are the Yellow Mountains (Huangshan) located in eastern China in Anhui province.

The range is characterized by tall, oddly-shaped granite structures, often shrouded in cloudy mists or bathed in sunshine only on their tips. These mountains jut high into the sky and are covered with a distinctive pine (also called Huangshan pine).

I arrived at the need to figure out how to depict my Cariboos (or Rockies, depending on the choice of backdrop) when I tried painting a horse composition in the manner of Lok Tok. Here is the painting I used as inspiration; it is from his World of Horses series.

LokTok horses & mountains

Here is my (unfinished) painting.

FirstStabLThorses

As you can see I was fine with sketching in two horses as the focal point, but the mountainous backdrop “went sideways” pretty quickly. I have not seen those Yellow Mountains in person and my inner eye was simply not familiar with their shapes and proportions.

Secrets to MY mountains

In her1978 novel The Sea, the Sea Iris Murdoch presents the ocean in hundreds of different descriptions, using a host of descriptors for the many nuances of blues, greens, purples, blacks and tans she found in the water. I have always felt like that about my beloved mountains. You can look at them at different times of day, in different weathers, in different seasons, and never SEE the same colors twice. A single tree, rocky slope or towering peak can appear absolutely transformed by misty morning light, approaching storm, or shadowing of a passing cloud. The mountains can mesmerize.

When it comes to portraying those mountains in a painting, one is monumentally challenged: how do you capture any of that tremendous beauty?

What makes my mountains so different from those depicted in most Asian art seem to be two things: the overlapping blue shapes fading into the distance and the tree lines, those edges between forest and bare rock in the higher regions, where more often as not snow and ice are present year round.

Brushwork Matters

Establishing the distinctive look to my mountains relies on underlying brushwork that suggests the tall pine, spruce, hemlock, fir and tamarack that march up the mountain slopes. I quickly realized these forests would carpet my mountain slopes in all four seasons and would most likely be easiest to depict in a winter scene. As I started to practice the overlapping vertical strokes using different brushes I was reminded of a winter scene that featured wolves, and the next thing I knew my horses were replaced as guests.

Here is my first study sheet for trees on slopes.

TreelineStudies

I tried different brushes, striving to place even vertical strokes on the paper.  Achieving consistent ink tones on a single mountain slope prove challenging.  Painting the slopes in the far distance lighter than those closer to the foreground seemed appropriate for perspective.  I played a bit with color, aiming to depict the glow of a sinking sun to the west and shadows on the snowy peaks.

Then the first attempt at a full composition (going with wolves not horses) showing my mountains in winter (less challenge to colorize).

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And then a complete start-to-finish of wolves on a mountainside in winter, with some of my beloved Rocky Mountains fading into the distance.

finalWolves

I used white paint to enhance snow on the spruce trees in the foreground and on the mountain tips, and planned to add my chop in the lower right.  Now that I felt more confident about portraying my kind of mountains using this conventional Chinese brush painting method, I considered trying the horses again.  And maybe, just maybe, I can get the summer greens and blues to work on my valley view as well.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting landscapes, painting mountains, wolves | 1 Comment

The Big Strokes (Hokusai on Painting with Contour Lines)

Depicting animals and figures using a ‘continuous line’ in the manner of acclaimed Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) led to mixed results for me. I easily painted cats, bunnies, turtles, and human figures, but struggled with cranes. His drawing lessons involving the deconstruction of subjects into geometric shapes offered few insights. When I tackled his “lessons” in figure drawing by starting with strong ‘contour lines’ that define the essence of the intended subject  I was back to “mixed results”.

At the website linked in earlier posts dedicated to Hokusai’s art  (where one can access many of his books) there is a three volume set titled Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing.  (Look down the menu on the left side of the home page to find E-Hon/Books and then hunt for the titled icon.) Volume 2 of that set addresses using contour lines to begin a figure painting. (Volume 1 looks at drawing using geometric shapes while Volume 3 looks at how different brush strokes can be exploited.)

For each subject Hokusai starts with a few strong curved lines, and then adds details to complete his drawing. I am sure the calligraphy accompanying each piece would enhance understanding each lesson, but his placement of a small version of the starting lines right next to the larger scale finished figure easily SHOWS his method. Many of his sketches in other books on the dedicated website (look for Pictorial Dictionary in particular) also have these helpful little sidebar ‘scribbles’.

HokusaiFigure1

Each lesson in Vol.2 Using Contour Lines can easily be grasped from the visuals.

SamplePageFigures

This page is near the beginning of Vol.2 Using Contour Lines and is one of many similar pages to be found in his book titled Pictorial Dictionary. for most of the little figures Hokusai places a “squiggle” beside each that he used for his starting point in sketching the figure.

In my earlier studies of figure painting I learned a process that works for me:

  1. Outline the figure using pale indigo ink. I usually start with the head.
  2. Using strong black ink with a fine detail brush, paint the features of the figure and the lines for the clothing.
  3. Go over the clothing, using ‘thick and thin’ lines or any of traditional fabric fold painting lines. Let dry thoroughly.  (In fall of 2016 I spent days exploring the numerous traditional kinds of strokes used for fabric folds; details are here and here.)
  4. Mix skin tone (yellow, vermilion and some ink) and paint exposed skin; dab in rosy sections and leave some areas white for highlighted skin for effect.
  5. Choose colors for the clothing; paint along lines with dark tone; use a paler shade to wash over the whole garment. Again, allow the brush to leave white swaths for effect.

What Hokusai’s lesson is urging me to do is to VISUALIZE the intended figure (or observe a real one!) and identify the KEY lines that give it its distinctive shape. Follow the lines of shoulders, arms, spine, etc. and quickly sketch them on the paper. They are usually curved (contour) in shape with maybe a few straight ones added. In many of his little sketches he is so observant of those initial contour lines that he brushes them in with the desired thicknesses and thin parts exactly where they will need to be. He hooks them, turns them sharply/smoothly as needed. His lines appear CONFIDENT, not hesitant.

And then his final sketch next to the initial scribble reveals details that get added to further flesh out the sketch.

In my first figure studies emulating his lessons, I painted those initial contour lines with pale indigo ink. Doing so allows a certain degree of over-painting that is less messy than had you used ink for the initial lines. Ink does have great permanence! Pencil sketching in this manner—rough out the main lines, fine tune the lines keeping your pencil moving…smudge out or erase the unwanted former light rough lines—is a familiar technique. Hokusai refined the approach using ink.

Here are more of my studies using contour lines based on some of his subjects:

I then went on to tackle more of his little figures:

In poking around Hokusai’s books I discovered a sketch showing a horse under a tree with a groomer brushing the mane. Hokusai’s strong curved lines were obvious so I gave that a try:

HokcontoursHorseGrooming

I wasn’t so sure Hokusai had correctly depicted the horse’s shoulder and legs, yet it is a pose I will return to and study again. I pulled another horse sketch from my file (kept because of the unusual pose) and tried that using the contour line method.

HokcontoursHorseRear

OOPS!  an ink drop rendered my horseman into a pirate!!! it was easy to begin this sketch with the strong rounded lines.

MyHokself2

In this attempt at replicating one of Hokusai’s selfies I fared better with some strong contour lines as the starting point.

Reflections:

–starting with the major contour lines of a sketch (swiftly and confidently drawn !) requires thorough knowledge of the subject, a good eye, perhaps a lot of practice.

–trying a new approach to a subject can lead to insights not expected; this lesson of Hokusai’s made me study figures more closely before I started to paint them.

–there are more ways than one to skin a cat (paint a figure).

 

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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.

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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