I’ve been feeling like the ugly duckling in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, a “strange bird” among fellow artists all diligently painting beautiful compositions with a Chinese brush. Where those around me sit down with the four treasures—ink, stone, paper and brush—and create magnificent paintings I have struggled to vary ink tones, control moisture pooling, lay down outlines that are thick and then thin in just the right places.
I was drawn to this art form by its simplicity of form and elegance of design. But I quickly learned how utterly challenging and difficult every single brush stroke could be.
A wall scroll similar to this one with plum blossom and bamboo first drew me to the art form.
After almost a decade of wielding the brush I can at last say with some measure of confidence: I am a Chinese brush painter.
And I think I may have stumbled upon what is ‘my style’.
A long and winding road
Years ago when I first heard that the traditional path to becoming an artist in China meant 20 years of calligraphy, followed by 20 years of the four gentlemen, then 20 years of various subjects, BEFORE one could dare to cultivate an individualistic approach to the art form, I was both amazed and humbled by the discipline. But not deterred.
After a career in communications and teaching, I was fairly knowledgeable about the process of learning and creativity, especially among adults. I was also hugely aware of my own preferred learning style. When you consider I simply did not have another 60 years to my future, you can understand why this self-awareness was important. If I were to develop some adeptness at any new activity, I would have to buckle down and get on the fast track: take lessons, study art, attend galleries and showings, join art groups, seek out mentors, invite critiques, and practice, practice, practice.
Those who can, do
I am frequently amazed to see a pragmatic and single-minded approach to art demonstrated by others. They discover Chinese brush painting for example, take a few lessons, and then QUICKLY zero in on the precise subject and style in which they excel. I have only to look around my art groups to see several examples of this. Consider John Hart whose floral sprays and vases are influenced by his Hawaiian holidays. He knows what works for him.
Then there’s Delightful Lotus whose gongbi masterpieces are large and detailed, and Bird Woman who interprets western landscapes with a distinctive Chinese brush flavor. Her mastery of many shades of green based solely on traditional ink chips is amazing. They know what they like, the colors they prefer using, the brushes that work best for the desired results. And their individual subjects are no accident. These are among the hallmarks of an artist’s style.
This is not to say that artists with a distinctive style don’t stray from their preferred path. The three I have named above DO try other subjects, they do play with colors, and like me, they do succumb to the purchase of a yet another book, brush, or odd fancy paper. But they also DO a number of things that lead to development of individual style.
Zero to ninety, the artistic way
Earlier in this post I noted things a wannabe artist can do to move along the path to individualism in as short a time as possible. For that is the goal of most who tentatively approach our art groups or demo tables, and purchase their first brushes and ink. To repeat : take lessons, study art, attend galleries and showings, join art groups, seek out mentors, invite critiques, and practice, practice, practice
Then there’s the necessary “winnowing”. Listen to your instincts and ‘paint what you know’. If you are drawn to flowers—their form, their colors, their nuances—then stick to floral subjects. If you have a thing for dogs or cats, birds or beasts, elephants, penguins, turtles…even pigs, then paint them and only them until their shapes and distinctive details become second nature. If you spy an artist whose work intrigues you, then study their work to determine WHY.
Scare yourself, take a stretch
Every so often it doesn’t hurt to step outside your comfort zone. If like me, you are not fond of mums, then you might just learn something if you take an open mind to a demo on chrysanthemum painting. It IS one of the four gentlemen for good reason. Last time out the take-away for me was: be sure to paint the vein line in mum leaves right to the edge of the leaf. The veins in the leaf on the left below do not extend right to the leaf edge; in the two examples to the right those veins go right to the outermost rims of each leaf AND the side veins emerge clearly from the central vein.
Aha, what a difference in the look of the leaves! One simple TIP makes a huge difference in all kinds of things…on another occasion it was: use indigo for the veins instead of dark ink.
Last year Lotus and I ‘jumped to the front’ for our group leader who had been “asked” by the House to promote our group with an open house/demo series. We are both former teachers, so delivering demos on subjects we love was not too ‘scary’ for either of us. But we did witness some ‘scary’ endeavors on the part of two other artists, which were duly noted.
A highly skilled realistic floral painter who happened to be on volunteer duty in the tea room made a point of dropping in for part of our demos, just “to show some support” he said. (Right. He was there for the ‘stretch’.) Afterward he disclosed his amazement at how simply and effectively I rendered a bamboo cane complete with shaded stalk, darkened nodes, crisp leaves, and delicate tips in a matter of minutes with only a few careful loads of my big soft Chinese brush. His approach to bamboo in acrylics is far more tedious and painstakingly detailed. Maybe that will change? He also was astute enough to know my bamboo painting was a well-honed parlor trick, deliberately included as a warm-up to horse-painting. It caught everyone’s attention as intended, and put me at ease for the challenge to follow.
The other ‘scare’ that day was to have a mentor/teacher join our little audience. Yikes! Was she there to intimidate? Of course NOT. She is a very accomplished Chinese brush painter with a diverse repertoire at her command and solo shows to boot. She also has had a longtime love of horses, but alas her own CBP lessons did not include the painting of horses; the horse hadn’t been in her own teacher’s repertoire either.
I had chosen the horse as my demo subject because I knew it well, I had studied it thoroughly (ten books and counting, all ‘worked through’ to boot.) and I have practiced prodigiously. The presence of such an accomplished artist nevertheless pumped up my adrenaline, and pushed me to do better. It did take a few self-reminders: you are doing the demo because you can, you know how to do horses, whatever you achieve will be more than those in front of you know already, you don’t have to achieve perfection…etc. etc.
Laugh and the world laughs with you
One of the biggest challenges for some adult learners is to get over their fear of criticism. Public criticism. My advice is to just ‘get over it, you’re a big kid now’, IF you can. I’ll admit that some of us do take a bit of coddling, but the quickest way to overcome fear of criticism is to join a group and seek out the feedback. Take baby steps—ask first for the opinions of others on compositions in books: what do you think of this artist’s bamboo? Any idea how that one got such a good expression on the cat? THEN you can gradually move to asking someone whose judgment you trust to opine on YOUR brushwork, your composition, your dear-to-your-heart attempts to emulate greatness.
And you just might learn a few things about the foibles of others. I know I have, and they remind me that others too have made booboos, stretched to recover a slip-up, overcome weaknesses, and often moved on to much greater things.
I’ve heard of the legendary ‘cock-up’ performed—before my time—by a group member who obtained the correct calligraphy for the word “peacock” to accompany one of her comps, only to get it turned around in the transfer from bulletin board to painting. She rendered the final wording upside down…and then sold the painting. The mentor who attended my horse demo showed us this Mum comp in which she ran out of paper. Some of us do that routinely with trees painted top-down, in the traditional manner.
Look carefully just below the vase base (and above the red chop) to see if you can detect where the artist added paper after the painting was near completion.
Those among us who have had to ‘add a bee’ or other insect to cover an ink blob or color stain is probably uncountable. Here’s a recent rooter painting of mine in which you might admire the splatter painting background. That was not part of the plan, but it had to be done once I dropped a splotch. That sort of thing should really be part of the ‘never apologize, never explain’ experiences. Let your viewers think what they see was all neatly planned and executed.
And it doesn’t hurt to ask others ‘what do you think’. There’s so much to learn about this complex subject of CBP, after all it has grown over many centuries of study. If there’s a way to save a painting, then why not open your mind to possibilities. Many cooks can indeed save a broth.
Recent insights of mine from a range of sources: mixing burnt sienna with a bit of indigo for a pale greenish wash over a rock face may be just the finishing touch to a ‘bird on rock’ comp. If you have one bit of bright blue or red in one area of a landscape (worse yet, inadvertently drop or smudge some in) then deliberately place the same value in two or three other spots as well. Overcome the nasty ‘parallel lines’ or railroad track look that distracts from the subject with some clever over painting of foliage. Limit your color palette. When starting a lotus leaf outline quickly with pale indigo ink leaving a thickened line on the inside curves, thin on the outer curve. (Nenagh’s example is in the upper left corner, my simulation below it, and a textbook sketch with obvious thick/thin treatment is on the right.)
My tip sheet is always growing.
So what IS my style?
Here is one man’s definition of style from a random online source: “basically the manner in which the artist portrays his or her subject matter and how the artist expresses his or her vision. Style is determined by the characteristics that describe the artwork, such as the way the artist employs form, color, and composition, to name just a few.”
On reflection then, the hallmarks to my emerging style include:
- Wonky birds and animals, as opposed to realistic interpretations. Here are “my” kind of crows:
- Animal portraits: horses, donkeys, monkeys, roosters, cats, dogs, mandarins, herons, owls, eagles, frogs, gold fish, water buffalo, perhaps all zodiac animals.
I have painted cats often enough to dare to paint freehand right on cardstock, or in this case, fancy petal-infused paper. Every stroke has to be just right to pull this off.
- Landscapes featuring mountains, trees, rural villages both Asian and western.
- Figure painting. I love the classic laughing buddhas, seven sages, pretty women, children, musicians, common folk in rural scenes.
Depiction of the Seven Sages in a Bamboo Grove is a conventional composition in CBP; this must be my tenth such interpretation.
- Set pieces. I can flesh out an animal portrait with bamboo, pine, willow, grasses, lotus, splatter, washes, the suggestion of sky or amorphous back-ground.
Perhaps my style is also defined by some aspects to CBP that simply aren’t me:
- bird and flower comps where both are interpreted quite realistically
- anything gongbi style—moku and outline methods hold greater appeal.
- Landscapes featuring Asian-looking mountains. (Perhaps that would change if I ventured to those region and inhaled that mountain air.)
- Complementary calligraphy.
To conclude this post’s reflections on ten years happily spent, I invite any insights my friends and followers can offer; what’s my style?