I’ve spent hundreds of hours in the bow of a canoe staring at water. I’ve seen the wind whipping small wavelets flat as it gusts, the afternoon sun glint off gently rippling diamond-shapes, and many ugly greys and greens of tossing swells as we push across open stretches, zigzagging across a lake. I thought I knew every imaginable nuance a water surface could present.
So when I jumped into painting water village scenes in the manner of Zhang Shipei, I thought I could handle all the elements: rocks, trees, marsh grasses, rooflines, small figures, resident animals (dogs, ducks, water buffalo, hens) and water. Okay, so I knew up front I might have to take some time to investigate the details of small Chinese boats (sampans) in order to get things “right”. And I wanted to play with applications of mineral colors to emulate the fabulous color treatments this contemporary artist does so well. But water depictions? Just swabbing in swirls of light wash, right? Dropping in a few well-chosen wavy lines perhaps.
Not so easy, I found.
My study of sampans led to the discovery of some landscapes painted by Hua Sanchuan, a noted landscape and ‘beautiful lady’ painter, which featured sampans and included several swaths of water ripples. I showed them in my last post and repeat them here below.
It took some hunting through my Chinese brush painting (CBP) library to find exactly what I wanted in the way of direction. A few books gave small examples of rippled water (Jane Dwight’s Chinese Brush Painting Bible, Oriental Painting Course by Wang Jia Wan and Cai Xiaoli) but it was in Chinese Painting Techniques by Alison Stilwell Cameron that I hit the mother lode.
First off, Stilwell Cameron provides several classifications for water depiction—waterfalls, rushing streams, quiet pools, ocean waves, ocean crests—and gives a name to the style that’s caught my interest: net water. She says it takes its name from its resemblance to fishermen’s nets.
How to paint Net Water (undulating ripples)
The ink should always be a very light shade and the brush wet, according to Stilwell Cameron. And the finest detail brush you own will be in order. Her directions are these: It is painted by holding the brush handle slanting at an angle, resting the arm and side of the hand lightly on the table and pulling the stroke from left to right. Alternate pressing with lifting and let the brush move in a smooth undulating motion.
My first study of net water in the prescribed manner of Stilwell Cameron:
She continues: After you have completed one wavy line, the second should be placed just under it, with the crests of this line of ripples touching the troughs of the first line. This is continued until as much area as you wish has been covered, but be careful to keep the area in the general form of a diamond.
Jane Dwight’s instructions were simpler: paint a net of connecting wavy lines to represent undulating waves. She reminds us that water symbolizes yin, the female principle, and is thus painted as soft, pliant and rippling. Her “net water” was accompanied by two variations: rough water and swirling eddies.
Net water is typically used near the banks of rivers or lakes, or placed around boats, rocks, or reeds. My inspirational Hua Sanchuan paintings involved light green washes painted over the patches of net water.
I worked up to figuring out where/how to insert an oar, tapering the net at the sides and then played with adding color:
Stilwell Cameron cautions that square patches of net water look too stiff; one should pay careful attention to the progression of a diamond-shaped pattern. In subsequent illustrations she also demonstrates how to place reeds in the troughs of the wavy lines for a marshy effect.
- A very small detail brush is hugely important to success in ripples painting
- You want the ink diluted and you must take care in blotting the excess from the brush before touch down.
- Decide whether to push on the downside of the strokes (the troughs) OR the upsides (crests) of your ripples: don’t mix both or your ripples appear chunky.
- If several patches in one composition, those closer to you will be larger than those further away. Those in the distance may also appear flatter.
- It takes some practice to get a rhythm to your brushwork.
- Adding a pale green wash toned down with ink that extends beyond the netting helps the eye visualize “water”; it helps hide some irregularities in brushwork, or at least deceive the eye.
- I may now be ready for a full sampan composition with better net water than the last session!