Painting Narcissus – Part 1

Introduction to the narcissus:

Known in Chinese as Shui Hsein (water fairy), the narcissus is a symbol of endurance in difficult times.  The symbolism stems from its blooming in the cold days of late winter, early spring. Another term the Chinese use is “immortals of the water”. Although there are numerous varieties, all fall within two classifications: those with a single flower on a stem from a bulb, or those that sport a cluster of flowers.  Leaves may be long or short and come in many shades of green.

The flower is known for its purity and intense fragrance.  It has long been associated with late winter festivals in China and is a favorite subject for compositions to celebrate the New Year.  It is a favorite choice for forced (table-top) flowering worldwide, requiring only a shallow bowl, some pebbles/gravel and lots of water.  One group member recommended looking for the variety called “Chinese Sacred Lily” and recalled a California friend who planted hundreds in an open field for spring enjoyment.  This variety has more flowers per stem and more delicate perfume than most.

Order for painting:

1.  Flower–do the corona (centre) and then add six petals. Some varieties have five.

2.  Calyx, i.e. the part at the base of the petals where individual petals come together, quite distinctive on this flower.

3.  Seed pod and stem

4.  Buds

5.  Leaves

6.  Bulb and roots

7.  Setting.  The narcissus is commonly painted with rocks, other spring flowers.


1.  light ink tinted with indigo for outlining flowers

2.  black ink to accent petal tips, to outline leaves, to add lines to leaves, for roots

3.  yellow and orange for the corona, yellow for petal backs in some styles,

4.  yellow and multiple greens for leaves

5.  burnt sienna diluted for bulb, sheath


1.  Detail brush

2.  Large soft wolf brush

Five Methods for Painting Narcissus   (differences are in the treatment of the leaves):

1.  Academic—define backs and fronts to each leaf in dark ink; color each in yellow, stroking with the contour, then over-paint green on the fronts.

Academic style with green painted on the “fronts”or “tops” of leaves.

When doing leaves in this two-stroke manner, be sure tips are closed. You can vary your greens within a color composition, but each leaf looks best done in two strokes from one brush load.

2.  Solid Stroke—two strokes per leaf (moku style)

3.  Wu style—all solid green leaves           …and then there are  two styles that are meant to convey the “expression” of narcissus, not detailed images

4.  Freestyle 1—color first and then the outline

5.  Freestyle 2—outline first and then add the color


1.  Plan your composition and choose a style for leaves

2.  Paint each flower, varying placement, direction facing, and fullness of bloom in the outline (gongbi) manner.  Note that some artists like to put yellow on the backs of the petals.

Using light ink mixed with a tinge of indigo and a dry small wolf brush define the corona. Then three petals around, then next three petals. This petal stroke is a press and release.

Traditionally petals were placed in a specific order, but a more efficient ordering is three distributed like a triangle, and then three filling the gaps.

Each petal is done in two strokes, holding the brush perpendicular to the paper.  You can define the little gathers/creases in each petal directed toward the corona.

Color the coronas yellow or centre orange with yellow for the part that holds the centre up. Next, detail three dots in ink, like a smiley face. This is a happy flower!

Reinforce the tips with black ink and detail brush. Another technique is to use pale green or pale indigo for this tip definition; it helps enhance the whiteness of the flower through contrast.

By placing petals in two sets of threes you are more likely to get an even distribution, not ending up with crowding in the last two.Each petal is done in two strokes, holding the brush perpendicular to the paper.  You can define the little gathers/creases in each petal directed toward the corona. Put in a few buds as well.

3.  Paint the calyx using light burnt sienna tinged with a little ink.

4.  Paint the seedpods with light burnt sienna and green mix.

5.  Do the bulb/s with pale ink using a sidestroke and large wolf brush. Nan Rae in her book The Chi of the Brush demonstrates three strokes in descending order of size.

When done with one brush-load the tinting takes care of itself. Dots may be added for interest.  Note that when doing a group of three it’s best to execute the bulbs in one fluid, twisting stroke.  Add roots with dark ink and detail brush.

When creating a composition of several bulbs you can start with a single “bulb stroke” done with a large brush in a twisting motion as you move sideways.

6.  Do leaves in chosen style.

7.  Complete desired setting.


1.  Be sure the leaves all emerge from the bulb.

2.  Be sure to close the top of two-stroke leaves, striving for a semi-pointy ending. Narcissus leaves are somewhat rounded and often lightly yellowed or browned at the tips.

3.  Even though the general rule is to do the flowers first, many how-to books show steps with leaves done first.

4.  In The Chinese Brush Painting Bible Jane Dwight recommends doing leaves with two slightly arches strokes of green, over-painted with a thin wash of metallic green once dry.

5.  As the sheath is papery thin and about to fall away it takes a thin wash and may be lined.

6.  Some artists find creasing your paper with a thumbnail helps establish the leaf centre (I’ve used the end of a paintbrush or similar pointed dowel) and then the paint distributes either side of the crease as you run a stroke.  Two of the upright leaves in the above composition show this clearly. You can paint away from the bulb, or toward it, whichever  feels most comfortable.

7.  Strive for slight arches to the leaves.

8.  Plan to “break” a stem en route to the bulb once/twice; more is too much.  The stem should be of uniform width.  Don’t forget the individual flower stems in a flower cluster.

9.  You want to convey roundness and three dimensions in a bulb.

10.  If veining your leaves, the strokes should be thinner than the outlines for the leaves and follow the contours.  Plan to cross leaves, to fold them; consider a composition with leaves hanging.

11.  In The Chinese Brush Painting Bible artist Jane Dwight shows flowers painted with white paint and creates leaves in two strokes, one shorter than the other.

12. Single stroke leaves look good with “flying white”.

13.  If applying either of the freestyle leaf methods, leaves could also be tipped in a yellowish brown.  Color that goes outside the lines, or ink that blurs are desirable effects in freestyle.

14. The narcissus is a joyful flower and should be painted fluidly.

It seems fitting to leave this session with Nan Rae’s words “painting narcissus is sweeping freedom, along with elegant restraint”.

Many a brush painter discovers that painting lively bamboo is easier on days when you’re feeling tense, angry or frustrated.  And the exercise often serves to calm the emotions.  Perhaps I should paint more narcissi!
















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