Monkey Business

Introduction to the monkey:

For our second fall workshop we studied techniques for painting the Monkey.  This animal has long been associated with fun, trickery and mischief in Chinese art. Its anatomy is particularly suited to the moku style of painting. Likely because of its resemblance to a bearded old man the monkey symbolizes wisdom.

Japan has long been home to “monkey performers”, actors dressed as monkeys acting out skits satirizing human behavior. A Japanese artist Hasegawa Tohaku 1539-1610 created a well-known painting showing a monkey reaching down from a willow tree striving to capture the reflection of the moon in water.

Japan also is deemed to be the source of the so-called “three wise monkeys” or three mystic apes, which are a pictorial maxim. Together they embody the proverbial principle to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. The three monkeys are Mizaru, covering his eyes, who sees no evil; Kikazaru, covering his ears, who hears no evil; and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, who speaks no evil. Sometimes there is a fourth monkey depicted with the three others; the last one, Shizaru, symbolizes the principle of “do no evil”. He may be shown crossing his arms.

There are various meanings ascribed to the monkeys and the proverb, including associations with being of good mind, speech and action. In the Western world the phrase is often used to refer to those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye.

The source that popularized this pictorial maxim is the second panel of a  17th century carving over a door of the famous Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan. The carvings at Toshogu Shrine were carved by Hidari Jingoro, and believed to have incorporated Confucius’s Code of Conduct, using the monkey as a way to depict man’s life cycle.

The monkey has a special place in Chinese culture largely because of the sixteenth century Chinese classic novel Journey to the West (Chinese: 西游记 Pinyin:xī yóu jì) by Wu Cheng’en of the Ming dynasty. It was translated and published by Arthur Waley in 1942, and also released in an abridged version for children, titled Dear Monkey.  Two other books I learned about in this workshop and decided i needed for my bookshelf were The Monkey in Art by Ptolemy Tompkins (1994) and a book from the juvenile lit genre, All About Monkeys (1958) by Robert S. Lemon.

For those of us living and pursuing our art in Victoria BC, Emily Carr’s famous companion Woo is oft remembered. Perhaps his spirit can be conjured to inform our work!

The monkey Woo is immortalized in a larger than life mural on the exterior of a popular Victoria art store.

 Painting Apes:

The general approach to painting apes is as follows:

1.  Outline the face with a fine brush and dry black ink.  As is the norm with animals, depicting the eyes establishes the character of the monkey.

2. Use a large soft brush and side strokes to depict the top of the head and the ears.  A major distinction of monkeys as opposed to humans, is their “necklessness”.  The head has to appear more “seated’ in the shoulders than with humans.

3. The same large soft brush can be double-loaded and in a series of long confident strokes you portray the back, the arms, the legs, the tail. Fill in other body parts (chest/abdomen) as needed.

4.  The furry nature of the monkey’s limbs can be enhanced by running a brush wet with clear water along the edges of the limbs.  Some monkeys have distinctive tufts of fur protruding from either side of the head just below the ears.

Monkeys are commonly portrayed with peaches, symbols of longevity.  They can be shown alone or in groups, often among pine trees.  The facial area can be colored and details added once the face is dry.  When the limbs have partially dried you can use a detail brush with dark ink to portray the fingers and toes, using a variation of the bone stroke.

Several Chinese brush painters have established distinctive styles for portraying monkeys.  Consider this example by Shao Chao (1905-1998) a teacher/artist of the Lingnan School.

The child prodigy Wang Yani (1975-) who started painting at the age of two became known for her whimsical rendering of colorful monkeys. (See the 1995 book Young Painter: The Life and Paintings of Wang Yani, China’s Extraordinary Young Artist byZhensun Zheng.)

Wang Yani perfected a unique style for rendering monkeys; this is part of a panel called “100 Monkeys”.

Another contemporary artist Fang Zhwu-shiung has developed an effective dry brush technique for portraying furry creatures.  In his book Painting Cute Animals he demonstrates a dry-on-wet as well as a wet-on-dry method to convey monkey fur.

If portraying gibbons, one should strive to keep colors light and be sure the animal appears lean, not plump. Limbs should appear elongated, loose, and flexible.  The gibbon should look aristocratic.

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