Making a Splash

The huge salmon run in BC in September 2010 had many of us hanging out dockside to scoop up the bounty.  Fish does not get any fresher than those beauties.


I was reminded of once dining mere feet from the Fraser River in a rustic restaurant, regaled by leaping Chub Salmon. The twisting bodies flung above the swirling waters gleamed for a moment, and then sank smoothly out of sight.  That moment of highest suspension seemed pure magic; capturing it with a paintbrush has fascinated me ever since.  A few weeks ago I spent a morning trying to do just that.

I hunted through my brush painting books for inspiration and guidance. One composition of a leaping carp showed exactly what I wanted, and a few others with kingfishers snapping up dinner featured splashes of water I thought could be helpful.  The latter were in Jane Evans’ 1994 book Learn to Paint Chinese Brush, everything you need to know to get started, and she gave some direction for technique.

The leaping carp was done in a more traditional Lingnam style by Lin Hu-kuei in Chinese Paintings for Beginners: drawing Goldfish and golden Carps. He titled the composition “wanting to change into a dragon with a twist of the body”.   From the book’s introduction I learned that Lin Hu-kuei trained under master Chao Shao-ang (remember the poster showing three monkeys in an earlier post) and that fish are his specialty.

The introduction begins: In a clear, transparent world, the free and leisure goldfish and golden carps are the true messengers of dreams.  They are the sole hermits of the wondrous world where light dances on the surface, and they are self-sufficient poets in a quiet corner of the lotus pond.  The language fascinates as much as the artwork!

So, on to my ‘playing with water’.

Lin Hu-kuei provides pages of step-by-step instructions for painting the fish.  As usual, one starts with the main focus of attention in a composition.  I have had instruction on goldfish, angelfish, shellfish (crabs and shrimp) and carp, but a quick review doesn’t hurt.

The golden carp is a mutation of the common carp and comes in various color combinations of red, white, black, yellow and blue.  According to Lin, the best red and white golden carp should have a base coat as snowy white as possible, and be devoid of any yellow markings.  He favors such a fish contrasted in a green setting.

Painting the Golden Carp:

1.  Outline the body, back and gill cover (operculum) with a small detail brush dipped in light ink mixed with indigo.  Try to capture the twist of the body and tail; consider how your fish is moving.

2.  Use a larger soft brush with sidestrokes, wash in the fins; while still damp mark in the lines of the fins with a detail brush.

3.  With the detail brush and same light tone ink carefully sketch in the diamond shaped boxes on the body by mapping out two sets of straight parallel lines that cross one another.  These need to be done in such a way as to convey the rounded shape of the body.  Dot in the eye with dark ink.

4.  Now for the body sheen.  First wash the body with a flat brush using clear water. Apply pale ochre to the body.   Let dry and then wash again with clear water.  Then apply a layer of white to the body and fins.  Apply dabs of white to convey scales and enhance white on the operculum and barbells as needed.

5.  For a red and white carp, use a small flat brush to wash a large stroke of red down the back of the fish.

This blurs into the body; then enhance scales (at diamond cross points) with white and red.  Skip this step if you want to create a silvery white carp.

6. Finally, add the eyeball, then place a blue circle around the top and a pale vermillion half circle; add a white eye sparkle.

My messenger of dreams

For my composition I created the leaping fish and while it dried, studied the water splash.  I wasn’t sure whether the artist sketched in water lines with light ink and THEN swirled in water with light greenish blue wash, or did the water swirls first and then “picked out” sprays and airborne lumps of water.  What the heck, doing a fish was fairly quick and practice never hurt, so I tried both.  I remembered to put a note in pencil on the edge of my papers so I could remember which was which.

Waiting for a fish to dry seems somewhat oxymoronic.  Many artists use a small hairdryer to speed things up. With a pole lamp near my desk I simply held the fish over the light bulb for a few moments (yes, I did char one and had to redo it; ah..the value of practice) and carried on.

Consensus among my art group friends was that the “Colored wash water first, pick out details for spray and fall back splashes second” looked more natural.  The colored wash swirls were more spontaneous and conveyed movement better if done first.  As I worked, I realized many years in the front of a canoe watching water spray fall from a paddle or flip over the bow was paying off.  My inner eye understood how water falls back when parted, lifted, or disturbed.

I glued both trials, but inadvertently glued one upside down.  Here is the outcome of my experiment with water splashes.


In Fish One (on the left) I did the greenish-grey water patches first, and then picked out outlines of moving splashes with darker ink and a detail brush. In Fish Two (on the right) I defined the water lines in ink first and then tried to color in the green parts of the water.  Both images required some color enhancement for better viewing here; on paper Fish One seemed the more realistic to me.

I moved on to try conveying water splashes following Jane Dwight’s direction; this necessitated a study of painting kingfishers.  I ended up with several compositions involving willow, the birds, the water splashes and the moon. Results vary.  This is one I call “Good Catch”


What I learned:

1.  From Jane Dwight’s Chinese Brush Painting Bible”: the carp is a long-lived species and symbolizes soldiery, endurance, and youth.  They are also thought of as quarrelsome, she writes, and yet a pair of fish symbolizes harmony and married bliss.

2.  I loved the silvery white effect achieved with Lin’s fish body technique; using white paint effectively is one of the hallmarks of the Lingnam style.

3.  I need to do more willow.

4.  My first few kingfishers looked quite spontaneous and in motion; later ones turned out too painterly.

5.  I seem to have a good handle on putting the moon into a composition.  Should do more.

6.  When you glue a painting to backing paper upside down and you don’t discover the error until it has dried, all is not lost.  You CAN recover the painting. (Thank you Linda B for this trick!)  Hold the painting under cool running water until it is saturated and then start at one corner and pick the two bonded papers apart carefully. Toss the backing, and re-glue the painting right side up with new paper.  It works!

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