I am rat, and that is that

For most non-Asians our first awareness of the Chinese zodiac animals is as pre-dinner entertainment provided by placemats in a so-called Chinese food restaurant. I’ve heard the food is frequently far from authentic, but the entertainment is genuine.  Who among us has not chuckled to read the supposed personal qualities bestowed on us at birth simply by the coincidental phase of the moon.

I am a rat.

How….interesting.  (Yes, there’s that fallback word so often used when one can NOT think of anything truly complimentary to say.)  To me, rats were always despicable creatures—dirty, ugly, disease-carrying, loathsome vermin.

My first encounter was as a child watching my parents deal with a pack rat which had set up house in our root cellar.  The family dog helpfully sniffed out the offending animal, which hid in an old hip wader.  Dad squeezed shut the boot top, carried it out the backdoor and tossed boot and rat into the yard.  Pup had a heyday disposing of the animal.

But here am I, a fledgling artist wanting to learn more about the heritage of my chosen art form.  Others in our group are dragons (how exotic), oxen (how noble), and even bunnies (too cute).  By reason of my birth, I am a rat.

What’s to like about rats?  Ah…. they are noted for their charm, according to a little red book I picked up in Victoria’s Chinatown titled The Chinese Fortune Calendar.  Rat people are also “fussy about small matters and have a tendency to pinch pennies”.  Much of this book’s entry on rats reads somewhat negatively.  I do recall reading somewhere that Rat People are kind and loving, generous to a fault.  Maybe I should have kept that old placemat.

It can indeed be fun to check out your sign.  Several internet sources explain some of the intricacies.




Apparently when the animals were summoned for zodiac auditions, the rat cleverly sat on the oxen’s back and jumped down at just the right moment to be first in line. One version of the story says a stream had to be forded near the end of the journey, and that prompted the rat to hop on the oxen’s back for a free ride.  With curiosity, cleverness and thrift among a Rat person’s virtues, I’m starting to warm to the association.  Reluctantly.

Painting the Rat:

Zodiac animals are favorite subjects for Chinese Brush painting and instructions abound.  I found two resources particularly helpful when painting the rat. Jane Dwight in The Chinese Brush Painting Bible describes a three-step approach.  Step 1 Establish the head using a fine brush and grey ink, using two strokes for jaw and forehead.  Ears are circled in.  The eye is done with black ink in an oval shape leaving a white-eye sparkle. Step 2 Use the medium brush with grey ink to paint a large broad curling stroke, which starts behind the ears and ends with a pressing in the hip muscle. Step 3 Add a second curling stroke inside the first to complete the body, then add legs, toes and a long curling tail.  Dark curves can be added to the tail with a detail brush in black ink to segment it and create dimension. Whiskers, nose, mouth and claws are all added with a fine brush and black ink.

Some instruction books that start with basic strokes include one they call “rat’s tail” which is used for round reeds, stems, and so forth.  This takes careful tonal loading of a brush.

Caroline and Susan Self describe approaches to painting all 12 zodiac animals in their 2009 book The Art of Chinese Brush Painting; ink paper inspiration. They note how readily the rat is caricatured with buggy eyes, distinctive tail, and full body.  (When considering how to customize my blog site header some wrapping paper that featured mice scampering about with chocolate goodies inspired me.)

The Self women have extensive credentials and art teaching experience, and provide considerable background on the art form in the early chapters of this book.  For painting the rat, they suggest five steps, as follows.  Step 1 Dip the brush in light grey ink, tip it with dark and define a large arc to represent the rat body; extend the stroke into a foreleg.   Step 2 Define the ears in darker grey with two similar arc-like strokes that are circles that almost close.  Use a smaller brush to define a squiggling tail, ending with a pointy lift-off.  Step 3 With a detail brush and black ink create the eyes as two black circles, leaving white between the eyes and the ear circles. Step 4 With black loaded on small brush lay the brush flat to suggest a pointy nose in front of the eyes.  Step 5 Add whiskers with a fine detail brush and any desirable context items such as fruit, nuts, wheat.


My rat study sheet: rats across the top were done following Dwight’s method. The next row were created in the Self method.


I painted these two rats after a composition by an unnamed artist; despite their playfulness they still don’t have the appeal of other furry animals. I’ve seen mice done in the LIngnan style (with very white fur) in the context of fruit that might warrant further study.

I played with painting rats in various poses using both Dwight’s and the Selfs’ instructions but still did not warm to the idea of a picture of rats on any of my walls.  The line drawings I created for my blog header remain my preferred treatment of rats. Despite being soft and furry, they lack cuddle appeal.

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