Painting Trees: study #2

Deeper meanings, stronger paintings.

Years ago a reading blitz took me from great speeches of all time (work-related) to a biography of Winston Churchill, to general background on Druidism, and then to the captivating novels of Marion Zimmer Bradley (Mists of Avalon, The Forest House).  The ‘mighty oak’ is sacred among Druids and factored significantly in the books about the Arthurian legends. Walking the trails in the Gatineau Park retreat of Canada’s tenth prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and knowing he frequently strolled there with other world leaders while pondering world issues, yet taking solace from the forest around them, I have been further entranced by trees.  It comes as no surprise that Chinese Brush painters have an extensive tradition of deeper meanings attached to trees.

The Mustard Seed Garden Manual (MSM) is heavily footnoted with explanations of some of this Zen of brush painting.  In the introduction to fundamentals the authors write ‘neither dexterity nor conscientiousness is enough’.  And in the major section on trees: put your whole mind into what you are doing, and you will be on the right path.  They note that several ancient masters prayed before setting brush to paper.  Throughout the manual they reinforce that mere technical skill may result in okay paintings, but a deeper grasp of the significance of things contributes to an inner power and ‘greater brushstroke vitality’.  That would explain the look of rapt concentration on the faces of masters as they create their paintings in a flurry of much-practiced strokes.

Symbolism in trees

On painting two trees together the MSM says there are basically two ways. One is called ‘fu lao’ which means ‘you draw a large tree and add a small one’.  The more literal translation is more poetic: carrying the old on the back.  The second way is ‘hsieh yu’ or ‘leading the young by the hand’.  This means you draw a small tree and add a large one.  Descriptions of technique in such ritual terms make for a captivating pastime.  I love it.


My first attempt at mimicking the examples of fu lao and hsieh yu from the MSM.

The four main branches that start any tree are akin to man’s four limbs, as well as the four main cardinal points or directions.  Then there’s the more general symbolism of trees:  the Tree of Life, the tree of knowledge, the four main ‘races’ of mankind, and so on. The MSM elaborates on the four main Confucian qualities or potentialities of man: 1. Goodness 2. Uprightness 3. Fitness or Propriety and 4. Knowledge in the sense of Wisdom.  The authors maintain masterful painters are cognizant of all these things.  One does not simply paint a tree.  “When one knows the way, (The Four Directions), the main route is clear and its landmarks familiar, no matter how many byroads and pathways.”


This odd-looking willow hybrid was done in a workshop showing five different ways to represent willow foliage. My preference is for #5.


I try my hand at a branch of white pine. This layout could serve as a setting for a bird or squirrel.

My copy of the MSM devotes 75 pages to the Book of Trees; I have lots to practice, lots to absorb.  Surely ‘brushstroke vitality’ lies somewhere down my path.

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