The Three Distances of Chinese Landscapes: PHD

Chinese pictorial space differs from Western perspective.

The western convention for perspective is to envision all lines receding into the distance such that they converge at a single distant point dubbed the “vanishing point”.  Immortalized by Canadian author W.O. Mitchell in his 1973 novel of that name, the vanishing point is one many an art book writer illustrates in early chapters.  Mitchell’s poignant portrayal of a childhood art class wherein the protagonist correctly renders telephone lines into the distance, but then angers the teacher by artfully placing tigers in the scene, stands as one of my favorite moments in literature.

Organizing a landscape based on Chinese principles requires thinking of three “distances” which I remember with the aid of the abbreviation for a doctorate degree (PhD). Those cues refer to plane, high and deep.   According to one of my art books the doctrine for the Three Distances was first formulated by a Sung dynasty painter, Kuo Hsi and another says it was developed by both T’ang and Sung painters.  Either way, the concept goes back several generations of masters and is well entrenched.

If one gazes from a nearby mountain at one in the distance, this is described as distance in the plane or level distance.  If one looks at a mountain from below up toward its summit, this distance is height.  And finally, if we look at the mountain from the front toward the back, this distance is depth.

Chinese landscapes are not meant to be viewed from a single point of view as we do with the western concept of perspective.  Pictures are meant to be reflected upon, and the eye should move from one section to another.   With the exception of fan-shaped compositions, Chinese compositions are all rectangular, but the eye should move within the rectangle in a zigzag or triangular motion.   Whereas the western concept is to draw your eye into a scene, the Chinese concept is to move your eye upwards.  Hence you often see figures looking up, or elements such as clouds, temples, and mist are placed in order to draw your eye upwards.

Proportional rules common to western composition also do not apply in Chinese compositions.  Certain elements such as birds or frogs may be deliberately larger in proportion to their surrounding, to focus attention.  In viewing Chinese landscapes the western eye is sometimes perplexed by waterfalls, cliffs, or mountains that appear large (yet must be in the far distance) and towards the ‘top’ of the composition.  This accommodation of elements in a Chinese landscape take some careful planning when your eye is accustomed to western concepts.  One has to be comfortable with painting trees, rocks, and water before taking on landscape painting. The addition of jen (figures) and wu (other living things) completes Chinese landscapes and these FIVE subjects form major sections in most lessons or books on brush painting.

Here are some examples to illustrate the Three Distances: level, height, and depth. (yet to come)

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This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, painting landscapes, painting trees. Bookmark the permalink.

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