Pursuit of the ‘sublime’ (painting magnolia)

The dandelion was my father-in-law’s favorite flower.   The first one he spied bravely peeping through the grass on the south-facing, sunny side of some lawn while out on a spring walk cheered him tremendously. He was even reluctant to mow them down or douse with chemicals on his own front lawn.  To him, they were the brightest and best of spring’s color bursts.

Chinese brush painters favor the white harbingers of spring: narcissus and magnolia.  Some of my art books give the Chinese name for magnolia as “Welcoming Spring” or “Waiting for Spring”. In her book The Chi of the Brush, artist Nan Rae describes painting magnolia as a “sublime experience”. She writes “approach the magnolia with a loving hand and brush, and you’ll discover that it is supple and eager to reveal its character—a veritable floral ballet.”  Another favorite white floral subject for Chinese brush painting is the lotus, and its petals use similar brushwork.  The magnolia symbolizes feminine beauty and is the national emblem of sweetness.

One excellent resource for learning to paint Chinese magnolia is vol. 1 (spring) in a four volume set devoted to flowers of each season by Su-Sing Chow. The set is titled aptly enough: Flowers of the Four Seasons: A Manual in Chinese Brush Painting. Chow’s book says the white (Magnolia Yulan) forms buds in deep mid-winter and blooms mid-March, ahead of the magenta one (Magnolia Korbus).

Artist friend and mentor Nenagh Molson recently devoted a Wednesday workshop to the magnolia, demonstrating both the white and the magenta.  She had a delightful little book featuring the two, as well as another white one that had open leaves coincident with the blossoms. (The leaves were rendered with dark veining over top of soft green wash done with a large brush and sidestrokes.) Thirty-six pages of illustrated steps—petals, buds, calyxes, branches, compositions—at the modest original price of  $2.50 made it a real deal!

Magnolia flourish in my home city: Victoria, BC.

On my first springtime visit I was bowled over by my first encounter with a magnolia in full bloom.  The teacup size flowers in fleshy whites and pinks look surreal perched along branches, all pointing upwards.  I had previously thought magnolia as native to the American south, in swamplands or other humid and hot environments.

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Gardeners in Victoria seem to prefer a number of (deciduous) pink-flowering varieties, and one with shaggy white blooms resembling tissue or toilet paper tassels, commonly known as the star-shaped magnolia.  I prefer its Latin name: Magnolia stellata or just Stella.

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One artist friend described bowling ball-size blooms on a variety she grows called Magnolia Vulcan.  I know of at least one planting of mature evergreen magnolia trees, which are those indigenous to the American south, Magnolia grandiflora.  They line both sides of the entrance to a neighborhood park and have spectacular fragrant blooms the size of soccer balls that emerge mid-summer.

A speaker for The Victoria Horticulture Society once recommended a smaller shrub magnolia for limited garden space, called Magnolia Susan. It has a deep crimson red flower and I believe I spied one optimally placed for discovery from a resting spot in the Asian section of Butchart Gardens.  With so many spectacular magnolias in my neighborhood, I remain befuddled where to put one in my own yard.  For now, I will turn my hand to just painting them.

Order for painting Magnolia:

1.  Flowers

2.  Buds and calyx

3.  Branches

There are two approaches to creating flowers: 1. draw with thin lines and then add color, OR 2. double load a large brush with color and render the petals first, outlining in thin black afterwards.  The first seems to be the one described in most instruction books; keeping the successive wash strokes inside the lines can be a  challenge.  Nenagh is a traditionalist in that she advocates using the whiteness of your rice paper for the white part of flowers. (White paint seems to be a no-no in CBP except for eye highlights and other minor accents.)

Notes about magnolia flowers:

–always emerge from the top of branches

–always point upwards, never hang down or sprout sideways

–open all at once on a single tree

–open before the leaves emerge in MOST cases

–should have rounded tips, not pointed like lotus

–should look fleshy and rounded or cup-shaped

–have 5-7 petals  (Chow’s book says the Yulan has nine, and the Korbus has six; not all can be seen depending on the viewpoint. Different floral “gestures” are desirable in a composition.)

–plan your full composition so as to have flowers at different “heights”, not in a row

–plan for flowers to pass (appear) in front of and behind tree branches i.e. leave spaces where needed

–to get a pure white appearance, you leave the paper showing white.

Technique for petals:

The goal is petals that look “smooth, curved and without blotches’ (hence the symbolism for feminine beauty no doubt).  Colors used are black, pink, light green, and clear water.

1.  Outline finely-lined petal shapes with a detail brush and black ink. You may want to practice using coarser lines at the petal extremity and thinner toward the base to convey petal thickness or “weight”.  These strokes should be done fluidly.  Making copious sketches helps achieve natural looking variations in nuance. Some petals twist at the tips, some at the edges, some turn part way, some flip altogether. Practice overlapping, double-layering, crowding, and thinning of the petals.

2.  With the clean detail brush use a pale green wash to draw narrow lines just inside the black outline near petal tips.  Use two strokes each starting at the petal top and heading down the edge of the petal partway.  (This light green limning is also done on narcissus, lotus and other white flowers to enhance the whiteness of the petals.)

3.  Using a large brush and a sidestroke, “fill” petal shapes with clear water, pulling away from the green edge down into the petal base.  This step can take practice to gain confidence in managing the water spread and application.

4. With the large brush, swipe a light pink wash from petal tips to petal bases (downwards) on each petal, curving to convey cupping shapes. You want the green limning and pink wash to blend smoothly in the water already on the paper, not leaving any harsh edges.

5.*optional: when the petals are damp-dry, apply an overall wash to petals of VERY pale green

Flower centres:

Any flowers shown fully opened require bright yellow centres with tiny orange dotting for the stamen heads.  (Curiously, a composition from centuries past in one of Nenagh’s splendid art books showed the flower centres in cornflower blue, picking up the strong blue sky background.)

Technique for calyxes:

All the flowers will have their furry-looking seedpods showing at their bases, unless the flower is past its prime and petals have also fallen.  Unopened buds show the casings cupped and looking furry as well. Chow suggests using a tea-green umber for un-opened buds and striving for a shape that looks like the tip of a paintbrush. I’d add “fat paintbrush” as they do not look elongated, but not as plump as poppy buds.

Nenagh’s treatment was to draw the buds and casings at the petal bases with a detail brush and black ink, color in with a light orange-brown wash when the outline is dry, and then dot with black into the dry wash.  Su-Sing Chow illustrates his with a leaf-green wash dotted while damp with a darker green-and-light-ink mix or a medium black.

Techniques for branches:

The flower-bearing branches will appear smooth. Old branches and trunks are rougher and may be adorned with mosses.  Withered branches can be used to provide interest.  New leaves should be indicated with a grass-green. When stroking in branches, use a large brush and stroke briskly using elbow and arm, not the wrist.

For main branches, Nenagh opted for a double load of black on top and brown for the branch undersides, applying in rapid arching, then reverse-arching strokes, and sometimes straight sections.  She also touched up branches with darker edges at times for a cohesive look.  Finer branches were executed with a mix of pale green, pale ink and burnt sienna.

Su-Sing Chow does branches with a large dry brush in shades of black ink, using the lighter shades to distinguish concurrent branching.  Masters of CPB employ a neat trick to help the eye “separate” objects; leaving white space where one branch goes behind another, and again before it emerges on the other side reinforces the depth or dimension to your painting.   Chow also paints that “forward” branch in a darker hue, the “behind” one lighter.

Branches narrow in width as they move away from the trunk; whether the trunk is included or not is optional, but you should consider its location relative to the branching you DO show. A stem must be painted from the base of each flower into the branch.  The aim is for a firm, solid-looking stem, done with a rounded brush held upright.  (This differs from the thin, soft wispy branches of azaleas, pomegranates, or roses)

Techniques for Magenta petals:

If painting a composition with the Magnolia Korbus (magenta petals) then the same planning and ordering of parts applies.  The shaded petals are achieved with clever brush-loading—deepest hues at petal tips–instead of defining petals with black and then coloring in.  Nan Rae gives elaborate instructions for painting the Chinese Magnolia in The Chi of the Brush, with good attention to brush strokes, coloring technique and composition.


Despite several sessions practicing petals, buds, calyxes, and branching I have yet to complete a magnolia composition that I am pleased with. On the plus side, I think I’ve got some control over the green/water/pink shading technique. Do more, do more….


What to put with your magnolia?

Chinese brush painters seem to prefer a single rather generic-looking bird, a larg-ish black creature with distinctive bugging eyes.  They are typically posed interacting with the flowers, not serving as a focal point.  (The bird is probably native to China and perhaps is even named in my instruction books; I’ll have to watch for English versions.)  Other common companions are other spring flowers–plum or peach blossom, wisteria, hibiscus—or such birds as sparrows, swallows, robins and baby chicks.

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