Specific trees: painting pine

Because pine is an evergreen, the Chinese consider it to be a symbol of longevity.  Together with plum blossom and bamboo, pine is commonly included in paintings honoring the New Year and the three are called Friends of the New Year.  It is often depicted with crane, symbols of love, loyalty and good fortune.

The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (MSM) devotes numerous pages to pine painting and shows various styles.  Authors maintain the key to painting pine is in considering at once a coiled dragon and a soaring phoenix.  They explain “young dragons have an attractive, graceful air, yet one trembles to approach them for fear of the hidden power ready to spring forth.”  In a footnote they go on to discuss meanings on three levels. 1. Pine is a decorative subject admired for sinuous grace, rugged beauty and venerable age.  2.  The pine trunk and branches are symbolic of a young dragon, portraying earthly and imperial strength. 3.  Pine also represents inner spiritual power and potentials.

We who would paint pine should keep these things in mind, they assert, and then “the brush will effortlessly produce extraordinary results.”

My brush, for one, seems to require more direction.

Hitting the books

My instructional book by Caroline and Susan Self, The Art of Chinese Brush Painting, devotes a full chapter (10 pages) to painting pine.  They cover both outline and boneless methods, address trunk shapes, bark and needle techniques, pine cones, and the use of pine in landscapes.  All of their ideas are well illustrated (in black and white).

The Self book on the left has ten pages on painting pine; the one on the right provides details on painting the "ballerina skirt'  kind of needle clusters.

The Self book on the left has ten pages on painting pine; the one on the right provides details on painting the “ballerina skirt’ kind of needle clusters.

Because pine is commonly used in Chinese landscapes, most instructional books focus on some specifics, a few even address painting pine covered in snow.  Rebecca Yue in her book Chinese Animal Painting Made Easy demonstrates an effective way to wash around negative white spaces to convey snow on pine trees in a project on tigers.  California native Rosemary Reed created an entire book aptly called Snow Painting, Chinese Brush Painting illustrating numerous snowy scenes that drip with icy coolness. There are also some Japanese ink-painting techniques demonstrated by Yolanda Mayhall in The Sumi-e Book that offer insights into depicting pine trees as well as snow-laden branches.  Purists will suggest the presence of snow by painting around the intended snowy area (using the white of the paper for the white snow) whereas a more western approach is to use white paint.

Professional artist and teacher Jane Evans, based in the UK, has written several books on Chinese Brush Painting.

My two books by Jane Evans get a lot of use. The one on the right devotes ten pages to pine.

My two books by Jane Evans get a lot of use. The one on the right devotes ten pages to pine.

In her first one, Chinese Brush Painting, a complete course in traditional and modern techniques, Evans devotes a chapter to painting pine.  Her approach is complete with color application and a helpful feature of the book is illustrated “common mistakes” at the end of each lesson. And as mentioned in an earlier post, The Pines of Tai Shan sits on my bookshelf, with its 100 renditions of different individual pine tress executed in varying styles by numerous artists.

The Selfs helpfully point out that one is more apt to see white pine in China, while black pine is indigenous to Japan.  Artists from both cultures favor asymmetry in their garden specimens as well as in their compositions.  From growing up in Canada I have discovered many varieties of pine with distinctive features; a few of my favorites are red pine, jack pine, and lodge pole pine.

Pines are often painted as silhouettes against the sun or moon, and it is common to feature a single pine branch extending from one side or the top of the paper, and commanding foremost attention.  On this last note, I am reminded of a Stephen Lowe composition showing a single dominant pine tree with a scholar scurrying away into the distance to one side of the trunk.  He titled it “The Spirit of Spring is in the Poet”.

Having addressed tree painting in general in previous posts, I will only cover off here the distinctive aspects to painting pineThere are three main elements in painting pine: the trunk and branches with bark treatment, needle clusters, and roots, and these can all be studied individually first. Typical applications in compositions need also be considered. I do love pine weighed down by snow, but have yet to produce a satisfactory result.  Pine cones are fun to do with a controlled nail stroke, and they are a good subject for Christmas cards.

Approaches to the magic of pine:

1.  Depict trunk and branches with needle clusters first, then apply a light greenish wash over needle clusters, reddish brown over the trunk.

2.  Define your pine trunk and branches, then define blobs with a light green wash and once dry, paint in the needle clusters over those dry wash areas.

3.  Paint your trunk, branches, needles and when the composition is dry, add an overall wash to convey mood, time of day, etc.

Traditionally Chinese brush painters work from the top down, doing branches, then trunk and finally roots.  Then they ink in the needle clusters.  Several YouTube videos feature artists working this way, and a few reverse the process.  Both approaches require a preliminary vision for your end result.

Putting some “bite” in your pine bark:

The MSM illustrates numerous brush stroke methods to convey the distinctive bark or scale formations on pine. The Selfs resort to “wiggly lines” with planned white spaces.  They also advise making the trunk curve or bend to show response to weathering.  If “venerable” is your desired look, then gnarly branches and roots twisting and bending are in order.  Many angled branches with convey “attitude” and dimension is achieved with crossing branches.  The Selfs recommend leaving a triangular space in your branches, and follow the principles of asymmetry by having 3, 5, or 7 mounds of needle clusters.

Here is my practice page of several bark/scaling techniques we studied in a workshop last year.


Jane Evans is more prescriptive in her instruction for pine trunks and branches.  Some of her pointers:

1.  Begin by practicing the bark. Using a large dry brush with grey ink make rough circular shapes with the side of your brush.  If you plan to incorporate a knot, define that first and then create scaling around it.  Evans advises to only scale about half the width of the trunk/branch and avoid uniformly shaped/sized scales. Use some semi-circles toward the centre of the trunk/branch.  Then define the other side edge of the trunk with the same grey ink, varying brush pressure to achieve a textured look. Touch up “high” points with black. (Her result has crisp pointy black bits that stand out; watching artists on YouTube I see many also achieve crisp sharp prickly scales by twisting their brushes quickly, and holding their brush higher on the shaft.)

2.  For tree roots, load your brush with grey dipped in black, and paint the hollows of the roots with a twisting motion.  Be sure to vary the root exposure and touch up scaling in the trunk above for a smooth transition.


I’ve followed steps one and two of Evans’ strategy for a pine tree, striving to recreate her example.

3.  Color the trunk and branches with a light reddish-brown wash. Use the whole of your brush and move it gradually over the area you want covered.  Vary the tone, blending smoothly.

The essence of pine needles:

1. Some species of pine have large clusters that hang downward like a ballerina’s skirt.  In The Chi of the Brush, Nan Rae demonstrates this kind in multi-colors.  (When Dormouse did this one afternoon at art group the fine brushwork totally amazed me; it does take practice to get converging fine lines and natural looking clusters.)

2.  Some grow downward along short branches, radiating from a center.

3.  In the pine most commonly depicted in Oriental art, needles grow in clusters like a half-wheel.  Individual needles can be painted with a “drop and pull” type of stroke similar to painting the stamens in plum blossom, except the needles must emanate from a single point.  (Evans suggests using an inverted T stroke to start.) You need to practice overlapping your half wheels in a diagonal pattern so as to look realistic.  Needles should be more closely clustered on the outer twigs (fresh, new growth) and more sparse nearer the trunk (older growth).  To achieve more depth or dimension to a tree, plan for clusters painted with different values (lighter ones further away or behind darker ones).  Individual needles should be slightly cupped and executed with a fine detail brush, dry ink, and the brush held vertically. The Self book has helpful hints for arranging needle clusters. Evans provides illustrations of some common ‘no-nos’.

I tried all three needle varieties on a practice sheet, using only black ink.

The half-wheel needle cluster is the most common one in traditional Chines Brush Painting.

The half-wheel needle cluster is the most common one in traditional Chines Brush Painting.

Tips for better pine trees:

1.  Follow the designated order of strokes in each half-wheel needle cluster, and count your (11) strokes.

2.  Traditionalists paint pine clusters in three steps: a.  define the wheel clusters with fine black strokes b. overpaint each stroke in brown then again in bluish-green c.  wash over in bluish green.

3.  Consider the light in your composition, leave white areas on the tree face where better lit. (Nenagh runs clear water along the faces of the trunk and main branches, and then runs a brownish wash over them, following the direction of growth; the water repels the wash.  A practiced hand can at once keep the color wash inside the trunk edges, blend smoothly into the area washed with water, follow the branching, AND vary the color wash in appropriate places.  I said “practiced” hand.)

4..  Pine trunks and branches often have scars (oval shapes left white).  Mark the center with a dark concentric oval.

5.  Trunks may be scaled all over according to the MSM, or along one side, thus creating roundness and showing where the light comes from (as prescribed by Evans).

6.  Don’t forget to touch up branch crotches (Nenagh’s advice, but it is obvious in Evans’ book as well)

7.   Evans suggests adding some yellow needles to one side of needle clusters, indigo ones on the other, to indicate the light and shade. The Self book also advises on judicious single needle additions to clusters to enhance a more natural, less formulaic look.

8.  A sales inclusion tip sheet from Oriental Art Supply (OAS) in California illustrates pine needles of varying lengths/angles of approach so that the “half-wheels” aren’t too similar and more shaggy. Several of my resources talk about complete wheels, but they could be thinking of other pine varieties.

9.  In Magic of the Brush, Catherine Woo and Kai-Yu Hsu take the approach of painting what they call “hairs sprinkled with pepper”.  They dot in (pepper) many needle tips after defining hair-like needle clusters for a very loose, breezy look.

10. Practice, practice, practice.

Below is a composition I painted two years ago.  I called it “Refuge Under Pine” and at the time was striving to depict white-tailed deer in a natural setting.


This last item is the beginning of a new composition featuring a more gnarly and twisted white pine which is now on my art table.


The main trunk and branches are roughed in and I’m about to start the needle clusters.  No matter how hard I try to think about coiled dragons and soaring phoenixes, my concentration is totally taken up with the details of loading ink and wielding the brush.

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