C’mon baby, let’s do the twist*…

Morning glory* in Latin supposedly means “twist”.  If ever there was a flower that requires twisty strokes, this is indeed it.  You twist and turn with a detail (dry) brush to portray the vines, you turn and wipe your big brush sideways in several directions trying to converge to a single central point for the petals, and you dab this way and that (maybe even using two big brushes loaded with different greens simultaneously) to execute the three-stroke leaves.  AND, all the while you need to be thinking of multi circles within your composition as well as around the exterior edges.  Whew!  One could get a little ‘bent out of shape’ with all that twisting and turning.

First the symbolism

Morning glories symbolize affection and attachment in Chinese culture.  Good choice for a vine!  Because the growth habit is in a clockwise circle, they represent “unchanging affection.”

My Resources:

Nenagh conducted an informal workshop recently and shared information from her files.  The other Barb (TOB) reminded me I had a copy of a delightful little book featuring Wisteria and Morning Glory available from one of our favorite online sources, Oriental Arts Supply (OAS) in California.  OAS has various such (6 x 8 inch, quarter folio?) books on numerous topics and they are great value for the money.  Although the text is Chinese, an artist with some basics in CBP can easily follow the pictures.


Morning Glory is a subject of one of the “easy” compositions for beginners illustrated in the Walter Foster series of popular art books, by painter Lucy Wang. While simplified, the techniques can still be enlightening regarding the petal, leaf and vine formations. Besides, if following those step-step instructions results in pride of accomplishment, why not!  And CBP is one art form where simple tends to be better. There’s also a similar single-page guide to Morning Glory in the handy, spiral-bound Chinese Brush Painting Bible by Jane Dwight.  Her blossom  is a little too nondescript-looking for me.

This seems to be one flower for which there are numerous styles (Nenagh’s notes said 36 types, unless that number referred to 36 species that are commonly depicted) in the CBP traditions. Oddly enough it is not in the Mustard Seed Garden Manual.

Morning Glory in the garden:

As a gardener I was attracted to ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory for its bounty of reliable (annual) blue flowers, and later discovered the deep purple blooms marked by a red throat of the Grampa Ott variety.  Getting them to germinate is a bit tricky, requiring both seed-scoring and pre-soaking. Others I have tried were delicate shades of pink, and white with yellow throats.

These all seem to be of the huge Ipomoea genus and have heart-shaped leaves. The all white, funnel-shaped blooms with smallish red centers I once purchased as basket fillers were called ‘potatoe vine’ and seeds for an all white one were labeled “moonflowers”.  Some gardeners dislike the ‘one flower lasts one day’ habit of morning glory, but with so many flowering at once, who really notices?

Calystegia sepium, a white flovering bindweed commonly called morning glory, drives gardeners in my  my current home to herbicide.  It runs rampant in just about any square inch of available dirt.  A local garden columnist explained that the normal annual growth habit has become perennial in our ever-warming climate. Bird Woman cleverly shot a dozen or so photos of a specimen growing along a trail at a local golf course and the results show the flowers at many different stages of bloom and “gestures”.  They could guide the petal shapes in any color.

The CBP books often show a red-blooming variety but I have not seen one in cultivation; maybe that is artistic licence or perhaps just an Oriental phenomenon. They also feature a three-lobed leaf that seems contrary to the distinctive heart shapes I look for in the garden.

Some quick research confirms there are hundreds of varieties world-wide in the genus Ipomoea, some with longer and contrasting throats, some with three-lobed leaves, and many with histories of herbal use, primarily as cathartics or hallucinogenics. My favored “heavenly blue’ has a horrible Latin name (Ipomoea purpurea or I. violacia, depending on the resource). One blogger noted Aztecs held the I. purpurea as a sacred male symbol, and some descendant tribes as recently as a few decades ago, still made a concoction from an secret recipe.  The infusion is taken by shamans to divine the cause of everything from an illness, a disturbance in town, or a missing object.  Now that’s a recipe to protect!

Of one thing I am sure, the literature on morning glory can really get you ‘twisted’ if you let it.  Better I should be painting.

Unique floral composition

In CBP the morning glory holds distinctive status.  It is the only flower for which there has emerged a special composition consideration: circles.  In our workshop Nenagh first inked in three faint circles to show how the pattern (three circles of similar size placed in a triangle) would relate to the planned floral placements.  When the painting was done, she also drew our attention to the negative space circles around the periphery of the composition.  Intriguing, indeed. (Don’t tell me this is more of the brain-twisting power of morning glory!)  I could readily pick out the negative space peripheral circular “spaces” but have yet to see what the internal circle wizardry is all about. I can see peripheral outer circles in many other compositions featuring morning glory, suspecting they result from careful attention to vine placement. (A part of me is thinking of a certain emperor parading naked in the streets.)

Order for painting morning glory:

1.  flowers and buds

2.  leaves

3.  vines


While each of my books has slightly different approaches to the funnel-shaped petals, they agree on the number of strokes (five) and the use of a large, wet soft sheep brush used in a sidestroke manner.  There are also many combinations of moku (boneless) with outlining for effect.  And as always, a simple black and white composition is effective. Funnel-shaping that splays at one end is tricky to convey in two dimensions. Lucky for us centuries of study has led to some basic principles:

–all flowers and buds point up

–the five petal strokes overlap slightly or leave a narrow white space between

–the last painted (front) stroke is curved to suggest the hollow center of the funnel; you’ll want to be sure the darker value is placed in the receding portion of the petal.  This is the petal stroke that MUST have a curved line with careful “thick-and-thin” detailing, if you are adding outline to your moku rendering.

–each stroke is painted from the outside rim of the floral funnel toward the centre


–place your flowers with the circle patterns in mind; it helps to see each of the three circles divided into four quadrants and aim to  place one flower/bud in each of those four quadrants

–curved lines can be added to enhance the rounded look to each petal; this line is down the centre of each of the five sections of the petal, and the five lines define a star in the funnel centre if viewed from above.

–it can help to “see” the flowers in your mind’s eye if you remember the five lines would converge to a point at the base of the funnel, which is inside the flower’s calyx

–the calyx is done in three quick strokes with a detail brush in black ink (similar to plum blossom calyx); some books show two long, narrow, pointed  strokes.

–visualize how each flower presents—i.e. your “gestures”, and paint in the long, throated funnel part in side-views with the sheep brush and a sidestroke


I like the effect achieved in the pink one in the upper right hand corner of this workshop study sheet. Thick and thin lines lines are used effectively in the outlining, and the central “star” is created with outward-moving strokes to enhance depth and roundness.

–create buds with two overlapped strokes in darker values of the same color

–you can add outline strokes to your flowers with a detail brush and dark ink for a different effect

–IF you are adding outlines OR painting in outline method and adding color, DO remember to use thick and thin lines effectively.  This is very important for achieving depth in your composition.


I tried to replicate the morning glory flower from bud through open flower as shown in one of my resources.


The morning glory is a single funnel-shaped petal best conveyed in five strokes for the fluted end and two swipes for the tall support section.


–use two shades of green for added interest and variety (Nenagh did resort to using two brushes, one loaded with each of two greens, for efficiency in executing all the necessary leaves before veining them at just the right moment of dryness.  It also keeps your paint pots from getting messy, she noted.)

–use a large soft brush and paint the center longer stroke first, then one on either side of the first, overlapping.  These strokes are done ‘down’ i.e. towards you, such that where the brush tip first touches down ends up lighter than where you end the stroke by flattening the heel of your brush.  All leaves point down.


After practicing three-lobed leaves and inking in the veins for awhile, I decide I prefer two-stroke leaves that more closely resemble the heart-shaped leaves I associate with morning glory.

–place leaves to fill spaces, mostly on the downward side of flowers, keeping in mind the circle patterns to the layout

–vary leaf sizes and colors

–add the veins or “wings” before the leaves are completely dry. Use ink or a mix of ink and brown, or ink and indigo, and curve the strokes to convey the natural curvature of leaves.



–these are added last and are done with a dry brush in an extended twisting vertical stroke with a (smallish) horse-hair brush dipped in dark ink (or colors as per veins above)

–their artistic purpose is to pull the painting together, their natural “purpose” of course is to support the flowers and leaves.

–consider again the circle patterns of your layout and create vines to fill spaces that reinforce the negative space circles around the periphery of your painting.


After creating this composition our workshop leader inked in circles to point out the circle patterns created by negative spaces on the periphery of the painting.

Added tips:

–morning glory lends itself to effective two-color compositions

–the flower is often paired with other spring or early summer flowers

–compositions can appear very “busy” so strive to observe the “circle pattern principles” for control

–a six panel screen painted by Japanese artist Suzuki Kiitsu housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York features a sprawling blue morning glory worthy of further study.

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