Back to Basics: painting Bamboo

The importance of bamboo: first to learn and last to master!

For most Westerners, bamboo is quintessentially Chinese or emblematic of the Orient. It so happens that bamboo is one of the four most significant traditional subjects for this art form, the other three being plum blossom, chrysanthemum and the Chinese orchid.  Together they are called “The Four Gentlemen” and each has an abundance of symbolism.

In ancient China brush painting formed an important part of a scholar’s training, and painting was confined to the intellectuals, often called “gentlemen scholars”.  They painted in leisure hours for their own enjoyment, and the basic brushstrokes and techniques fundamental to all Chinese brush painting were learned through the study of these four subjects.  Each came to symbolize one of the four seasons, one of the four directions and also a particular set of virtues associated with gentlemen scholars.

The bamboo is seen as strong, upright and dependable, its hollow sections representing the mind of a scholar which should be open to new ideas. It symbolizes the summer season when it flourishes, and its cardinal direction is north. It is a symbol for perseverance and fidelity, and one author calls it the ‘friend of China’ because of its many uses. Some call it ‘green jade’, implying its value is akin to that of the prized gemstone.

There are basically two approaches to painting bamboo: freestyle (all parts in shades of black and grey) and detail or elaborate (parts are outlined in black or color either before or after defining with a colored or grey stroke).  Detail style treatments can be in greens and yellows, blues, reds and even purples.

In The Scholarly Bamboo (SB), June Greene relates that the first known painter of bamboo was a woman called Madame Li of the Tang Dynasty.  Married against her will to a military-minded General, she spent long hours secluded in her room, gazing out the window at a bamboo grove. In time, she turned to her writing tools (ink, brush and rice paper) and thus began a lifelong obsession with the study of painting bamboo.

All hail Madam Li!  To her early observations have been added a host of others, made by many a scholar likewise infatuated with capturing the essence of bamboo.  For the most part, rules are clear and orderly.  And thankfully some measure of skill with bamboo informs many other subjects.

WARNING:  the illustrations in this blog should NOT be regarded as accurate representations of the intended outcome described in the text.  Readers are encouraged to seek the named resources for visual guides to their own studies.

About the plant:

Bamboo is a member of the grass family although some varieties can grow to tree heights, reaching 50 or more feet.  It grows quickly with a deep root system extending 3-4 feet into well-tilled ground.  The panda, another emblem of the Orient, makes bamboo its sole diet.

My favorite resources:

Given the relevance of learning to paint bamboo to the entire art form, there is an abundance of direction and illustration.  The five main resources that I return to again and again are:

1.  The Scholarly Bamboo by June Greene (1981).  Ms. Greene gives detailed instructions with ample illustrations, including pages showing ‘common mistakes’ for canes, nodes, branches and leaves.

2.  Chinese Panting in Four Seasons, a manual of Aesthetics & Techniques by Leslie Tseng-Tseng Yu (1981) This book provides many well-illustrated, step-by-step lessons in black and white.  She shows bamboo in wind, rain and snow, with many marvelous yet simple compositions.

3.  Fundamental Chinese Painting of Plum, Orchid, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum compiled by Liang Yin-Boone with paintings by Choy Kung Heng (1969)

4.  A four-volume boxed set called The Fundamentals of Chinese Floral Painting by Su-Sing Chow.  Volume 3 is devoted to bamboo.  He is one of few to address painting bamboo shoots and has many excellent variations showing the use of colors.

5.  Chinese Brush Painting: an instructional guide (1987) by Ning Yeh.

(In this posting I also name a few other resources that have provided occasional insights not offered in the preceding five.)

My first steps:

As for most novices, my first formal instruction in Chinese Brush Painting started with bamboo. It was at once challenging, fascinating, frustrating and rewarding.  While I have since learned there are slight variations in approach, my introduction was quite complete.  The four basic parts to bamboo—stalks or canes, nodes or knots, twigs (antlers or branches) and leaves—were described along with growth habits.  We then moved to the basic strokes involved, while learning about the Four Treasures: ink, brush, paper, and ink stone.

For purposes of this blog I will sum up basics I have found most useful, illustrating with practice sheets as best I am able at this time.

Order for painting bamboo:

1.  Stalks, culms or canes

2.  Nodes aka “knots”

3.  Branches/twigs aka “antlers”

4.  Leaves

For some compositions you may wish to add bamboo shoots emerging from the ground near the base of a mature stalk.   While you paint bamboo in the stated order, most instructional books teach the parts in the reverse order: leaves, branches, nodes and stalks.  I suspect that has to do with learning to control the ink and brush and the nature of the strokes involved.


I learned to paint stalks (culms) from the ground up, using a large soft brush and a side or broad stroke. Some books recommend painting from the top down, holding the brush vertically.  Most painters agree that bamboo stalks require vigor and thrust to the strokes, and many suggest it is best painted when in an agitated or angry mood.   In the SB Ms. Greene explains: in order to portray the superior qualities of bamboo…strength, vitality, and flexibility…one must be alert and determined; only then will the strokes be bold, dynamic, and alive. (p. 52)  In our art group we know to be wary when a member arrives and pronounces it to be a good day to paint bamboo! Somewhat ironically I started out in a calm mood to paint bamboo parts for this posting and soon became frustrated with the results; alas that energy could not be directed into producing better results!


My first instructor advised preparing three small white saucers with gradations of ink—light, medium and black.  He demonstrated loading the brush by first soaking it in the lightest wash, tipping off some of the excess and then dipping it in the medium wash and allowing it to soak half-way up the brush, and then tipping the brush point briefly in the blackest ink.  By holding the brush at an angle and touching the brush down on the paper sideways, the brush thus leaves a mark that is darkest on the far edge, medium dark across the middle and lightest on the edge closest to the painting hand.

My mentor explained that with the single loading of the brush, one should be able to execute three bamboo stems, with the first appearing darkest and colors diminishing with each successive section.  This natural gradation can be used to enhance depth in your painting: paint the one closest to you first, one in the middle distance next, and a third further away.  When you paint from the bottom up, this diminishing of ink tone results in the darker parts closer to the ground, which to me seems more natural.  (The SB also devotes a few pages to describing how to use a wide wash brush vertically, with a brush load involving tipping both the left and right edges in darker ink, to create wider stalks that look more fully rounded with both sides darkened.)


Plan to slant or curve the stalks to mimic growth habit, with sections straight but the slight turn in direction occurring at each node.  The stroke used involves a slight direction change at the start and at the end of each, and should look like a bone (bulgy parts at either end of straight section).  The aim is to plant these “bones” with blank or white spaces between each.  You also strive for varying widths to your bamboo stalks, and the bones should be narrower as you move away from the root end to reflect growth pattern.


This practice sheet shows the bone stroke done left to right and from the top down. for bamboo you paint this stroke from the bottom upwards, in a series, with white spaces between. Nodes, branches and leaves are then added.

The stroking method should follow a rhythm, and indeed some instruction books go on at length about proper breathing to assist the process. (Execute one stalk or one leaf cluster in one breath; this contributes to rapid movements and strokes that show vigor)   If and when you find your brush “skips” and leaves white paper with minimal inked lining, then you have just discovered a technique called “flying white” or “feibai”. It is a desirable variant to conveying bamboo stalks with a dry brush and should be practiced to the point where you can do it “on demand”.  When painting several stalks together you should also aim to place nodes at varying heights for a more pleasing composition.  Nodes at equidistances on several stalks will look more like railroad tracks than a stand of bamboo.  Ning Yeh’s Chinese Brush Painting:an instructional guide is filled with examples of such “no-nos” as is Greene’s SB.

A tremendous advantage to learning CBP is that one can complete viable “compositions” with only a few instructions. Okay, so setting up your table, grinding ink, laying out paper, priming new brushes, learning to hold a brush correctly–all that preparation takes some attention first, but yes, one can complete a satisfactory bamboo painting with only a few, well-placed ink marks on paper.   Getting the hang of stalks is the start.  Greene’s SB and Leslie Tseng Tseng-Yu’s book (4S) have many, very helpful illustrated lessons.


These are best painted while your stalks are not fully dry so that the marks blur somewhat into the stalks. They are done with a small detail brush dipped in dark ink.  For beginners it is best to learn one stroke with three slight variations. (Some resources show dozens of “styles” to this stroke that all serve the same purpose of conveying the essence of the intermittent swellings called nodes that occur along a bamboo stalk. One of my Japanese sumi-e books shows more than a dozen.)


The three variants are to show differences for nodes below your eye level, at eye level, and above eye level. You basically stroke a sharp line across each of those spaces (boles) you left between stalk sections, incorporating a little hook at each end of the stroke.  The purpose of the hook is to suggest how the node resembles a line that circles around the cylindrical stalk.   The brush is held vertical to the paper, and you start with the darkest (first painted) stalk section divider, progressing in the same order as you painted the stems.  Again there is a rhythm to this action and you tend to focus intently on your task, with brief bursts of activity and intense concentration.  No wonder some see CBP as a “zen” activity, not unlike practicing yoga or any of the martial arts.


At first one might think the branches or stems supporting leaves are simply narrower versions of the stalks.  There is some truth to the assumption, but there are key differences.  They are created with the very tip of the brush (as opposed to a full brush on its side) emerging from the nodes on the bamboo stalk. Each section of these secondary stems or branches is conveyed with a bone stroke; the last growing tip is made with a rat-tail stroke (instead of a ‘bone’ end you gradually taper off the paper.)  Stems are made with a dry brush.


In revisiting my resources for purposes of this blog, I had a major “aha” moment. I have watched painters creating both fishbone and bird’s foot branches, I have studied the two as images, but had never truly grasped a distinction.  Wing K. Leong in a book called Chinese Brush Painting Step by Step demonstrates the difference as primarily one of direction:  you paint away from the main branch for fishbone style and toward the main branch for bird’s foot style.  Hence the fishbone entails a rat tail stroke, and the bird’s foot uses a bone stroke (knobby both ends).

These strokes are also used in painting tree branches.  The Bird's foot or claw works best for oak branches as they naturally have rounded tips.

These strokes are also used in painting tree branches. The Bird’s foot or claw works best for oak branches as they naturally have rounded tips.


The leaf stroke, sometimes called a carp stroke, is at once very simple in concept and tremendously complex.  My first instructor provided handouts where common leaf clusters had poetic names: swallow tail, geese in flight, and so on.  The 4S book has similar treatment and shows exercises for practicing leaves in all directions, in all weathers, as well as the classic “circle of leaves” study.  In early years it can be helpful to do these practices on (less expensive) newsprint or medical paper, as you really do need to practice, practice, practice.


The SB provides helpful step-step instructions: paint a leaf in five steps: 1. Touch 2. Press 3. Pull 4. Start lifting 5.  Airborne! Were it only so easy!

(Coming soon to this spot…a full bamboo composition)

Beyond the basics:

Once you have developed some skill with the basic strokes used for bamboo, there are many different effects to explore:  Bamboo in wind, in snow, in the moonlight, in rain, in colors (elaborate style), with more complex leaf clusters, upward-pointing leaves and so on.  Su Sing-Chow’s book gets into many of the traditional rules concerning bamboo painting and his illustrations offer more challenging compositions for study.

Good blog articles re parts of the bamboo:

This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting bamboo, the four gentlemen. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Back to Basics: painting Bamboo

  1. Pingback: Back to Basics 3: plum blossom (part 1) | followmybrushmarks

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