If you paint pandas…

…the bamboo will look after itself

Such is my theory, anyway.

After being totally ‘bamboozled’ by trying to execute great bamboo leaves and stalks to illustrate my posting on the topic, I thought I’d come at the problem indirectly.  Sometimes you can fool the brain that way.  Something about the ‘too much with it’ syndrome prevented any satisfaction with bamboo.

So, I’m going to focus on pandas, knowing all along that once I get to complete compositions, then a few bamboo leaves, shoots, stalks (maybe whole groves!) will naturally emerge as setting.

My first real panda encounter:

It was 1989, Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo brought in two guest giant pandas from Chengdu—Cheng Cheng and Bing Bing—to raise the attraction’s profile a tad, and “panda-monium” broke out.  Those of us teaching marketing and PR had a great workshop discussion topic for our students for years to come.  Never before, and hopefully never again, has one city so thoroughly got behind a local tourism promotion! Just when and where in all the panda promotions, the panda products, the panda premiums, paraphernalia, placements, etc. did over-saturation and too much familiarity set in?  I think for me it was when my children wanted to try the panda ice cream.  Slicing into that orange brick carefully embedded with black and white blobs that resulted in panda shapes in your dessert was just bizarre.

So now I study the panda

Like bamboo, pandas are strongly associated with China in most people’s minds. And marketing gurus in that country have indeed exploited the creature’s broad appeal such that it has become a symbol of goodwill.  In seeking the cultural symbolism for pandas, my resources say only that they represent peace and tranquility.  Ning Yeh, in his 1987 book Chinese Brush Painting: an instructional guide devotes a chapter to pandas, and he relates considerable information about its habits and appeal as a painting subject.

My other resources include:

1.  A detailed pamphlet from OAS (by Ning Yeh) with excellent illustrations.

2.  A dedicated book I acquired from China after discovering it in a fellow artist’s stash.  The ISBN number was key in tracking down a copy, as the text is all in Chinese and indecipherable to us.  TOB found her copy in a now defunct Chinese bookstore in Vancouver years ago.  The book is a gem.

3.  Assorted one-off images scrounged from various sources.  Another artist friend (Dormouse) picked up a helpful postcard booklet devoted to pandas at the San Diego Zoo last year, for example.  Photos can be very helpful to studying unfamiliar body shapes.

Order for painting panda:

1.  As always, start with the eyes. The panda’s are very unusual even for bears: yellow skin rings the eyeballs and black patches of fur surround them.

2.  Rough in the head.  Ning Yeh’s instructions are a good guide to the anatomy. He notes a full frontal view of the panda head resembles a spade in a deck of cards; in profile it looks like a pear.  He says allow half of the face (all the space above an imaginary mid-line) for the forehead and plan to squeeze the eyes, nose and snout into the lower half.


His preferred approach is to do the head with line work before adding the eyes.  He then plans the body as roughly one and a half times the length of the head.  He also explains proportions to suit panda youngsters.

3.  Complete the body, paying attention to distinctive features such as stubby tail and the black shoulders extending up the back.

Common poses for pandas:

The panda dines solely on bamboo, and because of bamboo’s low nutritional value, must eat an abundance.  My two major panda painting books feature lots of bamboo munching.  Close-up details of bamboo leaves in jaws and paws abound.

PandasMunchjpg  Panda&bamboo

Pandas are hermit-like, so scenes with single pandas are common.  They are seen as playful by nature; hence scenes showing interactions, especially among family members such as mother and baby, are also common.  Apparently they have a weakness for water consumption (need to wash down all that bamboo?) and frequently overdo it.  Hence showing pandas lounging around streams, or literally ‘passed out’ at waterside is another favorite setting.  I like the scenes depicting pandas climbing in bamboo groves, and of course those mama pandas training their little bundles of black and white fun.

PandaDrinking  PandaSwims

The eye of the panda:

My ‘gem of a book’ has numerous pages showing steps to creating eyes, noses, ears, mouths open and closed, paws with claw—all of which I must rely solely on the visual for understanding as the language escapes me. For the eyes, the artist starts with lightly inking in a very round eyeball set on a slight angle. He adds arching lid lines above and below the eyeball.  He then inks in the upper lid more darkly with an overstroke, and positions the centre of the eyeball with a small dark dot. With a very dry brush he establishes the furry black eye patches and adds two colors: yellow directly above and below the eye, blue for the eyeball.  The furry eyepatch is darkened, and when the eye is dry a white highlight added.  As with cat eyes, you can finetune the black and white parts of the eyes to a certain degree.

PandaEyes#1  PandaEyes#2

Head and body:

My resources provide insights into the proportions of various panda body parts—the body is roughly three head widths long.  You can ink in the shaping very lightly, adding black ears that are stubby looking, somewhat rounded in shape.  The nose tip should be black and the snout and lower jaw outlined.

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While all legs of the pandas are black, the front ones are colored right up the shoulder and meet at the top of the bear’s back.  The bear has a stubby little black tail that is not always visible.  A furry look can be achieved in a number of ways—with careful dabs of a dry brush only to fill the desired areas, or with dabbing darker ink into slightly dry medium or light ink patches formed with single side strokes.  Hard edges can always be “softened” by running clear water along the edge.

PandasThree  PandaMa&Cub

My panda painting experiences:

Painting pandas over several days, I quickly became familiar with the shapes. Having grown up in ‘bear country’ and long ago learned much about black bears, polar bears, grizzlies, and the treasured BC spirit bears, it was relatively easy to extend my bear “repertoire” to include pandas. As expected, their furry round shapes are fun to do and they are perfect subjects for monochrome studies.  Using the yellow and blue eye process enhanced my outcomes. And yes, adding bamboo bits became necessary.


My head was still swimming with bamboo basics: keep the sections between nodes straight, bend stalks at nodes, paint nodes while the stalks are damp in the same order as stalks were done, send stems out of alternate nodes going up a stalk, paint the ‘front’ canes first, more distanct ones second; strive for three depths with dark-to-light ink values for the leaves, form clusters with one leaf  larger than the others, ink in the little leaf stems, hold your brush vertical, maintain even speed throughout a single stroke, keep the brush tip centered on a leaf stroke, use the whole arm… and sure enough, every time I finished a panda, there was a moment of complete awareness: now for the hard part—getting the bamboo in!

This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting pandas. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to If you paint pandas…

  1. Pingback: Pursuit of the perfect panda painting | followmybrushmarks

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