I am smitten. I’ve fallen in love with a donkey. Several donkeys to be precise: those painted by Chinese artist Huang Zhou (1925-1997).
Some weeks back an artist friend showed me two little CBP instruction books from her library she thought I might like to see. Each consisted of about a dozen compositions devoted to the camel and to the donkey. She was right; they were captivating. And they looked to be the work of the same artist.
With all of the text Chinese, I resorted to tracing the ISBN number online to see what I could learn. Turns out the artist grew up in northern China and from early in his career painted what he knew best, elements of his rural upbringing. In a 1985 radio interview he explained how his expertise in painting donkeys emerged.
“The donkey is a beautiful animal,” said Huang.
“I love them because I spent a lot of time in the northwest and I saw a lot. In the country, every home has a donkey.
“A donkey is cheap. A peasant can afford one. It works hard and it’s easy to raise. The lao baixing have a saying: Horse is gold, ox is silver, donkey is iron.
“The horse is noble. An ox sometimes has to eat some man-made food. A donkey can go and live anywhere — mountain or plateau. It can eat any grass, and endure cold. So it is lovely. As a painter, the more I paint, the more I love it.”
“I wanted to practice my painting by drawing my most familiar things. Painting donkeys was not always my purpose, just a means.
“As I did so many donkey paintings, people thought I could only do donkeys and I specialized in that. So when they asked me to do a painting for them, they asked for a donkey and wouldn’t accept anything else.”
His passion led to great success: an album of a dozen donkey compositions is currently listed for $97,000 in online auction. To my delight I also found the pages of that album in a Youtube posting set to music.
Donkey lore and more
According to my big book on Chinese symbolism by C.A.S.Williams the donkey’s omission from the several categories of revered animals in oriental folklore suggests either donkeys were uncommon in ancient China, or not that appreciated. Given that donkeys are plentiful in most regions, the latter is the more likely. He notes a common phrase that translates to ‘the year of the donkey and the month of the horse’ which he says likens to the “Greek Kalends” or “never”. He suggests the poor donkey was thus treated in Chinese culture much the same as by Westerners, as an emblem of stupidity.
Some quick research reveals modern day donkeys descended from a wild African ass, Equus africanus asinus. They are considered the smallest members of the equine family, which also includes horses, mules, and zebras. The countries with the highest populations of donkeys are China, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Mexico.
With 2014 designated the year of the horse, a fellow artist in our Monterey Club art group asked resident Chinese elder and respected former art instructor John Nip if other equine family members could also be honored, collectively so to speak. To our surprise he said yes, and specifically named the donkey, mule and zebra as eligible celebrants.
Acceptable or not as determined by the ancients, the donkey for me merits further study. Huang Zhou’s delightful paintings speak for themselves, there is much to love in a donkey.
So, what is a donkey?
I recall an old Columbian coffee TV commercial featuring one Juan Valdez cheerfully ascending the mountain each day to pick coffee beans with his trusty little burro trotting at his side. But I’m proven wrong; his companion was supposedly a mule named Conchita.
Then there were all those Christmas nativity pageants in my childhood where some classmate had to play the donkey, or ‘ass’ as we liked to remind the poor kid. Checking on that, I discover the term can be traced back to Old English, Old Celtic, Old German, and eventually old Latin, but none of the older terms indicate just why the several forms for a ‘beast of burden’ equate to early forms of ‘ass’. But typifying clumsiness and stupidity seems to have always been the poor creature’s own burden.
It surprises me therefore to discover an online article titled “how to choose a good donkey” that includes some redeeming observations:
1. Donkeys are friendly and enjoy being in the company of people, hence they make good pets. In fact, they actually get depressed when they are alone.
2. When choosing a donkey you should look to his “friend”. Ideally you do not acquire one, but at least a pair, and you’re advised to choose those that already have developed a bond, a childhood relationship as it were.
3. When choosing a donkey, consider the work you will expect of him/her and choose one that “likes” that particular task. Aha, so they’re not so much a stupid and recalcitrant creature, as one that has preferences in life!
4. Donkeys have excellent memories and they have been helping mankind for over 5000 years.
5. When considering a donkey, find out his name. If he has not been named it likely means he has not been well treated. Using the name familiar to him will help establish a bond. Re-naming him will hinder that and should be reflected upon in light of that excellent memory and task preferences.
Other facts I discover, helpful when painting donkeys:
1. A male donkey is called a jack. A female donkey is called a jennet or a jenny. A baby donkey is called a foal. Sizes vary greatly and females are not necessarily smaller or of less stamina when it comes to work. There is a popular miniature breed as well as a huge variety closer in size to horses or mules. Either gender can weigh up to 1,060 pounds. Their lifespan in poorer countries is 12-15 years and in richer homes, 20 -50 years.
2. Their manes are short and bristly; their bodies can be smooth or rough and shaggy. They have white markings—called pointings–around the eyes and mouth, inside the ears and on their bellies.
3. Their ears are longer than other equines., and their eyes are proportionately larger.
4. Their coats may be white, black, brownish, grey and spotted colors, although the dark grey seems to be most common.
5. The donkey’s tail has a tuft of hair only at the end.
6. Sexing a young donkey can be tricky as the immature ‘naughty bits’ can present similarly to the immature udder as a protuberance with ‘lumpy bits’ on either side. In older males the penis is extended for urination, but otherwise not prominent.
So without size differences, prominent sexual equipment, or other mating attractions (such as excessive colors or extra plumage) it’s not easy or necessary to differentiate jacks from jennies in paintings. Perhaps that contributes to their attractiveness as subjects, even mature donkeys retain the appeal of cuddly and cute.
Bird Woman reminded me of the multi-generational appeal of A.A. Milne’s Eeyore, especially as he examined his new tail from many an angle. I discovered Youtube has many postings of donkeys taking dust baths, cavorting in Eeyore fashion. Here’s one example.
Viewing such videos helps me to SEE the cross marking on the back, the darkened fur around leg joints, the bristled mane, the enlarged ears, the big eyes….all the distinctive features start to fall into place.
As always I like to check out anatomical sketches when planning to paint an animal. The donkey’s body parts are for the most part similar to horses. He does not however have as pronounced a ‘wither’, that being the highest point on a horse (and hence the point for measuring height). This is the curved muscular part just behind the horse’s neck, created by the shoulder and rib cage.
Unlike their other equine cousins the horse, mule and zebra, donkeys have a distinctive darkened, cross-like marking on his back. (My online research led to two different explanations, both rooted in Christian Bible lore. One has it that the donkey used by Joseph and Mary in the flight from Egypt was wet by the infant Jesus and forever bears the mark of honor; the other that at the time of the crucifixion the donkey turned back as the entourage left the site to gaze upon the suffering Jesus and his empathy was acknowledged with the eternal mark of a cross upon his back.)
Another curious fact is that a chestnut marking on the donkey’s foreleg is thought to be a vestigial thumb!
Sequence for painting the donkey:
Not having an English translation for Huang Zhou’s book I’ve had to deduce from a few step-by-step pictures how he approached his subject. His donkeys are primarily shades of grey in a moku or boneless style, with darker marking tipped into wet colors. He then positions the head, ears, legs and tail, using a bone stroke to get nicely formed leg joints and details hooves with two strokes, leaving the bottom open. He starts with the body when he positions them lying down, but with the head when in profile or head-on. One of my ‘how to paint horses’ with a Chinese brush calls this style “spontaneous”. It seems most suited to the playful, casual nature of the donkey.
Donkeys are frequently shown in pairs (contrasting a light grey against a white or darker one), groups or small herds, in lounging, standing, trotting, or gamboling postures. He has profiles, head-on, departing stances and everything in between. He shows pairs interacting, and foals mingling with others or nuzzling up to a jenny.
For my study I worked out donkeys in several poses:
2. profile facing left
3. profile facing right
4. advancing head-on
5. moving away, i.e. a rear view
How to paint a donkey:
1. With a large soft brush and oblique strokes in a light mix of ink and indigo rough in the overall shape of the donkey body. With the brush tip and minimal strokes indicate the animal’s head, nose, ears, feet.
2. With the tip of that brush, or a detail brush, dipped in black ink add darker markings to bring out joints, the distinctive back cross markings.
3. Indicate the mane with a dry brush, darker ink and brisk strokes.
4. The mouth and eyes are formed with a few strokes; be sure to leave spaces to indicate the white pointings. Reins and harness are commonly indicated with dark ink and a detail brush.
5. Hooves—usually two lines suffice to convey a hoof at the end of the fetlock.
6. Tail—a rat-tail stroke with a darker dry tuft on the end.
After many donkey studies, I completed four c0mpositions worthy of gluing, matting and perhaps framing. (The caligraphy on each allegedly says ‘beauty’ and ‘spirit’).
Other Chinese artists have featured donkeys in landscape scenes, usually serving as a mount to a scholar. I even found one composition in a book of selected work of contemporary artist Shan Bai Qin featuring just two donkeys. But no other artist has painted donkey as prolifically as Huang Zhou, and certainly not with such ‘informed passion’. He dubbed the donkey ‘iron’, but his subjects come across as rare gems.