After several weeks of concerted effort, my bamboo has got better. Practice may not make ‘perfect’ but it sure can lead to ‘better’. So, what did I do?
1. hunt for bamboo in local gardens and study the real thing
2. take pictures and study those
3. practice, practice, practice
4. search through my art instruction books and read/try all the different instructions, carefully.
5. watch some how-to videos on Youtube. (Henry Li mostly)
6. practice, practice, practice
7. paint just a bit of bamboo in a composition rather than trying to use it as the main feature
8. paint bamboo on newspaper and medical paper rolls (do more…less costly paper, less guilt, less restraint)
9. practice, practice, practice
10. go back to basics and paint individual leaves and clusters
11. try different brushes
12 try color instead of just black
13. paint something else….pandas, frogs, chickens, donkeys
14. watch someone else paint bamboo
15. practice, practice, practice
16. consult your friends in art group
Two things contributed significantly to my breakthrough.
The first was a major epiphany. Delightful Lotus watched me one day as I practiced. (I was so into my painting zen I hadn’t even heard her approach my table.) “Even speed” she said, “even speed”.
And there you have it: I was moving my brush too quickly (flicking it in fact, gasp!) on the last part of the stroke. Touch, pull, press, lift is what you do alright, BUT all at an even speed. No flicking. No hurrying to make a pointed ending. No speeding up for a flashy finale. Of course there’s a host of other considerations (use the right brush, wipe excess water from the heel of the brush, hold the brush right, stand and breathe correctly, and so on.) Thank you, Delightful Lotus!
The second factor which led to greater competence (and confidence) with painting bamboo came from a book that included some pointers on creating tiny leaves, just the kind I needed in a panda composition.
Alison Stilwell Cameron’s Chinese Painting Techniques covers most of the usual topics in an instructional book, and provides many excellent illustrations of both good and bad examples. Her method for building up a bamboo grove in monochrome ink, and her pointers on how to foster greater spontaneity, crossed my desk at just the right time.
I had studied the steps to painting a panda, painted several in different postures, sneaked in a moderately successful bamboo stalk or two, and then fell in love with the cover art to my panda book. It shows five bears frolicking in a stand of mature bamboo. I played around with the panda postures for a bit, plotted out the placement for bamboo stalks, and then jumped in with Cameron’s encouragement to build the leafy canopy and undergrowth.
I mixed up three pools of greens, planning to use the darkest toward the foreground and the lightest receding into the background. I tried not to worry about the overall outcome, but focused on simply repeating the same five-leaf cluster roughly the same proportion again and again, with slight variations in direction and overlap. And I painted the leaves AT EVEN SPEED.
Towards the top of the growth on the floor of the grove, I inserted a few upward pointing clusters with smaller leaves at the tips to look like the newer tip growth. I pushed parts of the canopy down the bamboo canes and around the bears in a scattered manner. Some clusters needed darkening to reinforce what was “forward” in the grove, some needed more yellow in the canopy where they would be less shaded. I checked that all of the rights sides of the tall canes were shaded, and that nodes were suggested at appropriate intervals. I over-painted the bamboo leaf clusters in front of two stalks I had inadvertently painted in a glaring parallel manner (you want to avoid that distracting ‘railroad tracks look’ anywhere in a painting!) trying to alter the poor positioning. Once I liked the overall effect, I put it aside to dry and planned for an overall wash (on the back of the painting) with warmer lighting in the upper canopy and shaded blue-green in the undergrowth.
My first satisfactory bamboo composition is now ready to glue and mount. Here it is with some close-ups of the individual pandas.