White matters

Among Chinese brush painting enthusiasts there swirls a debate on the subject of white: do you use white paint OR do you work to leave white paper visible where you intend the ‘white’ to be?   Now this is no small matter, it’s right up there with the other big ‘white’ debates–white socks with black shoes? White accessories after the September long weekend?  Always paint white on the ceiling and trim?

Traditionalists among brush painters opt for keeping the white paper shining through.  Now this can take considerable forethought and careful brushwork.  You have to envision your complete composition beforehand and be sure to leave paper untouched exactly where you want the “white” to show.

If you have ever tackled some of those watercolor art exercises involving ‘negative’ spaces, you’ll know what I mean.  Basically one considers an object, and then defines its presence by painting the space around it.  (The object is the positive space.)  Kinda like ‘painting the donut hole to define the donut’.

There are a number of techniques for maintaining the white of the paper that are helpful to know. In the last few years I have experimented with a number of “white” practices and will now compile my discoveries.

1.  Painting the moon.

My first experience in preserving white for effect was a common one for a CBP student: I wanted to define a moon to complete a bamboo composition.  The instructor showed me how you simply turned your dried bamboo composition over, and from the back applied a wash while using a plastic lid circle to mask the space to be kept white for a moon.  You need to have mixed a substantial pool of sky color (usually grey) beforehand.  You position the desired moon mask firmly on the paper with one hand, mist your paper lightly to wet it, and then quickly apply the colored wash in the usual sweeping stroke fashion.  A variation is to create clouds slightly drifting across the moon; another is to stroke in concentric circles around the moon. You remove your ‘mask’ circle, turn over the painting, and there’s your lovely white globe in the sky.  Leslie Tseng-Tseng Yu gives detailed instructions for such bamboo and moon paintings in her book Chinese Painting in Four Seasons.


I used that method for painting a moon into a kingfisher composition last year; looking closely at the upper half of that painting you can see how the sky washes around the planned white area.


2.  Separating objects.

Another early insight into the wonders of white has to do with its ability to convince your eye there is depth or a third dimension in the flat image.  I painted a cat posing with a vase of flowers.  My instructor examined the composition for a few moments and then pointed out the need to leave a divisional path of white along the outline of the cat where it supposedly sat in front of the vase.  I had one of those “aha’ moments, and from then on tried to preserve that dividing whiteness while brushing in the objects. (Of course from time to time I still need to touch up a composition with a dab of white along those divisional lines to correct or reinforce the white space.)  Amazing what a little white divide does for the eye!


A white space left around items in the foreground separates them more fully from those behind.

3.  Eye highlights.

Mentioning how white affects the eye when ‘seeing’ a painting done on a flat surface brings to mind another major use of tiny dabs of white—indicating the sparkle in any creature’s eyes.  Careful placement can be very helpful in suggesting the direction of a bird or animal’s gaze. A delightful bit of Chinese painting lore also holds that one should leave the painting of a dragon’s eye until the very last, as so doing will bring your dragon to life and it may leap off the paper! Leaping dragons aside, a last touch-up to any bird or animal painting often is to tip in and enhance the eye highlight with a good opaque white. (Additional tip: that bit of white often needs a zap from a spray can of protective finish before you move on to gluing the composition; otherwise the paint may lift when you glue.)  Many an instruction book on CBP however, does dictate building an eye around a planned white spot.  Now that takes concentration and pre-planning for sure.


These two birds are clearly looking to the left as indicated by the placement of the highlights in their eyes.

4.  White splatter.

Anyone who has painted with children knows how much they love to play with splattering color on surfaces with toothbrushes or other instruments. This technique has worked its way into CBP art in a number of ways.  Early on in my own ‘playing with splatter’ in CBP style of painting I used white splatter to enhance snowy scenes. I also tried splattering various reddish hues to convey airy plum blossoms on trees.  Several times I have read about splattering a mix of alum and glue into such compositions as a stampede of horses (for the dust clouds or water being kicked up), rainy foliage (to suggest the blurriness created by heavy precipitation), but have yet to explore it enough to discuss it knowingly.


When splattering white paint you need to audition brushes, thickness of paint, and technique. It is all too easy to get unwanted big blobs in hour splatter.

5. Masking planned white areas

While there are numerous commercial products intended for just this purpose (covering an area on your paper to preserve its whiteness while you paint all around and over top of it) one can achieve the same effect with some common household products (glue, milk or cream).  The old ‘rubber cement’ that comes in a brown bottle with a built-in brush does the job well; you have only to rub the glue off with an eraser or your thumb once the paint is dry.  I’ve had some good results using milk as a resist in playing with ink.   And I have tried cream, skim milk, and various percentages of b.f. just for fun.  They all work and you can get varying effects by letting the masking agent completely dry (or not) before you paint over it.


Now back to considering that ‘simply beautiful’ bamboo in moonlight paintings that draw many of us to CBP in the first place—many have the added appeal of snow on the bamboo leaves and canes.   How is it done?  One way is to mask the planned snowy clumps with milk applied with a clean brush before you stroke in the bamboo.  Again, this takes planning and concentration while painting!  To date my experiments have been just that, quite experimental. (Another way, described in several of my sumi-e books, is to paint ‘negatively’.)


One of my early efforts to define snow on branches.

6.  Using white paint and the Lingnan School of Art.

I mentioned that traditional CBP relies on the white of the paper and such artists learn to plan ahead for what is to remain white.  Early in the twentieth century a number of Chinese painters who studied in Japan and later brought more Western painting techniques to their work (such as painting from life rather than memory, use of vivid colors, painting to convey shadows and light, painting in water reflections, and notably the use of white paint) began what has become known as the Lingnan style of CBP.

Artist and teacher Nan Rae also provided excellent insight into the Lingnan influence in a 2012 blog post.

In recent explorations of painting horses I tried both this approach (painting a white horse white and incorporating ink shading and definition) as well as the more challenging plan-and-preserve the white-coated animal.  For the latter I outlined my animals in ink, painted in chestnuts, greys, and roans to accompany them, and then attempted to wash in the swirling dust clouds while maintaining those contrasting white horses.


This detail from a recent painting of horses shows a white horse defined only by outline ink; his white coat is created by keeping the paper white and washing from behind only up to the ink outline.

The same week I also planned and painted two white horses drinking at a river on an autumn morning.

WhiteHorses3 copy

Here I lightly outlined the animals with ink, wet their bodies with water and stroked in white paint as well as grey ink washes to define the various muscle groups.  Once the first go-over dried, I touched up the whites as well as inky edges.  Wispy bits of grass and willow at the water’s edge were added with white paint.

The contrasting horse compositions reflect lessons I can now apply to other Lingnan style painting.  I like both effects, but am leaning in favor of the traditional “plan-and-preserve” white for white approach.

7.  Back washing around white animals.

I attended a short workshop on using washes for effect in CBP very early in my studies and am most grateful I did.  They are extremely practical ways to enhance mood and/or context to a painting. I’ve already commented on the elegance of stark bamboo across a moon silhouette with the addition of an inky sky or clouded variation.

Other similar back-washing of a composition works wonders, and when a major element is a WHITE animal (my favorite is a cat) then application of the wash (from the back of the painting) that avoids the planned white fur can have amazing results.  The mood in each of the compositions below is quite different and relies mostly on the wash placed on the back of the paper.

SewingRoomCat copy   WH:SnowyCat

As long as your animal is completely outlined by black ink dried in your rice paper, you can bring a wash right up to that line and it won’t run over into the white area.  The dried ink serves as a barrier.  Of course you do have to get familiar with just how close to bring your brush, how wet to load it, how quickly to keep the brush moving, how to resist the temptation to re-brush and just let the watery wash blend of its own accord.  Not a small feat, but entirely doable.

8.  Masking white paper with clear water.

Finally I’m getting down to describing some real ‘magic of the brush’.  When you watch a skilled CBP artist do this, it seems indeed like absolute magic.  And if all the while they execute their magic they casually  describe what they are doing, like me you might just shake your head in disbelief.  But it works, it truly works!  You simply paint clear water over an area you want to keep white (such as down the central vein of a banana leaf you have outlined in ink) and then using a large soft brush loaded with ample color (green in the case of the leaf) you quickly stroke over the entire area.  The part painted with clear water repels the color.  Then you let it dry.  Simple as that. This you should try at home.  It IS magical.

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9.  Painting color to convey white

Another ‘white’ tactic I’ve discovered in CBP oddly enough is the use of certain colors in certain ways that truly persuade your eyes they’re seeing white.   I first encountered this tactic in learning to paint narcissus in outline style, and then saw it used with other white flowers in workshops on magnolia, lotus, and plum blossom.  You simply add two strokes at the petal tips in either pale green or indigo to further define the petals once you have completed the initial petal definition.


10.  Flying White

Learning bamboo exposes an artist to yet another impressive bit of white magic, that known as feibai or flying white. It is achieved more by accident than control, but is entirely desirable for imparting dimension to bamboo stalks and suggesting movement or vitality in your subject.  Flying or flashing white is the white space showing through strokes of ink and its presence reflects the energy and speed a painter puts into the brushwork.  You are more likely to create feibai using a dry brush and moving it quickly and with vigor in an oblique stroke.

Money spent on a tiny bottle of good opaque product is money well spent.  The paint goes a long way as you use such tiny dabs at any time. BUT, you do need to be vigilant in closing the lid tightly, using only the cleanest of brushes to stab into the paint (to avoid sullying the entire contents), and occasionally cleaning the screw-top tracks to help maintain a tight seal.

In Chinese brush painting white is might, for sure. Sometimes even magical.

This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, how to paint birds, how to paint narcissus, Lingnan style, painting cats, painting eyes, white paper vs. white paint. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to White matters

  1. DonC says:

    Hi Barb, I really enjoy your blog site;it is extremely informative and very useful even to a guy who has given up trying to paint a la Chine. This latest blog about the use of white sets out why I gave up the Chinese style – too much like hard and unnecessary work. I admire your academic fervour that you exhibit in your work with the Chinese genre and your sketch/examples are delightful and show considerable mastery. But I am happier with the freedom with acrylics and watercolours. Best wishes and have a happy Christmas. DonC

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