Rocks: growing your own (part 1)

Rocks have rules!  Rocks have rules! I kind of feel like a town crier scurrying about my village shouting out the news: rocks have rules!

I am so amazed to discover that there indeed is a ‘rulebook’ to guide the eyes and hand of a painter setting out to portray rocks.  I shouldn’t be. After all, brush painters have for centuries contemplated each and every element in the world around us, and considered the minimalist way to represent things with simple brushstrokes on rice paper.  They have devoted lifetimes to such practice, and amassed a body of knowledge carefully documented and passed on to apprentice artists in turn.  Nevertheless the ‘rules for rocks’ or basic principles for portraying pebbles, rocks, cliffs, craggy mountains, distant slopes and hills, and every imaginable combination thereof, impress me.

Born in the shadow of one of Canada’s most photographed mountains (Mount Robson in the heart of the Canadian Rockies) and a free range kid whose pockets quickly filled with precious finds from streams and roadsides, I’ve always loved rocks.  Little ones, big ones, smooth, rough, sparkley, veined or not—I’ve never discriminated. My garden beds usually become the repository for such treasures, and sometimes even houseplant pots or bookshelves.


On a clear day the summit of Mt. Robson can be seen from the park below. The upper levels hold snow year round.

Painting them in a realistic manner was both a mystery and a challenge, until now.

In Chinese landscape painting rocks are major elements, workhorses of scene painting.  Trees are important.  Skies and water are significant.  People or ‘wu’ play a role.   But rocks, in all their infinite forms, are hugely important.  And now I know some of the whys and wherefores to their representations.  Rocks rule!

(This post will focus primarily on rocks; mountains take into account much more than merely piling an accumulation of rocks, or simply making one humongous rock, and will warrant another posting. When I read in the MSGM that one must understand the spirit of an individual mountain before attempting to paint it, I just knew these ancient brush painters were on to something. I imprinted on Mount Robson at an early age and despite much study, am only now contemplating how to capture its essence.)

Major Resources:

Before I try out some of the many different strokes for rock crevices there are some general principles to consider.  Scouring my various instruction books I find lots to mull over.

1.  The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (MSGM) devotes about 100 pages to  rocks.  The illustrations look helpful but I find the narrative lacking in organization and direction.

2.  Diana Kan’s The How and Why of Chinese Brush Painting has ten pages that truly are helpful to understanding a general approach to rock painting, as well as the variations one can apply once you’ve got the basics under control.  She illustrates some 17 different kinds of ‘modeling’ or ‘wrinkles’ for rocks.

3.  Chen Jinzhang is the author of Mountains and Rocks, a whole chapter devoted to the subject, in Li Xiongcais Landscape Painting Manual. His concisely written, one-page introduction is followed by many helpful illustrations progressing from a simple rock, through variations in ‘modeling’ and finally, landscape applications.

4.  Notes from workshops by Nenagh Molson fill three pages with random bits of advice.  She references 25 kinds of ‘modeling’ and cites an artist called Chen Nanping whose work I have yet to discover.


After reading Kan and Jinzhang, the MSGM material makes more sense. The section would benefit from a better intro and selective editing of the visuals.  I would indeed be handicapped in learning to paint rocks if the MSGM was my only resource.

Aside: In our last workshop with Nenagh she disclosed she has a Chinese edition of the MSGM, a four volumes in one printing.  The illustrations have better detail; thick and thin lines are evident which are not so discernible in the North American versions most of us here own.  I am considering chasing down a Chinese printing through the used book market.

General approach to Rocks:

Kan sums up the overall approach to rocks as a three-step method.

1.  Lightly sketch in the overall shape or structure of a planned rock, “in a manner that coincides with the modeling that will follow”.

2.  The structure is then accentuated with darker ink in modeling strokes (wrinkles) that are built up in layers of various tones that add dimension, texture, and character. 

3.  Washes are added to further enhance the individuality of the rock.

There you have it: structure in light ink, modeling in dark ink, color and depth with washes.

Further wisdom from Kan and Jinzhang:

In their narratives these two illuminate what I had expected the MSGM to do. Some of the highlights include:

1.  Chinese artists depict the dimensions and quality of rocks and mountains by variations of fineness, pressures, turnings, and stops of the brush-strokes, not by chiaroscuro as in oil paintings.  (Chiaroscuro was a new word for me; I looked it up and wondered just how I had got this far in my art study without it!  Good word that, it refers to the use of light and dark elements to convey depth or dimension within a painting; I knew the principle of  ‘light values advance, darks recede’ but not the Italian-rooted word for the concept.)

2.  According to Li, ‘you can depict the quality of rocks with heavy strokes, the different dimensions with turnings…. brushstrokes are more important than the darkness of the ink because the wetness, turnings, and pressures of the brush can better describe the dimensions, distance and space. ‘  He goes on to explain that ‘you can have it done at one go before you rewet your brush’ because ‘at the beginning, when your brush is wet, you paint the dark side, and when the brush is dry, paint the light side.’

3.  Jinzhang’s quotes from the artist Li on the meanings of “vivid” and “swift” are most enlightening: “the ancients said that in painting rocks, all the methods can be summed up in one word—vivid…. the brush should be used swiftly.’ And ‘there must be several stops and pressures in one stroke and the brush goes like a dragon, vigorously and heroically.’  He elaborates on the meaning of  ‘swift’. It does not mean “quick’ bur rather ‘smoothness, pressures, stops and changes.’

4.  The texture or ‘modeling’ strokes that give individuality to a rock once you have outlined its general shape (tall, wide, short, squat, whatever) have names—axe-cut, hemp, folded-belt, lotus leaf, and so on. (In the CBP instructional book by mother-daughter team of Caroline and Susan Self referenced in a previous post is a list of 29 varieties!) Jinzhang notes that all are variations on the basic two: axe-cut and flax. He helpfully points out they are not meant to limit your creativity, but rather to help guide you to see the distinctive characteristics and patterns that exist in nature.

5.  Creating mountains builds on the understanding of how to portray a single rock and you can then explore how to use washes to achieve different effects—near, far, mist-shrouded, and so on.  The MSGM does have several examples of how to paint rocks in pairs or groupings.  The relationships among rocks indeed follow patterns and those patterns have been observed and noted by generations of Chinese brush painters. Some even have such poetic names as ‘father leading the children’ and ‘teacher with pupils gathered around’.  These relationship patterns and the patterning of modeling strokes are similar to that of fractals. (Polish-born mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot is credited with introducing this term in 1975 and extended the concept of theoretical fractional dimensions to geometric patterns in nature. Artists and nature-lovers had the awareness but not the descriptive technical term.)

My first rock.

First and foremost then I must grasp the three steps to painting any rock:

1. Lightly outline a rock shape, keeping in mind what modeling shape (triangle, hemp, lotus leaf, etc.) you plan to use in step two. In reality you are working with three fundamental shapes: square, rectangle, and triangle.

2.  Dip your brush in dark ink and add the modeling strokes to your rock, defining the darker side of the rock first, leaving the lighter side for when your brush starts to run out of ink.  Some resources use the term “wrinkles” for this.

3. Add a wash of light burnt sienna or greenish or grey to liven up the rock. White bits may remain where the surface of the rock is “forward”, darker washes would mean that part is shadowed or further away from you in the scene.  Nenagh suggested doing a final wash of clear water over the slightly damp rock to ensure a more complete blending of the colors; you do not want sharp demarcations of color changes.


Applying clear water to a still damp rock that has been lightly colored blends the color more evenly.

Here are some of my practice sheets for different modeling strokes:

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 TIPS and Tidbits:

1.  Do be sure to embed rocks in the earth for a more realistic look.

2.  Use dotting to suggest moss, but be sure the moss is ON the rocks and not floating mid-air.  The Mi dotting technique used on rocks is named for a father and son artist duo of that surname from the Sung dynasty.  The MSGM refers to various artists with distinctive styles for rendering rocks, but only the Mi’s seem to have wide recognition.

3.  Follow the principle of  ‘host-and-guest’ that also applies to other compositions such as flower and bird.

4.  Tall pointy rocks are termed Yang, while shorter, more squat-looking rocks are considered the Ying, and a composition with both is deemed more interesting.  To avoid confusion and a disconnected look you do not mix the kinds of modeling used in a single composition.

5. A favorite kind of rock portrayed in many Chinese brush paintings is a lumpy looking greyish rock with holes eroded right through. I first encountered them in the Sun Yat-Sen Garden in Vancouver and was told they were imported from China. They have become an essential item in classical Chinese gardens. I have since discovered their origin is Lake Tai in jiangsu province and they are called Taihu. These rocks are often the backdrop for orchids, grasses, narcissi, and so on.  Birds, frogs, and other creatures are also common ‘guests’ on or near such distinctive rocks.  Some resources I notice seem to equate Taihu with ‘scholarly rocks’, those you place in gardens or landscapes for figures to sit on and contemplate life.


The Sun Yat-Sen Garden in Vancouver has many of these oddly shaped rocks that are also common in Chinese brush paintings.

6.  A neat trick to have in your art weaponry is a quick way to achieve an even rough texture to a rock.  You crumple up the rice paper and run a dry brush sideways, catching only the protruding rough sections. The paper gets flattened out with your final gluing/stretching and observers may indeed marvel at the wonderful even texture you thus achieved.  Bird Woman favors landscapes and she uses this technique effectively.

My first rock composition after learning some of the “rules of rocks” was as a setting for a pair of frogs.

TwoFrogs1 copy

It is satisfying to look at such a composition and be able to ‘read’ the brushwork.  Making mountains cannot be far ahead!


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