Rocks: making mountains (part 2)

A documentary featuring greylag geese introduced me to the concept of primal imprinting. (The goose hatched to the sight of a balloon and forever after followed that balloon around the barnyard thinking it was his mother.) Acclaimed Canadian author W.O. Mitchell capitalized on the concept of primal landscape imprinting in his best-known novel Who has seen the Wind. The wind was the protagonist’s first, last and ‘always’ companion.

For me, the interplay of shadow and light on nearby mountains as I grew up in BC’s Robson Valley is indelibly etched on my inner eye.  To this day I can recall the shifting greens and purples as clouds passed between sun and treed slopes, or the mysteriousness of low cloud covers.  Mountains and all their glory proved vastly mesmerizing.  How to capture some of that beauty on paper? The acquisition of a 48-stick Crayola pack was my first step in that direction. Ironically I am now learning you need but one ink stick (together with water, a brush, and some rice paper) to capture the essence of mountains.

Two worlds apart

Landscape painting in the western world was supposedly ‘invented’ by Leonardo da Vinci on August 5th, 1473 according to at least one pundit.  However, Chinese brush painters had the jump on the depiction of mountains and streams and trees by several centuries, going back to what some critics hail as the “great age of Chinese landscapes” (from the Five Dynasties period to the Northern Song period i.e. 907-1127). This I learn from an online Chinese Museum.

And as I delve into this great wealth of knowledge I find the subset concerning ‘mountain water’ painting or shanshui most appealing.  Capturing an essence with the sparsest of details makes ultimate sense.  To do so with a memorable mountain seems the only way to paint one.

My resources

An abundance of guidance is not a problem. Much has been written on Chinese landscape painting.

In addition to The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, Diana Kan’s The How and Why of Chinese Brush Painting and Li Xiongcai’s Landscape Painting Manual mentioned in my last post I relied mostly on three instructional books :

1.  The Art of Chinese Brush Painting (ACBP) by Caroline and Susan Self. The first chapter titled “Learning the tradition” provides an excellent synopsis on the historical context.  The authors contend, as do many others, that greater understanding of the historical perspective should lead to greater success in practicing the art.  (I wish!) The chapter provides an excellent overview of the beginnings of Chinese landscape painting, relating how its course of development is intertwined with the social and political history of China.  It touches on the significance of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and covers a lot of ground in a few pages.

2.  Chinese Landscapes Made Easy by Rebecca Yue.   She demonstrates numerous techniques and applies them to contemporary themes, western as well as Asian.  Lots of good ideas are presented. Her direction on the application of washes is very detailed and helpful.

3.  Landscapes in Four Seasons (LFS) by Chang Hsiung. Traditional Chinese landscape themes are provided with a few easy to follow, step-step illustrations.  Written instructions are lacking, but the organization based on season is helpful.

And of course I have some wonderful workshop notes from artist friend and mentor Nenagh Molson.  She emphasizes the magic of water and washes in creating landscapes and is a marvel to watch.

landscape Books

These two books provided a lot of inspiration.

Background wanted

Knowing that landscape painting figures significantly in Chinese art I set out to broaden my understanding of the history. Not finding much in my books (I tripped over that excellent chapter in the Self book after the fact) I turned to online research.

In the preface to his LFS Hsiung wrote that a treatise on Chinese landscape painting by a Sung master named Kuo Hsi (also Guo Xi) set the foundation for much of what followed over the next several centuries. Other authors also refer to this artist, sometimes with different spelling.  Online research led to a collector’s copy of the 1936 translation, and two tattered ex-library copies.  I ordered one of the latter.

My research then led to a museum curator who raised Cleveland’s museum to world-class status over a lifetime, and cultivated exceptional knowledge of Asian art.  Sherman E. Lee authored a widely used textbook on the history of Asian Art, as well as a smaller handbook titled Chinese Landscape Painting  (1954). It seems to focus on the evolutionary distinctions of artists during the most formative years, i.e. 907-1107 mentioned above. (I added that to my order.)

Climbing a mountain


Traveler2 While studying donkey painting I tried different poses of the traveler commonly seen in Chinese landscapes.

Accepting that my study of the historical background for Chinese landscape painting would be delayed, I turned to my art table. I was immediately overwhelmed with the sheer variety of landscapes, a veritable mountain of inspirations, and the various techniques their execution would entail.

Seeking a way to narrow the scope of my studies, I noted what aspects appealed to me the most. The human elements in Chinese landscape paintings I favor are the scholar contemplating nature (standing staring into space or lounging by a pine tree), the fellow astride a donkey traveling abroad or homeward bound, and small oriental-looking boats.

I like mist-shrouded mountains with peaks in the distance as well as some rocky foregrounds.  I love the effects of mineral green paint on trees, particularly on pine.   It seems curious that the term “landscape” which has become universally accepted as meaning wider horizontally than vertically should be opposite to the proportionately tall format more common in CBP.  I do like the use of space typical of such compositions.

I settle on two rather simple such compositions for my first final compositions, one from the LFS book and one from a library copy of Landscape Painting with a Chinese Brush by UK artist Jane Evans.  Then I step back to see what techniques are required to execute those.

My own shanshui trials

An action plan set out by the mother-daughter team of Selves made sense.  “Since a landscape painting consists of three perspectives and many components, it is helpful to plan what you want to do in advance”.  They suggest the following five-step guide:

1.  Generally, start with the mountain, then work in the foreground, and then fill in the middle ground.

2.  Leave space for a waterfall, mist, lake or a river when you plan your mountain.

3.  Use a path or a river to lead the eye from the foreground up the mountain.

4.  Add a variety of trees, plants, and rock shapes with details in the foreground, and sketchier trees and plants on or near the distant mountains.

5.  Include human elements such as people, boats, bridges, houses, and pavilions.

Yue’s book starts with the basics of creating rocks, which she refers to as ‘five traditional steps’.  She notes that while all landscape painters develop their own preferred treatments for mountains, they all start with these basics.

Her five steps are a slight expansion from the three-step process covered in my last post. She urges beginners to make the five steps a habit, promising greater long-term benefits.

Yue’s steps to building rocks:

1.  Outline—use the press and lift technique with a detail brush and light ink to define the shape of a rock.

2.  Texture—use a large Wolf or landscape brush loaded with dry ink to paint long dots for texture. Yue suggests using medium ink first and then repeating the process with diluted ink.

3.  Rub—take your detail or other small landscape brush and load with dark ink, wipe out the excess, and then rub the brush on an angle at all the areas where your textured parts are.  This should add depth where the rock is indented or shadowed, and enhance its ruggedness.

4.  Diluted ink and color—once the outlined and textured rock is DRY, you color it with a diluted wash.  Some ink should be added to indigo or burnt sienna.

5.  Outline and dots—again let the rock dry and then go over the outline with dry, dark ink on a detail brush.  A few heavy dots convey bits of dry moss or lichen, but do NOT get carried away with this step.


Going for green:

The Hsiung book is organized by season—spring, summer, fall and winter. Looking at differences in CBP landscapes based on time of year seems to have come from that Kuo Hsi treatise and I gather a few snippets from Hsiung’s brief notes next to each example.

While all four approaches have their attractions, I am particularly drawn to those using the green mineral paint that imparts a distinctive coloring to various elements.  (Note: The other Barb–TOB–mentioned mineral green must be applied over other paint, and Hsiung describes it going over an ink-drawn sketch; it does not adhere to white paper.) I see that Hsiung tends to wash elements in a spring setting with a very pale green, and elements in a summer scene with very pale ochre.  His winter scenes feature snowy surfaces and grim looking rock faces.

In a recent workshop on painting ducks—mandarin and mallard—Nenagh included some great instruction on water.  Highlights are:

1.  Asian artists represent still water, which has no form, by connecting the mind with the space they wish to occupy, by means of some object that suggests water.  (Traditionally Asian artists do NOT paint reflections in water.)  A fish does not suggest water, but a jumping fish does; a duck does not suggest water, but a swimming duck does, a man fishing, swimming or floating, holding a net, etc will imply the presence of water. The key is the ACTION.

2.  Certain aquatic plants and animals get called into play to suggest water:  reeds, lotus, lily pads and goldfish, carp, frogs, turtles—all posed in motion.

3.  Boats with their bottoms not fully sketched and hence “submerged” convey the presence of water even without wavy lines for the water’s actions.

4.  Avoid ‘crowding’ a painting with water lines and/or washes of color’ instead allow the blank paper to speak for itself.

My study sheets for some of the exercises tackled for this post:

1.  Mountains done with a hake brush.  Nenagh showed us this at the start of her workshop and the Self book includes a similar exercise.  You basically take a wide hake brush, or just a big soft ‘landscape’ brush and load it with light or medium ink, tip it in dark ink (one corner of the hake) and then brush an up-down horizontal line across the paper.


The bottom edge of this peak shows a ‘hard’ line because the stroke was painted on dry paper.

2.  Anticipating wanting to show mountain peaks that float high above closer ones, perhaps with some mist hovering between them, I tried an exercise that puts a mountain range in front of a range painted as in the first exercise.  The Self book showed this done by brushing onto dry paper and then using clear water between the two ranges to soften the edges.  I had little success in getting the edges softened sufficiently to resemble floating mist.  I had better luck by painting the peak after running clear water over the paper where the lower edge would later be.

You can do a whole mountain range across the page if you load the brush well and move quickly.  Note the soft bottom edge; it is achieved by painting on a damp paper.

You can do a whole mountain range across the page if you load the brush well and move quickly. Note the soft bottom edge; it is achieved by painting on a damp paper.

3.  Similarly I tried following the Self book on creating a river path leading between hills/mountains.  Again, my attempts to follow their three steps (outline the mountains in light ink, paint the shadowed portions in medium and then over wash and blend with a light ink) were not as effective as painting the darker shades into a still damp, light ink wash.


4.  Not pleased with my attempts at doing mist I looked for other approaches.  An online Youtube video by Henry Li of Blue Heron Arts looked effective.  He did some preliminary ink work for mountain peaks, allowed it to dry, and then turned it over and wet the entire back with clear water. He soaked up some of the excess water with a clean sheet of newsprint (this is also Yue’s advice for an even, all-over background wash) and then worked with a large landscape brush loaded in a light greenish wash to scuff in the edges to the mist floating between his peaks.


While not yet satisfied with my control of sky washes, I made use of dried attempts to practice birds for my full landscape scenes.

Nenagh has previously demonstrated applying washes on the back of a painting.  You can significantly alter the general “mood” or ambience to a painting in this manner.

BikeRide1   BikeRide2

5.  When I mentioned at art group my difficulty with executing mist, Delightful Lotus reminded me of her favorite trick in attaining striking ray-like qualities to the edges of mist. She rips a curvy edge along plain paper and lays it down to mask the (dry) painted peak and then strokes in the mist with a very dry brush loaded with a suitable light tone.

My first full landscapes:

At last I have finished all the many steps to two full landscapes and they are waiting in my queue for gluing.

LSCPFinal2    LSCPFinal1

What about my mountain?

I can see that landscape painting truly has an abundance of techniques to acquire, and I have an inkling of why the topic captivated Chinese artists for centuries on end! I’m far from ‘ready’ to try and capture the essence of my mountain, Mt. Robson.  I have gathered a few ideas how to begin:

1.  Hemp or lotus leaf modeling seems appropriate to the general shape of the mountain.  It has some great horizontal rock structures that should likely be painted with indigo-tinged ink, and most years the snow cover is present all summer.  Obviously I’ll need to preserve white streaks to capture that.

2.  At least one of my many photographs were taken with a stream in the foreground to use as a guide. Other have trees, fences, and parts of the Yellowhead Highway actually leading into the vista.
3.  Mist shrouding the peak would be authentic.  Despite the preference for viewing the peak on those many July first picnics we attended in the 1950s, my mind’s eye typically recalls a partly hidden one.

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

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