Lotus, the loveliest of flowers

I’ve been contemplating studying the lotus (aka sea rose or water hibiscus) for some time. I’ve taken several workshops on lotus, acquired numerous resources, and admired many a fine composition.  When a friend returned from Japan with pigments for me of just the ‘right’ deep aniline red and a leaf green I felt I’d run out of excuses not to tackle this symbol of perfection.

While lotus can be portrayed in a great variety of styles, my heart was drawn to the dramatic red blossoms splashed next to inky black leaves, and the more classic white flowers usually shown amid leaves done in various greens.  Until now, I felt too “color challenged” to attempt compositions so dependent on specific hues.


It should come as no surprise that the lotus is a symbol of both purity and perfection, as it rises unsullied out of the muddy swamp. The Chinese have long prized the lotus ahead of all other cultivated plants for its beauty as well as utility. All parts of the lotus are edible and have acquired special culinary terms.  It has been praised for centuries through poetry and song.  One resource noted an ancient belief that lotus plants even have dreams of their own!

According to Jane Dwight’s CBP Bible the lotus also represents summer and fertility, and denotes love when accompanied by a fish. The link to fertility apparently arises because of the abundant seeds in a lotus pod, and furthers the idea to include “the birth of many sons”.  The Chinese words for ‘continuous’ and ‘lotus’ are homophones and hence linked in meaning as well.

My C.A.S.Williams book on Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives provides considerable background on the lotus in Chinese as well as Egyptian and Indian cultures; the common element seems to be beliefs associated with Buddha and his followers. Williams also alludes to the significance of the lotus position in yoga which is better explained on  this webpage.

Lotus lore:

While the lotus plant figures significantly in (East) Indian lore, references have also crept into western literature.  Examples such as Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey and Alfred, Lord Tennysson’s The Lotus Eaters immediately come to mind.  Who among us has not sat in a first year university English class enthralled by the rich imaginings of such writers?

For the purposes of my current lotus studies I had to forgo further literary tangents, and focus on facts pertinent to accurate representation.  Aware that one person’s lotus might indeed be another one’s  ‘water lily’ I first sought clarification on naming practices.

One helpful resource had this to say:

Water lily is a common name for a group of aquatic flowering plants belonging to family Nympheaceae whereas Lotus, scientifically known as Nelumbo belongs to the family Nelumbonaceae. The genus Nelumbo contains only two species, namely, Nelumbo lutea and Nelumbo nucifera. On the other hand, water lilies, placed in the genus Nymphaea include about 70 species.

This source also went on to explain:

Of course, the most commonly cited difference and the one which will help you decide which plant it is from a distance, lies in the leaves of the two plants. The leaves of lotus are emergent, meaning that they rise above the water level whereas the leaves of water lily are found floating on the water surface. Same is true for their respective flowers; lotus flowers are emergent and water-lily flowers are floating.

Once I had that concept in hand, I confirmed that the lotus does indeed flower in shades of white, cream, yellow, pinks, red and even blue.  The white, creams and pinks also may appear in solids or with color-imbued edges.  Paintings depicting such flowers are therefore realistic.

Other plant features artists need to keep in mind:

1.  Each item—bud, leaf, flower—must sport a stem emerging from the muddy depths. Some instructions advise those stems typically stand straight, not curved or twisting. Occasionally a note may explain that all the stems in a composition are slanted in one direction, but the leaves and flowers are also painted askew to suggest wind, rain or storm has descended on the lotus pond.

2.  Leaves do indeed grow large—up to several feet in diameter—and hence images with immense leaves overshadowing egrets, ducks, frogs, etc. are as much realistic as artistic. The leaves may be considered a metaphor for life stages and paintings showing a variety have more interest. The edges are often rough, holey, or brittle. Their shape is similar to nasturtium leaves, but they are much larger.  The centers of leaves appear yellowish as do the outermost edges. Veins typically branch one or more times closer to the leaf edges.

3.  Individual leaves sport upwards of 20 veins, but at least one painting master recommends a limit of 15 so as not to crowd or ‘overdo’ your composition.

4.  Blossoms have up to 15 petals, but again, showing that many is not necessarily desirable: less is more.  Flowers remain open for three days only; a pond typically has flowers at all stages.

5.  Instructions frequently point out the importance of firmly connecting the buds in their sepals atop their stem.

6.  The undersides of leaves will appear lighter (color/ink) than the upward-facing sides.

7.  Leaves are waxy-surfaced and hence water pools or beads into round drops on their tops. Older leaves disintegrate with the vein structure lasting longest; hence interesting skeletal shapes are possible.

8.  Likewise, fresh new leaves still tightly curled atop a stem are realistic elements. The leaf is a very distinctive feature of a lotus plant and often dominates a painting.

My painting resources:

In addition to good workshop notes I have numerous instructional books on the lotus. Those used most often are:


1. The Chi of the Brush by Nana Rae.  She devotes a section to freestyle painting of the pink-flowered variety with leaves in shades of green.  She also shows a composition in ink only with a gold-colored back wash for dramatic effect.

2. Painting Lotus by Xiaobai Shen.  This is a little book I found online which I mistook for one of the several that other artist friends possess. To my delight it features easy to follow steps in the execution of several compositions of leaves in ink with red blossoms.

3. Drawing Lotus by Ho Kung-shan is very comprehensive.  It sat on my wish list for months and I was at first disappointed when I tried to order it early this year.  Fortunately I persisted and found that OAS had categorized it among their aquatic books and not their floral section.  Whew! This book has much background material and many illustrations in various styles of all of the essential lotus parts.  It pays tribute to several artists, including Chang Ta-chin, whose life was dedicated to painting lotus in many styles. His panel featuring 12 red lotuses called Cinnabar Lotus in Six Joint Screens featured in this book is amazing in terms of detail and technical merit.  Bird Woman sent me copy of a similar panel she once viewed at our Victoria Art Gallery which he painted featuring white lotus blossoms and dramatic monochromatic leaves.

Ta-Chin (aka Zhang Da-Qian) was adept at many painting styles and he gained renown as a master forger.  (One cannot study Chinese brush painting without reconciling the concept of  “copying” as we know it in western culture. Studying the work of ancient masters and striving to replicate their art is encouraged as a way of learning. Once a certain skill level is reached however, individualism is expected.)

4.  A resource I almost overlooked is Su Sing-Chow’s second volume (summer) in the series Flowers of the Four Seasons, a manual in Chinese Brush Painting. His instructions pertain to my two favorite ways of depicting lotus: red blossoms with ink leaves, and white blossoms with green leaves.  He does advise that his illustrations are smaller than they should be because of the limitations of the book format.

There are many ways to paint lotus—moku or boneless, traditional refined brushwork, what appears to be a mixed approach called shoang-kou (outlined elements filled with color) and Ta-Ching’s gold-rimmed contour style in the famed six-panel screen are all demonstrated in steps in Kung-Shan’s book.  (The English text in his book is most appreciated.)

Physical features of the lotus:

All parts of the lotus have intriguing aspects: the white flowers can be tipped in deep pink, open petals have striations that enhance their roundness, seed heads can look attractive all on their own, the leaves dictate marvelous color mixes of greens and blues with attention to veining, the semi-transparent stems boast peppery dotting and cross sections of the roots look oddly like Swiss cheese.

For my studies I chose to try the Shen style of ink leaves with red blossoms, as well as the combination Nenagh demonstrated, which she called ‘the classic way’ to portray lotus.  It features white outlined flowers and multi-shades of green for leaves.

Whatever the style, painting order typically is:

1. flowers and buds

2. leaves

3. stems

4. details (veins on leaves, dots on stems, touch-ups)

5.  accompaniments—bugs, birds, fish, etc. and background

Shen style:

1.  flowers in bud–load a large soft brush with a light red wash, dip in dark red, and remove some of the excess water from the heel.  Touch the brush tip to the paper and ‘plant’ the heel, then lift. Place three or four such strokes together forming a bud with dark tip and full, rounded base.  (Su-Sing Chow does an effective variation with brushes loaded with a light green wash tipped in the deeper red.) Remember to add sepals and attach the bud firmly to the top of a stem.


2.  flowers—load your brush as above, touch down to the paper and then pull and wipe sideways to create petals.  Petals in back will appear only as tips, while those in front may be full profile, semi-profile or leaning wide open.

3.  seeds and seed pods– sketch in with medium ink using a detail brush. Add details of seed heads and sepals with dark ink.

4.  leaves—these are easily the most dramatic part of a lotus painting.  You use either a large soft brush (to hold lots of liquid) or a large horsehair brush (to create the flying white effect) and brush sideways.  Veins can be done before or after the sidestrokes.  I prefer doing them after the color work has slightly dried in order to get a partial blurring effect. If outlining leaf structures one has to pay attention to thick and thin lines where leaf edges curl and bend.


The Shen book has several compositions based on red flowers with monochrome leaves which he shows in steps.

5.  leaves in bud form—there are several ways of depicting lotus leaves in bud. Some artists suggest laying two wavy strokes beside each other (looks kind of like an open pea pod) with a white space between them, starting and ending with a pointy bit.  Plant the stem from roughly the center part and then vein in a curved manner to suggest the rounded-ness of the tightly furled leaf.  Nenagh did the veins first with a detail brush loaded with dark ink; she quickly set out a curly series of “C” strokes and faced it with a mirror image, then when slightly dry brushed two strokes of medium ink over each line of Cs.


I tried some seed pods and new leaves in monochrome ink as well as with a light green wash.

6.  stems—whether done in light ink or a light bluish-green wash the aim is to get them looking rounded, not flat.  A soft round brush pulled at even speed with a slight pause at the start to firmly attach to the bud/leaf/flower works.  It is important to check your composition for one stem per element, and stems that finish (if showing above a leaf, then be sure the continuation extends below the leaf as well).  The little ‘pepper dots’ on stems are typically done with the tip of a detail brush using dark ink on slightly damp stems. You want to strive for random dispersal, not an even pattern to their placement.  One resource noted that if your brush runs dry before you have fully extended the stem its intended length, you should start the reloaded brush from the opposite extreme so as to meet and overlap the first stem stroke, i.e. have weak sections overlapping instead of dark on light.

7.  roots—not commonly shown in compositions but when they are they can provide interest.  They lie along a muddy pond bottom like a long stuffed stocking with intermittent “tourniquets” where rootlets emerge.

Classic style:

When working in this style you’ll need a large supply of clear water in addition to one for rinsing your brushes. You use the clear water to repel light washes on petals and again later to preserve white sections to your background.

1.  buds and flowers—limn the outlines using light ink tipped in darker ink, or darken the petal tips once outlined. Use a pair of ‘press and lift and pull’ strokes for each petal. Undersides may be distinguished with a light green wash or lines. Practicing a range of blossom profiles is good prep work for a classic lotus composition. Su-Sing Chow urges practicing all phases of the flower from closed bud, through growing bud, half-opened, to fully opened, partly faded and dropping petals, as well as in various profiles—facing left, right, up, down, forward or away.  Flower centers are painted when the petals have dried with thick yellow, highlighted with darker pollen.


In Nenagh’s workshop she showed three classic petal variations: white petals with pink wash tips, pink wash tips with red lines, pink wash tips with ink lines.


Far from realistic this flower has petals rendered three different ways–1 has red striations, 2 has darker pink petal tips, and 3 has ink striations. You would choose ONE style per composition.

2.  Leaves—new leaves are done with one or two strokes; they are not broken and typically the backs are darker than the fronts. Opened leaves show the greatest variations in color and posturing. They may have ripped along a vein or show other breaks and injuries.  Dramatic drooping or reactions to weather are desirable.  So too, withered shapes and coloring can be used for effect.  The curving lines that define lotus leaves seem to provide endless scope for directing the eye in a brush painting.

3.  Stems—most importantly one wants straight stems (one per leaf/bud/flower/seedpod) done with a light indigo-green mix and a round brush.  Start each stem with the first part of a bone stroke to enhance the connection. Paint in ‘pepper dots’ randomly dispersed in a darker green or ink when the stems are still damp. These dots represent tiny hairs on the stalks.

4.  Seedpods—stroke in the pod outside with dark green mixed with a little indigo; depict the inside with a lighter green. Some 20 oval seed protrude from the flat top of the cupule. This plant part can be visible in some open flowers and you paint it with a strong yellow green, covered with yellow stamens. Once petals have shed, the seedpod dries and turns brown. Dramatic effects can be achieved with various yellows, golds, burnt sienna, and browns in rendering lotus seedpods.


A variation on the classic flower is to wash the outsides of petals with a pale green wash and/or add lines. I like the contrast of black leaves here, but they blurred more than intended. A mountain hair brush helps to get the ‘flying white’ effect.

Lotus compositions:

The common guests for a host lotus include many of my favorite subjects:  kingfishers, dragonflies, mandarins, mallards, cranes/egrets and crested magpies.  (They are all in my queue for blog post subjects in the near future.)  Backgrounds to lotus paintings should not be neglected. They offer great opportunities for ‘playing with washes’ once a compositon has dried.  You brush dabs of clear water near items of interest and then dab color washes around and overlapping the wet areas.  If you have added fish then the background washing should portray watery depths; if your lotus stalks appear rising well above a pond surface then a suitable ‘sky’ or leafy shade is warranted.  Watching a skilled brush painter use clear water on lotus paintings can be hugely enlightening. I marvel every time.


I tried ‘pushing’ a grey background wash with clear water resist on this study. I think it would have been a good candidate for trying a golden-hued wash as in Rae’s book.

With its dramatic leaves and multiple vertical stems the lotus is a promising subject for a wall scroll hanging, and could well become my first experiment with that traditional manner of Chinese art display. Below are my first two vertical compositions in anticipation of trying a wall scroll.  I discovered many a ‘lesson’ in their execution and also obtained helpful critiques from several art friends.  Painting lotus could keep me occupied for months!

LotusScroll1 LotusScroll2

I can see that contemplation of the lotus does indeed encourage dreamy thoughts.  That the lotus dreams on its own would therefore not surprise me.

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

3 Responses to Lotus, the loveliest of flowers

  1. anjilu says:

    Barb, I sure love this in-depth look at the lotus. I saw lots of them growing while I was in Korea but wish now I’d paid closer attention. Your blog makes me want to focus on CBP and nothing else — maybe someday. Thanks!

  2. barbmek says:

    Thanks for your comments. The condo complex up the hill from where I live has an outdoor koi pond with lotus growing in it. They are indeed fascinating to study….and to paint.

  3. Pingback: Aquatic arsenal—painting water plants | followmybrushmarks

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