What is old is new. Last summer I discovered the Saturn or ‘flat peach’ in a produce display at my local supermarket. What I presumed to be a recent mutation or genetically modified creation apparently is one of the oldest varieties on earth, dating back some 3000 years!
And like most peaches now cultivated around the world, the Saturn, aka doughnut, hat or saucer peach, originated in China. Other terms for it include: paraguayo peach, pan tao peach, belly-up peach, and UFO peach. Along with its cousin the honey peach, it also has a lengthy history in Chinese legends and folklore.
Peach inspired tales and customs
While I could not find a clear and concise telling of any one ‘peachy’ folktale, I did trip over numerous references to various tales, all of which conferred the delicious drupe with powers of longevity, sometimes even immortality. These tales reminded me of our own European-based stories involving geese that lay golden eggs.
Some tales refer to a Peach Tree of the Gods, which bloomed only once every 3000 years, yielding the fruits of eternal life. These illustrious fruits granted health, virility and immortality to those who ate of the fruit. Then there are references to a Queen of the West who tends the garden and holds banquets where she serves the choice fruit to deserving visitors.
Some tales link partaking of peaches to stories about the Eight Immortals and are documented in a 1922 book called The Myths and Legends of China. Author Edward T.C. Werner tells us the peach is considered the most sacred plant of the Chinese Taoist religion. And today the peach is customarily served at birthday celebrations in China as a symbol and hope of longevity, while peach-shaped pastries have a traditional role in certain celebrations.
Simmilarily, a Japanese folktale features the peach as a coveted treasure. It tells of a beloved child born of a large peach who grew up surrounded by the love and devotion of his foster parents. When the child matured to manhood, he contested the demons on the Island of the Devils, winning their treasure for his destitute, beloved foster parents.
I chose the peach as a painting subject because one method for rendering realistic peach skin involves a tricky three-color brush load; a three-color brush load had proved helpful in playing with freestyle lotus leaves. Brush loading is one aspect to CBP I find endlessly fascinating. Dipping parts of a brush into colors in a certain way, applying the strokes in yet another determined fashion, and doing this in the most simplistic manner imaginable, resulting in a tonally correct and fully rounded fruit amazes me. With peaches you want to get a fully rounded fruit with a slight tip at one end, some rosy blushing on the curvy parts, a suggestion of the two halves of a peach with a curved indentation almost from stem to blossom end, and a light greenish hue depositing where the stem emerges.
1. While exploring lotus I tripped over several striking peach basket compositions by master painter Qi Baishi that had great appeal.
2. Rifling through my growing CBP library I found an excellent six-page instruction in Fruits, (one of four volumes in a set) by Johnson Susing Chow.
3. And finally Henry Li of Heron Arts on Youtube how to paint flat or donut peach.
Painting a peach:
My several inspirations approached peach painting in different ways. While I liked the striking colors of Qi Baishi, and the fascinating brush loading of Henry Li, instructions in the Susing Chow book were more detailed with illustrations of steps. I noticed that Susing Chow refers to Qi Baishi in his Overview, citing the master’s “simple and child-like style” as one of his inspirations.
Also in the Overview Susing Chow asserts that painting of fruits should be based on life sketches. He quotes a centuries old painting manual: fallen fruits are easier to draw than fruits in the branches. Fruits in detached branches are easier to draw than fruits in the orchards. And further, in the painting of fruits there are three different levels of execution. Fallen fruits could be arranged at will; the artist has only to pay attention to the form and color. For fruits in a detached branch, the artist has to know the form and appearance of the leaves and stems, and how to use them to complement the fruits in the composition, whether the arrangement is to be dense or scattered, whether the fruits are to be exposed or covered. For fruits in the orchard, the artist has to observe how the fruit grows, and to depict the general pattern and appearance.
In his introduction to the peach, Susing Chow explains why he prefers the multi-loaded brush in rendering life-like fruit. He notes that layering color upon color “...destroys the freshness and the natural texture of the fruit. Whether the size is big or small, two brush strokes only are used for each fruit. The resulting peach looks natural and un-contrived. The fruit skin is full of lustre, with at the same time, a sense of hairiness.” (For much the same reason Henry Li advocates using a mineral green as one of the three-part brush load he employs in rendering his Saturn peaches in the Youtube video mentioned above.)
Susing Chow illustrates painting two different peach compositions—one shows the fruit hanging in a tree branch while the other is a detached branch. For the first he starts with the leaves and then adds the fruit; for the second (detached branch) he starts with the fruit and adds the foliage around it. Another distinction is that his detached branch has the fruit pointing upwards, whereas in the first composition the fruit are hanging downwards as they would in a tree. As my ultimate goal was to complete a larger composition of monkeys in a peach tree, I opted to follow Susing Chow’s directions for peaches in a tree.
1. Create leaves using a large brush dipped in grassy green and single strokes. While still damp stroke in veins with detail brush and dark green or ink.
2. Use a slightly dry brush with ink to define branches; you want them to look firm and sturdy.
3. Outline peaches with very light ink. The stem end is round whereas the blossom end is slightly pointy. You can suggest the distinctive marking where the half peach splits. Hide some peaches under leaves.
4. Color the peach using brush dipped in yelow and tipped with orange. Half ripe peaches are greener near the stem end.
5. Tidy up the composition with branches/leaves as needed to achieve a dense, leafy look with fruit pointing down.
Idiosyncrasies of peach painting:
Peach painting led me back to one of my favorite subjects, namely the monkey. A monkey is often portrayed with peaches and seems to have acquired the symbolism of ‘longevity’ by association with the fruit. Mind you, in some of those compositions the fruits appear relatively large. Keeping in mind that in CBP artists often render significant objects proportionately larger in order to accentuate their importance, the fruits could indeed be treasured peaches from the ‘longevity tree’. On the other hand, the larger fruits could also be grapefruit, a common food of some species of monkey.
Among CBP compositions by masters of a bygone era peach leaves appear to be executed in two different ways—from the stem end to the tip and from the tip to the stem end. Leaf tips sometimes appear rounded. While the botanical term for their shape is ‘lanceolate’ meaning long and pointed, the leaves apparently curl with age or disease. I’d hate to think the longevity tree had fungus!
I was happier with these compositions where the peaches are secondary subjects than with the stand alone fruit in the studies above.
Research into all things peachy coincided with the arrival of one of my foodie magazines which had a feature article by a California peach grower. I now look forward to another peach season, armed with several enticing recipes (Bellinis for brunch, anyone?) and a keen desire to wander local gardens to shoot photos of peach leaves and paint, paint, paint.