Adding life to a composition: go figure!

The role of jen-wu (jen = figures, wu = other living things) in CBP is so significant the subject warrants a full chapter or “Book” in the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (MSGM). This compendium of all relevant principles and practices regarding CBP compiled from 1679 onwards rapidly became the most widely used handbook on the subject. It should be on the bookshelf of every Chinese brush painter.

The main reason for adding figures to a painting is to impart “life” or vitality. A secondary one, somewhat related, is to create “movement”. For that reason people or animals are usually depicted “doing something”, whether that something is as simple as looking up (to carry the viewer’s eye into the skies or mountains) or more complex, such as executing a task like harvesting, weaving, playing an instrument, etc. And the location or placement of figures in CBP painting also warrants careful consideration. Creatures approach flowers or trees, flowers bend towards the sun, willows caress water surfaces, people gesture in a multitude of ways—all contributing to that sense of movement and life. (TOB and I recently acquired books for painting monkey and in one of her books there’s a composition of eight monkeys playing soccer; every single animal is energetically ‘into the game’.)

The MSGM’s introduction to the Book of Jen-wu informs us they “must be drawn well and with style, though not in too great detail. And they should, of course, fit the particular scene.” Another long-standing principle is that figures are drawn clothed and the garments of the Tang and Sung dynasty prevail. Tunics, loose-fitting robes, sashes, wooden or cloth shoes are all appropriate. The clothing also serves to convey relationships; assistants were often young boys and are shown in minimalist tunic-like garments, barefoot, and carrying objects; more important figures wear more generous robes with colored sashes and headgear, are shown seated or riding, and “attended” by others.


While I have encountered a few instruction books dedicated to beautiful women, and countless others to individual animals (ox, monkey, chicken, tiger, horse, etc.), I have yet to find any one resource for painting figures that surpasses the guidance of the following two handbooks:

1. The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting and its Book of Jen-wu provides about a hundred pages of line drawings of figures and objects gleaned from centuries of paintings. The principle of not showing facial features in tiny figures sometimes puzzles the western eye; editors explain: “Figures, even though painted without eyes must seem to look, without ears must seem to listen.” Amazing nuance can be achieved with slight thickening of the lines or subtle angles on body parts. Several months back I heard there are different printings of this volume, and one version more accurately conveys the line thicknesses. I am looking for it.

Here are a few typical small figure sketches I made based on pages from the MSGM:

My WuStudiesMSGM3My WuStudiesMSGM2

My WuStudiesMSGM

Near the beginning of the MSGM editors describe the style as hseih i, which translates as “write idea” or “giving the swiftly drawn impression of an idea.” They go on to say: eliminate details to achieve the simplest expression and the effect will be the most natural. There are things that ten hundred brushstrokes cannot depict but which can be captured by a few simple strokes if they are right. “ That is a big ‘if’.

2. The Hokusai Sketchbook, Selections from the Manga by James A. Michener is jam-packed with useful illustrations. The book jacket notes:

While the critics have often disagreed on the artistic value of the ‘Manga’—with judgments ranging all the way from ‘major art treasure’ and ‘worthy of Rembrandt’ to “an outpouring of sketches lacking organization or meaning’—the art lovers of the world, no less than the man in the street (for whom Hokusai worked) have felt the supreme vitality and life-loving force of the sketches and have always delighted in the fifteen volumes of the book.

I’m with the art lovers of the world; it is indeed as much a treasure as the sketchbooks of da Vinci, Delacroix, Picasso, and others we in the west may be more familiar with. There is much to be learned about linework in this sketchbook, no matter what subjects you favor. Again, I am hoping to someday see the full volumes of the original sketchbook, not just Michener’s edited version.

HokusaiBK2     NMsFatLady

My WuStudiesFatAbove is a page from the Hokusai sketchbook showing numerous fat people bathing and doing laundry.  Next is a sample Nenagh painted to show us technique.  The last one is my attempt at the exercise.  Do note Nenagh’s much more effective control of line and color. It is fascinating watching her ‘magic brush’ at work.

Among the most widely reproduced sketches from the book are those showing ‘fat men and thin men’. Hokusai apparently was fascinated by unusual subjects. The annotations are quite helpful in drawing attention to details and nuances lost in cultural differences, such as objects being carried or significance of placements and clothing.

3. An additional resource helpful to a beginner is Jane Dwight’s The Chinese Brush Painting Bible. It devotes ten pages to commonly used figures such as a traveler, a musician, a wood-gatherer, and so on.


Basic techniques for painting figures:

1. Use a soft wolf brush and light ink to outline a figure. Think ‘quick light sketch’ or borrow the MSGM’s concept of ‘write idea’.

2.   Go over with dark ink, stroking all lines on the same side of the outlines. You want the blackest ink for this, and those who grind their own as opposed to using bottled ink, have an advantage with the wet control. Study sketches to learn how best to use “thick and thin’ lines to convey dimensions. This is a hugely important concept to grasp when painting figures. (One workshop handout I acquired shows 17 different line methods of doing this thick and thin business for clothing!)

3. Mix a little indigo with colors and fill in areas with medium/light washes.

Stroke clothing in the direction of fabric flow; strive for darker values to convey folds and depth. Don’t worry about white as it enhances the look when dry. This is another important concept to understand fully; Nenagh demonstrated applying clear water to parts of figures in order that the color wash would be repelled from certain parts. Learning to reserve judgment or criticism and proceed confidently can be very challenging, but rewarding. It is one of those processes that yields better results when you just ‘go with the flow’.

4. For skin tone use burnt sienna and yellow; be careful NOT to paint flesh too yellow.

5. Spritz the ground/sky in spots and add clear or light washes.

Here are two studies of figures I painted some time ago based on a composition called “Blind Men’s Enjoyment” by Wang Yiting.

My WuStudies01 My WuStudies02

And this week I tried this one based on a Qi Baishi figure.  My thick and thin lines are improving, as is judgment of the right flesh tone.  That’s a tricky thing to do in CBP as ink dries  lighter in tone, and results vary with the paper used.   Getting colors to behave in CBP has its challenges. Red and yellow colors are bad for bleeding, indigo color from chips sometimes get grainy, and good purples are hard to find or mix.

My WuStudies03

Art Galleries are for surprises:

While I was working on my figure studies Bird Woman suggested I take in the current show at our local art gallery. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria has an extensive Asian art collection and curator Barry Till had pulled together yet another great show featuring landscape paintings. Additionally, tucked away in the Pollard room at the back of the gallery was a showing featuring Chinese and Japanese scrolls portraying different mythical and legendary figures. I was stunned to find such an amazing collection of larger than life, real brush paintings by Chinese master painters practically in my own backyard.  So inspiring!

I scribbled down artist’s names and studied them intently, then rushed home to my friend Google. Two artists whose work I admired are deemed masters of figure painting—Xu Le Le and Wang Yiting. One painting that stood out was about four feet tall and six feet wide showing a mythical demon-slayer (Zhong Kui) smugly sitting opposite a pathetic skinny green creature with a game board between them. On researching the subject I learned the artist (Fan Zeng) has painted hundreds of images of the demon-slayer, many also showing the creepy green demon, some with Zhong Kui flashing his sword about.

He cuts a swash-buckling figure with his dark black beard and bushy eyebrows, high boots and red robe. Sometimes he is shown ‘between jobs’ slaying demons, as it were, astride another of my favorite subjects, the trusty donkey. What joy to find a website showing hundreds of poster images of Zhong Kui; in China it is customary to hang one on your walls at New Year to disperse evil spirits.  You can try this one at home: drop <Zhong Kui images> into a search engine and see the abundance of dashing figures.  What a perfect subject for more afternoons at my art table. Goodbye evil spirits!


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