Happy spirit, gateway to spring: the orchid

Taking time to practice the Four Gentlemen has always been my aim; my introductory lessons in CBP taught me their execution employs all that you need to know in this art form.   Ah, but mastering those four subjects—bamboo, orchid, plum blossom, and chrysanthemum—can take a lifetime, or two.   The one that beckons me most often is the orchid.

My resources:

Instructions for painting orchid abound. I am fortunate to have several excellent books in my library, each with its own merit.

1. Book of the Orchid, volume two in the set titled The Fundamentals of Chinese Floral Painting by Johnson Su Sing-Chow is an excellent choice for those who want to study orchid in all painting styles—moku and outline, plus variations. (Do get the set if you can!)

2. Fundamental Chinese Painting of Plum, Orchid, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum compiled by Liang Yin Boone is detailed and well illustrated.

3. Chinese Brush Painting, an instructional guide by Ning Yeh devotes two lessons to orchid, an indication of its importance in learning this intriguing art form. His ‘boo-boo’ sheets that clearly show what NOT to do, are most helpful.

4. Chinese Painting in Four Seasons by Leslie Tseng-Tseng Yu addresses monochrome studies only; it is good at explaining steps.

5. The Mustard Seed Garden Manual has good background on masters of the orchid (including women) and justification for its prominence in the CBP world. While instructions may seem ultra prescriptive when compared to the other resources, the manual is based on time-honored methods and well worth a look.

6. The How and Why of Chinese Painting by Diana Kan. As referenced in the title, her instructions explain why she places the flowers first, and how they are placed with reference to one another. (Ning Yeh also explains a bit of that blossom orientation theory in his guide, using a teamwork metaphor with forward, centre and guard positions.) While most books address orchid compositions starting with the leaves, Kan prefers to start with the flowers, passing on the teaching she got from Chang Dai-chien, that lotus-painting ‘phenom’ discussed in an earlier blog.


Fascination with the orchid:

Recalling how a single, night-blooming hoya I once had could send perfume lofting through an entire four-bedroom house, I can relate to those who admire the tiny grass orchid for its scent. Renowned Chinese philosopher Confucius named the orchid the King of Fragrance. Factor in the delicate curving shapes and grassy leaves, and you’ve got instant appeal. The ancients were particularly in awe of its simplicity of form.

That very simplicity, writes Ning Yeh, makes it one of the most difficult subjects to master, since every flaw is painfully obvious. He, like other writers, waxes poetic when describing this tiny subject: “It chooses its hermitage in the most spiritual places in nature, where mountain is embraced by the mists or rocks by roaring stream. To sit with an orchid is a scholarly pursuit with long tradition, one that inspires purity and simplicity.”

Some folklore:

Long ago, writes Yeh, a famous poet called Ch’u Yuan wore an orchid in his lapel to set himself apart from the corrupted ministers of his day. In the year 278, on the fifth day of the fifth moon, he drowned himself in political protest of sorts. The locals ran down to the water to try to salvage his body, beating gongs to scare evil spirits and throwing offerings into the river. Thus was the origin of today’s colorful and noisy Dragon Boat festivals.  The one in my home city is held each August and is lots of fun.

How ironic that such a symbol of purity, peace and beauty should lead to boisterous and rousing water sport, a far cry from solitary and spiritual contemplation. I suspect were I to complete a near perfect orchid painting I’d be jumping up and down, imbibing, and ‘making a joyful noise’ indeed.

Two kinds of orchid—the lan and the hui

You will know them by their looks. The simple distinction between the two commonly painted Chinese orchid species—the grass orchid and the marsh orchid–is in the number of blossoms per stem, height of stem, leaves per clump, and blooming time. The MSGM mentions a third, the Fukian orchid.

The grass orchid or ts’ao lan (often just lan) holds but one delicate bloom above up to seven leaves; painting this variety in groupings of staggered rows is common. The marsh orchid or hui lan (often just hui) has several blooms, usually in varying growth stages with the tightest buds near the outmost end of the stalk, and up to eleven leaves per clump.

Both grow near water and are often painted with rocks. The flowers can be virtually any color, my favorite being the delicate pink or the oddly colored greenish ones.   (Do note you will rarely see a hui orchid with four blooms; the Chinese word for four sounds like the word for death and that number is avoided unless for commemorative purposes,)

I hunted for images of these two kinds of wild orchids in their natural habitat; here’s a link to the Orchid Garden of Guangzhou, the most representative I could find.

If we could observe them in their natural settings, the lan blooms in early spring and the hui later into the summer. Like a few other students of CBP, I tried to find photographic images and determine the scientific names of these sprightly subjects. I suspect ‘romanticizing’ of the orchid through art and poetry may have contributed to some of the lack of surety about which precise species of orchid is in the limelight here.

There is agreement on the genus name—Cymbidium—but then opinions differ on the species. One artist/botanist concluded C. goeringii is the grass orchid and C. ensifolium is the marsh or multi-flowered variety. When I read this description at Botanyboy.org I figured there are additional reasons for the lack of certainty: 1. One species can bloom in a range of colors—cream, yellow, pink, mauve, indigo, green. After all there are variants to a species.   2. Much hybridizing and plant breeding has gone on over centuries and these were wild plants that intermingled considerably on their own to start with. (Botanyboy has a wonderful 14 minute video on that linked page, and at about the 12-minute point he not only shows us our C. goeringii in its natural habitat BUT pronounces the name!  Thank you Botanyboy.)

And do keep in mind; brush painters were intent on portraying the spirit of the plant, not necessarily the true botanical features. I can easily see that once you note the two inner petals can resemble praying hands, you’ll enhance the idea. And when you see how ‘dancing your brush’ from one to two and then three of the little dots at the ‘heart’ of the flower mimics the idea of unity and co-joining, the reality of separate bits is well, ‘gone with the wind’.

In checking that I had the lan vs. hui naming correct, I discovered there is some controversy over ancient use of the term lan, thought to be used to pertain to any single-stalked, fragrant, wild flower of ancient China. The MSGM supports this theory, saying ‘lan’ included orchids, irises, artemisia and cassia. I also learned that orchid cultivation in China is as old as the emulation in painting. I was amused to read an online description for repotting root-bound orchids that advised plants would get lonely if expected to exist without companions in a container. It’s not just in brush painting that the Chinese consider the spiritual nature of plants.


The grass orchid is a symbol of the yin virtue, the ultimate spirit of female grace. In fact, some of the most admired paintings of orchid in Chinese art history were painted by women. The MSGM provides several names of master painters, including numerous courtesans from different eras.

We are advised to paint orchid when in a calm and tranquil mood; this correlates with the advice to paint bamboo when agitated or angry.   Allegedly one is more likely to achieve just the right mix of confident firmness and a light, feathery touch to execute the sweeping, graceful curves of the dominant leaves when calm. In all my books the writers comment on the orchid’s happy, cheerful, carefree nature. Kan adds that it is a small humble plant, unlike the showy, ostentatious variety we know in the west. My adjective of choice would be ‘elegant’. These three are all said to be C. goeringii.

C.GoeringiiBenitemari C.GoeringiiKohakuden CgoeringiiGreen

Plant anatomy (grass orchid):

There are five elements to painting an orchid, six if you wish to show the root as they did in the Ch’ing dynasty. The petals, stamens, stem, sheath and leaves all require some study before you put the elements together.

There are five petals, with two at the centre clasped like close parenthesis marks. Kan describes the flower as a ‘gesturing hand’, beckoning you to come and look at spring. Yeh describes the outer petals as a set of propellers surrounding the central two. All acknowledge that each petal displays in unique ways. Botany Bob’s petal descriptions actually support these concepts.

The stamens can be considered in botanical terms (both male and female parts) but the artistic ones are more appealing. Chinese artists consider them as three ‘happy dots’ and many connect them in a calligraphic manner, reflecting their spiritual oneness. The MSGM notes their form is the same as that for the character shan which means mountain. Another recent publication on CBP by Mei Ruo says the Chinese character for heart does entail three similar dots, and I had to check that out…


Chinese character for ‘heart’

The stem is perpendicular to the flower base and holds it up from the leafy tuft, taller in the hui (many flowers) than in the lan (one flower per stem).   Strokes have been developed to capture its sectional look and manner for bending.

The sheath is a protective wrapping around each growth section; it is an artist’s friend in that you can ‘mess with it’ to conceal or rescue an awkwardly stroked stem.

And lastly there’s the leaves or blades. Each one must take on a distinctive look and purpose in a well-presented orchid. I’ve heard several poetic descriptions of leaf roles. Yeh says consider them as a group of fishes looking for the same food. My first instructor said they represent family members—the first you depict is the father (strong and tall), the second is a mother (leaning next to father and perhaps reaching away or embracing a child, and so on. At our last workshop with Nenagh she provided a handout with names for numerous leaf strokes—rat-tail, moose tail, grasshopper belly. I have read similar guides to bamboo leaf clusters, and I rue the lack of Chinese language skills. The MSGM has more on the naming of blade strokes and principles for placement.

Choosing a style:

Whether you paint in monochrome ink or color, and depending on the major style you prefer–boneless (also called spontaneous, freestyle and moku) or detail (outline, elaborate) style—there are many principles to keep in mind. Just to complicate things further some artists have developed variations involving outlined flowers with freestyle leaves, as well as freestyle flowers with outlined leaves.

And finally, among the outline methods Su-Sing Chow advances differences in results if you outline leaves then color, or color and then outline.   For my initial studies I will go with moku (that is boneless or freestyle) in ink only, i.e. monochrome. I will also note key principles involved at each stage; they have been gleaned from the several sources noted above, at least two wonderful workshops with accomplished local artist Nenagh Molson, beginner lessons years ago, and on-going study of artful creations.   With such a huge body of information, narrowing my focus becomes even more essential. For now my aim is to depict one flower (maybe add a bud or two), one stem, one sheath, and five leaves in a typical composition.

Order of painting:

1. leaves

2. flowers

3. stem

4. sheath

5. stamens


Painting Leaves:

Habits that can result in better orchids are all about being ‘straight’ says Ning Yeh: sit straight, hold your head straight, your brush straight, your body straight AND strive to keep your heart straight, i.e. concentrate and be sincere.

Use a soft sheep brush loaded with dark ink, tip off your brush, wipe the excess moisture from the brush heel and then prepare to place the first leaf. Visualize its trajectory and use your whole arm. Doing practice strokes in the air before touching down can be helpful.   Other tips I’m trying to consider as I strive for ‘calmness’:

–begin each stroke at the root; vary the ‘height’ of the starting point

–keep the brush tip in the centre of the stroke

–‘hide’ the tip of the stroke at the beginning with a slight ‘backstroke’

–each stroke starts with medium or no pressure, increase slightly so the blade widens, release and then resume pressure two or three times per blade

–breaks or flying white is okay, even desirable; keep the brush moving in the same direction and let the blade continue naturally along the same arc

–end with a tapering point and ‘follow through’ with the brush in the air

–think of the first stroke as the host or a leader that sets the direction for the group of leaves

–learn to create leaves in right-leaning as well as left-leaning poses.

–visualize the second blade as arcing sooner and crossing the first to form a ‘phoenix eye’. The pleasing space between the two resembles the smiling eye of an opera singer or the mythical bird for which it is named says Ning Yeh.

–a third blade should follow the first for a bit and then head upwards to provide height to the composition; it should ‘break’ the eye.

–fourth and fifth strokes tuck in on either side of the first three; these are usually painted as ‘moose-tail’ strokes.

–the sweeping strokes to left or right can be made as ‘grasshopper or mantis belly’ strokes, ie. have a straight edge on the top and bulgy or rounded on the lower edge.

–study how ‘bent’ blades are achieved with a change of direction

–strive to recreate the clusters in instructional books before breaking out on your own.

–practice left-leaning, right-leaning, and downward sloping clusters

–avoid the no-nos that result in displeasing shapes: railroad track or parallel blades, tic-tac-toe clusters made with two blades crossing two blades, blades all starting on a level, too small or too large phoenix eyes, a loose bottom, a too tight bottom, picket fence look, three blades crossing at one point to look like chicken feet, blades ending at a similar height, identical wings.   Ning Yeh’s book has good visuals for all of these!  Here’s some of my better blade studies from the last month, starting with the old ‘phoenix eye’…

OrchidStudies-2bladesOrchidStudiesLeaves OrchidStudiesLeaves2


Think of the flowers as having two kinds of petals—two in the centre like clasped hands that are not mirror-images, and three surrounding them. Most of us need to practice these two kinds of strokes (a lot) to master the right pressure, brush-loading, and placement. A detail brush that holds its point is best. Load it with light ink, remove the excess from the back and tip in dark ink. Aim each stroke toward an imaginary single point that eventually sits atop your stem. The outer petals have conventional shapes—new moon, reverse s-curve, and s-curve. Again, there are undesirable no-nos—rabbit ear look, horn-like petals, two much bending, crossed starting points or ‘fishes colliding’, imbalance in petal size.

Despite hours of practice, I’m a long way from satisfied with my ‘petal bursts’.  I do love playing with the double-load for color variations–such fun!

OrchidStudiesfleurs OrchidStudiesFleurs2

Stem and Sheath:

Each of my books approaches these parts in interesting ways. Yeh says “the stem needs to carry out the wish of the flower or the flower will have a very sore neck”. Indeed, the placement and direction of the stem needs to look natural despite your plant being tossed in the wind. Think spring breezes here, not the wintry March blasts we know in most parts of Canada!

You paint the stem in sections, using a long ‘bone’ stroke (pause slightly and/or pull backwards at each juncture). The ink should be lighter than that used in petals and often you can simply use up what’s left in the brush after doing the flower.

The sheath is done with one or two strokes, either moving away or toward the base, right at the bottom of the stem. This element is your one ‘little helper’ to pull a stem into place, blend over a boo-boo, or provide needed interest where lines seem to be running too much the same way.

The stamens:

I first learned these last marks as three separate dark little ticky-strokes (the kind you use to create pine cones) but have since discovered they can have a major role as the true ‘heart’ of the orchid; like adding the eye to a dragon gives it life so too the stamens on an orchid define its spirit. Think of them like the eyes of a beautiful woman says one author, and consider the right angle, placement and relationship to each other for the greatest effect.

You don’t want to ‘stuff’ them in, or place them too evenly or far out, or get them too blotchy, too large, and so on.   In reality, when you get a composition safely through to this stage (ready to add the happy dots), meaning the blades, flowers, stems and sheath are ALL pleasing to the eye, you’ll be feeling quite ready for a little “voila” with three quick little finishing jabs of your brush. How perfect an ending.

Putting the elements together—a composition:

Before you can even consider whether you are going to be a leaves-first or flowers-first painter, you need to grasp how the parts make a whole. And then think about how flowers should sit in order to be seen between blades. The lan orchid with its single flower per stem makes sense as a first project.   There are so many choices to consider in the realm of orchid-painting. And I’ve read that the ancients employed chanting poetry that described the process to aid in developing a proper rhythm for working with the brush. Amazing that such a tiny subject gets so much attention. It certainly has mine.

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This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, flowers, painting orchid, the four gentlemen. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Happy spirit, gateway to spring: the orchid

  1. Pingback: Back to Basics 3: plum blossom (part 1) | followmybrushmarks

  2. Pingback: Frill-seeking me, painting a western orchid (cattleya) | followmybrushmarks

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