For some time now I have concentrated on ‘decomposing’ acclaimed CBP compositions in order to learn more about how they are composed, or put together. I read what I can (curses on not learning Chinese as a child!) and then try and see how the principles were applied in a particular painting.
I try not to think of all those bad jokes (Tourist guide: …and over there is Mozart, our country’s greatest composer. Dumb Tourist: oh, really? What’s he doing these days? Guide: decomposing.) while gazing studiously on subjects I find pleasing. I like most animals–cats, pandas, monkeys, and horses in particular. Some elements of landscapes appeal to me—the misty mountain peaks, distant waterfalls, the different species of trees, willow and pine most of all. Then there’s figure painting; it truly fascinates.
A recent find in a used bookstore was The Great Painters of China by Max Loeher with two full chapters on figure painting. The genre saw its heyday roughly from 600 to 900 AD and several master painters back then developed techniques still being unraveled by those of us who think and stare, and stare and think some more.
Always drawn to a good story, I was pleased to learn of an outstanding wall mural referred to as Procession of Court Ladies, from Shensai Provincial Museum. It was painted in about 706 in the tomb of one Princess Yung-t’ai and discovered only as recently as 1960. The book includes a grainy image of two panels of the mural, which depicts 16 life size ‘ladies in waiting’ who attend their princess for all eternity.
Yung-t’ai was the seventh daughter of one Emperor Chung tsung and granddaughter of the Empress Wu who reigned from 684-705. The story is that the sixteen-year-old princess and her young husband were overheard scoffing at the Empress’ lovers. Gramma Wu apparently called them to task in the courtyard and either had them executed or commanded them to kill themselves. When gramma passed on a few years later, the despairing daddy now in charge arranged for a sumptuous reburial of his unfortunate daughter in an elaborate under-ground, multi-roomed burial chamber. And fortunately for those of us who admire figure painting, he enlisted the talents of several accomplished artists to adorn the walls.
My book describes them:
…proceeding down the corridor, one passes a group of soldiers, then a long green dragon (guardian animal of the east), a palace tower, five groups of five soldiers and their leader, a spear rack, then two horses with their grooms. The head of one of the soldiers in the fifth group is turned toward the grooms. With firm, broad, somewhat sketchy strokes the painter has drawn the portrait-like face of a robust, self-assured, dependable male with attractive features, large eyes, and a steady gaze.
Most important is the mural on the east wall of the antechamber, depicting a procession of beautiful young women. In groups of seven and nine they approach from left and right, as if in attendance upon an imaginary visitor at a ceremonial gathering. The figures, drawn life-size, are very slender, of noble carriage, and individualized. Their postures suggest a slow, solemn movement. Like statuary they are isolated and cleverly disposed on the ground plane, which is manipulated with surprising finesse.
Even though images in the book are of poor quality, the individuality of the ladies is obvious. Their interactions along the procession are carefully thought out, and the creator’s masterful use of line is readily apparent. I felt strongly motivated to try and paint such a procession of my own to see what I could learn in the process. For a change my urge was to ‘compose’ rather than take a painting apart to learn its secrets.
Evolution of a painting: my palace pretties
Step 1: I photocopied the two grainy images and butted them together to make a panel of 16 ladies in waiting.
Step 2: I hunted online for better images of the mural. (I also learned the drama of royally decreed suicides for Yung-t’ai and her teen-age husband was likely a myth. The more likely scenario, reported by one source addressing the archeological significance of the tomb and its murals, is that the young woman died in childbirth; the story is so much better!) Available images were of less assistance than I had hoped. A few replica paintings showed up, but nothing truly exemplary. I turned back to study my grainy photocopy and started to sketch with pencil and paper.
Step 3: Somewhat satisfied with my rough sketch, I overlaid a sheet of rice paper and started painting my ladies from left to right, using a detail brush and light ink. I removed the guide from underneath and re-did the figures using dark ink. Knowing full well this first stab at a procession was far from satisfactory (some heads were mis-proportioned, the dresses were all too similar, the girls on the far right got too tall and others crowded their neighbors.) But…I needed to practice judging the right mix for skin tone, how to blush the cheeks, and what to do with the draping of their clothes. I pushed on, applying colors.
Step 4: On reflection, that first effort had some merit—girls in a line, some good features such as hair combs, interactions, and good skin tone. BUT…my girls were too western looking, their waistlines weren’t high enough to suggest kimonos, they didn’t come across as “slender” as per the mural description, the folds in their dresses looked like gathered ‘dirndl’ cotton skirts not silk gowns. Some of their toes poked out in wrong places, and those darn girls on the right had grown a few inches.
I put a piece of medical paper over my painting and penciled a NEW sketch, moving the images up and down to try and get better placement and proportions for my ladies in waiting. I concentrated on more Asian-looking faces. I made a mental note to plan to do the pursed lips in red. I re-assigned some of the objects they were holding, the props that enhance a good stage play or TV set. I moved their waists up and gave a few more of them shawls.
Studying the dress in the grainy book image, I spied what looked like camisole tops peeking out from some of the tops, I discovered a plan to the distribution of gathers in the skirts (some even had bows on their hips facilitating tabard-like, over-skirts. I wasn’t keen on the up-turned toes to their old-style footwear (they looked like huge Nordic ski tips) but did like the sweep of ample skirts ‘piling’ around feet or pulled/pushed to the side by the figure’s movement.
Step 5: I used my sketch as a guide under a piece of rice paper for painting # 2. Much better. Still some shortcomings: a little crowding of hands in one threesome, too similar poses for several in a row. Really bad hair, and too large noggins on a few. More improvements: Asian-looking faces, higher waists and slimmer models with interesting shawls, skirts, props. The dress folds, although better, showed that I had slipped away from the three-step CBP technique into a more traditional western watercolor method halfway across the page. (Oh horrors, do stop and review my basic figure-painting procedures!)
In a few places the reds and yellows ‘bled,’ and despite remedial efforts of wetting, scrubbing, and blotting, the painting was ‘going sour’ for me. I realized one girl would have to settle for a white gown (had to use white to fill in her shoulder and upper arm where I mistakenly had over-painted the shawl of a young lady clearly behind her, not in front). All would not be lost—I could use this version to test possible background treatments.
Such a composition required something other than a white background, but what? Because I wanted a range of colors in the dresses, and I had 16 girls to consider, more color on the walls seemed wrong, too busy. Then I remembered the effects achieved with a recently acquired BIF brush. It has a blend of bristles arranged over a rather wide, round ferrule, kind of like a complex stencil brush. You load carefully and stab at paper, leaving a great textured effect for tree foliage or furry appendages like bunny tails, monkey limbs, and so on. I used it to suggest the rough texture of what I imagined would be the large anteroom in a palace having stucco walls. I determined a pale terracotta, basic beige bland, or pale aqua washed over the softly inked roughness would be right.
Step 6: One last reflection: re-arrange some limbs for variety, maybe dump one girl who kept crowding in, scale down two more faces that kept growing, cut back on hair combs, add some interest out front (a dog? A monkey?), and remember the proper steps to rendering dress folds: lightly ink, over paint with dark ink in thick/thin lines to show folds and edges, use water and light washes tinged down with indigo for coloring in, touch up.
Ta da! A last I had a composition worthy of gluing and perhaps matting. In the end I scrapped the idea of a textured background, opting instead for some simple grey tones to suggest shadows on the floor.
The skin tones on my final composition were a little darker than desirable, but the colors didn’t run away on me. I happened to have some mauve matting stashed under my art table that worked well with my soft silk dresses; all it needed was a black inner border to bring out the dark ink lines in the painting. My girls were ready to parade.
Oh, Princess Yung-t’ai, I thank you for the inspiration of your ladies and the lessons in figure painting. Someday I’d really liked to visit your tomb in person.