Banana or plantain: leafy wonder

My Happy Buddha studies prompted me to take a second look at the banana leaf. We did a workshop on them almost two years ago and I really didn’t play much with it then. Most of the compositions in my Happy Buddha book showed him beside, under, or near a banana ‘tree’. Knowing that most elements placed in a CBP composition are there for a purpose, I was on the alert for any hints as to the role of the banana. My initial reading led nowhere.  And then one of my art groups re-visited the banana leaf in a workshop with friend and mentor Nenagh Molson.

My resources:

  1. Workshop notes from two years ago, plus the recent refresher.
  2. One book (Chinese edition) titled “Cockscomb and Plantain: traditional Chinese Painting Techniques” which features the banana leaf and a red-tufted flower I’ve heard called celosia. The author artist was identified in the order as Zhang Ji Xin.
  3. Miscellaneous images of banana leaf compositions collected over time.

Symbolism and characteristics:

My big book on Chinese motifs by C.A.S.Williams holds that the plant is emblematic of ‘self-education’, the association stemming from an old tale about a scholar who ran out of rice paper and turned to plantain leaves for his writing practice sheets. I have yet to see this in writing, but no doubt our little ‘buddha’ who represents self-enlightenment, hangs out around banana or plantain trees for their affinity with the similar concept.   One of my workshop handouts was a composition showing a scholar writing on a plantain leaf under the shade of a few tall plants.

Williams also points out that next to the sago palm, the banana is prized among the Chinese for its food value, as well as shade and ornamental pleasure. Subtle differences between what is a banana or a plantain seem to exist, but for most of us ‘banana’ implies edible. It grows very rapidly in warm weather and can soar to 15 or 20 feet at maturity. It has a short, tough trunk or shaft, and prefers to grow in moist earth. The older leaves dry back with fresh green shoots arising from the stem centre, hence the resemblance of the plant to a giant tassel facing upwards and splaying outwards. Dozens of ‘baby’ plants spring up at the base of an older one, from the many seeds that drop with fruit to the ground. Online research confirmed there’s no consensus on what is banana as opposed to plantain.

Although they grow as high as trees, banana plants are not woody and their apparent “stem” is made up of the bases of the huge leaf stalks. Thus, they are technically gigantic herbs. The original botanical naming as Musea supientum apparently has changed along with hybridizing and selection processes done mostly to perfect those marketed for human consumption. There are reputedly over 300 edible varieties, including the widely cultivated musa acuminata we tend to call “the banana”Another source says the most commonly cultivated variety is called  Cavendish.

All related varieties display similar cascading leaf patterns that can contribute sweeping arcs in a painting. The blooms and hanging fruit are not commonly featured. Banana leaves are typically painted with insects or birds perched on or under them, or with certain flowers such as roses and chrysanthemums.

Nenagh told us of an Hawaiian proverb that states “man is like the banana plant: once his life’s work is done, he dies.” The association no doubt refers to the fact the banana plant dies once it fruits. Hunting for a more poetic capsule statement of that concept I found more island lore regarding bananas here.

Lucky for me Victoria sometimes includes banana plants in city boulevard beds and several robust examples are on display near my home.  I was able to get shots of the stalk, variations in leaf structures, old and new leaves, and some good close-ups of the veined leaves  with ruffles and pleats in unusual patterns:

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Painting banana leaves:

My workshop notes include these pointers:

1.  Whether monochromatic or colored, moku or spontaneous,  paint in the same order of 1. central vein 2. leaf edges 3. side veins.

2.  Leave the central vein of a leaf white, or paint a lighter shade of green if using color. It should be dominant.

3.  Tops of leaves are dark green, undersides appear lighter (same as in lotus).

4.  New shoots at the top are pale green.

5.  While your leaves are still damp, over-paint indigo down each dark vein marking; let the indigo blend into the green flesh of the leaf.

6.  Older leaves are dry (yellowed, browned) and split along the side veins; newer ones are intact but wavy, and of a fresher color.

7.  Employ thick and thin lines for the wavy edges to convey forward edges (thin) and receding (thick)

My studies:

Typically banana leaves are painted in one of the two basic styles: 1. moku (outline) or 2. spontaneous (freestyle). The moku style may be executed in either monochrome (ink shades) or color (yellow, green, brown mixes). I started with outline studies from my new book to get a feel for the plant parts; here’s a few:


  1. Moku with color. Outline the main vein and then leaf edges and side veins with a detail brush dipped in ink. When dry, apply a simple light green wash using a wide soft brush; then while damp over-paint vein lines with indigo.

My wash caused some bleeding as the ink was a bit too damp when I applied the light green wash; I like the vein variations.


  1. Moku in monochrome ink. Outline leaves in medium ink, starting with the central vein, then the edges and side veins. Use a big brush with mixed inks and sidestrokes to flesh out the leaf body on either side of the main vein. While damp, define veins in darker ink. Re-ink the edges with thick/thin strokes to further define the wavy edges.

Banana leaves provide strong compositional lines that can focus attention on elements such as this “guest”.


  1. Spontaneous style. Define the central vein with ink. Load a big soft brush with light green tipped in darker green, then paint a series of overlapping strokes away from the vein to convey the leaf body. While damp, add indigo/ink darker veins. Define leaf edges as above.

Note how the indigo over-painting of veins adds interest. Evenly spaced veins may be botanically accurate some of the time, but not too interesting in a painting.

This last method is demonstrated for a single leaf in this helpful Youtube video.  One can practice this a few times and then venture out with other leaf shapes based on photos or from your imagination.  I tried painting whole plants as per our workshop instructions:

BananaPlant2 BananaPlant

I found the rippled creations in my buddha book the most appealing, combined with more shades of green than that artist had used; these are the ones I’d like to use in a larger composition:

BananaRippleLeaves2 BananaRippleLeaves

Nenagh included banana flowers and fruit in her demos and shared photos she has taken in Hawaii. Not grasping how the flowers emerge from the stems, or how the fruit evolves from the pollinated blossom (or even IF that’s what occurs…) I decided to leave the flowers for another day. Preliminary botanical research got sidelined when I found this great promotional video from Ning Yeh at OAS showing what is involved in painting the banana flower. I surmise his new (2014) book on painting flowers includes more detailed instructions as to colors, brush loads and brush strokes.  As I said, another day….


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