Back to Basics 3: plum blossom (part 1)

Last night was chill and sharp

And the cover of my bed

Was scant and thin,

But the fragrance of the plum

Stole through my dreams,

And I forgot old age

And frost and cold.

–excerpt from a poem by Wu Zongai, Ching Dynasty

Previously in this blog I have looked at two CBP fundamental subjects, namely bamboo and orchid.  Chrysanthemum and plum blossom complete the foursome known as the ‘gentlemen’, or ‘noble ones’. They attained their status during the Song dynasty (960—1279) when brush painting was a pastime of the educated leisure class, or “gentlemen”. The subjects represent ‘refined beauty’ and their painting entails all the brushwork an artist need master.

One of my favorite books addressing the Four Gentlemen has many poems and quotations dispersed throughout the text. The above verse is in the section on plum. I find the author’s decision to incorporate so much poetry into the text very appropriate, and often pause to consider the expressions.

Truth be told, one can never study these four subjects enough. I was first exposed to painting all four back in 2009 with an introductory course that ran ten short weeks. Since then I have gone back many times to those lessons, and have added to my library as many dedicated books as I can find. Every spring when the multitude of plum, cherry, apple, peach, pear and quince trees announce their presence in my city with frothy color displays I can’t help but consider painting plum blossom.   On my walk today:


staplestree staplestreecu


The national flower of China, plum blossom is recognized worldwide as an Oriental emblem. It stands for perseverance and rejuvenation (it blooms during the coldest part of the year unhindered by frost and snow). Some maintain it also stands for longevity, as blossoms will burst from ‘leafless and seemingly lifeless branches on trees of extremely advanced years’, this according to my big book on Chinese symbols by C.A.S. Williams.

He also notes that in China pupils are sometimes referred to as peaches and/or plums, ‘being unripe fruit receiving their development from the teacher’. (As a ‘continuous learner’ in this world of Chinese brush painting I’d like to think of myself as the precursor to the actual green fruit, a plum blossom no less. I have so much to learn….)

Williams also tells us the genus Prunus is equally prized for its fruit and its blossoms, noting the latter has long been celebrated in art and verse for its fragrance and snowy purity. Among the tidbits he offers is the legend of an artist who, in crossing a desert where he could find no spring, painted a plum so skillfully that whenever he gazed on it, his saliva was generated and he did not feel thirsty. Another story he tells is that of an army ‘running on empty’ whose members are encouraged to visualize plum blossoms in the far distance and likewise the imagery quells thirst and sustains their spirit.

Together with pine and bamboo, plum has also been named “three friends of winter” in Chinese culture. The significance can be traced in literary history back to the ninth century. The three add color to wintry landscapes and are often painted as companions, not an easy task for a novice brush painter.

The five petals to a plum blossom are also deemed symbolic of Five Blessings—longevity, prosperity, health, lasting happiness, and natural death. These are the concepts to have in our heads as we paint them, for sure!

Of course the greatest value of plum blossom to a student painter is that through practice you learn much of what is needed for the myriad other subjects common to the art form. Petal formation, branch and tree trunk techniques, composition—all these entail transferable skills. Then there’s the control of water, ink, color, brush and paper. This hardy little darling of late winter holds much promise for, daresay I, ‘budding’ young painters of any age?


The painting of plum blossom is usually addressed in any CBP instructional book, especially those focusing on floral painting. Any introductory book will include it. The subject is also likely to show up in any album of a recognized master painter. Not surprisingly then, my library has several favorites to consult for technique and inspiration. There are two I reference most often:

  1. Chinese Painting in Four Seasons by Leslie Tseng-Tseng Yu. This is my book embellished with verse.
  2. Book of the Plum, vol. 1 in the Fundamentals of Chinese Floral Painting by Johnson Su-sing Chow. Chow has many CBP books to his credit, and this four-volume set should be a staple of any brush painter’s shelf. He demonstrates every imaginable nuance, including blossoms in white and even green, and incorporates historical background for context.


I have collected substantial notes from various workshops over the years and in many cases have discovered the sources for those notes. The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting has excellent background and direction, and The Art of Chinese Brush Painting by Susan and Caroline Self also contains easy to follow instruction.

Painting plum blossom:

For this first post addressing plum blossom I will look at the intricacies of painting in the outline style, ink only. The fun of colors will have to wait for another day.

Whichever method holds appeal—outline or boneless–one proceeds in much the same manner: practice branches, flowers and buds, as well as trunks individually, and then put them together in a composition.

Yu’s presentation includes some interesting compositional ideas. Among them are: 1. how to hang a large tough plum branch from above your painting, 2. how to create interest by having a branch start on the page, veer off into nothingness on an arc, and then re-appear on your page as though it had curved back, and 3. how to arrange branches with blossoms so that there is no one right “up” to the page—it can be viewed turned any side up.  Here are some of my quick sketches for planning a plum blossom composition:


Throughout her discussion of plum blossom painting Yu draws attention to the many contrasts at play: old rugged trunks sporting young bold shoots of new life, purity of the blossoms emerging from the gnarled branches of an aging tree, starkness of a few branches laden with blossoms that form a lacy pattern, the short bold thrust of linear twigs that balance delicate rounded petal structures—there are many to consider


These are painted with a dry brush loaded with medium ink.  You want to be able to add darker moss dots so the trunks can’t be the darkest tone to start with. Here are two of my studies showing order and direction for the main strokes.

PBtrunk2 PBtrunk1

Tips for trunks:

–Work from the base upwards, keeping a darker tone on the trunk underside

–As you change direction of the trunk, each section should become progressively thinner

–Use either a stiff bamboo brush or a combination one; a smaller brush can be used for off-shoots or thinner branches

–Paint thicker branches with a slant stroke, thinner ones with upright strokes (Yu says ever have the brush positioned in between theses two angles)

–Add accentuating strokes of darker ink to the still wet wide trunk parts and let it blend; strive to get them dry, rough and irregular to convey textural qualities of the bark

–Do not overwork with too many details; strive to preserve the crisp look of primary strokes

–Disperse moss dots for effect (hide or distract from wobbly strokes, weak lines, messy joints.)

Trunks are characterized by gnarled, twisted, and sometimes whimsical shapes, with knots and rifts on the surface” writes Yu. She suggests using strong, quick, jagged, sinuous strokes. Load with grey and tip in black ink, keeping the brush on the dry side. (Nenagh Molson stressed this dry brush method for orchid stems; they have to appear to be strong and soft, wet strokes simply don’t work.)


Variety is key, according to Yu. Plum branches may be straight or sinuous, thick or thin, dark or light grey, and differ in length, direction, and contour. Keep in mind that a dry brush results in rougher, more textured effects, while wetter brushwork creates smoother, softer lines.

It is important to leave space for blossoms, and hence GAPS in your branches and side branches. (This gets easier to gauge with experience)

You need to decide upfront whether your blossoms will be sparse or abundant—both approaches can be effective.

Chow provides considerable advice on the right shades of ink for different parts of each element, in order to mimic nature. New growth should look different from old growth, blossoms in sunshine are different form those in mist, and so on. Here are four of my study sheets focusing on branches.

PBstudy PBbranches3 PBbranches2 PBbranches


Tips for good branches:

–They grow in all directions—up, down, right, left, away, toward you, and all angles between those.

–Side branches are always shorter than the main one.

–You should have a clear mental appearance of your desired result before you set brush to paper and then go at it confidently.

–Execute each branch with its many twists and turns in a continuous motion; hesitation while choosing direction results in a stilted, less dynamic appearance.

–Do plan for branches to cross over one another; it gives your composition depth and dimension. Leave a tiny gap of white space on either side of the more forward branch to suggest the other one continues behind it.

–Try to avoid pointy ends; some bluntness to the tips is preferred as it suggests growth.

–Show leaf buds at the tips of some branches; add moss dots randomly to liven up the blandness of too many similar looking branches.

–If you’re right-handed you may find it easiest to work upright and left-pointing branches from tip to base, BUT create all right-pointing branches starting from the base to the tips.

(I chuckle as I consider that last note on direction; one artist in our group is left-handed and he recently revealed he deliberately sat to one side of the main group while taking lessons years ago, so that he could view the instructor’s demo through a strategically placed mirror; his group mates at the time thought him aloof and/or withdrawn!)

–Moss dots suggest age on a plum tree.  Vary their size and placement. Place them in groups or singles while branches are still damp so that they blend into the bark and don’t float mid-air. Try to make round, full, natural-looking dots all over your bark in one continuous ‘drop and lift and repeat’ motion.


These can be done in either outline or boneless style, in ink or in color. A traditional method is to use ink for the branches, with color (outline or boneless) blossoms. There are three flower parts to learn: petals, sepals, and stamens. Flowers need not appear perfect or complete, just as in nature, but you do want them looking lively yet delicate.

PBoutlinePetals PBflowers1

If only we could achieve Yu’s advice to “delicately render the mood and nuance of each flower—the tranquility of a bud, the sensual feeling of a partially opened flower, the fresh vitality of a flower in full bloom, and the grace of a fading blossom.”

Resting your wrist on the paper while doing the fine brushwork of sepals and stamens is okay, as you don’t need free arm movement.

For petals:

–Most varieties have five, although some bear four or even six petals per floret, mostly on plum trees that have thorns.

–Use your brush held upright (vertical) at all times.

–Outline petals can be made in a single stroke or with two (there’s also an ancient method using two strokes with a third in the shape of a crescent moon placed strategically across the meeting place of the two strokes at the petal tip—the San T’I method dating from the Sung dynasty).

–Load with minimal dark ink, slightly lighter in color than for trunks if also done in ink.

–Tip off your brush on the edge of a saucer to both shape the tip and to remove excess ink.

–Strive for delicate yet firm lines (good practice for wannabe figure painters like me).

–Start with the single main petal and add the others around it, in relation to it, keeping in mind they should all appear to emerge from a single point.

–Practice and memorize florets in all the different poses—head on, from above and below, from behind, all the angles in between.

–Don’t forget to show a few buds, usually toward the tips of branches.


–Paint in darker ink for contrast.

–Use swift, jabbing strokes at the base of your petal clusters.

–Vary directions and sizes.

–Show three or four except when the flower is in full view when none would be visible.


–Start at varying distances from the centre; you don’t want a ‘mowed lawn’ look.

–Extra pollen dots may be sprinkled in as well; one rule of thumb dictates three dots in a triangle shape at the tip of each tiny stamen.

–Work strokes toward the flower center with little hammer strokes (drop and pull); these should be done with a steady rhythm.

Here are two of my first studies bringing all the elements together:

PBcomp2 PBcomp

A study of plum blossoms would not be complete without considering what the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting has to offer—many excellent illustrations PLUS pages of advice designed especially for memorization and chanting. Yes, indeed, there’s “the four elegances of the plum” and “the essentials of plum painting” as well as (my favorite) “the thirty-six faults of plum painting”, and several others I must delve into.  And of course, the sequel to this introduction to painting plum is in the works.

The MSGM also offers some history of plum painting and the several styles, named masters who excelled at plum, and more discussion on symbolism and deeper meanings to different aspects of this harbinger of spring and renewal. There are so many interpretations offered on the reasons for odd-numbered parts, I can’t believe anyone DOES remember them all.  One is easily understood–plum blossom is said to be of the Yang principle, or Heaven.  I couldn’t agree more, heavenly it is.


Above are a few sprigs of flowering quince that I brought back from my morning walk; they look very much like the red plum blossom composition I am contemplating.








This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, flowers. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Back to Basics 3: plum blossom (part 1)

  1. leslie yu says:

    I like the intelligent way you extract and paraphrase from my book Chinese Painting in Four Seasons – even better when you add your own twist! Kudos for your Chinese painting explorations in depth. My website:

    • Your book is an absolute treasure! The illustrations are VERY helpful and the poetry is a rich addition many of us in my two art groups appreciate as well.
      Thank you, thank you.

  2. anjumobin says:

    Amazing work, very inspiring. I watched so many how to videos on plum blossoms and didnt like any of them. This is exactly what I was looking for. I will be visiting often.

  3. Thank you so much for your work. I’ve been trying to improve on my plum blossom especially the branches and stems. This helps a lot.

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