Back to Basics: not plum

Something funny happened while I was working on my plum painting.

Quite unintentionally, I made a breakthrough in rendering the Chinese orchid.

An artist friend lent me one of her books that featured plum, AND orchid. True, there were some excellent plummy lessons to be had, but the other half of the book was equally as intriguing with its variations on magenta and green orchids. So I got sidetracked from my plum blossom mission to play a bit with the orchid compositions.  And was I ever glad I did!


I was shown the book on the right because of its treatment of plum blossom, but I treasure it most for its orchid lessons.


Here’s what I learned:

1. When success with one kind of brush seems elusive, try another.

Like most artists I have collected a fair number of different kinds of paintbrushes. For years I have been practicing orchid leaf strokes with so-called “orchid” brushes. They typically are fat, soft-bristled brushes designed to hold considerable amounts of liquid. You maneuver them in such a way as to lay down gracefully arcing ribbons of grassy leaves.

There’s considerable skill required to get the leaves to thicken and thin, to twist and turn, to break ever so naturally. Well, this week I picked up one of my many acquisitions—a small-sized Mountain horsehair brush and loaded it with black ink. I held it upright and put my whole arm into a long, left-leaning stroke. It looked good…. better than good. I placed another above it, in the manner of the traditional ‘phoenix eye’, and then another, one that ‘broke the eye’. It was then I knew I was on to something good.


The narrow brush on the far left is my orchid-slayer. Next to it is a larger version of the horsehair brush. They make great textured, sidestrokes, leaving ‘flying white’ easily.

I finished the cluster of leaves, and for the FIRST TIME EVER while painting orchid leaves felt I had some measure of control over how they were turning out! I could concentrate on their direction, thickness, and smoothness. I loaded and re-loaded the brush. I set down more leaves—longer, shorter, left-leaning, right-leaning.

Okay, so a few were too fat, but at least I felt some control over where I placed them and wasn’t screaming in my head with all the many rules and guidelines to painting orchid I’d ever heard or read. I was calmly and smoothly painting orchid leaf clusters with some measure of success. I can now move on to try and get them to break and turn, and maybe even get back to those chartreuse-colored flowers.

2. It helps to pay attention to the details.

Twice in the last while I have watched masters at work, loading brushes to render orchid petals. And both times I’ve noticed some things about their brush loading to reflect on and practice. They both loaded the brush with clear water first, before dipping it into color, and then removed some of the water from the heel/back of the brush. Next they dipped the tip in a tiny bit of black and confidently set down a petal stroke with just the right amount of petal tip darkening. I practiced that loading and eventually found better control over the dark tip. Most often I had to lay a practice stroke on scrap paper first to remove some of the color, but then the next several strokes all emerged with darkened tips.

3. Practice is good.  Just when you think you’ve grasped something, you discover there’s much more yet to learn. When painting I often consider the old ski lesson maxim: if you aren’t falling down, then you’re not learning anything. I try not to get disheartened by the mounds of practice sheets or trial compositions. But there is only one way to make advances, and in the words of one wise painter I know it’s pretty simple: do more.

Here are three of the many orchid compositions I completed once I discovered my magic brush that helped control the leaf strokes:

IMG_3794 IMG_3797 IMG_3799


And here’s one modeled after one of the intriguing compositions from the helpful little book that featured some kind of green-petaled orchid in a bowl.   Rendering that bowl is what prompted me to get out the horsehair brushes in the first place.


So yes, the intent is to get on with the delightful color studies of plum blossoms in the moku style, but sometimes you just have to go with the flow. Right now for me, that seems to be the flow of orchid leaves.







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

2 Responses to Back to Basics: not plum

  1. Jacqueline Harrison-Foo says:

    Simply awesome pieces of art!!! I love everyone of them. Thank you so much for sharing your new inspiration. It sure did inspire me to try it out as I am still struggling with me plum blossom that could look ok on one piece and turned out disappointing another day.

    Where can I buy the book you were talking about?
    Once again, thank you so much for sharing and for inspiring me!!
    Blessed year of a Ram to you and your household!


    • barbmek says:

      Hi Jacqueline:
      Whenever I discover a book with inspiring images and/or instruction I jot down the title, author,publisher and ISBN number. Then I look it up on the Internet (usually Google) to learn more about the book, and sometimes that search leads directly to finding a used copy available through or ebay, or both. If not, then I search through various used book sellers (Abe books, Alibris, and so on.) I have had some good luck with two ebay sellers in China who sell for reasonable prices, ship for free and get them to me within about two weeks. This text in this book is all Chinese and the ISBN (7-5394-0928-2) was my best hope for finding a copy. Oddly enough another title seems to have the same number!! Nevertheless by googlng the title–Shanonian Meishu Qibu–I finally found three listings of the right book. The book only has 54 pages and sellers wanted approximately $65 US (which was too dear for me). That was over a month ago. You may be able to find one for less. Good luck with your searching!

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