Back to Basics 3: plum blossom (part 2)

It’s ‘petal drop’ time in Victoria.

On the prairies we used to look forward to the first snow each year, and felt blessed when it occurred in daytime so that we could cosy up by the window with a mug of something warm and watch the snowflakes flutter to the ground.  Now living in the garden capital of Canada, I get to gauge seasonal change more by what’s blooming than anything else.  Petal drop time, when all the flowering cherries, plums, apples, pears, and quince drop their bounty of spent blossoms is just as mesmerizing as first snowfalls used to be.  As I watch this year, my mind is on painting colored plum blossoms.

While working on outline studies of plum blossom I thought color work would somehow be easier! Silly me. While you can simply create plum blossoms in the outline method, and then color them in—many excellent paintings have been done that way—usually colored blossoms means you paint the petals one at a time, with a twisty stroke, just as with ink in the boneless style.  Therein lies the tricky part–you really need to think about the tonal values!  The buds  are darker because of the concentration of petal material, open flowers are softer, those closer to you are darker with those further away lighter in tone, and of course each petal individually presents in different tones (darker at the base and lighter near the edges, or sometimes the reverse). 

Colors for traditional CBP plum blossom paintings are usually white tinted with pale yellow, blue or pink, all shades of pink and red, blue and green. And there are guidelines for what to do with the filaments and anthers depending on your blossom color. Red blossoms warrant white filaments with yellow dots, or black inky ones, for example.

Another striking effect in the realm of color is to paint white blossoms on a tea-stained paper, or put an inky wash on the background of white blossoms to depict plum in the moonlight. (This is where one needs to re-read the Mustard Seed Garden Manual’s 36 rules for what not to do; among them is the edict that blossoms should not be shown with a full moon. Apparently the moon is more pleasing if its shape contrasts with the round petals, a la yin and yang principles.)

And after my ‘bird tale/tail’ experiments I now discover in my plum instruction books that artists such as Diana Kan (The How and Why of Chinese Brush Painting) like to add indigo or blue to their ink for plum trunks and twigs. Amazing how one little insight gives you new eyes when you revisit something you may have read dozens of times! This is something to look for when visiting a gallery or perusing images of ancient art in books or online. Seems to me Ms. Kan was passing along one of those ‘ancient Chinese secrets’. (Thank you, thank you, Ms. Kan.)


For my foray into colored (mostly moku) plum blossoms I turned to Diana Kan’s book and that other borrowed treasure that helped so much with my recent orchid breakthrough.


I also looked to Leslie Tseng-Tseng-Yu’s book for further guidance on the monochrome or ink-toned moku styled flowers and re-discovered the Mustard Seed Garden Manual’s excellent recounting of centuries old guides to better “gentlemen”.

Plum blossoms in moku:

Now that I’ve learned brush choices can make such a huge difference in one’s success in CBP, I am paying closer attention to what the artists say in my books. There are many advocates of the ‘one-brush-does-all”, and I can see why whenever we sit down to a Nenagh Molson demo at Goward House. We chide that she owns a ‘magic brush’. In reality she has a well-worn favorite she uses for most basic brushwork and resorts to a few detail (smaller, finer) brushes for detail work. Artists at her skill level can indeed be effective with just about any instrument. For plum blossom, most artists advocate what they call a ‘fine’ wolf-haired brush; it has soft bristles about a half-inch in width.

Having tried plum blossom in the outline method first is helpful; you need some idea of plum flower arrangement and structure before delving into painting them in moku (boneless).  Here’s a workshop handout showing plum petal details in various colors and styles that I return to again and again for guidance. It shows petals in both styles. Most good instruction books will have similar pages.


In all styles you hold the brush upright, and start with one petal, adding others in relationship to the first.  You practice the different views (the MSGM is also very helpful here) and then assemble them into compositions. Amazingly even single twigs of plum blossom with a few buds and flowers at different stages can make attractive little paintings. I sat down to focus on moku (boneless) petals, but with color on my brush the outlined petals sneaked in as well!


And then I tried some pink compositions:

plumColorsPink plumColorsLine

Getting the hang of placing buds near twig ends, blossoms facing in different directions closer to the main stems, and considering different petal faces, I moved on to other small studies, involving color.  Here’s two monochrome outline branches on tea-stained rice paper:

plumColorsTea       plumColorsTea2

I liked the sepia-looking outcome and envisioned some larger compositions with slim black frames.  The one on the right I cropped after scanning to consider the idea of turning the painting 90 degrees to “see” if it also worked pointing in other directions.   Doing more of these tea studies with outline petals quite possibly would improve my petal creations; instructions urge you to work quickly (be nimble!) and doing so often lends a more dynamic look to a painting.

I moved on to trying boneless (moku) petals in red shades, and examined that study from four angles as well.

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My fun with color didn’t end there.  I placed a red mat over the painting to isolate parts of it and consider the best placement for a chop.  I usually have  black mats with oval and rectangle openings in my art satchel to audition compositions as they progress. It always helps to have an idea of your intended outcome.  The framing shown below is simply screaming for a red chop to be added.


Having recently splurged on a little tube of green pigment purportedly a good substitute for traditional Chinese mineral green powder, I tried a few compositions with green petals. My first efforts appeared rather spotty. Lucky for me Delightful Lotus heard my sighs of displeasure and considered my work.  She suggested adding a bit of indigo to the mix.


I was happier with the tones possible among petals, but realized I needed to study cluster creations more fully.  That seemed like another good afternoon’s work, and a study that could lead to larger paintings. (This is where Delightul Lotus excels so maybe I can prevail upon her for some more pointers !)  But before leaving the simple, smaller compositions I tried white petals on a colored background:


This last little piece was both pleasing and inspiring.  I found manipulation of the white paint on blue paper easier than trying to get tonal values with the pink, red or green mixes. I liked the solid dark twigs and stems. And I had visions of the moon in different phases gracefully spilling light on to this little vignette.  But first, I have to spray this one with fixative (white is bad for lifting) and see how it glues, before dancing more in the moonlight.  And there are still other ways of using color with plum blossoms to explore–yellow stamens on red blossoms, delicately outlined blossoms faintly colored in peach tones, and so on.  For now, the blue paper beckons.

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

4 Responses to Back to Basics 3: plum blossom (part 2)

  1. Aki Graber says:

    Lovely, as usual! I think of your approach to art as being among many things, adventures in possibilities – always inviting, interesting and limitless. Thanks again for sharing your explorations.

  2. barbmek says:

    Thank you, Aki There is such a huge body of knowledge accumulated over the centuries with this art form that one could spend a lifetime or two exploring it. And that’s just what is accessible without the language skills!

  3. Zara says:

    So pleased I have come across your blog. I have some very dark blue paper which is difficult to use as most colour just gets lost in it and disappears, but now you have given me a new idea to try

    • barbmek says:

      Go for it! Paper is cheap, right? Mine was sold as wrapping tissue, and it does glue up beautifully. I would think as long as the resulting picture wasn’t placed in strong sunlight,it would last a good long while. Let me know your results!

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