Paper-play: what the stash said

One thing creative people have in common is what I call the ‘magpie syndrome’–you see something bright and shiny and simply MUST have it. So it is that quilters amass a cupboard full of fat quarters, woodworkers have a shop full of tools and odd bits of lumber, and brush painters collect papers.

Sure, we hear all those debates over what is a ‘want’ versus what is a ‘need’. And we often know in our hearts we’ll never really use a particularly odd-looking ‘thing’, but having it around just seems right. And every so often we really do pick up some of those treasured bits and consider what to make of them.

Last month TOB shared some paper samples with plant pieces embedded in them. She’d included a paper sampler in her recent OAS order. As I placed my sheets on my pile of ‘gift papers’ I paused to consider what was there, and what I might do with them.


Some of the papers in my stash.

Near the top were several sheets of a very crinkly-looking stark white paper Evelyn had shared, and then some heavier stock with fan shapes ready to receive paint and be mounted. Cindy had brought a stack of those back from China last winter and generously distributed them to our Friday art group.


Bird Woman had recently been studiously working through her stash of odd papers, taking each in turn and giving it a hard look to SEE what it inspired. I was in a mood to do the same.

Paper, one of the four treasures

In CBP the surfaces used are just as important as the ink, ink stone and brushes used in creating the artwork. Together they are known as the four treasures of brush painters. Generically, the paper used for Chines brush painting is called rice paper, although most such paper is made from other plant fibers or recycled products. One of my books notes the term “rice paper” tends to be used by Westerners in identifying all Oriental papers.

To no surprise I learn the Chinese invented paper. Back in about 105 AD a member of the Imperial Court named T’sai Lun devised a process involving cheap materials such as hemp, tree bark, rags and fishnets to create a smooth writing surface. Before that, narrow vertical strips of bamboo were used in China; for smaller documents silk was convenient but expensive.

Diana Kan in The How and Why of Chinese Painting tells us paper eventually replaced the use of papyrus, animal skin parchments, and clay or wooden tablets around the globe. By the seventh and eighth centuries the Japanese were using mulberry bark and the Arabs hemp and flax fibers. When ‘paper making’ reached Europe and later America, wood pulp became the norm. To this day Japan is a source of many exquisite hand-made papers, and vast wood pulp industries were built in North America from the 1880s on.

Keep in mind that in Oriental countries writing (calligraphy) progressed hand in hand with art and thus a huge variety of papers with different absorbencies, textures, and colors emerged. In the West, writing was primarily based on hard nib pens and so paper garnered less attention.

Frederick Wong in Oriental Watercolor Techniques writes that the significance of the invention of paper is huge. He notes that one estimate of parchment required to produce just one copy of the Gutenberg Bible, a popular choice for early publications once movable type was invented, would be about 300 sheep!

What brush painters want/need:

For Chinese brush painting we have endless choices. A basic one is called Xuan or Shuan. The name stems from the province of origin, and numerous papers entailing different secret recipes may bear the name. There is also a product called Double Shuan, which is just what its name suggests, twice as thick as the plain Shuan and hence with different absorption qualities. Therein lies the important characteristic. All these Oriental art papers respond to ink and water in slightly different ways. And Shuan from one manufacturer may differ from that of another.

For different subjects you’ll want paper that responds ‘cooperatively’. For fine line art you’ll want a harder, less absorptive surface and for spontaneous work you’ll probably warm to papers with a higher fiber content and/or softer surface. Most papers come in sheets, some in rolls (such as the less expensive and more common ‘practice’ paper like Moon Palace).

They all have a rough side and a smoother, harder side. The ‘harder’ side has been achieved through ‘sizing’ with products such as alum, starch, glue or gelatin. Some papers may be left totally un-sized. Which side you paint on is a personal preference; it is best to experiment and learn for yourself how they behave.

In ABC of Chinese Painting artist Ning Yeh (his family owns the convenient Oriental Art Supply in California that many of us West Coast brush painters patronize) tells how to appear a seasoned paper shopper when in China: you lift a corner and touch it to your tongue to determine its absorbency. He notes that as most Chinese are right-handed, you might consider the left corner of the paper you try. There’s no telling how many have tested the same paper before you!

His family-owned online shop is a good place to learn about the huge array of possibilities in paper.

His book offers a discussion of various paper behaviors one might want to learn about as your painting skills advance. Many skilled painters grow to dislike Moon Palace for the way it causes colors to run; others say learn the capacities of your paper and paint accordingly.

Paper may be smooth or textured, it may have fibers embedded in it, and it may absorb ink and colors or not, it may mute colors when dry—in short: it can behave in mysterious ways. Therein lies the challenge, and the fun.

Silk is still available for brush painting; so too is the traditional (pre-formed) paper scrolls and fan shapes on card stock. There’s also a product called shikishi board, which is paint-ready and doesn’t require mounting. As in many other art forms, the creator faces endless choices. The best rule of thumb is to find a good cheap paper for early experimentations, and buy the best you can afford. Try different ones as your work improves, matching the properties to the demands you place on it. Try both sides—the smooth and the rough—for the same composition to see how each performs.

My ‘go-to’ paper for early sketches/new subjects as well as for mounting purposes is Moon Palace. A local instructor orders in bulk from China for her students and we are assured of consistent stock. After a few disappointments with unwanted fiber blobs in products from other sources, I stick to our ‘friendly neighborhood supplier’. (Thank you Barb E.!)

Of late I’ve used a lot of a white fibrous paper called Dragon Cloud for horses and other animals. A 50 foot roll of Mulberry paper I purchased years ago proved annoying in the way it softened colors and muted lines, but it now is disappearing because it serves as a tight, reliable mounting paper for soft border papers or art done on poor quality papers.

I like to keep handy a roll of medical paper (purchased at a health product supply outlet) to use as tissue overlay when considering different placements for elements in a composition. And I have even sold work painted on that thin paper (mounted on sturdier Mulberry) which was glued very carefully. You just have to get to know the paper you have and not be shy in using it.

My current paper challenges:

The three papers that ‘spoke’ to me on this afternoon did so mostly because of recent activities: the paper with embedded green plant bits suggested a colt frolicking in spring, the fan called to me as I pondered which eagle in flight to tackle in order to continue my bird studies, and the crinkly stuff has been teasing me for months given what other art friends had said about it. (Evelyn acquired the paper along with several other art group friends, possibly sharing a whole roll of it, years ago; some tried it and others not.)

  1. TOB’s green/orange plant paper:

Listening to your inner self is important for artists. Lotus sees newts or crows in blank paper, Bird Woman tends to see birds and misty mountain ranges, and I see horses. I guess we see what we want to see!

The delicate green bits in TOB’s gift paper smacked of soft green shoots and pale sunlight. It conjured for me the gangly limbs of a colt just learning to stand, or one yet lying in the meadow with long limbs splayed about him. I went to work sketching skinny long limbs and bulgy-eyed, baby horse features. By his very nature he needed to be spontaneous in style, with long loose lines and soft rusty color. The paper with orange bits also suggested ‘little red pony’, so I mixed a suitable chestnut color and  picked up my brushes:


Ooops! The subject suited that paper, but then my forlorn little pony seemed to need his mama, and shaping her rear end went awry…..I lifted some of the pigment…re-drew her legs…and then EVERYTHING WENT WRONG.

Over time I’ve learned from others that if you catch boo-boos early (before the ink/color dries) you can sometimes salvage the painting. Lots of clear water applied with a brush, blotting with clean paper towels, and patience are needed for a good recovery.  This paper did allow a certain amount of blotting,  but on the second attempt to remedy the ‘false start’ the paper gave way.  I reminded myself: it IS only paper, paper is cheap, etc.  Miffed to have wrecked gift paper, I decided to put the second sheet away for another day.

  1. Cindy’s prepared fan paper:

Looking in books of Chinese art you’ll find an abundance of compositions created in the shape of a fan. Many bird-flower combinations are creatively contained within the fan parameters, often tastefully cropped by the arcs and two straight edges.

I searched online and through my books to determine if there was some special reason for the fan shape. Yu Chung-lin, an artist from centuries ago, was so skillful in adorning the fans of the aristocracy that he raised fan painting from an amateurish decoration to respectful art single-handedly.

At some point the painted fan was flattened and framed within a rectangular shape. This site says that because the paper used for a fan was relatively fragile, the art work was less likely to survive if left as a fan; art lovers who admired fan paintings removed them from the woodwork and mounted on backing in a frame in order to preserve it.  Here’s another site that offers more about the history of fans in China.

In scholar Max Loehr’s book The Great Painters of China a reference to a 1951 book A Short History of the Chinese People by L.C. Goderich that notes the fan was introduced to China from Japan as far back as 988 but did not become an art object until the 14th century. Josef Hejzlar comments in his book Chinese Watercolors that the distinctive forms for Chinese painting—the scroll, the album, and the fan—all serve to present parts of a greater image for observation separate from the whole. That seems to be as close to an explanation for the ‘why’ of fan-shaped compositions as I’ll get. As to how to arrange elements and what to put in the fan shape, there’s an abundance of examples to study; the reasoning may reveal itself.

My choice for my first fan painting was an eagle with a bit of pine tree. Among the many eagles in my book by Hao Bang Lin were several about to land, several just taking off, and many perched in striking poses.


I’ve done several perched, so considered those landing or taking off. Many in mid flight were oriented too ‘up-down’ for the fan. I narrowed my options to one just taking off, and one about to land.

The direction of movement suggested I place the fleeing bird on the right, and put the pine on the left; for the one about to land the pine would go on the right. I did two quick sketches to get the proportion right for the size of fan; because my models were meant for larger spaces, I had to consider ways to minimize the strokes.

fanplan2 fanplan1

With only one shot at getting this fan right, the importance of pre-planning and practice had more meaning. I recalled that for my previous blog post my third bird was the liveliest and most pleasing. One also has to be wary of getting too cautious and ending up with stiff looking or wobbly strokes.


Here’s the finished eagle but color has yet to be added to the pine, and maybe some more needle clusters are also in order.


I went with yellow for his claws; some artists use a light indigo mixed with a bit of ink.

  1. Evelyn’s crinkly stark white paper:

This experiment posed the greatest challenge; I had never painted on this paper before and I’d been told it flattened when wet. Gluing it for mounting would be tricky. I’d also been told it made for great textured elements such as rocks and mountains. Other advice had been to keep the elements to a minimum (so less could go wrong?), choose something that depended on dry brush techniques, and don’t shy from color as it kept values quite true when dried. I thought this would be a time for the age-old mountain at the back, tree with character in foreground, maybe an island in a lake…. or a scruffy crow on dead tree branch? And because I do see horses everywhere, I tried a quick head composition.


This quick comp is clearly headed for the discard bin; the textured paper is SO not right for the subject.

Here’s my first rough landscape, before mounting.  The subject is more appropriate to the properties of the paper, so I could consider adding color and gluing this one as a test case.


At this stage in my afternoon I’d run out of time, so took my projects to art group the following day for ‘peer reviews’. I learned this paper was specifically designed for landscapes–the indented lines should be followed for the line art, whereas sidestrokes with a dry brush yield textured areas. There’s obviously much more to learn about this particular paper!


  1. Fans are intriguing; must look for a source for more. With only one fan I could only do the one eagle composition; will try the second one anyway because I’m still fascinated by the eagle and my specialty book.
  2. Loved the paper embedded with plant bits; will keep my eye out for more of that. Had fun doing colts; will do more of those.  Perhaps shouldn’t have tried eagles AND ponies at the same sitting.  Will plan more thoroughly how to use TOB’s other sheet of gift paper and try to create something I can be happy to show at art group.
  3. The crinkled paper may get more study, but for now I’m finding the heavy texture directs the composition more than I like. Maybe when/if I go back to rock/mountain dominated landscapes?


This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting landscapes, paper trials. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Paper-play: what the stash said

  1. jasneskis says:

    Great article as usual, very informative. I am so glad I found your site and subscribed. I wish so much there was a good teacher in my area. I learn from you, books and YouTube.

    • Thank you for your kind words. Sounds like you are skilled at ‘self-directed’ learning. (We don’t always need to have a traditional teacher-learner situation for learning to take place!) Have you found an art group to join? They can be so very rich in ‘resources’ just when you need it…and I too find Youtube very helpful; art especially can benefit from the visuals Youtube affords.
      Barb aka the Reluctant Rat

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