Riding high, painting Water Buffalo

Chinese brush painters do love contrasts—thick and thin lines, smooth and rough textures, gentle and strong creatures. And when they can cram all their favorite ‘yin and yang’ principles into a single composition, so much the better.

No other convention does it so simply as putting a small boy on the back of a huge water buffalo. One 20th century painter (Li Keran 1907-1989) loved painting them so much he became known as the ‘buffalo painter’.

Mentored by the likes of Huang Binong, Xu Beihong and Qi Baishi, he developed a distinctive landscape style and nurtured his figure painting significantly. His little ‘cowboys’ sitting atop a buffalo are executed with a minimal of lines and simple skin-tone washes, yet they betray considerable individuality.

Keran did for the water buffalo what Xu Beihong did for horse, Huang Binong for landscape, and Qi Baishi for shrimp. His studio became known as “master cow hall”. Once you see a few of his paintings (such as on this site) you quickly recognize others. A few albums dedicated to his water buffalo are in circulation, and several paintings frequently are anthologized.  Writer Josef Hejzlar not only included several Keran water buffalo scenes in the book shown below, he selected one  for the cover jacket as well.

Hezlar book

Identity complex:

After collecting several water buffalo paintings, and considering when/how I’d paint the ox (second animal in the Chinese zodiac) I recognized a need for clarity. Was the water buffalo an Asian ox? Were they two different species? Were they even related? My findings confirmed: two beasts, only one Chinese symbol, Niú which looks like this:


Apparently the symbol is rather generic and can mean any number of bovine-like animals—the cow as we know it in the western hemisphere, the yak, the ox, and the water buffalo.   From Wikipedia:

The Chinese language term used for “ox” is rather non-specific. It can refer to a male, castrated or not, or to a female, young or old, of various species of the bovine family which have been domesticated for use as draft animals, with their strength being harnessed for various purposes, especially carting loads and various types of farm work, such as plowing. Niú also can be construed as singular or plural.

Symbolism and mythology:

Domesticated over 5,000 years ago, the water buffalo is used throughout China to plow the wet rice fields. And when his work is done, he’s led into a nearby stream for a bath. Typically small children are tasked with caring for the animal and hence there is some realism to the boy-with-buffalo compositions. (I do love it when translators mistakenly use the English form ‘cowboy’ for those young herders!)

In Chinese legend the ox was the second animal to arrive when the Buddha invited all the animals of creation to come to him. Aware of his own slow speed the ox set out ahead of the designated day; clever rat too considered how he might arrive first and hopped on the back of ox. As ox lumbered into the gathering place, rat nimbly jumped out front to arrive first.

The ox/water buffalo thus came to symbolize strength, benevolence, patience, submissiveness and steady toil.  In ancient times the creature was also used as a costly sacrifice in rituals connected with agricultural fertility.

Curiously, the ox figures in a major metaphorical explanation of Zen Buddhism, aptly called the “Ten ox-herding principles”.  Each of ten steps en route to self-enlightenment is likened to a single step or phase of hunting for, spying, observing, coaxing and cajoling one’s noble beast to return home to the barn.

Oxen are respected and venerated throughout Asia. Their untamed animal nature means that they are considered dangerous when undisciplined but powerfully useful when tamed.  Consequently they have also come to represent the attributes of sage and contemplative learning.

Lao Tzu, the alleged father of  Taoism, is often depicted in Chinese art riding an ox.  The image symbolizes his being at one with his own true nature.  Here’s a widely circulated example:

 LaoTzuOnGreen Buffalo

There’s also a delightful ancient tale of how the heavenly ox came to earth, illustrated in an old cave painting:


According to an ancient myth the original oxen lived in Heaven as stars. The Emperor of Heaven, taking pity on the starving people of the Earth and wishing to help them, sent the oxen with the message that if they worked hard they would starve no more, and that they could be sure to have a meal at least every three days. The ox got the message mixed-up and instead told the people that the Emperor of Heaven promised them that if they worked hard they would be sure to eat at least three times every day. This put the Emperor of Heaven in a bit of a predicament.  To punish the ox for getting the message wrong, and not to appear as a liar, he went along with the three meals a day but banished the ox to earth for all time as a draft animal used in heavy farm work.

(And the best we can come up with in western culture is ‘shooting the messenger”!)


Once I had sorted out large draft animals and confirmed water buffalo as the topic of choice, I sought CBP guides.

  1. A growing collection of Li Keran paintings, some found online, others in anthologies. (Yes, I had originally filed them for their delightful small male figures and my love of figure painting.)
  2. Jane Dwight’s Bible of Chinese Brush Painting.  As usual this reference book offers a quick study of both the ox and the water buffalo on separate pages, but no cute little ‘cowboys’ to provide contrast.
  3. An obscure book on loan from an art friend had what I originally took to be water buffalo with small herders, but my informed self now recognized the creatures as cows and calves. The figures of small boys were transferable.
  4. My online search led to Henry Li’s full lesson on water buffalo, which he promotes on Youtube here.
  5. And then I also found this delightful Raggedy Bird production showing three animals partially submerged.

That’s another bonus in painting this particular animal—you can hide part of his body under water and not have to tackle the stubby legs or awkward hooves. It does require you have some skill in imagining water lines.

Form and Shape:

From Henry Li’s promo and my obscure little book I learned the underlying shapes to the face and body of a water buffalo. The insights are all about squares and rectangles. You use mostly sidestrokes with a soft medium brush to convey the solid body form, and fine lines for details such as the horn. The eyes, nose, and topknot of hair are all in darker ink.  The tail is short with a tassel end.  Legs are short and wide,  and end in dark cleft hooves.

Here’s my study of the buffalo head; note the box shaped snout end.


Here’s the profile of the body; look for the parts divided into threes and note he’s about twice as long as he is tall.


Enticed again by the fun in painting small figures I went on to try emulating a Keran composition. I discovered several showing boys on animals and tried a few:

OxWBstudy_0002 OxWBstudy_0003 OxWBstudy_0001

And then I tried a larger composition showing a boy on an animal under trees with red leaves blowing in the wind.  Keran’s inspiration for  numerous such compositions was an old poem. I kind of wish I could get his inscriptions translated, for surely the poems are just as wild and enticing as the paintings.  Here’s my boy on a beast with the tree branches ready for the leaves to be added.


I played with my Biff brush on scrap paper and then dropped in red leaves.


I’ve yet to paint a buffalo in water or at work in the rice fields, and there’s also the convention of a flute-playing boy riding high on the back of a beast.  So many options…


Shortly after posting this entry I discovered a treasure in a local bookstore–a model water buffalo that appears to be anatomically and proportionately accurate!  When you’re not too familiar with an animal, such models certainly help in realistic sketching.

WaterBuffModel1 WaterBuffModel2


This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting figures, painting water buffalo. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Riding high, painting Water Buffalo

  1. stephany38 says:

    This is wonderful.  Thank you so much for sharing your information with us.    Abrazos,

         Stephany Andrews

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