Not your basics: painting red bamboo

The gap between ‘wanting’ and ‘doing’ is never so obvious to me as when I try painting bamboo. I am simply not happy with my results. Too many leaves look like sausages, some stalks line up as railroad tracks, and leaf clusters look less life-like and more wind-tossed than they should.

With December so devoted to all things red—poinsettia, holly berries, warm sweaters, cozy mittens—red was on my mind lately. Then with the achievements of friend Peter (see last post) reminding me that regular practice of the ‘four gentlemen’–bamboo, plum blossom, mum, and orchid–contributes to overall advancements, bamboo re-entered my consciousness. To cap things off, mentor/artist Nenagh Molson suggested red bamboo for our group’s annual art show invitation.

She also demonstrated (yet again) new aspects to bamboo, in a pre-holiday workshop, showing us how to double-load red and black for an unusual effect. Delightful Lotus subsequently painted the red bamboo we used in our invitation shown below.  Bird Woman always does a fine job with the design and layout of our invitation, but this one tops the chart in terms of ‘elegance’, I’d say.  It too gave me more reason to practice, practice, practice…

GH 15 invitation copy


As luck would have it, I had found several gorgeous red bamboo compositions when I studied fan paintings.  Here’s  two from an old instruction book :





I also have a few outstanding pieces in one of my two favorite bamboo books, Johnson Su Sing Chow’s Book of Bamboo, vol. 3 in his four-volume set dedicated to the four gentlemen. My second favorite bamboo book is The Scholarly Bamboo by June Greene; while her work is all in black tones, the instruction on all bamboo parts is very in-depth.


My favorite books dedicated to painting bamboo

To clarify, there is a variety of bamboo named ‘red bamboo’, but that plant (Himalyacalamus asper) still shows mostly green with some dark ‘purpley’ colored veining.  I found other bamboo varieties with names like ‘red clumping bamboo’ and ‘fall red bamboo’, but they too were not really all red.

As a painting subject, the convention of bamboo rendered in vermilion ink has been attributed to the Northern Sung dynasty painter Su Shi. (See favorite book number one.) When I set off to learn more about this fellow, I was surprised to see so much about him on Wikipedia.

Among other things, I soon realized his image is widely used in books about Chinese art. He was a poet, a politician, and a very imposing figure. The image below was used by Wikipedia and it shows up in about a dozen of my art books.  Su Shi certainly made his mark with more than just the start of a red bamboo craze.


While searching the internet to learn what I could about painting red bamboo, I found a set of four videos demonstrating a composition of red bamboo next to rocks. Although I can’t understand a word of the explanation, the brushwork intrigues me—I have never seen stalks painted in the manner the artist uses (a single long stroke depicting the stalk plus nodes one after another). Here’s the first one.

Each video is about two and a half minutes long and they should be viewed in sequence.

The leaf shapes did not pass muster with some of my more traditionalist art friends, but we all agreed the simplicity of the composition had appeal.  Here’s the second one.  And the third.

(If after watching these several times you start to think you actually understand the artist’s narration, you are not alone!  The demos certainly hold one’s attention.)

And the last.

Not lacking for inspiration, I set out to paint red bamboo at the start of my first afternoon in the art room in the new year.  Here are my studies:


There are a few good leaves in this lot, but not enough to warrant keeping. I must ‘do more’.

I have yet to try the one-stroke stalk painting, and am a long way from ready to try a fan composition. My bamboo practice expanded to fill the afternoon and I never did get back to Plan A (finish that tiger for my front hall).   And I think I also need to restock vermilion chips; I can see more red in my future. Maybe improved bamboo will follow.



This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting bamboo, red bamboo. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Not your basics: painting red bamboo

  1. What an impressive list of resources on all your posts! Very helpful for people wanting to find out more about the subjects. Bravo!

    • That’s part of my strategy–revealing where I learn things, crediting the folks who help me along my path to enlightenment, paying it forward if you will. And, it gives me a quick reference so that I only do the major research work once and can refer back at will. Some of my followers are in places with little access to resources but they can go online and hunt for the books by author/title, or check out the links to online videos. I am very lucky to be in a city with a fairly large CBP community, several highly skilled teacher/mentor/artists, a great art gallery with a significant Asian collection.

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