I stuck in my thumb; got more than one plum

Retirement has its benefits. You can indeed welcome each day as a day of possibilities, and just do whatever turns your crank. You might not feel terribly sociable on some days, want to get your hands in dirt on others, or maybe finish one of those darn WIPs in your sewing basket. Most days I want to paint.

With so many tasks on my to-do list lately, I really didn’t feel much like going to art group the other day. And then I reminded my inner critic that there were always surprises sprinkled throughout one of artist/mentor/friend Nenagh’s CBP workshops. The topic was plum blossom, one of the four gentlemen. And yes, I’m the one who just recently praised the virtues of frequent re-visits to those fundamentals.

Our little group of CBP enthusiasts expands to about a dozen or more on days when Nenagh plans to drop by. She brings a basket of supplies–select brushes, papers, colors–and a sampling of both her own work and numerous other artists. It never fails that I don’t bring home a few more ISBNs to search for in the used/rare book markets. Alas, some of the treasures from her library have no number or the details are all in Chinese. Knowing that the skills and interests of our group members vary greatly, she aims to include something for everyone in her workshops. Her repertoire is amazing, and we all come away inspired.

And the basket of the day holds…

On this last outing Nenagh’s basket held two of my favorite dedicated plum books:

  1. Fundamental Chinese Painting of Plum, Orchid, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum, painted by Choy Kung Heng and compiled by Liang Yin-Boone
  2. Vol. 1 Book of the Plum in the four-volume set The Fundamentals of Chinese Floral Painting by Johnson Su-Sing Chow



In addition, she had a large book (all Chinese text so we had no idea of artist, publisher, etc. and no ISBN) with bookmarks on pages of several large red plum blossom compositions. Another was an accordion-fold Chinese book with gorgeous red and gold brocade covers, and it held an array of unusual plum compositions.   June and I spotted several which featured calligraphy in unusual placements on the artwork; most we liked but one looked too ‘over the top’ with the calligraphy placed as though it were dangling branches from a willow-like tree.


The calligraphy here looked interesting.


But here the calligraphy looked a bit weird

All of us were struck by the variety of blossom treatments in the book—red flowers with orange or yellow centres, pink flowers with blue dots dispersed through the canopy (leaves? sky? just artistic effect?), white blossoms with unusual petal shaping, and several treatments of blue/green plum blossoms we’d not seen before.


The blue dots around the orange and yellow blossoms in this treatment had some appeal

Another little book that featured small birds was book-marked on pages where the little birds frolicked among plum blossoms that arguably were meant as ‘hosts’ in the compositions. Because plum was our topic of the day, our eyes turned more to the frothy treatments of the blossoms and not so much the birds. Plum treatments do indeed seem endlessly varied. (That book had an ISBN for my wish list!)


The blurred plum blossoms got our attention in this composition despite being only the ‘host’

Additionally, Nenagh pulled out several plum compositions for display and reference during her demo. She had a few done in red blossoms, some in moku (boneless) and some in outline. There were several in uncommon colors—green, purple, and white. We did not lack for visual treats on that gloomy grey day.

The artistic homily:

As mentioned, Nenagh’s workshops attract a crowd, and the skill/interest levels are “all across the board”. Nevertheless, we all usually come away with learning moments.  My lessons from this last session were mostly about technique and composition.

To reinforce the learning, I planned for a few days of homework—first itemizing the tips, and then attempting to visually capture the concepts. I managed to work through most of my new tips in the next few days before the neglected to-do list could no longer be ignored; here’s some of my plummy studies:

1. Remember YONG and its compilation of basic brushstrokes? For plum blossom petals in the moku (boneless) style you use one of those strokes a lot: the twisty circular one—dian. You keep the brush tip in the petal centre if you want the darkest shade toward the flower centre; position it to the outer edge if you want it darker at the outer edges.  One style per tree, please!


These plum blossoms made with the circular stroke are ready for the next step–adding corolla, stamens and anthers.

2. Respect the centuries of wisdom and paint in order: branches, blossoms, moss dots. Blossoms are done in the order of petals, corolla, stamens, and anthers. This means you have to PLAN where the blossoms will go and leave room for them. In my recent study of Japanese sumi-e (which places more emphasis on the simplicity of line than does CBP), the artist advocated “idea must precede the brush”—you should THINK about where you are heading, what you want to achieve, and THEN do it. Reminds me of my messaging to 25 years of PR students on the virtues of PLANNING: how do you know you have arrived if you never set measurable goals and objectives in the first place?

3. Nenagh showed us that after you have put the blossoms in the planned spaces, you pick up a small brush, dip it in lighter shades of the mix used for your branches, and add the smaller twiggy bits of new growth at branch ends and offshoots and/or suckers.



Details can make a lot of difference in a composition; note the pale green new growth added at the end of this branch after flowers were completed.  See also the darkened bottom edge of the branch elbow above right.

4. Plum branches come in any color imaginable, mixed with ink of course. AND the color you choose for the moss dots should be the opposite, based on the principle of contrast, or yin and yang.   So if you have chosen a green for the branches, apply orange-based moss dots; if you went with a warm-based branch color (reddish purple) then go with a cooler hue for the dots (teal?). Nenagh showed us (again) how to double load a large soft brush with color and ink and then swish out a wet branch with quick strokes, bent from time to time, diminishing in width. It is important to have the brush wet so that the edges blur a bit. You also should strive to keep the ink-tipped edge along one side (the under side or the upper side), thinking about how the branch grows, how strong the light is and what direction it comes from. Weather can also influence how the plum should look.

PDorangeONgreen PDgreenONorange

I painted these two branches to illustrate the warm vs. cool color contrast principle  and also to show moss dots in horizontal (on left) and vertical (on right) placements. After painting the colored branches I used dark ink to add texture and enhance the “vee” edges with that crotch stroke shown on the far left.

5. Once your main branches are in place (and you left holes for the blossoms) you do some shaping and texturing with a DRY brush loaded with ink. These are rounded strokes, meant to further define the shape of the branches. Using a horsehair brush for this part helps achieve a textured looked; other brushes tend to leave an evenly colored stroke that simply makes your branch all an even dark shade.  The three buds shown below were done with a wet brush; their crisp little sepals were done with a very dry brush of dark ink.  There are many contrasts to consider in painting plum!


6. Use the V-stroke (crotch checks) for effect on inner and “outer elbows”. This stroke may take some practicing to get it executed consistently with a fullness in the bend.

7. Part of the pre-planning when painting plum has to do with some topic knowledge: how plum branches grow (in bursts of growth that take angled turns), how suckers emerge (in groups usually from an elbow), how the blossoms unfurl (before the leaves), and where buds would sit (near the tips of branches). Then there’s the consideration of contrast (warm and cool colors, wet and dry brush work, soft petals and hard branches) as well as pleasing arrangements. Nenagh has shown this principle before when placing morning glory and magnolia blossoms: plan them in groupings with a mix of fully open, partly open, and newly budded; have some turned toward you, some away, some in half profile. Paint a few with petals partly dropped. Buds of course will appear in deeper tones.

And another major consideration is style: outline or moku (boneless) is your first decision. If choosing outline style, then you have choices for how the petals are executed (one stroke, two stroke, or San-ti) AND then you’re making choices about color combinations. On one of my plummy afternoons I tried different colors and blossom styles, making sure to let the petals dry before I added the stamens and anthers.

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A compositional pointer gained this particular afternoon was to let the branches provide structure to your painting, and the blossom clusters thus become centres of interest. Nenagh suggested beginners might actually lay circles of paper under their paintings in progress to guide their eyes to placing blossoms in circular grouping.

8. When it comes to placement of moss dot on plum branches Nenagh reminded us of the basics: place in clusters, place on the old growth, be sure they are on the branches and not in mid-air, apply when the branches are dry, and don’t overdo the effect. She suggested we consider direction—placing them with all horizontal dabs or all with vertical dabs can result in two very different looks.  See number 4 above.

9. After this particular workshop I wanted to practice white petals in San-Ti style with a color wash background. This entails completing your branches and blossoms as usual, letting them fully dry, THEN covering each blossom cluster with clear water and following with a background wash. The purpose of the water over the blossoms is to repel the wash.  That lesson will have to wait for another day when maybe I’ll be ready for a larger composition.


The San-Ti style of petal is created by adding a little crescent moon shape in  dark ink after defining the petal in two light outline strokes.

10. A last consideration for those more accomplished brush painters in our group was the addition of calligraphy. Nenagh noted that if you painted delicate outline petals then one style of calligraphy was more suitable than another. Given my lack of familiarity with Chinese calligraphy, this pointer I could only look for in the work of others.

My day turned out a whole lot more interesting than I anticipated. And to boot, when I got home there was this delightful gift from a four-year-old grandson. Little Bear knows a few things about coloring trees. One might think colored leaves are incongruous with green grass, but he was only drawing what he saw—Ottawa had green grass over this last Christmas holiday!


Little Bear may have been aiming to paint leaves, but his way of doing branches is not far off traditional plum.


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

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