In my wildest dreams I’ve conjured a vineyard that stretched for miles, trellis upon trellis weighted down with a bounty of green, red, purple, blue and black grapes. How astonishing it is to find that such a place actually exists! It is appropriately called Grape Valley.
The city of Turpan, located at the eastern-most end of the ancient Silk Road connecting China to Europe, in what now is Xingjiang province, has hot dry summers and is home to fully one-quarter of China’s annual grape production. The region has been so given over to grape production that it is known as Grape Valley and hosts an annual festival to celebrate the fruit. Some of the indigenous grape varieties growing there have been doing so for centuries.
Two of the most unusual are the mare’s teat grape (so named for its elongated oval shape) and the green or dragon pearl. The horse-lover that I am cannot imagine how one would market a grape called mare’s teat, although it appears to have maintained strong human appeal for centuries. It is said to be distinctively juicy and sweet tasting, drying to a delightful raisin much sought after and traded worldwide. I am truly amazed not to have tripped over it sooner, or at least found it a subject of Chinese brush painting.
Plump round grapes tend to be the norm, and in shades of red, blue or purple, if colored. Monochrome ink studies of grapes can be just as intriguing as studies of lotus. In my CBP library, paintings of colored fruit clusters with black shades for the grapevines and leaves, are as common as those of black lotus leaves with colored flowers/buds.
It was purely by chance that I thought to research what grape varieties were native to China and wonder what contributions the country may have made to wine production. Surely the people who gave us paper, gunpowder, and a host of other ingenious discoveries will have done some experimenting with fermenting fruits over the years. And surely artists will have sought to paint this enigmatic plant with such accessible fruits and intriguing vines. Oddly enough, much of the China’s viticulture has occurred only in the last few decades. Wisteria, yellow squash and morning glory appear to be the preferred vining plants for CBP artists.
The grape has not garnered nearly as much symbolism, folklore and legend as other fruits in Chinese culture. If anything, it tends to be associated with bounty and wealth.
In western culture the grape has garnered considerable Biblical symbolism, much of which is referenced in John Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, as well as the song from which the title was derived, the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
There is evidence that as far back as Ancient Egypt, man has been transforming grapes into wine and associating ‘wining and dining’ with romance. But even before transformation into wine, grapes were considered symbolic of love, fertility and virility. The ancient Romans, acknowledged as the first civilization to cultivate grape vines, made both grapes and wine emblems of Bacchus, god of ecstasy (not to mention fertility). Even pre-dating the Romans, in ancient Greece it was a tradition to give clusters to newlyweds in the belief that the grape’s seeds would bless the couple with many children. For more legends and lore check this site.
Several of my CBP art books have grape compositions, which feature either grapes in a basket or hanging clusters with insects or small birds as ‘guests’. Jane Dwight’s The Chinese Painting Bible and vol.4 Fruits from Su Sing-Chow’s four-volume set offer instructions on painting grape. I found these as good starting points, but the leaf treatments raised many questions. I needed to go ‘listen to the grapevine’ (research the grape’s parts and physiology) before getting on with painting.
While looking for greater understanding of grape leaves I tripped over a great grape-painting video by American-based CBP artist/teacher Virginia Lloyd-Davis. She also has a few grape compositions on her site and further down on the same page a demo by a Chinese master Han Jia-Xi worth checking out. (In his short demo you get to see him loading his brush and painting several globes mixing reds and greens.) Both artists paint the grape leaves before they add the berries. My internet research also led several times to Youtube videos by Henry Li which show some excellent grape leaf effects and how to load and wield the brush to achieve them.
The essential plant parts for grapes include: vining stems that twist and curve; leaves that may appear as buds, freshly opened, side views, or older dried partials or even just lacey veined structures; greenish tiny flowers that are seldom represented in art, the distinctive round/oval fruits in various whites, greens, red, blues, purples and blacks on stems and in clusters; and distinctive tendrils, those delicate-looking curled parts emerging from nodes along the stem which serve to attach the vine to walls, trellises, etc.
I soon learned that different varietals can have quite different leaf shapes. They all feature some basics—a general shape like the human hand, serrated edges, and roughly five pointy parts (lobes) to each. On some varietals the five lobes are quite distinct, whereas on others the basal lobes are barely separated from the others such that the leaf appears to have only the three divisions.
Here are a few leaf outlines I traced from a site with good images of grape plant parts.
The concave shape between the five points (called a sinus) can be anywhere from very deep to barely suggested. Leaves can be larger than a human hand, or much smaller. One thing they share is their function—to protect the berry clusters; hence leaves are usually found bunched canopy-like over fruit. The vining stems curve and twist as they grow, with finer tendrils emerging from nodes to simply wrap around vines/supports or suspended in curls around the vines themselves.
And here are some outlines to help grasp how grapes fill out a cluster.
Learning that grape leaves can indeed vary in size, shape, and veining helped me understand that all of the CBP compositions I examined could be accurately representing the essence of grape. The variation in treatments I was seeing was due to variations of the plant itself. This also meant that probably only a grape-grower looking at my art would know whether my red grapes had leaves of the right shape or proportion, or if my green grapes belonged under such minimally serrated leaves or not.
Painting the grape ‘berries’
Round, moist and translucent—that’s the triad of desirable characteristics to convey in a single grape. Not an easy achievement by any means.
Conveying ‘round’ is fairly easy; you take a small stiff brush, load with ink or color and first define a narrow ‘C-shape’. Beside that C, you then create a wider backward C that touches at the top and bottom of the first to form an enclosed circle, leaving a small white area.
Conveying ‘moist’ is managed with variations in shading of the ink or color. Han Jia-Xi in that short demo on Viginia Lloyd-Davis’ site dipped his brush in clear water after loading and drying it off, then quickly curved the two grape strokes allowing a highlight spot to remain white and the watery start to end up looking softer in tone. He used a ‘springy’ small brush.
Conveying ‘translucent’ is the most challenging. Traditional watercolor methodology requires two of those white arcs per grape to suggest the globular shape and that lights passes through it. This is where one must carefully consider a light source for your painting, and then aim to have those light spots appear where the light would hit the rounded grape skins. Some watercolorists (and no doubt Chinese brush painters as well) paint their grapes and then use a bit of white to adjust the individual light marks. Here are two of my practice pieces:
Painting grape leaves
After looking at several ways to execute grape leaves I settled on two that I liked. I found that rendering grape leaves with three slightly overlapping sidestrokes each, whether in ink tones or in color (and then adding veins) did not result in leaves of pleasing shapes. I preferred leaves that had five lobes (hence five strokes when viewed in full) and variations in color. I also liked leaves done with a brush loaded with green and tipped in indigo or black ink. Here’s one of my many study sheets:
Adding the vines, stems, and tendrils is done in much the same way as I studied for executing morning glory. Here are a few of my attempts at full grape compositions:
I am gaining confidence in painting the berries and clusters, but not the leaves. Perhaps it’s time to paint a basket full of grapes where leaves would play only a minor role or not appear at all. Or more likely, I’ve got more afternoons of leaf studies ahead. Ah, there’s that Chinese brush painting mantra: do more, do more!