Painting with numbers: shrimp

At first glance a composition of shrimp may seem an unlikely subject for painting, let alone a lifetime of dedicated study. Once you gain some insight however, it’s understandable that a master painter wielding a Chinese brush might do just that. Qi Baishi (1864-1957) was born in Hunan province and started out as a carpenter. Largely a self-taught painter, he became known for his playful treatment of such creatures as mice, birds, and particularly the shrimp.

Some critics have analyzed Qi Baishi’s many shrimp paintings and determined he painted them in 13 brushstrokes. This site makes reference to that magical number 13.

After studying the basics of shrimp painting I tried to verify Qi Baishi’s brushwork; a minimal count of 13 only applies if you count the long three-part bone strokes in the two arms as individual strokes and not three separate ones. That would mean defining a ‘stroke’ as the movement from brush touch-down to lift-off; the trouble with Chinese brush-painting is that within that entire duration the brush wielder may be moving the brush back and forth, wiggling, swiping and bouncing or combinations thereof. Then, on further thought I considered the translation, and maybe the critic meant 13 “brush loads” as opposed to 13 brush strokes. Nevertheless, one has to agree that his shrimp are lively, whimsical and delightful to decipher or just admire.

Qi Baishi Deciphered

The Baishi approach has been de-constructed by at least one painter-scholar, Professor Rao Wei. She has published her ideas in an art instruction book and one can view videos of her painting shrimp on Youtube. Here is one:

Before delving further into the mysteries of shrimp painting, I had to determine what collective noun correctly applied to a bunch of shrimp. (And let’s not re-open the old discussion of shrimp vs. prawn). I found a few ‘slippery’ explanations and then finally Merriam-Webster gave me this:

Animal groups on the move can take different configurations. For example, groups of fish can either be ‘shoals’ or ‘schools’: shoals are simply aggregations of individuals; schools are shoals exhibiting polarized, synchronized motion.

And the sometimes-imprecise Wikipedia actually had more insights into the intricacies of both shoaling and schooling.

With Canadian geese flying in formation we readily pick up on the honking as a means of communicating ‘go left’ or ‘take five’, but what do the fish (or shrimp) do? And anyone who has watched tropical fish in a tank, or even tadpoles in a pond, knows the ‘school’ can suddenly turn, or flit, or both, and narry a one seems to be out of touch with the pack. Qi Baishi’s shrimp all seem to be ‘artfully arranged’, yet each is engaged in some activity—walking, talking, diving, attacking or merely poking elbows at a buddy, so some are shoals and some are schools.

My resources:

  1. Workshop notes from Nenagh Molson
  2. Qi Baishi examples from various sources
  3. One dedicated book on shrimp and crab (all Chinese)
  4. Aquatic Life, one of a four-volume set by Johnson Su-sing Chow has six pages with good visuals and some helpful insights into the nature of the creature.
  5. The Chinese Brush Painting Bible by Jane Dwight offers instructions that yield a fairly good specimen.
  6. Several online videos

shrimp books

Professor Rao Wei has a book showing the Qi Baishi method available at Blue Heron Arts. I have one dedicated to the subject which is all in Chinese (above left), so I have to read into the pictures. To my surprise this is getting easier with each subject I take on.  Often the steps are well presented and one can truly see what is expected.

I found the Chow book (above right) after I had painted shrimp for several days; then when I went hunting for details of appropriate aquatic plants I re-discovered Chow’s Aquatic Life and his great chapters on various sea creatures.   For his entire repertoire of fish, crabs, lobster, shrimp, turtles, and shells he provides step-by-step paintings as well as Chinese lore and physical descriptions.  His insights were most helpful in understanding how shrimp swim, and now I even understand more of what’s happening in Qi Baishi’s paintings.

Sorting out the Shrimp

Chow tells us the shrimp in traditional Chinese art are not the sea variety but those living in freshwater rivers, and they can be categorized into two groups—a green variety and a white. Whereas the green freshwater shrimp does present in shoals or groups, apparently the white ones tend to be loners.

Chow also comments on Qi Baishi’s shrimp studies; he explains that when Qi was in his 60s he painted shrimp with as many as ten legs, but as he ‘perfected’ his methods he gradually reduced or minimized the number of legs per shrimp. By the time Qi was in his 90s his shrimp appeared with only five legs. I have yet to check that particular bit of Qi Baishi lore against his body of shrimp work; perhaps there’s work for a masters’ student in leg-counting among Qi’s many shrimp compositions!

I’m glad I tripped over my Chow book before leaving shrimp painting, as he has lots to say about how to get more life into them. Example: their arms will appear long and straight when swimming fast, but bent when relaxed, and slightly curved when swimming slowly. The feelers should all be pointed backward when they are swimming with speed, but appear scattered when resting or swimming slowly. He calls the five little legs under the body swimmerets and suggests four feet beneath the thorax.

Learning the count

In a recent workshop on shrimp painting, friend and mentor Nenagh Molson had more ‘number theory’ to share with us. Constructing shrimp in a shoal is simplified if you keep track of body parts by the number. Nenagh had a little post-it checklist in her shrimp book, and I quickly devised one for myself as well. Once you’ve memorized the order of the brushwork, the kind of loads to use, and the placement of the body parts, the rest is indeed just a matter of ‘putting it all together’.

First of all, learn the order: head, body, abdomen, tail, legs, feelers and whiskers, arms, eyes and other details.

For starters you need TWO brushes—one large and soft, the other smaller for the detail work.

You want ink mixed in at least TWO values—light and dark. Painting a shrimp with good tonal values can depend on the kind of paper your use; Dragon Cloud paper gives greater satisfaction than the more commonly used practice paper called Moon Palace.

The main body parts are these: ONE head (done in either of TWO methods) with TWO eyes (one slightly longer than the other and they are best done dry). TWO forearms with THREE segments each plus a TWO-part claw at the end. TWO antennas, made nice and curvy. SIX whiskers emerging from the mouth end of the head. THREE-SEVEN curved body sections (if you’re going to bend the creature do so after segment THREE; must be a ‘hinge’ in the joining cartilage?) The tail has THREE tear-shaped strokes, one longer than the other two. You can place tiny little curved legs all lined up, ONE per curved body segment. Remember that QI says FIVE are perfect.  And then there should be FOUR legs under the upper body or thorax.

More like the waltz than a rhumba

This numbering business may all seem a tad confusing, until you get into the rhythm of planting the brushstrokes: plunk, plunk, plunk, swish, swish, curve, curve, curve. Rest. Curve, curve, curve, curve…and so on.

I studied the parts, prepared my ink and selected brushes and paper. Here’s a study of methods for creating the head.  Method one involves painting a medium dark line and then adding a stroke on either side, before adding the projections facing forward and two dark nail head stroke eyes.  Method two starts with a single stroke pulled slightly along the paper before you plant it flat and wiggle slightly side to side.  A dark detail stroke will be needed to suggest the beginning of the digestive track. My attempt to follow yet a third method from Chow’s book involved placing two strokes somewhat overlapping and then adding the darker digestive track line. His approach obviously needs more practice as I’m not getting the desired look of rounded, translucent shell structures.



I practiced arms and body sections over several large sheets of paper.


And finally worked up to painting full bodies.


Legs forward mean swimming fast; the antennas have yet to be added (swishing back with the force of the water).  Bend at the elbow to denote slow swimming or relaxing.


Color your shoals

Nenagh had also demonstrated painting shrimp with colors. You want them very pale—green tipped in a little red yields a nice effect. Blue shades with ink details are another favorite treatment. Avoid pink as that implies a cooked shrimp. The aim is to impart a translucent look. Very thin outlining may be added to enhance body shapes once your pale shrimp are in place. Extra touch-ups are sometimes needed to draw attention to the digestive track visible through the flesh.

Shrimp brushwork

Students of CBP need to learn and practice certain brush strokes and there are several incorporated in painting shrimp. The most readily recognized is likely the bone strokes of the forearms. Then the distinctive curly body parts should remind you of one of the strokes (dian) in Yong, the symbol for everlasting. The tail is rendered with three teardrop strokes, which can be pulled either away or toward the shrimp, but do need to be distinctively rounded at the same ends and pointy at the others. The side-by-side, long ovals you aim for in one of the methods for the head are also variations of the teardrop. The black eyes are easily deemed characteristic of true shrimp with nail-head strokes. To inject grace and movement into your shrimp you need to get comfortable with quick, delicate outlining. For perfectionists and others who can’t seem to loosen their grip on brushes, such fine line work may require conscious effort to literally ‘loosen up’.

Composing shrimp shoals or schools

Always arrange smaller groupings within a larger major group (shoal/ school). Use the direction of forearms to suggest interactions within the group—swimming, floating, fighting, walking, and so on.

Consider the space around the shrimp carefully and try to SUGGEST the presence of water. This is where the curving of water plants needs some planning. Our club library books showed compositions with bamboo, willow, flowers, and even grapes hanging above or beside the shrimp to suggest a viewpoint looking down into water. ( So far in my hunt for accurate aquatic plants I’ve discovered the Coontail, which Chow shows in several of his fish paintings.)  Here’s my first full composition of shrimp, painted near the end of a morning at the art table.



  1.  Oops, should have outlined the lotus first, then added water and color second.
  2.  The shrimp in the upper right appears to be swimming fast–arms forward and antenna back–to catch up to the others.   The others are floating together.  Good.
  3. With a flower in full bloom, maybe at least one full open lotus leaf is needed.
  4. Oops again.  Even with all the counting of body parts the guy at the bottom is missing both forearms!  (could still be added if I thought this one was a keeper.)
  5. Do more, do more….

And I plan to count silently if ever painting for a crowd; let ‘em wonder just how on earth I know where to place all those body parts.

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