Building better waterfalls: stroke therapy

While I was messing around researching rocks and streams, aiming to capture the spirits of two favorite waterfalls, I tripped over a pleasant surprise—I did indeed have a fairly recent photo of my old childhood creek.


And as soon as the creek came to light, I made another surprise find, a set of books on painting the Four Gentlemen with lots of detail, good illustrations, and discussions in English!

Now there are many CBP instructional books with excellent illustrations, there are some with English translations, and the occasional gem of insight into technique shows up in just about any book on the subject. To get all three in one place, at a reasonable price, and replete with applications of the brushwork in painting subjects other than bamboo, orchid, mum and plum is indeed a bonus.

My find came about as a result of searching for more guidance on landscape painting. Many a westerner, and oriental painters who move to America or Europe to pursue their art, have published general art instruction books, or maybe books on animal or bird-and-flower painting. Few take on the specialized area of landscape painting. In my hunt I found two helpful books by artist I-Hsiung Ju.


And when I researched his work further, I was delighted to find he had published a four-volume set on painting the Four Gentlemen. Given how fundamental these subjects are to the whole art form, I jumped at the chance to acquire more insights. I assumed (rightfully so, it now appears) that he would treat the four subjects as thoroughly as he had landscape painting. He did not disappoint.


My new best buys

Right when my waterfalls were slopping out of control and refusing to splash with purpose and direction Professor Ju’s four-volume set arrived in my mailbox. As luck would have it I flipped through each volume as I entered its details into my database.

A section at the end of his Orchid book caught my eye. He had inserted five simple monochrome illustrations of applications for the orchid leaf stroke in other CBP subjects. Jumping off the page were graceful, controlled arching orchid leaf strokes in willow branches, rooster tails, reeds and grasses, fabric folds AND waterfall marks!

They were all subjects I loved, subjects I’d practiced, and subjects I still turned to for confirmation of my abilities. (Okay, so I also put a horse in as many comps as I can. But wait, couldn’t the orchid leaf stroke be used in some styles of horse tails?)

Self-directed learning has a downside in that you may know you’re missing something, but you may not be able to determine what the missing thing is, or what the best remedy could be. Mentors and teachers in structured environments (school) provide that great ‘traffic cop’ role of halting reckless speed, pointing calmly and firmly to the dreaded ‘do more’ practice table, or re-directing you to a path you didn’t know existed. I am always amazed at the timely appearance of some CBP concept or challenge that helps me get my derailed trains back on track when they’ve run amok. I was certain Professor Ju had some wisdom to impart.

In that last section of his Orchid book which he titled ‘creative lessons’, Professor Ju relayed a lesson from the revered Chinese philosopher Confucius: by turning only one corner of a board you will thus be turning all corners of the board simultaneously.

So I sat down to make notes from his orchid leaf lessons and then try to recreate his five visual studies with orchid leaf strokes applied.

One corner turned

Notes on most meaningful insights in his Orchid book (These are all things to come back to again when I return to painting orchid for the spring orchid show.)

  1. Like many other artists who address the four gentlemen in an instructional book, Professor Ju offers many tips about the ‘proper’ way to do things. He also explains that ‘proper’ does NOT mean ‘conventional’ or ‘traditional’ but rather ‘correct’, as in the ‘correct way to do things in order to achieve a desired goal’.
  2. He wrote the orchid book as the second in his series, following bamboo, with chrysanthemum being the third, and plum the fourth. Again, this is the natural sequence for learning correct (proper) brush strokes. His description for orchid leaves is based on an understanding of ‘writing’ bamboo leaves. And his chrysanthemum petals are an extension of the orchid leaf stroke.
  3. He furthers the insights into orchid leaves (and later orchid petals) with wine goblet and bowl shapes. Great visuals support his descriptions.
  4. He also uses fish shapes to show how one achieves proper spaces and relationships between the leaves of an orchid.
  5. He presents ‘mirror’ images of three-leaf sets to show a quick way to check that proper form has been achieved with the formation. The mirror image set next to the original results in what he calls a smooth ‘flowing tide’ visual. (A sine curve is what comes to my mind.)
  6. He encourages the grouping of orchid leaves in threes, and this becomes the premise extended into the five ‘creative applications’ to grasses/reeds, rooster tails, willow branches, fabric folds, and waterfalls.

In one afternoon I was able to work through three of Professor Ju’s creative exercises based on the orchid leaf.  First up are clumps of grass, with the pattern for an orchid’s first three leaves clearly employed in the groupings.


This study sheet emerged after about a dozen tries.

Next I played with willow branches for several pages.


Some of these lines are not as fine as they could be, but I’m liking how the three strokes build into fuller branches.



Placing the third stroke so that it cuts the ‘eye of the phoenix’ as it should in the first three strokes for a wild orchid cluster does indeed yield interesting and realistic willow branches.  I keep on filling sheets….

And then I move on to waterfall marks.


Placing three strokes in groups is helping with the ‘look’ but their direction and shape still need work.  Do more, do more…..


I tried some strokes around a rock as per Professor Ju’s example. Must work on the individual strokes. Building in groups of three is starting to become more intuitive for me.

Perhaps it is time to try another waterfall?


Another family favorite ‘natural’ water park is Rushing River, located in north-western Ontario.  The composition will need to be simplified for painting, but areas to be portrayed with three-stroke building are very clear, especially in the foreground.

This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting orchid, painting roosters, painting waterfalls. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Building better waterfalls: stroke therapy

  1. Cindy Thomson says:

    Barb, I think you’ve got the water flow now! Cindy

    • Hi Cindy:
      Thanks for the vote of confidence! I am determined to paint a waterfall worthy of gluing and framing. It’s amazing how some techniques can look so straightforward, and then become so challenging in the execution. I am grateful to have discovered this latest set of books on the four gentlemen while chasing the streams; Ju’s directions are VERY helpful.
      See you soon?

  2. jasneskis says:

    What is CBP referred to in the beginning of your writing here? Please explain reference things not known to the general public just learning and or give links.

  3. busterskid53 says:

    Hello, I see that in replies, they call you Barb. I would like to introduce myself. My name is Roxanne and I too am a self taught CBP for a couple of years now. Don’t know how I came across your Blog but I’m so glad I did. I just read your post about waterfalls and the artist that wrote a book about each of the four gentlemen which led you to his books about landscape painting. I can totally relate as I am learning in my own too…isn’t it great when something clicks and you learn something really worthwhile? I am really interested in getting his books after reading your post.I really enjoyed this post, you are a talented writer as well. I also learned a few things from you…the orchid stroke and how it is so basic to CBP. I am looking around for Professor Ju’s books on Amazon, there is one book on landscapes for a reasonable price but the other starts at some unbelievable figure of $450.00. Must be a mistake or this has become a rare book since Professor Ju’s demise. Perhaps you could tell me where you obtainedvyour copies. Well I just wanted to say hello and I will continue reading about your journey through the wonderful world of CBP. Roxanne

    • Hi Roxanne:
      I am largely self-taught. I took basic introductory lessons years ago, then a 10-lesson series here in Victoria when I retired, and many demos/workshops since from a number of local artists all more accomplished than I. I am VERY fortunate to have access to a vibrant CBP artist community and paint twice a week with art groups. I found the Ju art books online; like you I tripped over a few via Abe Books and at Alibris with some being outrageously priced, yes. Then I found his own website was still up and there was a link there to order the four books. I sent a query. Some family member did the follow-up and I was able to arrange for a purchase of all four. Email me directly and I can send you some contact info. (

  4. How heart-warming to read such an excellent analysis of I-Hsiung Ju’s teaching books. He was my master from 1986 until his death in 2012. I have never known a better teacher of any subject. He also has a series of videos on many subjects, including the Four Gents, landscapes broken down into rocks, waterfalls, mists, etc, lotus, flowers and horses. You can find his books and videos (VHS and DVD) on his website, , all priced reasonably. There’s nothing like a video to watch the master create the stroke while he explains it.
    Long may your brush dance!
    Virginia Lloyd-Davies

    • Hi Virginia:
      You were blessed indeed to have had him as a teacher! I purchased my books from his site in the middle of a Canadian postal strike action; his daughter went of her way to get the books to me. They are a treasure.

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