The Long and Short of Thick and Thin (fabric folds)

By all accounts there are 17 different kinds of strokes to be used when defining folds in the fabric of clothing on figures. And some scholars suggest 18.

When I first encountered figure painting as a sub-genre of oriental brush painting I was fascinated by the intricacies of fabric folds in the garments worn by men and women alike. I noted that small human figures usually remained faceless (no details shown for eyes, noses, and mouths) and larger ones had such features inked in with subtle nuances. In the hands of skilled painters, even the tiniest of figures appeared dynamic and alive. I marveled at the lines and shapes. Then there are the huge wall murals of Shanxi and Dunhuang in China that are on my must-see bucket list.  The confident flowing lines in large scale paintings by Wu Daozi are captivating.


Wu Daozi’s  Eighty-seven Celestial People

In a workshop conducted by artist Nenagh Molson I learned there were three fundamental steps to rendering human figures: 1. outline in light ink 2. define the shapes with fine lines that are ‘thickened and thinned’ as needed to convey roundness and shaping to the exposed limbs and clothing  3. add color using water, dark strokes and lighter washes to fill the shapes in a loose manner. (See earlier posts.)

My first few figures remained somewhat one-dimensional, and inanimate. Then Nenagh reminded me of the simple up-down pressure to a detail brush that would leave thin and then thicker lines on the paper, and that you judiciously applied the pressure to convey dimension to faces, arms, legs, bellies and butts.

Aha! I thought.

Then she described how you suggested depth and fullness to the clothing encasing body parts. She distributed two handouts that had mysterious little images accompanying numbered brush strokes. My eyes were on her continued lifting and pressing of a fine little brush that never seemed to run out of ink.

Only later when I filed away my workshop notes did I try to reconcile the handout instructions with what she had demonstrated.

Calligraphy and painting, forever linked

I’ve mentioned before the historical relationship between Chinese calligraphy and Chinese brush painting.  In the rendering of fabric folds calligraphic brush strokes again can have significance. The clothing for paupers and beggars is supposedly portrayed with one kind of stroke, women’s clothing another, and so on. With the promise of up to 18 kinds of strokes, figure painting suddenly held greater appeal. I was intrigued by the mysterious ‘rules’ (or at least associations) that might apply to pairing of lines with subjects.

My intent to sort out the 17/18 kinds of fabric fold depictions was recently re-invigorated with the discovery of a scholarly book on CBP. The thin, blue-covered book is titled Some Technical Terms of Chinese Painting and was written by Benjamin Marsh in 1935, reprinted in 1969. I purchased the book thinking the mix of Chinese and English might help me unlock the mysteries of my Chinese-only books!


The plain blue-covered book on the right is my latest treasured resource found first in a library and then from an online bookseller.

Marsh devotes a chapter to the 18 fabric fold strokes. He gives the Chinese name for each, its English translation, and directions for painting.   He includes two Plates, each with nine images illustrating the strokes at the back of the book. In the preface he sourced those two plates as excerpts from a book called Tien Shuh Chai Ts’ung Hua. I thought I’d struck gold in finding Marsh’s book. Alas, the images in the plates are not numbered or labeled, and the outline strokes are not large enough or distinct enough for me to discern which is intended as which.

I turned back to my library and computer to try and unlock the mysteries of fabric folds.

Comparing the Resources:

  1. Nenagh’s two workshop handouts (Exhibits A and B) with small figures in robes, outlined seemingly with different kinds of strokes; the strokes are named but differences are not hugely discernible. No instructions for creating the strokes are given.

Exhibit A – This well organized handout is helpful for understanding a few of the fabric fold strokes; unfortunately details are NOT discernible in most of them.


Exhibit B – This handout mixes full figures with inset details but still does not clarify the distinctions for ALL of the stroke variations.

  1. Ben Marsh’s book Some Technical Terms of Chinese Painting. The book provides Chinese names for all strokes, describes the execution of each, and includes two plates supposedly showing all 18. The images are again too small to discern distinctions, and without specific numbering of the nine in each plate, I do not know which is intended to illustrate which stroke.

Exhibit C – These images in the Ben Marsh book are meant to illustrate the 18 different strokes for fabric folds. While too small to be truly helpful, they ARE replicas of the images in my big Huapa book, for which I was able to get help with translation of calligraphic labels on each.

  1. The Way of the Brush by Fritz van Briessen. (See below) This book includes a similar list of 18 strokes, cross-references the strokes with Marsh’s numbering, AND refers to a similar list by yet another (Japanese) scholar, Prof. Sei-ichi Taki. That fellow based his list on illustrations done by his father, a Japanese artist named Taki Ken or Taki Katei (1830-1901) who published in a book called Gazan. (You know I am looking for that item!)


  1. An online search turned up a list of seven such brush strokes (with line drawing illustrations) allegedly extracted from a longer list, and the writer identified the original creator of such a list as a Ming dynasty art critic and historian called Wang Keyu (1587-1645). Again, I’m on the hunt for more on that fellow.
  1. A large tome devoted to figure painting acquired from an art auction. This book came with an ISBN which shows up on Abe Books as Huapu New Mustard Seed Garden (Chinese Ed. 1999) published by Anhui Fine Arts Publishing House. This book has the same images as the Marsh book, distributed four to a page with Chinese characters labeling each one. It could well be that this volume is a more recent incarnation of the Chinese title Marsh named in his preface. The figures were a bit larger than those in the Marsh plates, but distinctive qualities to the outlines were still not hugely obvious in more than a few.


As luck would have it a fellow painter in my Friday morning art group (Jani Li) took interest in my new book and Chinese painting puzzle. She translated the top character in each of the illustrations, and with that I was able to reconcile more of the images in all my sources!

When master painter John Nip dropped into our art group a week later, he too spied the book and offered commentary: it is an excellent resource on figure painting, one of three big volumes with the other two addressing landscape and bird/flower painting. He owns an earlier version than mine, and was pleased to see the updated additions of more illustrations. And if I’m not mistaken, he used Chinese terms to refer to the book not unlike the title Marsh mentioned. Given its contents, I’d say I have what constitutes a major resource for figure painting.

While I did find a few instructional videos on Youtube that addressed figure painting (such as this one.) they do not seem to get into the niceties of the 18 different stroke types.

Sorting the forest, one tree at a time

Armed with these resources I tried some cross-referencing of images and lists. A few of them—reduced strokes, date pit stroke, bamboo strokes, and nail head strokes—had some obvious distinctions, but others did not. I decided to work through the list as best I could.

1. I eased into this project with the stroke having the most obvious distinguishing character—the abbreviated or reduced stroke, or what Marsh calls lines with fewer strokes. He gave its Chinese name as chien pi miao and wrote:

a free style in which for example one ziz-zag stroke may serve for all the wrinkles of a sleeve, ordinarily represented by several separate strokes. A blunt brush is used, and it travels like a ricocheting bullet or pellet from a bow. This is the typical style of Ma Yuan and Liang K’ai. He referenced his Plate VII.

I easily found the representation in Nenagh’s A & B sheets and Jani had also interpreted the first character at the top of the calligraphy in what I numbered as 8 in the Huapa Big Book.


Fabric Fold # 1 – Reduced or Abbreviated stroke

As noted, that image is the same as one in Marsh’s Plate V11 (lower left corner). I thus had two complete figures to study and try to replicate.

Finding a blunt brush in my stash was not easy. I’ve acquired a variety of soft brushes (sheep and wolf), horsehair brushes, combinations, and even made one from my own hair. My best candidate for ‘blunt’ was a flat watercolor brush. I gave that a go. I also tried my ‘scruffy brush’.

I quickly learned I couldn’t be working too small or my efforts to zig-zag/ricochet were too cramped. Working larger gave me the freedom to move the brush rapidly. The brush had to be kept dry, and the trail pre-planned to get more pleasing results. The fine details of faces and heads were still best done with a pointy detail brush. I liked the minimalist detailing of robes; the zig-zagging gave an interesting look to the fabric folds in the elbows.   Here’s my results.


The fellow on the left is painted after the second  image in Exhibit A

2. Here’s the image for what Jani identified as Drywood stroke. (She was ‘reading’ the first ideogram at the top of the calligraphy in the image and told me the remainder talked about its execution.)


Fabric Fold # 2 – Drywood, brushwood, or kindling stroke

This stroke is #13 in Van Briessen’s book and he names it in Chinese as Ku Ch’ai Miao or Ch’ai pi Miao, or lines like pieces of brushwood or kindling. His instruction: A stiff, large-pointed brush is used in a slanting position. The lines are coarse and stiff as wood. A very impressionistic style.

He refers to Marsh’s Plate V11. Nenagh’s B handout called it a firewood line and proscribed it used on robes of old men.

The image shown in both the Huapa Book  and Plate V11 of the Marsh book is an old man curled up in his robe on the ground. It is very reminiscent of two paintings by a fellow called She Ke (680-720) of one of the deity figures; both are in the Tokyo Museum and images are in the public domain, so I’ll include them here.  She Ke used pale washes to help accentuate the contrasting fine lines in faces with the rougher, reduced lines in the robes. I love these compositions!



3.  My third selection was another stroke that is readily discernible in paintings, the nailhead start on a  rattail stroke. Van Briessen names it ting t’ou shu wei miao, lines like rat tails with beginnings like nail heads; long and tapering. He says: the brush is put down firmly to produce a strong dot, then trailed off in a tapering line to a fine point.

Plate V11 and the Huapa book image is a young woman, but Nenagh’s A & B both offer male figures to study.


Fabric Fold # 3 Nail head start to Rat Tail stroke

The nail head stroke used for a stamen in plum blossom is done with a very fine brush, so I’m thinking I can get this one. I will have to concentrate on following the initial stabbing motion for the dot with a longer stroke than for those plum stamens. Here’s my study sheet, trying to replicate the figures from Exhibits A and B, plus another detail image based on a resource found online.  (Despite several attempts to replicate the woman threading a needle, my results were disastrous–for another time?)


While hunting for the She Ke images of an old man sleeping with a tiger, I found two similar compositions in a Pauline Cherret book. Another art group member also loves to paint expressive figures so we had fun taking on the tiger men. Hers was larger and more expressive than mine.  Here’s my two; I can’t truthfully say what fabric fold strokes are used in his clothing!



So, only 15 more fabric fold strokes to sort out…and lots of fun along the way, no doubt.

This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, fabric folds, painting figures. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Long and Short of Thick and Thin (fabric folds)

  1. Holly says:

    your work is very gorgeous..i espically love the second one..I really appreciate that you share your process of learning with us. the simplicity of the tiger and the man are very poetic!

    • Thank you! I do love simplicity of line and interactions between man and beasts. Cats can show such a range of character and those She ke images from so long ago are amazing. Would love to see them in person; have no idea how large they actually are.
      June painted a much larger version than my 8 by 10s at art group and her brush strokes were larger, swooping, confident–so in keeping with her free style. I’m hoping these practice sessions focusing on the kinds of lines in the fabric folds will loosen up my ‘people’.

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