Not folding on the folds, six more fabric strokes

Despite bringing out a magnifying glass and examining each for distinctive features, I’m still not convinced the whole repertoire of 18 different brush strokes was ever widely used in oriental painting. (I used the word ‘oriental’ there, because my sources include at least one Japanese scholar/painter codifying traditional strokes used in Chinese brush painting; I don’t know if there’s some significance to that.) I can see evidence of many slim, undulating, almost parallel lines in the clothing of Wu Daozi’s people; they surely are the ‘strokes like cloud or water lines’ or maybe the ‘angleworms’.


The undulating lines for clothing in Wu Daozi’s figures are deftly applied for effect.

He definitely perfected a distinctive style for depicting clothing; mind you, we seem to be relying on copies made of his work for evidence, as the original wall murals were lost. There’s even one delightful legend of an artist who discovered a Wu Daozi cave mural, copied the image for his own understanding, and then trashed the original in a nearby river to prevent any other artist learning the secrets! (See for legends such as this one.)

I can see minimalist line work in Qi Baishi’s robes and they look like ‘reduced stroke’ or maybe the rough-hewn, dry wood or kindling stroke.


Qi Baishi used minimal lines in his figures

I’ve spent hours examining the figure paintings of Cheng Shifa; his children and animals are animated and humorous. The common folk depicted by Huong Zhou herding donkeys or tending to chickens also come to mind; their clothing details do involve thick and thin brush strokes, but I don’t detect a strong resemblance to any of the fabled 18. Then there’s the whole sub-sub genre within figure painting often called ‘beautiful women’. Their clothing would correctly be depicted in the lines called ‘like orchid strokes’, yet paintings of that ilk seem to be rendered with the same thick-and-thin outlining as any others.

Trusting that ‘all will be revealed in due course,’ or at least some insights gained, I soldier on with my sleuthing of the fabric fold techniques.

Translation wonders and woes

My unlocking of the mysteries of fabric fold brush strokes was made possible with the serendipitous assistance of an art group buddy, Jani Li. (I can’t begin to count the blessings of being in not one but two weekly art groups dedicated to the same interest in Chinese brush painting; there always seems to be someone around with exactly the expertise I need.)

Now, Jani did disclose what the top character of each of my 18 illustrations ‘said’ in Chinese without knowing the descriptive words contained in my several reference lists. And in all but one case she came up with identical/similar terms for the strokes. As noted, the concepts of ‘brushwood’ in one list is easily matched with ‘dry wood stroke’ or ‘kindling stroke’ in others. But others could have been less obvious.

At issue is that Chinese is a picture-based language; the symbols do not convey single sounds as do the letters in our Arabic alphabet, the building blocks to the written English language. It was therefore a real boon that Jani’s ‘translations’ meshed so closely to almost the entire list of brush strokes to be used for fabric folds.

As Ben Marsh wrote in his preface to his wonderful book:

The flexibility of the Chinese language makes necessary a word of caution against too literal a translation. In practically every case the Romanization is followed by an approximately literal rendering of the characters, which is likely to be more picturesque than definitive in English. Not only do the meanings of words shift in varying contexts and binomial combinations—the words cannot even be classified as established parts of speech. The complexity has been indicated, or at least suggested in some instances, but uncharted ramifications should be assumed for practically all.

The six that take me halfway home (continuing after the first three addressed in my last post)

4.  To build on my repertoire, I continued with what appeared to be a similar stroke to the last one (nail head start with rat tail ending) and had a similar name: upright nail head or just nail head stroke. My exhibit B showed the stroke in a complete little figure of an old man, and said it should be used for beggars, hermits and other such characters.  The strokes do result in an odd-looking individual.



Exhibit A did not show a full figure, and the strokes do not look quite as weird


Matching this stroke to anything in the Van Briessen line-up or the Huapa book was not easy. By the process of elimination, I concluded the corresponding Huapa listing could be ‘lines like driven stakes’.  OR perhaps this was the mysterious variation on fold lines # 19 that Van Briessen alluded to but did not demonstrate?

Here’s the image of ‘lines like driven stakes’ from the Huapa (and thus also in Marsh’s Plate VII).


Fabric Fold # 4 b Lines like Driven Stakes

Ben Marsh provides the Chinese name: chuch t’ou ting miao or chuch t’ou miao. He writes: a blunt brush is brought down firmly with a vigorous dot, and the stroke is carried to a point. The brush must go quickly like a fast horse.

The description is much the same as for ‘nail head start ending in rat tail’. Here’s my first attempt at replicating the composition.  (My strokes do not have much ‘drive’; perhaps I was thinking too much about defining the individuals and not enough about the nature of the fabric strokes.)


Only the underarm stroke for the older man has the characteristic start for ‘driven stake’.

5.  I chose the stroke called date stone or date seed next because I discovered I had several full little figures to use as studies. The lines in the woman’s clothing in the Huapa book appeared quite ordinary, but images in Exhibits A and B were both distinctive, so too was a small figure found in I-Hsieung Ju’s orchid book.


These are the illustrations for date seed and olive stone in Exhibit A; the difference is in the length of the thin trail between seeds

Marsh’s book gave the Chinese name as: tsao ho miao and he wrote: practically a series of connected tien which are fine at the ends and thick in the middle; made with the fine point of a large brush. Also called Kuan Yin miao.



Fabric Fold # 5 Date Seed or Date Stone (Huapa)

While trying to replicate the Ju figure I discovered it had a small goatee beard and was therefore a man, not the female I had originally thought I was looking at. Robed figures can be deceptive!   Here’s my replication of Ju’s figure done with date seed stroke:



My study of the date seed stroke based on the Huapa book is on the right; I even tried the floor definition as per the example.

6. Lines like a series of olive stones or kan lan miao appeared next in the Marsh book (Plate VII again) and he wrote: similar to the preceding (date stones) but the heavy parts are proportionately longer. A large stiff-pointed brush is used with a zig-zag motion. The brush is brought up promptly at the end of each stroke. I isolated the image from the Huapa book.


Fabric Fold # 6 Olive seed

Exhibit A/B noted this one should be used for ghost or dreams.

While doing this study I realized a fine point was helpful, and so was a wet brush. I was able to develop a rhythm as I worked over my study figure. I also made sure with these figure studies to ‘rough sketch’ the figure using pale indigo first, then I could concentrate on the kind of stroke I was applying over the pale lines. (See below) You can be more confident with the outline stroke when you know exactly where you’re headed with the brush tip. Trying to form the right body shape AND form the right stroke simultaneously doesn’t allow for the focus and confidence of delivery you want.

img_5499      img_5500

7. Broken reeds or weeds is how the next stroke is interpreted; the Chinese term is che lu miao. Marsh wrote: long, stiff, not very fine, with sudden changes of direction. A pointed brush is used in a zig-zag pattern. The pattern is called a p’ieh na, because the angles resemble those made by the strokes slanting downwards to the left (p’ieh) and to the right (na) in writing. Plate VII is again the reference.


Fabric Fold # 7 Broken Weeds or Reeds

I read and re-read this instruction after I’d done the study, and realized I hadn’t thought enough about the rapid changes in direction. More study is needed on this one AND I have to think of stalks of grass bent at intervals as I do the lines…


8. Lines like iron wires was my next stroke with the Chinese name of t’ich hsein miao. Marsh described them: even in thickness throughout their length, very hard and stiff, with sharp angles. A vertical brush is used, and the strokes are long. The effect resembles chisel cuts in stone. Plate VII.


Fabric Fold # 8 Steel or Iron Wires

I liked that I had full figures for examples here, but again, my first efforts were not revealing too much distinctiveness from other strokes. Here’s my study of ‘iron wires’.


9. Lines like lute strings became my last choice for the first half of these codified fabric fold strokes. Translated as ch’in hsien miao. Marsh wrote further that the strokes resemble lute strings dropped on a table; long thin sinuous lines. Plate VI was referenced. His description: the point of a vertical brush is used and the brush is brought slowly and carefully down to the paper, then the stroke is made evenly and smoothly, the heart and hand functioning as one unit.


Fabric Fold #9 Lute string



Reaching the halfway mark in my line studies for fabric folds I had to ponder yet again why, why oh why did the ancient masters consider certain variations so important to an overall composition?

I’d learned they tried to match kinds of lines in rocks to the style of a landscape (and sometimes the size—i.e. large paintings warranted one kind, small paintings another). Having grown up in the Rocky Mountains I’ve seen a lot of rocks. I was more inclined to believe the various strokes defining rocks were done to reflect the kinds of rock, i.e. sedimentary, igneous, etc. And it is unnatural to have a huge variety of rocks co-existing in one setting. But clothing is man-made and older ‘robes’ would likely be made of natural fibres—cotton, silk, wool, linen—all of which would drape beautifully. Well, maybe the beggar/hermit/pauper would have worn sackcloth or burlap and that has what dressmakers call a ‘rough hand’. That would bulk up in crotches, elbows, and underarms; only when old and ratty would burlap fold softly around body parts.

Then I read elsewhere in Van Briessen’s book that all the names and distinctions were the purview of the art critic or historian, that painters needed only to know how to execute the strokes and use them when they wanted to for effect. Artists need not clutter up their heads with the fancy names and mundane details. Ha! That will be my story, as well.

Not one to abandon a horse in midstream, I’ve still got nine more brush strokes to sort out! Confounding the project is that my growing familiarity with my several lists indicates not all lists are the same!

I made notes on the differences among my several lists, and also recorded several findings regarding the execution of the strokes studied so far. I considered that maybe if I chose ONE figure in a robe, and then painted the same figure nine times in light indigo ink all in a row (or maybe a single setting such as a party or street scene), and THEN tried to render the nine robes each using a different kind of stroke, then and only then might my eyes start to truly SEE what the kind of fabric fold stroke could do to the ‘look’ of a figure. That did seem like an awful lot of work.

One true blessing to the fabric folds study thus far was that I was gaining confidence in painting freehand figures.  So my foray into fabric folds has not been entirely ‘spilled ink’.  Nine more to go!


Despite not gaining control over replicating particular strokes, I’m grinding out the compositions–six of this one in one sitting!






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

2 Responses to Not folding on the folds, six more fabric strokes

  1. busterskid53 says:

    This has been a most fascinating journey through a subject in CBP not usually addressed unless one studies figure drawing in depth. I so enjoyed your personal thoughts and opinions as you studied and learned more. Now when I see an oriental figure painting I am sure to note the draping lines and probly refer to this most fascinating writing. I have a book, “How To Read Chinese Paintings”, I must check and see if there is anything on the subject. Your relentless persual to unlock this puzzle is amazing! Roxann

    • Hi Roxanne:
      The figure painting sub-genre has tremendous appeal; I’ve also read quite a bit on the significance of portrait painting in Chinese history–amazing that such subtleties as tiny lines and kinds of lines could convey individualities. You may have noticed I’ve got NINE more fabric strokes to deconstruct! (Got sidetracked with the Ju books and fascinating discoveries for Bamboo, etc.) The book you mention is on my wish list; I have yet to SEE it. Has it got substance to it?
      The RR

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s