Better plant forms is… animal science?

I’ve read the directions numerous times, I’ve heard master painters talk about it, and finally I’m getting more insight into what a deer horn has to do with plant formations. When first shown how to branch bamboo and define plum trees, I heard the demonstrating artist say ‘paint a deer horn’. And I thought I understood what was supposed to be happening.

I was wrong.

What I thought I knew, was but the tip of an iceberg.

Recently I acquired a set of books addressing the Four Gentlemen, all by I-Hsiung Ju, a master painter who lived most of his life in the United States.  He explains in his very first book some of the ancient wisdom behind ‘paint a deer horn’ and I’ve been poring over the tidbits with great interest.

Yes, you are defining a branch, a fork in the road so to speak when you ‘paint a deer horn’. But just how you do it, which stroke is first, what direction you point the main stem and the off-shoots, how you add leaves—all these things were carefully studied by the ancient master painters. And the wisdom is edifying.

As luck would have it, I live in a city with a “deer problem” and a few years ago woke up to the discovery of a real deer horn abandoned in my back yard.  After being royally scolded at art group for not preserving the crow that fried itself (and took out power to a large area of town) atop a neighborhood hydro pole, I kept this ‘gift’ for further study.  Here are two views:

It could be that I was simply ready for a ‘learning moment’. I’ve been painting for several years and in that time have revisited the basics—bamboo, orchid, mum and plum—from time to time. Each time I’ve garnered something new from the workshop or practice session, usually about the brushwork or water control.

When I started skimming the pages of my Ju books I discovered he explained more about how to actually develop a full bamboo plant, one small branch at a time, one leaf cluster after another, ALL with purpose and reason for being where they were placed, and how they looked. There was a science to all the individual strokes and leaves. It truly is all about understanding the horn of a  deer.

And of course the branching method pertained to ALL plant formations; his book on the mum had more specific applications for flowers and trees.

Building up bamboo

So what is this thing called a deer horn and why is it so magical?

Ju says the important thing about the stroke is that the artist must feel the movement. “The performance is more important than the picture”, he writes.

He describes the basic stroke:

“(It)…begins with a pause and gradually fades away. Hold the brush upright, let the tip touch the paper, press gently (your hand is moving like a swing), gradually, gradually, slowly lift the brush up, up, up until it is away from the paper. Each line starts with a pause and ends with a point. Remember for shorter strokes, a longer pause.”

Each horn of deer has three strokes, which can be arranged in different ways. He shows four arrangements for practice. All of them have one longer stroke up the middle with one to the left and another to the right.

These offshoots MUST be staggered (you do NOT take them off the main stem from a single point—called FISHBONE—or take them off the same side—called FEATHER; and you do NOT make the offshoots the same length.)


It does not matter whether you do the lower one first and the higher one next, or in the reverse order; the important thing is to alternate sides and vary the lengths.


Leaves will come later, logically placed on the framework your initial horn-of-deer sets out.

Here is a practice piece to SHOW the relationship of leaves to a deer horn branch. (Ignore the poor leaf shapes, but the angles and proportions are good.)

In this practice piece you can see that the leaf form added to each branch of the horn is actually the same form.  Later in his book Ju names this leaf formation as a double goldfish tail, so-called because you place two sets of leaves near the end of the branch with each having a leaf starting on either side of the branch.   The technique reminds me of the ‘repeat motif’ design concept I’ve used in other crafts such as mosaics and quilting. (It also was helpful that I recently attended a workshop on painting goldfish and tail shapes were fresh in my mind!)  A key thing is to make the leaves of different proportions.

Here is a second visual painted after a Ju illustration for bamboo in the rain.  We want the branches and leaves to look weighted down by rain.

I spent a few hours trying to plant leaves on my deer horns, and soon realized the acquired knowledge had taken much of the guesswork out of painting bamboo. Whereas before I would pause after each leaf to try and figure out where to plant another, Ju’s insights made the decision-making MUCH simpler.  With only the ‘double goldfish tail’ as a leaf formation–Ju  gives us several more to add to the repertoire–I am suddenly painting bamboo leaves more confidently.  I KNOW where they belong!

I tried another ‘bamboo in the rain’ study; the leaf clusters looked too far apart with a big gap between them so I tucked another branch behind them in a softer tone:


My leaves are looking better in this study than they did in the previous one.


Build-a-tree made easy

Building up a tree or bamboo branch simply deploys repeat placements of ‘deer horns’ as shown below.  For the tree on the left, follow the groupings of deer horns made by strokes 1-2-3, 4-5-6, and 7-8-9.  Then 10, 11, 12, and 13 are added to ‘balance the look’.

The same goes for the tree outlined on the right.


Here is a composition I recently finished that needed some sort of object on the right to balance the painting. The inspirational composition of men playing Mah Jong had a  banana plant in the corner.  I wanted something smaller, and I wanted to apply my new knowledge of tree branching, so I tried a leafless no-name tree,using my newfound deer horn knowledge.


Ju goes on to explain appropriate ‘views’ that result from correct use of deer horn structures.

In the four images below branches named #1 all stretch TOWARD the viewer, and are weighted by leaves on their tips and side shoots. Branches #3 are pointing sideways, showing the full length of the branch with the side-view to our face. Branches #2 splits (bisects) the angle formed by branches #1 and #3.



To create branches that appear ‘below’ our line of sight, i.e. we are ostensibly looking down on them, Ju says simply widen the angles, as shown in the study below.


Before moving on to more complex leaf formations (and Ju does provide some great insights into building up bamboo compositions deploying a few simple leaf combinations) he recommends practice of several basic leaf arrangements based on the horn-of-deer structures examined thus far. It reminded me of playing with Lego building blocks.

I had to resist the urge to go surging forward, and take time to truly make these visuals stick in my mind. I knew the studies I had stumbled on were the equivalent of piano practice scales, and I’d best just get down to the business of practice, practice, practice.

This process is the reverse of learning to identify plants in the garden or in the wild. There you learn the shapes to look for, you go look for plant shapes, and then compare them in your mind’s eye to the remembered shape. Here, as a creator you learn to put the shapes where they belong, so that they look like the shapes you have in your mind’s eye. At long last I have some greater understanding of where, how and why I place the marks to get the pleasing look I’m aiming for: bamboo that looks as it should. Surely my command of the individual leaves will improve now that I can place them so much more readily. Less thinking means more painting, right?










This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, deer horn, painting bamboo, painting trees. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Better plant forms is… animal science?

  1. Jacqueline Foo says:

    Thank you for sharing! It will motivate me to paint again 🙂 Blessings to you!


    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Hi Jacqueline:
    Glad to hear that! Using a deer horn and knowing how and where to overlay the leaves made my bamboo painting so much more satisfying; it can be so elegant with the simple monochrome overlays of leaves in moonlight…Let me know how it goes for you!
    The Rat

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