Bamboo Breakthrough 2: learning leaf formations

I can’t believe this is me; I am excited about painting bamboo!

Oh, I  have been interested in bamboo painting, I have tried painting bamboo many times, I have even painted my way through wads of newsprint with only bamboo leaves as subject. But now I can load a brush and actually place stalks, stems, and leaves in a pleasing, respectable manner.

Several hours of study and practice with a helpful little instructional book from I-Hsiung Ju was the key to my breakthrough.

His guidance to understanding where and how the leaves should go, based on the dependable framework of a deer horn (see my last post) helped me finally grasp how all the elements work together. He’s taken most of the guesswork out of composing with bamboo, so I can now focus on technique. And yes, there are tons of things to remember as you place every little leaf stroke….


My recent bamboo studies prompted several afternoon walks in search of the real thing.

Armed with insights from his book on bamboo I went hunting for full compositions to practice. And was I ever surprised—with his lessons behind me, my eye was much more discerning. I could actually see how much really bad bamboo painting clutters the Internet! Best of all, I could pick out the good stuff.  Here’s a site as an example.

Leaf Lessons

The concept of learning one leaf formation and then repeating it throughout a painting was not new to me. Several of my other books on bamboo painting provide numerous leaf clusters for just that purpose. One of my favorites is Chinese Watercolor Painting the Four Seasons by Leslie Tseng-tseng Yu. I have a copy of her book in monochrome as well as in color. Her illustrations are very helpful, and now that I understand more about using a deer horn branch structure to lead to those leaf formations, my attempts to replicate her lessons are much more successful.

Here’s my recent studies addressing Ju’s ‘formations’ with some insights into where they are best used. I painted these on a fibrous paper called Dragon Cloud; it takes ink differently than my usual Moon Palace practice paper, offering more ‘drag’ to a brush.

1. New moon. This simple leaf is either very young or very old. You place a single thin leaf near the tip of the deer horn, hanging downwards, often pointing to the left. It is located near the top of a bamboo plant, or the end of an exterior branch. Think of the tiny slip of the moon when it is ‘new’ and it’s clear where this leaf formation got its name.

A single brushstroke ‘formation’ occurring near the tip of a branch, pointing to the right and usually appearing more horizontal than the new moon, but similarly thinner than other leaves on the bamboo plant, is called boat. Ju says the new moon and a boat can be placed on old and broken horns to suggest other leaves have been ripped off in a storm or have fallen because of the late season. I noticed these occur on certain types of bamboo; some clumps I’ve spied in my neighborhood sport very lush growth, with pointed growth tips.



2. Fishtail is the name given to a leaf formation involving only two leaves, having one on either side of a segment. The leaves do NOT start at a common point nor are they of the same length. The fish tail is usually shown as full frontal view, meaning we see it as a “vee”. Ju also introduced double fish tails early in his illustrations and in fact he used them in showing the progression from deer horn to leaves (which I depicted in my last blog post). It is possible to paint complex-looking leaf clusters using only the single and double fishtail formations!

fishtail  dblefishtail

3. Goldfish tail is composed of three leaves on the same segment; one extends from the deer horn framework out from the middle of the formation and then you place a leaf on the left and one on the right, starting from staggered points down the horn. They are slightly separated and do NOT overlap. The middle leaf should be slightly longer than the side leaves.

The formation does resemble a goldfish tail in terms of overall shape, except that the three leaves do NOT share a common starting point. I thought it clever to paint a goldfish composition with bamboo leaves in this formation hanging over the water, but then realized the fish tails pointed in the opposite direction to all the leaf tips; my intended mimicry was lost.



4. Between  This next leaf formation involves four leaves on a segment. You can place these leaves going up to the right or left (usually when the plant is in sunshine or for new growth) or hanging down, or slightly to one side. Bamboo leaves hanging down suggest they are in rain/snow or the plant is older and dried out. These leaves are best painted in sequence starting closer to the segment tip and painting leaves of varying length: right, left, right, left: you should strive for longer leaves nearer the tip. Repeated ‘betweens’ can make an effective little composition. And if you’ve dreamed of painting bamboo leaves steadily with good rhythm, this formation is an ‘enabler’!



5.  Division. Ju’s next leaf formation is actually just a different ‘view’ of the last one, the Between. You have to imagine you are viewing the four-leaf Between from the side. And this is where bamboo leaf painting can get a bit tricky if you’ve never truly LOOKED at bamboo. Again, Ju shows how to repeat the leaf formation called Division and end up with a neat little painting! He also shows where the division grows on a bamboo plant, off the tip of a side shoot emerging from a bamboo node.


The last three major leaf formations in Ju’s arsenal were all named for birds—the swallow, a landing bird and a frightened bird. I decided to leave those for another day, and dig into what Ju had to say about using repeat patterns of the first few leaf formations. In a later chapter of his bamboo book he discusses principles of bamboo composition and shows clusters of leaf formations.

Repeat Clusters

The new moon and boat leaves occur at tips, and naturally appear alone.


In this illustration in The Scholarly Bamboo by June Greene, a new moon leaf is added at the top of the branch to balance the arrangement.

If you are portraying a large clump with several growth tips then perhaps you’d show several new moons in a painting. Ju relays that masters of old determined (and he says this is supported by observation) there are only FIVE ways to make clusters of leaves. These include repeating fish tail, double fish tail, between, division, and swallow. Because I’ve yet to practice and discuss the bird formations, I’ve only got four studies to practice so far. And bless Dr. Ju; he provided several illustrations for each such clustering!

1. The cluster of repeated fish tail is for the tip of hanging branches growing over a wall or a rock.


repeated single fishtails.

2. The cluster of repeated double fish tail is for a branch of young bamboo growing upward or horizontally.  I tried them in different directions

repdblefishtail  repdblefishtail2


3. The cluster of repeated ‘betweens’ is for old leaves hanging loosely at the top of the bamboo plant


On reflection, this particular pattern of repeat ‘betweens’ has motifs too similar in size and shape; the individual elements should be varied for greater interest.

4. The cluster of repeated ‘divisions’ is for heavy leaves at the top of a bending bamboo plant.  I stacked a few ‘divisions’ in my first practice piece (scroll back to view).

Field Trip

While studying these leaf formations, I couldn’t resist getting outdoors and checking for real life evidence of Ju’s assertions. Bamboo is a popular garden choice in my climate zone (although some gardeners live to regret it as bamboo roots typically reach VERY deep—up to four feet down—and can be very invasive.) I quickly discovered several specimens in my neighborhood.

A large planting of black bamboo has fascinated me for years as I passed it almost daily. The new growth tips would shoot up suddenly in the clump and appeared as though someone was ‘staking’ the clump. Once the gardener nipped the shoots to try and manage her front yard clump, I realized the pointy ‘sticks’ were the new growth shoots rising above the old growth. There were no ‘new moons’ up there.

Three blocks away I found a lush, un-managed clump. Close examination revealed leaf formations of the fishtail, double fishtail, and between varieties.

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There were no single new moons near the tips, nor at the bottom where old growth could be expected. We’ve had more than the average fall storm activity so surely the plant could be expected to show some leaf loss. But then again, our summer has been wetter than usual, and the bamboo reflected that with an abundance of leaves.

Remembering that bamboo comes in MANY varieties, I continued on my jaunts; a few days later I found two locations for what seems to be ‘golden bamboo’. The stalks were obvious from a distance, and the leaves much smaller than in the huge lush clumps previously examined. Closer examination revealed mostly single leaf formations. A chat with the gardener led to my returning home with a few stalks pruned from close to the top of the clump.

My first observation was that a leaf ‘leaning left’ could easily be viewed as ‘leaning right’ if you viewed it from the other side, or turned it around in your hand! Here are some ‘shadow studies’ I improvised in my workroom with a bright light and white table. I was in search of that elusive ‘new moon’.

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I also recalled taking pictures of bamboo examples Nenagh had brought to a September workshop. She noted that one variety was the basis for some of the outline styles of portraying bamboo, with white veins. You can see that  leaves seem to emerge from their stems at common points in the one on the left; those on the right emerge alternately.


Other bamboo varieties she brought in were fresh and green, but did not have single new moon leaves near the tips.  My pruned stalks acquired from a neighbor later in the season had drier, smaller leaves, and they seemed to be what remained after fall storms.  Most of those remained as ‘singles’ but pointed in random directions, few hanging in the pleasing form of a new moon.


Nenagh also showed us a rarity in the bamboo grove—flowers! She mentioned an old saying that once bamboo flowers it dies. I had to check that one out:  This site explains there is some truth to the saying, but also that much is yet to be fully understood.

I’m still working on understanding principles for painting leaves; the flowers will have to wait.  Bird formations here I come!





This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, painting bamboo. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Bamboo Breakthrough 2: learning leaf formations

  1. Jacqueline says:

    Thanks for sharing. You are an inspiration!

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