In the introduction to a great instructional book titled Drawing Goldfish and Golden Carp Ho Kung-Shang waxes poetically as he describes the featured artist’s skill:
“Lin Wu-kui’s goldfish give us dreams, thoughts and hopes. If in life we find fewer difficulties, but more flowing rivers; if in life we find less pain, but more leaping joy; if in life we find fewer farewells, but more touches; if in life we find less jealousy, but more love; if in life we find less hatred, but more concern, then we are those goldfish.”
Indeed, if one could only be less burdened by worldly cares as a result of gazing at a Chinese brush composition featuring a few goldfish lazily hovering among sea grasses. Let’s have such paintings in every home across the country!
We westerners have not developed quite the same fascination for goldfish as have our oriental counterparts. One or two specimens in a bowl while our kids are pre-teen are the likeliest encounter; and then we hardly take the time to learn much about their idiosyncrasies, if at all. A few avid gardeners may experiment with koi ponds, but usually a neighborhood heron drops by for lunch and the experiments cease.
Goldfish are indigenous to China and are believed to have been a mutant carp dating back several thousand years BCE. Their popularity as a Chinese brush painting (CBP) subject is understandable: not only are they abundant in murky Asian rivers, they are also small, colorful, and fascinating to observe. A few goldfish in a bowl have resided in many a Chinese home for centuries, and they have amassed considerable symbolism and legends to boot.
What means these fishy jewels?
My big book on motifs and deeper meanings to all things in Asian countries (authored by C.A.S. Williams) states they are an emblem of wealth or abundance, because of a similarity in pronunciation between words for ‘fish’ and ‘super-fluidity’. Owing to its reproductive prowess, the goldfish also stands for regeneration. Because of its seeming comfort or tranquility in even the smallest dish of water, it also symbolizes harmony and connubial bliss.
Another source tells me a goldfish pair is commonly painted as a wedding gift, carrying with it wishes for both marital happiness and many progeny. Williams goes on to say a goldfish can be a symbol used to avert evil, and because it moves so freely in its element it signifies freedom from all restraints. He goes on to explain the appeal of such an emancipated creature to those of the Buddhist faith. That seems like a heavy load for such a little creature.
Oddly enough I didn’t find goldfish legends from ancient China in my CBP books or even those dedicated to animal history and symbolism. It was in a Barron’s reference book called Goldfish and Ornamental Carp that I found a chapter on the history of goldfish in China, and it included several legends.
One legend has it that after a prolonged severe drought in the province of Shen-Si, during the reign of Emperor Peng-Wang the starving people entreated the gods to provide relief. After an acceptable duration of prayer, the gods took pity and drenched the countryside in rain. The goldfish appeared with the water as a gift from the gods.
Another legend has goldfish originating in the heavens, where they cavorted among the clouds. Some of them who were careless slipped through the cloudy layers and fell to earth, where they have lived to this day.
Yet another cites the depths of the ocean as the original home to goldfish. Violent storms stirred up the waters and tossed goldfish into a sacred lake at Tsche-Tschian; fishermen returning to the lake after the storm captured a few in their nets and took them home to keep in bowls as reminders of difficult times on the water.
And as is often the case, one legend involves a beautiful young lady (even more stunning than the dawn’s first light) in love with a fellow who spurned her advances. She cried profusely and as her tears touched the ground they turned into pearls that bounced into the water and turned into goldfish.
The authors searched for historical references in China where goldfish breeding secrets were passed down orally within families for decades, and found mention in song lyrics as far back as the 6th century. The treasured little creatures first appeared in North America in the early 20th century and have been in and out of favor over the years, sometimes supplanted by tropical fish among hobbyists. Artists have shown a sustained interest, probably ever since those first pearly tears hit the ground so long ago. (Yes, that’s the story I prefer.)
In addition to a few odd goldfish compositions in some of my more general instruction books, and ample notes from workshops by Nenagh Molson, I have the book featuring Lin Wu-kui’s beautiful work: Drawing Goldfish and Golden Carp. The first few sections cover off basic fish anatomy, then a few chapters introduce ten different varieties of goldfish, and finally many pages offer some compositions. The book also addresses painting of carp (koi) and catfish, and provides several kinds of water plants to augment one’s paintings.
For an absolute beginner, unfamiliar with fishy parts, two books that include introductory techniques for rendering a goldfish are Jane Dwight’s Chinese Brush Painting Bible, and a large format Chinese Painting book in the Walter Foster series. Both methods employ minimal strokes to portray recognizable fish.
Pearlescent paints have a definite place in your studio if you fall in love with goldfish painting. I fell in love with the paints for dragonfly wings, and a ‘deal’ on the pearly paints means I have a variety of colors already to use should I get smitten with these messengers of dreams. I also learned how to wipe a thin white or pale green wash over a fish body to convey some of that pearly look.
Basic Fish Bodies
Eyes, mouth, fins and tail are the dominant features to a fish. The body shape tends to be relatively familiar to most painters–the basic pumpkin seed shape placed horizontally.
After a recent workshop on goldfish painting I went online to seek inspiration for a goldfish composition. I found more than I bargained for in a wonderful book on painting goldfish that featured two black carp swimming out from the shadow of some red bamboo. (Of course I ordered it!) All kinds of anatomical illustrations can also be found, such as this one:
My online research also discovered a Henry Li lesson on the bubble-eye goldfish; his trailer has some good ideas in it. He tells us how he tracked down a painter who had trained with a master renowned for goldfish painting, in order to gain insights into the technique for beautiful ribbon tails. (see detail image below.) The secret seems to be in using an orchid brush with a twisting action.
He also does a demo on Youtube of a more basic goldfish here.
Order for painting
As with most animals, painting eyes first works best for some of us, followed by head, body, tails, fins, mouth and final tweaking. Other painters like to get the body and tail down before adding the eyes. I’m an ‘eyes-first’ painter. Ever since I learned the secret of proportion and spacing to get a cat’s eyes looking right, I’ve leaned to paint eyes first in other creatures. Their spacing is also key to proportions of all body parts in a good-looking horse.
With this sequencing of body parts I wanted to tackle Wu-kui’s ten little fish, and then move on to trying a few of the compositions Nenagh showed us in her workshops (2011 and 2016). But first, as always, a quick little study to review shapes, proportions, brush strokes, etc. refreshes the brain and eyes about the subject. Besides, completing a painting always brings some reward—a bag, a card, a painting, maybe even a masterpiece! The more complex bubble-eyed and veiled or ribbon tail fish certainly held appeal.
Following the Walter Foster exercise (Helen Tse and Rebecca Yue, illustrators.)
1. Start with a pale sketch—some use pencil, others use charred rice paper or charcoal pencils, I sometimes use very pale indigo. Experienced artists will visualize their entire composition, planning the main features (goldfish) and ‘guest’ elements (duckweed, willow, bamboo, etc.)
2. Using a small stiff brush dipped in medium ink outline the mouth, eyes and body of your fish. Goldfish are plump little creatures, especially when limited to containers with only short swimming distances and no predators.
3. Use a large soft-hair brush loaded with pale crimson and yellow (orange?) dipped in darker orange to place four sidestrokes emanating from a central point at the end of the fish body. You can curve these strokes to suggest swimming movement.
4. Add fins in much the same manner (pale color, curved sidestrokes.
5. Mix a wash of light blue and white to wash over the body and mouth. (I’d wait until the parts had dried somewhat.)
6. Add head and body spots with a darker orange using a large soft brush. Touch up darker lines in fin and tail with the smaller brush if needed.
Instructions for completing the scene—water, weeds, willow—are all given as well.
Following the Jane Dwight exercise:
1. Load a small firm brush with dark orange, and holding it upright paint four short firm strokes to depict the head/face of the goldfish (shortest strokes on the sides). Add a short stroke across the front of the head to depict the broad mouth.
2. Load the brush with pale orange and paint two longer, larger strokes for the body. You can curve these to show different swimming postures. J.D. provides four. Stroke in four short strokes—two up front and two near the back of the fish body, for fins.
3. Add a three-pronged tail using the side of the brush loaded with the pale orange.
4. Depict the eyes at the sides of the head, using a dab of blue and ink lines.
5. When the tail and fins are damp to the touch, use the tip of a detail brush dipped in red or darkest orange to suggest lines emanating from the body down the length of the tail section or fin. Place a few dots on the body.
In one of Nenagh’s ‘stash’ books on goldfish anatomy (all in Chinese) were some of the most intriguing inspirations. The chapter heading pages each had Chinese brush paintings in different styles: one showed several very round orange fish with only a grey circle on the page (perhaps meant to be the circular bottom of a glass fish bowl as you look directly down into it?), and another showed orange-grey fish painted using a single circular stroke as the starting point for the entire body. Both paintings were startling for their original thinking. Clever painter, that unknown illustrator!
I ended my session playing with those ‘single stroke’ fishes. I could see hours of daydreaming ahead, planning out ways to depict feathery tails and fins, watery depths, and shimmering scales.