My instructional books on painting bamboo—and I do have many—devote very little attention to principles of creating groves. They go into great detail on individual leaf, stem, shoots, cane and node creation. I’m grateful they do that; there is considerable wisdom to impart.
The books discuss the niceties of style—monochrome, color, vermillion, outline, detail outline, freestyle, and variations thereof. They discuss treatment differences for bamboo in sun, in rain, in snow, in wind, and at different times of day. But when it comes to painting bamboo in clumps or groves, usually as part of a landscape or occasionally the feature of a composition, a brush painter has to glean principles from all the other topic sections.
I got pretty excited to see that Johnson Su-sing Chow actually dedicated a chapter in his Book of The Bamboo, volume 3 in his set of The Fundamentals of Chinese Floral Painting to Bamboo Groves. Alas, his direction proved rather general and offered little insight. He did attribute the “invention” of painting bamboo in groves to a Madame Guan (or Kuan) Tao-sheng (1262-1319), and noted such painting has carried her name ever since. See this Wikipedia entry for more about her. She is arguably the most famous female brush painter of all time, given her dedication and talent for bamboo painting.
Chow also identifies his own painting instructor (Wu Tzu-shen) in the introduction to his bamboo book; he was a 20th century master also known for expertise in painting bamboo. What Chow has to say then comes to us from Wu, and also Madame Guan. I therefore read his chapter ‘31 Bamboo Grove’ carefully and repeatedly.
My grove inspiration
I was inspired to create a grove for several reasons. First of all, I had tripped over a figure painting of two gentlemen drinking wine in a moonlit grove.
The simple monochrome study held appeal, the traditional moon shining on bamboo was attractive, and I do admire Chinese figure painting. Another bamboo composition featuring a clump against an indigo sky had me thinking about other ways of treating moonlight. I considered how to blend the best of both and learn about painting bamboo in groves.
My growing confidence with bamboo painting (thanks to recent studies prompted by I-Hsiung Ju’s excellent book) also gave me more courage to tackle a large bamboo grove. I even had a large silver frame and white matting stashed away for just such a possibility. I had some new brushes that held fine points, and a bottle of silvery ink that just might yield glistening leaves. I thought I had all the makings for a successful afternoon of painting.
My afternoon stretched into days, and then weeks.
A bamboo grove proved elusive. But I persisted, and after close to two-dozen starts I finally framed “Two friends enjoy a moonlit grove”. I tried to capture my insights along the way.
What I discovered:
- As Chow wrote “The entire cane is painted from its base to its tip; this requires a thorough understanding of the structure of the bamboo and its movement in the breeze.” He was sooo…right! I could never have completed this composition without first practicing leaves, stems, canes, nodes, and MOST importantly, studying how and where to use various leaf formations. My thanks again to Professor Ju and his guidance; see my earlier posts on those lessons.
- Full bamboo stalks can and should arch slightly from base to tip. Be sure, however, to keep the sections between the nodes straight. You alter direction ever so slightly with each successive section.
- Canes should be of different thicknesses and heights. You must avoid painting “parallel lines” and “railroad tracks” and cross your canes in appropriate ways. One of my books noted that a classic way to cross canes is to think of the Roman numerals IV or VI and to plan those shapes left or right of centre on your paper.
- You want to have tonal variations among leaf clusters—dark ink for those more forward and lighter shades further away from the viewer. You’ll want to achieve at least three tonal values in a painting.
- Newer leaves occur at growth tips—the very top of a stalk, or maybe a stem emerging from a node, and especially new growth near the base of a clump. Bamboo does grow quickly so a clump with all the leaves pointing up would not be un-realistic. Some varieties of bamboo also present narrow, sparse leaves pointing upward as their natural growth pattern. Many very old paintings show that kind of bamboo, including Madame Kuan’s work.
- Placing groups of leaves in clusters takes planning. You do have to consider where stems emerge from nodes—alternate sides going up a stalk—when it comes to placing clusters, or you end up with a spotty-looking arrangement. In real life a bamboo grove may have very dense growth, but portraying the growth with such density appears too ‘overdone’. In some of the early versions of my grove I ended up with messy-looking leaf formations and I realized I was trying to get too many layers of leaves in a cluster.
- Scale and proportion of leaves to canes, and to other compositional elements (like figures!) must be considered. In one of my early attempts the leaves were too small and looked more like a swarm of gnats had descended on my partiers. In another, I’d got the leaves too big and they stated to resemble shredded banana leaves, or maybe a collection of umbrellas.
- Trying to emulate my inspirational piece too closely hindered my success. I soon discovered I couldn’t get my leaf clusters to look exactly like the ones in the model. The other painter seemingly had placed bamboo leaves in an arbitrary manner, as opposed to a planned, natural extension from cane to stems to leaf formations. I had to revert back to my Ju lesson insights and plan where leaf formation should appear based on my canes. Brush painters in China tend to work at much larger scale (sheets of three or four feet high) than we do in North America (15, 18 or 20 inches high). A HUGE painting reduced to 10 x 12 inches could appear highly detailed (very ‘busy’) and not entirely ‘reproducible’.
- Bamboo groves are best painted exactly as they grow, from the ground up. Start at the base and lay in the canes, lightly at first in case you want clumps to block all of the cane from view in places. Also lightly dot alternate sides at each node going up the canes in anticipation of where the stems shoot out to hold leaf formations. Thicker canes may hold longer, arching stems with several branches leading outward. Those arching gracefully in front of a moon, or off to the sides need particular attention.
- Employ all you know about repeat leaf clusters, and then tuck in extra ‘one-offs’ to fill out an area. Be carful not to have clusters at similar heights from the ground. Just as with painting pine, one should visualize (or even lightly paint in or use ovals under your paper) oval areas for placement of leaf clusters. You need to consider number, height, relative size, and overlapping for those ovals.
When my grove was done, and I thought ‘chop-ready’ I propped it in the art room to reflect on for a few days. The silver ink had not stood out as well as hoped (maybe I could over-paint with silver paint?). The blue sky needed some touch-ups to fill out the intended mat. One guy’s head blended into the bamboo cane (it needed the ‘separation’ of a white line left between head and cane to convey the distance between the objects). I later added a thin ink line around the moon to help draw attention to it; soft edges were not enough demarcation for the centre of attention in the composition.
Got my ‘Grove on’!
Simultaneously while painting the two fellows drinking by moonlight, I also wrestled with some red bamboo growing in a clump by water. This painting was inspired by a composition in a book on goldfish. I fully intended to paint three black angelfish converging behind the red clump, but in the end stayed true to the original with two black carp. Here it is:
Bamboo is a major player in Chinese brush painting; I’m glad to say it no longer limits my choice of subject material. I’m ready for more groves, and perhaps even a look at ways to portray snow on bamboo leaves.