Hoary brushwork and other surprises: painting wisteria

My study of wisteria all began with a single word, but it took me to many different sites and various writers, and even down a mysterious and fantastical tunnel.

The starting word was ‘hoary’.

When I first read that portrayal of wisteria would require ‘hoary’ brushwork I thought maybe something was getting lost in translation from Chinese to English.

I tried to find an explanation online, only to discover the term was commonly used in describing the work of numerous old-time brush painters. I found at least three discussions of CBP art/artists where the term was applied.  The first used the term to describe brushwork in a painting called Pines and Summit from the 17th century. The second used the term in the context of the style of another painter from that era, and the third used it while discussing work from the 14th century (paragraph 11 of that discussion)  (Tip: you can use the Find function on your computer to locate the word ‘hoary’ in the text if it’s not readily found.)

Not finding ‘hoary’ among art terms, I looked for insight in dictionaries. I knew the adjective as it applied to certain frost formations covering a landscape, even admitting waking up to the wintry surprise of a hoarfrost-covered neighborhood is among the few things I miss from my former life on the Canadian prairies.

Two other dictionary definitions that showed up were: 1. ‘ancient or venerable’ and 2. ‘tedious from familiarity, or stale’ as in ‘please don’t tell that hoary old joke at tonight’s party, dear…’

Neither of those two meanings seemed particularly relevant in describing the brushwork required in wisteria, and that found in the old brush paintings. And neither appeared to be the usage Johnson Su Sing Chow intended in Vol. 1 Flowers of the Four Seasons (Spring). His word choice launched my wisteria research of the last few weeks.

My conclusion is that the term means the vine strokes are strong and brisk, leaving trails of ‘flying white’. (By chance, do any of my followers know otherwise?)


This amazing tourist shot of wisteria was taken in Ashikaga Park somewhere in Japan; the plants must be decades old and well attended!

For more photos of similar wisteria parks check out this site.

Other wisteria puzzles I uncovered pertained to its name (spelled both Wisteria and Wistaria), its growth habit (clockwise in China and counter-clockwise in Japan), and that my main anthology on symbolic meanings of all things oriental (especially flowers) had nothing on wisteria, yet an online search turned up tons of interesting lore.

From whence its name?

Whimsical, whispering, wishful—all word associations I—and others—have made with the flower’s name. Surely there would be a fanciful tale behind its name! No, it was simply named by American botanist Thomas Nutall to honor an anatomist, Caspar Wister, back in the early 19th century. Or maybe it was to honor the Doctor’s grandfather whose surname was spelled Wistar. Both spellings for the plant’s name are widely used.

The plant is a member of the pea family Fabaceae, related to the more familiar purple vetch and sweet pea. The wisteria presents florets that have the typical ‘banner’ petals behind a keel or slipper like structure. The florets grow in clusters (racemes) that start out pointing upward but soon face downward due to the increasing weight of opening petals. (An artist needs to note that the florets near the top, i.e. closer  to the supporting stem, open first and those towards the tip of the cluster open later and are often seen in bud form.)

The plant is native to Asia, and comes in various shades of blue, mauve, purple, pink and white. In the wild it was originally light purple and sprawled on the ground, producing long vines called rattans. Most people grow it on a trellis or other support and treasure it for its pendulous clusters that sway in a breeze and perfume the air. Artists have loved it for centuries; it embodies colorful large blossom structures, thick gnarly stems and vines, and leafy foliage.  Asian varieties are known for their fragrance, yet an  American variety commonly called Kentucky wisteria is scentless.

Wisteria can be exceedingly long-lived; I discovered online references to a plant in the UK that is about 200 years old, and another in Japan allegedly growing for twelve full centuries!


The wisteria cloaking Fullers Brewery in Chiswick, London grew from one of two cuttings brought from China in 1816.

Gardeners I know say it grows vigorously, and requires frequent hard pruning. One friend had to hack back a monstrous specimen that circled her house when it came time to paint, but the vine grew back in just a few years.

It was from another blogger  that I  learned that wisteria  grows clockwise in Japan (twining from left to right as it ascends) but counter-clockwise (right to left) in China! Now that was something I had to check out. This site confirms the growth activity known as circumnutation indeed is different in the wisteria commonly known as Chinese (Wisteria sinensis) and the variety known as Japanese (Wisteria floribunda)! The writer also offers photos to show the difference in twining direction; do take a look!

As I poked around web sites to verify correct presentation of wisteria I recalled an old (1972) Dan Fogelberg tune and soon had yet another wisteria puzzle to add to my list.

I remembered the tune as a haunting love song of sorts. An online check disclosed the lyrics had really been about a vampire.  See story behind the tune.

Symbolism for Wisteria/wistaria:

In The Chinese Painting Bible  artist Jane Dwight notes that wisteria is seen as the embodiment of all of life’s stages: the strong knotty stem represents old age, the vigorous curling tendrils symbolize youth, and the buds and flowers childhood. Other sources attribute immortality and longevity to the plant’s symbolic meaning.

One online source suggested that the wisteria’s habit of thrusting floral structures upwards at first, and then falling eloquently into tapered pendulous clusters is a visual indication of bowing or kneeling in honor or respect. Feng Shui practitioners apparently encourage planting wisteria in order to encourage moments of contemplation. Gardeners and artists would do so naturally as well—the plant is simply that intriguing to view.

Yet another online source added to this perception that wisteria commands reverence, by suggesting the blossoms lower their heads in gentle supplication; one branch of Shin Buddhism claims the vine gesture is a call for peace, quiet, and time to honor the divine.

I encountered numerous references to an 1820s ‘wisteria maiden’ being the inspiration for several Japanese kabuki plays, and through her the plant has gained symbolic association with romantic love. Wisteria also has been used in gift-giving to symbolize wishes for good fortunes, such as new beginnings in business, family (births) and relationships (marriage).

My Painting Resources:

Wisteria is such a popular subject in CBP that it is featured in many of my flower painting books. Interestingly enough, several of them treat the flower in very different ways. Here are those with distinctive styles:

1.In Chi of the Brush artist Nan Rae provides an ‘interpretive’ style that aims to capture the essence of the flower. You can also see her show some of the technique in a Youtube video here.

Basically she portrays the older, more open petals at the top of a cluster in a loose manner with swishy, suggestive strokes for stamens and pistils, and executes the younger buds in a more realistic fashion. Note her leaves are slender and end in fine points. (Her style is very similar to that used by American CBP artist Ning Yeh.)


2.Another artist (Feng Zhwu-Shiung) features wisteria in a composition with two cats in his book Painting Cute Animals. He treats wisteria more ‘interpretively’ than realistically. He does show the older florets with open petals, but dabs in yellow centes in a somewhat spotty manner. His younger floret buds appear below in an unusual profile manner with distinctive central stems. His leaves also appear more generic than realistic; wisteria leaves are slender, pointed and the veins are not as obvious as in his portrayal. Yet, I am fascinated by that image and have returned to it often to study what’s going on in the composition. The rib-like stems in each cluster, together with the heavier inked veins in the leaves, seem to reflect the tabby striping in the kittens. The wisteria also arches down and around the left side of the composition to pull your eye toward the main features, those darling tabbies.


3.When Delightful Lotus did a workshop on wisteria painting for our art group a few years ago she referenced Vol 1. Painting in Four Seasons (Spring) by Johnson Su-Sing-Chow. He devotes 12 pages to the subject and his style is more realistic in how he portrays the flowers, leaves, vines and stems. His treatment is the same as what talented brush painter Yang O-shi explains in an out-of-print book called 100 Flowers. Both show leaves growing alternately on the stems (accurate portrayal) but they paint them in a stubbier fashion than Nan Rae and Ning-Yeh.


4.A fourth resource on my bookshelf that I should reference here is a gigantic book simply called Painting Flowers by Jia Pao-min. His interpretation of wisteria is similar to Feng Shui’s with less realistic leaf shapes and strong inky veins. Over 18 pages he delves into the twisty vines, leaves and flower clusters. While some of his clusters seem to have old and new florets shown all along the main cluster stem (not realistic) he does provide numerous compositions to guide a newbie in using wisteria effectively. One thing he addresses that none other on my shelf has explored, is painting white wisteria! I intend to return to them for an afternoon of their own, as they do have strange appeal.

WisteriaJPdetail       WisteriaJPwhitedetail

Painting order and methods:

Several artists advocated painting the main vine structure first, then adding the tendrils and leaves, and finally the floral clusters. My preference was for the standby approach of creating a few main floral clusters, then filling in and connecting branches, stems, leaves and vine tendrils. Jia Pao-min pointed out some artists prefer flowers first, some prefer vines first, and others like to start with the leaves.  Here’s my brief exploration of the vine-first method; I never did get to adding leaves.

WistVineFirststep1     WistVineFirststep2

As I am just discovering how the wisteria’s distinctive ‘parts’ all fit together, I decided to go with flowers-first. Maybe once I’ve got some comps under my brush I’ll try a ‘vines-first’ to see what it does for the creative process. By the way, after my first afternoon painting wisteria  I realized this is one flower where a rounded-tip brush is desirable, not one of those that holds its point. How nice to be able to use some of those brushes that simply don’t perform many other CBP tasks.

1.The flowers: You want the wisteria cluster (raceme) to be shaped like a lilac cluster hung upside down, with darker buds closer to the tips and the more open (softer tone) florets closer to the top. I prefer striving for a 3-D look but some artists use a profile appearance that has some appeal.  The open florets have white spots at the base of the petals and yellow stamens. You can dab water on the paper and then place two colored strokes around the dab like parentheses, to result in the look of the upper banner petals. After playing with the form I realized I was neglecting to paint two small strokes to complete the ‘keel’ below those banner strokes!  So much to remember!


2.The leaves: There appeared to be two basic ways of rendering wisteria leaves, both involving painting alternate leaves on a stem.  The one style yielded slim, pointed leaves whereas the other resulted in more rounded shapes. The slim style could be done with either a single ‘touch-press and pull-lift’ stroke OR two overlapping ‘pull’ strokes


WistLeafcurved  WistLeafcurvedveind2


3.The stems and branches:  My resources offered lots of advice on ways to execute these elements. One of the tips Lotus mentioned in her workshop was to vein your leaves with green darkened by the blue or purple of your flower cluster. I quickly realized I needed a lot more practice to understand leaf shapes, tonal variations for older versus younger leaves, and just exactly how the stems emerged from the twisty old vines.

4.The tendrils and vines (the hoary bits, remember?)  Su Sing Chow provides lots of guidance on vines, the ‘home for the leaves and flowers’ he says. He advocates variety–dry , damp, deep, light, and dense–and encourages brushwork that is ‘fluent, weighted and restrained’.  He suggests standing while painting will enable freer movement of the entire arm,, and yes, do paint with a brush held upright.

5. Finishing.  Add dots for excitement, tuck in extra leaves to pull the comp together, and resist the temptation to fill in blank spaces around the featured arrangement!


My first full composition featuring wisteria; it needs more leaves tucked in to pull elements together.

Wisteria companions:

I’ve found many compositions have wisteria dropping over ponds with goldfish or mandarin ducks. I’ve seen them painted with ducks, chicks, roosters, hen families, even pigs and sheep.   They provide a natural setting for all kinds of Asian birds—crested mynha, sparrows, swallows, and many kinds of songbird. These are usually painted in pairs if perched on the vine, and in groups if flying about.

My favorite is little chicks, and that’s what I used in my first full comp. Now back to those leaves…


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