Wiley and beguiling: painting Wisteria 2

Stymied by where and how best to begin a wisteria composition I realized I needed to understand more fully how the plant’s parts grew and fit together.

Now I’ve pulled many a dandelion, picked the flowers, braided the stems, scrubbed the sappy residue, gathered and washed the leaves for salads, dug the roots from numerous lawns, and so I thoroughly know dandelions. I could paint any part of them, at any life stage, in my sleep if I had to. Not so, the fascinating wisteria. I haven’t even attempted to grow one.

GHwisteria west

Once established, wisteria can put on a spectacular display, such as this mature planting surrounding Bird Woman’s nest.

Wanting to paint this popular subject of oriental compositions, I set out to study the plant parts more fully.

The Flower:

Wikipedia has an excellent illustration of the wisteria floral parts here which I’ve imported below.


I’m familiar with the basic ‘pea’ floral structure—banner petals, wings and keel. And they usually present in pairs. Pedicel and peduncle were helpful terms to acquire to aid in discussing floral painting.


The proportions of the parts are much the same from wisteria plant to wisteria plant, although some are showier (larger or more varied in color). Interesting that the wisteria has ‘fused pistils’ with one that lies free of the other nine. They are indeed a bright yellow and would be most visible in the more open florets. The traditional varieties (Chinese, Japanese) do present in an all-over single color (lavender, blue, white), although there are cultivars with mixed tones. Combinations on a cluster are NOT as striking as with fuchsia plants or bearded iris.


In this specimen one can see how the leaves emerge from the vine and the succession of bloom along the raceme.

The calyx sitting atop a pedicel (short flower stalk) must be the bud casing that opens to reveal the flower, and then sits there gleaming out, as one of the ‘dots’ brush painters like to add for ‘excitement’. I notice from the many photos I examine online that the wisteria clusters can be more cylindrical than conical on some species. This would explain why some painters prefer looser structures and others favor the more symmetric ‘cones’ in their compositions. The little stems within a cluster that hold the florets (pedicels) can appear light green or brownish, so painters who like to adjust their green tones with burnt sienna, blue or red are free to do so and stay true to life.

Armed with these insights, I felt more confident in revisiting the wisteria. I had a better idea how to achieve the rounded 3-D look to a cluster and how to shape petals. As for colors, blues and mauves hold the most appeal; the white outline version illustrated by Jia Pao-min still fascinates me, so it may yet get tackled.

The Leaves:

My examination of photos of real plants confirmed my notes that said alternate leaves along a stem, plus the end one. Workshop notes from Lotus said 9-13 leaves along the stem were the norm. I discovered the difference in leaf-painting style I had observed (narrow symmetric leafs versus looser, dark-veined ones) was explained  by varietal differences and age of the leaves. This photo shows typical leaf shapes for wisteria:

Wisteria sinensis - Chinese Wisteria

One artist who inked a biological illustration noted the narrower (newer) leaves were usually lighter green than the wider ones.  The peduncles (stems holding leaves) emerged from fresh vine growth and ‘cascaded’ away from the vine much the same as the racemes (flower clusters).

Hail the Flower Painting Queen: Yang O-shi:

Having learned more about the flowers and leaves I went back to my CBP library and hunted for more compositions featuring wisteria. I soon discovered they could be a backdrop for featured creatures such as chicks, ducks, roosters, and goldfish OR they could be the centre of attention with perhaps a small insect, butterfly or a few bees hovering nearby.

I also gained considerable insight from the step-by-step instructions from the author-artist Yang O-shi who excels at both flowers and birds. I have two of her books that address wisteria. In fact the cover of the one on the left below features wisteria.


Here are two detail shots excerpted from her work that clearly show distinctions between  the new and old leaves:

You can clearly see the newer leaves are lighter green and not fully formed, whereas the older leaves are darker with darker veins and more rounded, fuller shapes. She tends to put the newer leaves in profile and the older ones turned forward slightly. Some stems with newer leaves emerge from newly extending vines as well and these often trail in a breeze. The older leaves typically are clustered somewhat as a canopy over numerous flower clusters.

Once at my art table with this knowledge I then felt more comfortable starting with leaf structures, planning to place floral clusters below them.  An odd number seemed most pleasing. Having learned that the dried, brownish tendrils remaining from last year’s growth are what appear as the wandering lines in a painting, I understood why they should be done with dry brush and reveal flying white.

Wisteria belongs to the woody (as opposed to fleshy) vining plants so the heavier, main stems do need to look rough, twisted, and old. AND, if you want to be true to showing a Chinese wisteria as opposed to a Japanese one, you can wind to the right or to the left ascending the main stalk, as befits the variety! Now who would really be looking for that authenticity?

Composition Schemes:

In CBP one studies the subjects and gets familiar with brushwork, then plans a complete composition with great concern for white space. You usually choose and arrange your elements (flowers, leaves, stems, and of course ‘guests’ or ‘visitors’) keeping in mind how lines draw the viewer’s eye through the composition.

A number of such planning schemes for wisteria are these:


A convenient aspect to a wisteria flower cluster (raceme) is that its profile is like a broad arrow, it clearly points in a direction. To boot, you can slightly curve the raceme cone, and with additional curved vines/leaves/tendrils accentuate the ‘loft’ of the airborne plant parts, suggesting the presence of a gentle breeze. Bird Woman does just that in this composition she painted on some handmade paper embedded with organic bits:

GH 15 Hummingbird

My wisteria opus:

I played with wisteria for a few days, often ending up with paper covered too densely with leaves, and messy floral structures. Satisfying results eluded me. Only when I tripped over a few compositions with cats in a garden under some wisteria did I accomplish anything I deemed worthy of gluing.

Here’s an early one I kind of liked and considered how it might look with various cropping and/or frame shapes.

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I suspect I will be painting more wisteria, probably as a setting for a creature I like—cats for sure—until such time as I get more confident with all of its parts and how to paint them in relation to one another.

And I learned yet another word in the process; I am truly astounded that such a technical term as “torus” (plural tori)–meaning a surface of revolution generated by revolving a circle in three-dimensional space about an axis coplanar with the circle–shows up in a translation from Chinese.  Yang O-shi used it to describe the shape you aim for in portraying the banner petals near the top of the wisteria racemes.  Art, botany and geometry lessons all in one–such fun!

This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, flowers, wisteria. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Wiley and beguiling: painting Wisteria 2

  1. stephany38 says:

    Thank you for all of the wonderful information you share. I feel so fortunate to have found your website. There aren’t any brush painters that I know in Mexico so you are my teacher and

    • Hi there:

      Thank you! I do appreciate my followers. And yes, technology is great for connecting people and allowing them to share ideas so easily. Another huge benefit is finding resources; I get most of my books off ebay directly from China. Blogging helps me keep track of my finds and the looming (self-imposed) deadline of approximately two posts per month provides the impetus to keep on exploring. I know I am lucky to have such a vibrant CBP community with many good friends who all have tons of talent right at hand, but the virtual one runs a close second.
      The Rat

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