Branching out, plum plus

So many of my CBP books are in Chinese that I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve got into the bad habit of not always reading the instructions even when they are in English! With some time on my hands recently I made a point of reading what the artist had to say in one of my big flower painting tomes. I’m glad I did.

Painting Flowers by Jia Pao-min is in a series of books on Chinese Painting Techniques; it was pretty pricey for a used, out-of-print book but the content has more than once gained my respect.

Jia Pao-min’s main premise in the first chapter is that several kinds of plants—plum, apricot, peach, cherry, apple, pear, wintersweet, pomegranate, wisteria, medlar and magnolia—all grow on SIMILAR constructs of branches. He tells us: learn one and you can do them all.

The differences for those 11 trees lie in the peculiarities of the blossoms. In fact, he goes so far as to state ‘the painting of the flowers is supplementary’. I’ll leave the blossom ‘peculiarities’ for other posts; for now the secrets to constructing a mass of branches is on the table.

The first four color plates in the book all have the same branch scheme used to display four very different plants: plum, apricot, maple and wintersweet. (Wintersweet is a winter-blooming fragrant shrub, which looks a lot like forsythia with an abundance of yellow flowers, and is loved by florists.) Jia Pao-min’s premise is clearly supported by the evidence. One branch scheme can provide the structure to portraying numerous trees!

Branch construction basics:

The artist explains (and illustrates) a pattern for creating branch structures in a systematic yet varied manner. His approach is not unlike Professor Ju’s approach to using a deer horn to define the shape of bamboo plants. (I’ve yet to read Ju on plum branches but I’m guessing he has a system there too!)

Jia Pao-min starts by distinguishing among three plant parts—he calls the largest stem a BOUGH, the next largest a BRANCH, and the smallest of the three, a TWIG. He then walks you through several exercises in building ‘complexities of constructions’ by repeating patterns of one bough with three branches of varying direction and length. (Yes, that number three is reminiscent of Ju’s deer horn shape.) He shows how to place one UNIT to the left or right of another, how to extend one of the branches of a first unit into a second (similarly patterned) unit, and builds toward a complex structure involving SEVEN units.

In the first image I’ve painted branches off a bough, pointing in four different directions; three twigs are added to the upper most branch of varying lengths and direction. Then another branch with two twigs is placed such that it leads in the same general direction as the first main bough,  and one of the twigs overlaps the first major unit.

In this construction the two-sectioned bough points left and has four branches; three twigs are added to the lowest branch and overlap (interweave) with the main bough. Then another group of three twigs is added to the twig nearest the tip of the bough.

Gaining confidence in understanding where to place branches and twigs, I took a stab at replicating Pao-min’s seven-unit branch construction, and even dropped in a few quick blossoms at the end.

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Two over-arching principles are variation and repetition. You vary the length, the width and the direction for the boughs, branches and twigs. You repeat similar shapes, such as placing a long upright branch in front of a similarly directed and arched branch.

Five basic methods for painting branches:

In addition to a systematic approach to constructing the framework for whatever blossoms you are planning to display, Jia Pao-min describes and illustrates five methods for rendering those structures:

1.SPLASHED INK—you basically paint your branch structure (following the systematic approach of unit building) in one round of painting.


2. BROKEN INK 1—you paint one structure using a certain number of combined units, and then while it is still damp, add a second unit overlapping the first, in darker ink. Where the branches of the first cross the second, there will be blurry intersections. Ideally the two structures have some similar arching, directed boughs, and branching that reflect the same pattern of the other. You’re not aiming for those dreaded ‘railroad tracks’ of twigs crossing parallel lines we all hear about in the early lessons for the Four Gentlemen, but rather similar shaping, like echo lettering.


3. BROKEN INK 11—first paint the branching construction using the splashed ink method in light ink; then while still damp, outline in dark ink, adding moss dots and other texturing as you go over the damp structure. The dark ink blurs into the lighter ink. Pao-min notes you are striving for an inter-play of light and dark.

4.  LAYERS OF INK—this technique also aims for an inter-play of light and dark ink, but the first painting of the structure in light ink is allowed to dry before you go over the structure with dark You avoid the diffusing effect of wet on wet. The dark ink texturing can enhance the ‘roundness’ of branches.


5. OUTLINE AND COLOR—this technique is just what the title says—first you indicate your branch construction in outline strokes with ink—as light or dark as you like—with rounding strokes to add texture and shape and then, when satisfied with the overall structure and the ink is dry, you wash in color (such as umber, burnt sienna, mixed greys and browns).

Before my afternoon with this artist’s big book I muddled my way through portraying plum branches based on the method first learned over eight years ago. I recognize it now as a combination of two or three of the foregoing methods. How nice at last to have both a system that works, and greater knowledge of several recipes to have in my painting repertoire.   (Note: Pao-min  included plum blossoms in his illustrations, but I wanted to focus on just the branches and examine his blossom variations on another day. )

General principles I’ve learned along the way:

–if outlining branches, leave the tips open.

–place moss dots ON the boughs, branches, or twigs, not suspended in the air.

–place moss dots in clumps, usually on one side of all the branches in a structure.

–strive to have the widest bough or branch end nearest the ground or main stem; that’ s how they grow!

–do try to leave gaps when structuring your branches for blossoms to ‘hide’ the branch.

–the ancients painted top of a tree to the bottom; this helps you ground the tree to the right scale in a painting. I prefer going from the ground up, hence from thickest part to thinnest. Trying both ways aids in learning some discretion for sizing trees.

One method for plum branch that overshadows then all:

I’ve also occasionally made a stab at following the wonderfully effective, triple-loaded color method demonstrated by artist friend and mentor Nenagh Molson. I’ll detail it here as I practice it one more time. It never fails that whenever Nenagh demonstrates her technique, the newbies in the room are oohing and aahing as they watch the branch-work unfold.  Here’s one she painted at a recent spring workshop:


Define boughs, branches and twigs much the same as Jia Pao-min did with his Broken Ink 11 method. You load a big soft brush with one or two colors, then dip it in dark ink. Nenagh always picks stunning color combinations such as navy and orange-red, or burnt sienna and emerald green. Placing the brush on the paper such that the inked tip lays out one branch edge, you push and roll the brush from widest part to narrowest part of a bough. You turn your brush and repeat the stroke to flesh out the other edge to the same bough. In similar manner, you drop in a few branches, and finally twigs. Keep the structure simple, plan for gaps to fill later on with blossoms, and ‘stop and start’ the strokes to show joints. When satisfied with the big branching layout and the work is still damp, pick up a detail brush and load with dark ink and go over the structure adding lines, texturing, further twiggy bits. Add moss dots. (And again, Nenagh loves to play with color, so often she does those in whatever color is opposite on the color wheel to her main branch color: blues on orange, dark green-ink mix on red shades of branch, etc. The effects are marvelous!


Once you put in the plum blossoms, you can come back and tweak the branching, or texturing of branches, or moss dotting, with ink or color from your messy dish. This stage is all about play.


Jia Pao-min shows numerous ways of rendering plum blossom, and then delves into the niceties of the many flowers he claimed could be painted on the same branch construction.   I’m considering putting him to the test, but that means a lot of new flowers to learn!

This entry was posted in branches, Chinese Brush Painting, composition, painting plum blossom, painting trees. Bookmark the permalink.

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