Power lines, making faces

Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002), Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), and Ming dynasty painter Wu Wei (1459–1509) have something in common. Karsh rocked the world with his powerful portraits of 20th century celebritiess . Yeats wrote many a verse contemplating aging and life, leaving an indelible image in my mind with just the title to one such poem—The Old Men Admiring Themselves In The Water. And Wu Wei wielded a ‘wild brush’ (even when sober) in portraying fabulous human figures with minimal strokes. All three were fascinated by the distinctive wrinkles and creases that accumulate as a man ages.

For the record, Yeats’ poem in full reads:

I heard the old, old men say,

‘Everything alters,

And one by one we drop away.’

They had hands like claws, and their knees

Were twisted like the old thorn-trees

By the waters.

‘All that’s beautiful drifts away

Like the waters.

Their work is on my mind as I study ways to paint the faces of old men bent over a vinegar jar. I recently tripped over what apparently has been a religious allegorical composition in Chinese culture for centuries, often titled ‘the vinegar tasters’.


My favorite rendition is this one attributed to a 15th century Japanese artist Guyoku Reisai and housed in the Tokyo National Museum.

Despite my particular interest in figure painting, and efforts to examine the full bodies of work attributed to acclaimed figure painters, somehow up to now I was completely unaware of the classic ‘vinegar tasters’, an image that has enchanted eastern artists and art-lovers for centuries. Its origin has been lost in time, but its longevity is understandable. One of my books suggests the concept originator to be Josetsu, a Japanese monk known best for a commissioned painting ‘how to master a catfish with a gourd’, which is the cover feature.


Versions of the ‘vinegar tasters’ typically show three elder gentlemen around a large vat of vinegar from which each has just taken a taste. The three men are no ordinary vinegar merchants or even connoisseurs; each represents one of the three major religious influences on Chinese life—Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. The men in turn are Lao-tsu, Confucious, and Shakyamuni (Buddha). Their individual reactions to the taste of the vinegar are evident by their facial expressions, and also reflective of the philosophical bent of the doctrines they represent.

Here’s a short take on the parable provided by another blogger, with more narrative built around it.

In 1982 American author Benjamin Hoff released a book called The Tao of Pooh in which he used Winnie The Pooh as a vehicle to showcase the allegorical vinegar tasting and thus discuss the nature of Taoism. Here’s a link to an excerpt from The Tao of Pooh.

And perhaps, if like me, you are wondering about the vinegar production business in China then have a look here.

My pursuit of the three vinegar tasters:

I discovered the classic composition while trying to find the full composition from which a detail excerpt had been taken of a painting by master painter Wu Wei called Vagrants, shown below. The image was in a bargain book acquired at a charity book sale and depicted a group of rag-tag musicians (buskers maybe?). Three seem to be engaged in a squabble of some sort with hair pulling and fisticuffs on the left; two stand to the side holding their instruments, but keeping an eye on the skirmish. Surely the larger composition has more wonderful figures and I simply must find it!


To no avail I hunted online and through my library for full version of the Vagrants. But my research did lead to discovery of the Vinegar Tasters as shown in Hokusai’s Sketchbook


Back online I found another (less pleasing, but widely distributed) version:


I learned this one was done by a master painter in China and emulates a painting supposedly made by Kano Motonobu (1476-1559) during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) in Japan. Kano Motonobu was the son of Kano Masanobu, who founded the Kano school style of painting. The original painting is currently in a private collection.

I also discovered several more modern versions, most unattributed:


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Then I found the intriguing rendition of the three vinegar tasters, as first inserted in this posting; it is my favorite, and I want to learn more. Just look at those wrinkles in the three faces!

vinBoysFAV Detail

Make mine wine, and other things learned from the vinegar-tasters

Figurative interpretations of the classic image aside, I find considerable intrigue in the presentation of the three faces, wrinkled with age and—in the moment—revealing the individual reactions to life’s most sour moments. You need more than a fine detail brush and the darkest of ink if you are going to dabble in this challenging sub-genre of Chinese brush painting. The tiniest of dots and the most subtle swerves and curves can alter appearances significantly. Every brush stroke must at once be precise and suggestive. What is on the paper can be as important as what is not. Eyes need both to believe, and to be deceived by what they take in.

I have three primary resources for figure painting:

1. The Hokusai Sketchbook already mentioned in this post is on the right above.

2.  A large tome called The Huapa New Mustard Seed Garden which is sometimes just called the ‘people volume’ as it deals only with painting figures is on the left. Some used Chinese edition hardcover copies can be found online (ISBN 7539805404). The author/painter may be a Jia Dejiang, according to a note found with one online source. I have found this book to be an extremely helpful resource.

3.  No. 30 in the Chinese Painting for Beginners series titled Method of Drawing the Ancient Figures is in the centre.  It is a good beginner book for someone interested in figure painting.

Now you may have already become aware of the commonly painted Lao-Tzu. (He’s often shown riding a donkey or water buffalo while facing backwards, has a long white beard and carries a walking stick). If not, there’s some background here.

Tackling those three faces (getting my grimace on)

My ‘people volume’ is absolutely filled with helpful detail sketches and compositions; here’s a sampling:


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My first ‘vinegar tasters’ composition is enlightening and disappointing.  I realize I’ve got the hands confused and not correctly posed.


I redo the comp. The hand of the middle man is better but his head is too large, the beard too messy….


I consult my ‘people volume’ for different facial expressions, and try to get more wrinkles in the faces.


Now that I’m more familiar with the concept of three men around a vinegar vat, I consider what variation I can make my own. Feminize it? (one such spoof shows up online)  Modernize it, right up to this century?  Hmm….there was a G20 summit in Europe last week with world leaders in one room, many of them older men with distinctive lines in their faces.  I pull a few images from news sites and try to sketch them, concentrating on the lines.


I retrieve some of my favorite Karsh portraits and try to sketch those:


I soon realize several things–knowing things about the individuals under scrutiny distracts me from the drawing, my drawing would never earn me courtroom fees as a recorder, and my vat of vinegar is probably best surrounded by older, oriental-looking fellows in the traditional manner.

While researching the ‘vinegar tasters’ I  found  other figure painting compositions that also have acquired the status of  ‘classic’.  There’s Seven Sages among the Bamboo to consider, and Three Laughers of Tiger Ravine.  The more I learn about the effectiveness of lines in portraying faces, the more I am intrigued.  Maybe I’ll trip over the full spread for Wu Wei’s Vagrants.  Or perhaps my mental picture of  the old men admiring themselves in the water will come to life on paper.



This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting figures, people. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Power lines, making faces

  1. Lin Chen says:

    Thanks for book recommendations. fyi: The Huapa book cannot be found under your given ISBN any more. I found one edition on Amazon under a new ISBN-10: 7102018762. The cover looks different from yours, but it seems to be the same book.

    • Good for you! Yes, a friend of mine has the book with a different cover as well, but the important contents are the same. It certainly is a great resource for figure painting. Cheers.

      • Lin Chen says:

        Thanks for your reply. Inspired by your little slide show, I am excited to see the actual book. Cheers also to you. Rat on!

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