Foliage Fun, wu-tung and friends

Wanting to set my figures from the Nanjing tomb wall murals in their original surroundings led me to some surprising discoveries about trees. So far in my self-directed study of Chinese brush painting (CBP) I’ve not been too smitten with landscapes per se.

Several members of my two art groups are truly adept at layering in clouds, mist, mountains, rocks, trees, and evidence of life—birds, animals, people, bridges, and buildings. They can ‘read’ the methods in old paintings, and are familiar with the papers that work best under those circumstances. My tree repertoire has until now included pine, willow, cypress, and a few nondescript, deciduous-looking trees that could flesh out a distant woodlot.

With the discovery of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove and Ron Qiqi my investigation of tree painting expanded significantly. There are ten trees depicted in the two large wall murals discovered in a tomb near China’s southern capital in 1960, five of which are stylized gingkoes, two are willows, and the last three are believed to be locust, pine and wu-tung (aka plane).

Below is a photo showing part of the Nanking mural with gingko on the left and then pine to the right; you can see the bricks and the wall is lit well enough to see the raised surface of the designs.  The pine needles are done in a very unusual manner that I have not seen in any of my instructional books or online.



Wu-tung, common yet not

Once my attention was drawn to painting wu-tung I realized the treatment of its foliage is commonly shown in instruction books. The method seems to be offered more or less as a generic way to create deciduous tree foliage in landscapes. Sometimes the leaves are shown with four strokes, and sometimes with five. Here’s my first study sheet for this foliage treatment:


You complete one leaf in a single fluid stroke.  Using a small brush loaded with ink you start with a ‘hesitation’ to yield the little knobby bit, then move up and to the right, proceed down towards the left, and hesitate for the next knobby bit. You can lift the brush or just lift slightly as you move back along the stroke to the top and down;  continue with the up-down movement such that you create fingers splayed out.  (Another method for foliage is to outline a set of ovals in place of these five fingers.)

Accepting that this foliage treatment represents wu-tung led to a puzzler. Close examination of the one tree in the Nanking mural that had to be the wu-tung (by process of elimination) revealed it was not painted in the manner so designated in my instruction books! The Nanking ‘wu-tung’ had leaves that looked more like an elongated elm tree leaf—they were broad at the top, tapered to a point, and had distinctive veins. They did not have saw-toothed edges, however.


In keeping with the stylized manner of tree treatment throughout the two mural panels, I rendered my wu-tung tree thusly:


What is the wu-tung?

In trying to reconcile the look of the tree in the mural designated a wu-tung with what several of my instruction books were calling wu-tung, I zeroed in on what is alleged to be commonly called a parasol tree.

This bit of research I did one morning prior to our last summer BBQ in a setting where several large deciduous trees dominate the landscape. As I enjoyed the sunshine and off-ocean breeze from a deck chair, I noticed that the strong sunlight glinting off leaf shapes on those several trees did indeed outline shapes like fingers in the manner of the instructional book ‘wu-tung’. The trees before me were large maples, definitely not parasol trees or elms.  The sun and warm air caused the leaves to hang and overlap in just the precise manner as depicted by the centuries old way of painting, as per my study sheet above.

Returning to the Wikipedia entry linked above, I examined the photo more closely and saw how the light reflected from the leaves in the parasol/wu-tung in much the same manner as I noticed at the BBQ. Here’s the photo of the parasol tree (Firmiana simplex) from that site.


Checking back with the mural, that so-called wu-tung simply didn’t have finger-shaped leaves…. What could it be? Scholars more knowledgeable than I have said ‘wu-tung’, but that term seems to apply to any number of trees.

I went back to listings for plane trees and looked more closely at the Platanus orientalisis. The leaf for the Asian plane tree does look a lot like our maple, and they could be depicted in the study sheet manner.  So my study sheet wu-tung is likely a plane tree, but the mural version is either a radically altered treatment or not a plane tree at all.  I think I will have to accept that I have two foliage treatments, but not unequivocal tree identifications.

One delightful bit of ‘wu-tung legend’ I tripped over in more than one resource was that it is the only tree the (mythical) Phoenix will light on. (One  source named the tree as the dryandra tenuifolia , which I learned was native to Australia and more of a prickly shrub than a tree!)  Whether the Phoenix prefers one that resembles the parasol tree, or the plane tree, or one that looks like the mural wu-tung is anyone’s guess.

With three new tree foliage styles—the stylized willow, the unusual pine needle arrangement, and the widely used wu-tung treatment—now in my repertoire I tried to include all in one simple landscape scene. And then for good measure I threw in the foliage as per two other treatments from my CBP books. Here’s the result.



I don’t think willows (which prefer moist soil) would be growing so close to pine, and I suspect the wu-tung on the right and its neighboring triangulated-leaf tree would both more likely appear with the willow, but not the pine.  I do like the feathery pine treatment inspired by the murals, and the very linear treatment of evergreens in the distance.  (Lotus has been playing with that foliage method these last few weeks and it offers great variety in distant tree densities; I am inspired to ‘do more’.)  The mural treatment of willow was very stylized, with short, tassle-like clumps of branches.  As I colored them in, I instinctively started to feather the branches into longer, more realistic shapes.   Now that I’ve got all ten trees of the murals figured out, it’s time to go back to the figures and their distinctive features.

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