Tips on (bamboo) tips

Always practice bamboo.

That’s one of the mantras often repeated in Chinese brush painting instruction books. It’s the sage advice of many an instructor. And it is advice I’m starting to realize I cannot ignore.

There is the one obvious reason: when you don’t practice, you get ‘out of practice’, meaning you lose your confidence in executing a simple leaf formation needed to finish a composition. Worst of all, if you’ve just spent hours on a complex painting you certainly don’t want to ruin it with a carelessly considered leaf that is too sloppy, too wide, too wet, too parallel to a nearby one, and so on.

Another reason for ‘always painting bamboo’ has to do with its versatility. You may have heard that learning bamboo is fundamental to all Chinese brush painting. If you practice (and study) the several elements of bamboo painting—stalks, nodes, stems, buds, roots, and the myriad shapes to leaves and clusters—you are more likely to discover something new that can be applied in other circumstances.

The last time I attended a workshop on bamboo painting given by friend and mentor Nenagh Molson her explanation of “tipping off” a bamboo stalk led to several insights about finishing paintings, particularly bamboo compositions. And it all started with her showing us the Chinese character for “bamboo” and drawing our attention to the hidden secrets in the calligraphic strokes.


“Writing” bamboo

The calligraphic character involves four different strokes, two of which are repeated. The horizontal one should be recognizable to most CBP artists as the ‘bone stroke’. This time out Nenagh drew our attention to the very last stroke, that little upward stroke at the end of the character—kind of like the end of a J. It is also in the character ‘yong’ I blogged about here.

The stroke is called “gou” aka “yo” for those who want to know. Here’a a Youtube video showing how the character is written and you can also hear the pronunciation of each stroke.

Nenagh then showed us two ways to finish the tip of a growing bamboo stalk, and of course there was that little upwards hook stroke (see 2 below). The second way (number 1 below) was a variation, twisting the brush slightly differently.


From there, we got to talking about numerous ways to define the growing tip of bamboo branches, and different painters seem to have their favourites.  In the following image of a well executed bamboo composition I digitally isolated the growing tips on numerous branches to show their similar completion. This artist has used mostly a slightly curved single leaf (a few are ‘broken’ or ‘split’) and the result is a consistent look to his plant. The weather conditions are probably sunny–not windy or rainy.


I knew from last summer’s studies of Professor I-Hsiung Ju’s Book of Bamboo—the effort that gave me much confidence with defining clusters and even groves—that my own repertoire probably included three:

  1. the slender “new moon”
  2. a single straight stroke in any direction
  3. a long leaf extended and ‘broken’ in the wind

I’ve recently added the upward ‘broken’ leaf treatment to my repertoire for bamboo leaves on branches. It is quite elegant placed next to a smaller slim leaf at the very tip. Do note how leaves emerge from opposite sides of the branch, NOT in opposing positions such as on ash trees.


My repertoire was thus up to five. After Nenagh’s workshop I went back to my books and files, and gained some new insights from various sources.


The Mustard Seed Garden Manual has numerous images showing ways to finish bamboo branches. I was pleased to see they did NOT advocate leaving a tip (even for new fresh growth, in the sun, facing upwards) that held two opposing leaves in a VEE formation.

When I see that in a composition the strong VEES look like bird tracks, and distract from the overall look of the plant. As a gardener, I know that maybe one or two branch tips may have lost their end growth but not all at one time (unless a severe pruning has just been done!).

In the MSGM the artist shows slim little end branch tips, or slim leaves (new moons abound) or long slender split ones. Should there be two opposing leaves at the end of a branch, they angle other than a vee, and they have a tiny bit of stem between them, if not a sheath around a growth tip.


I went on to discover different clusters I had not tried before.

As often happens, the process of filing away workshop notes and flipping through files for specific treatments (bamboo branch tips) led to some new inspirations. I’m trying to get a better grasp of painting bamboo in outline or sketch method, and depicting it in snow. Those studies look promising…and I am trying to get in a habit of ‘always practicing bamboo’.











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