Different strokes for different folks–painting the maple leaf

When our children were young one of them misheard the expression ‘make believe’ while reading bedtime stories as ‘maple leaf’. To this day at our house fantasy stories are referred to as such. When I double load a paintbrush to portray maple leaves in a composition my mind often wanders into the magical world that is childhood and fairy tales. There is indeed something extraordinary about leaf shapes and colors that blend right on the paper, truly mimicking the astonishing array of fall color that bursts seemingly overnight from a clump of Canadian (aka. sugar or rock) maple (Acer saccharum).


Fall color in Gatineau Park is always a spectacular sight.

Now I’ve named ‘the maple’ I’m referencing because there are numerous trees, all somewhat similar but also different in significant ways, that people intend to single out with their chosen term ‘the maple’.

I lived in Manitoba for years and there ‘the maple’ more often as not was used to refer to the Manitoba maple (Acer negundo), which is distinguished by a split leaf formation. In Victoria where I now live, leaves of ‘the maple’ blowing about in fall can startle visitors with their sheer size—they are the size of dinner plates, often up to 17 or more inches across! (Acer macrophyllum) And gardeners in conversation using the term ‘the maple’ may be describing any number of shrubs/trees collectively called Japanese maples, that come in a huge array of foliage colors and shapes as well as various sizes.

Then there’s Canada’s oldest maple, a sugar maple variety known as the Comfort Maple, standing in Pelham, Ontario.  Alas, the name comes from a one time farm owner whose surname was Comfort, not because of the tree’s demeanor!

In trying to figure out which of ‘the maples’ is likely to be the subject of Chinese brush painters I encountered the same multitude of candidates in Asian countries. My conclusion is that just about any maple species could be the subject of a composition in which ‘the maple’ figures, and hence there are likely to be different leaf forms portrayed.

To confuse things further, I learned that the ‘plane tree’ is often the designated subject portrayed in traditional CBP landscapes, which employ red-colored, five-lobed leaf structures on medium sized trees.  Just such a tree was featured in one of John Nip’s landscapes we examined at art group last week:


Plane trees have leaves similar to maples, and are also commonly called sycamores in some parts of the world.

Painting resources:

My CPB books have very little about painting maple leaves, yet they do show up as context elements in landscape, flower-bird, or figure/animal paintings. They usually present as a bough showcasing birds or insects, occasionally as a tree framing a horse, goat, or other large animal. Their main purpose seems to be to impart color or suggest the season.

I hunted online and found examples worthy of study, but no dedicated lesson in an instruction book. I found several helpful artists (Joan Lok, Virginia Lloyd-Davies) describing how to paint maple leaves that surely were based on Acer saccharum, our Canadian maple or a near relative. (See examples later in this post.)

Some portrayals show five lobes to leaves, and others show six; some are pointier than others. Where I did find some instruction for portraying maple leaves was in my collection of sumi-e (Japanese) painting books.


My searching led to the discovery of several ‘styles’ for maple leaves:


This is a detail shot of maple in one of my panda painting books; the leaves are very loose and lack veining, but the varied tones and overlapping appeal to me.


Here’s a detail shot of a ‘flower-bird’ composition by Lou Shabai. He showcased two bright blue birds among these strongly colored leaves.


Yolanda Mayall demonstrates how to paint sumi-e maple leaves with a ‘press stroke’ technique in her book and provides a few examples such as this  for clustering them.

When I expressed my frustration in finding so little CBP instruction for creating maple leaves, Delightful Lotus reminded me she likely had notes on file from art classes with master painter John Nip. The handful of lesson sheets she found did not include John’s customary notes (which suggested the method he used was his own and not a traditional one passed down through his fifth generation Lingnan School teacher.) His illustrative maple leaves, complete with a trademark ‘finishing flourish’ were highly instructive! (See Method four below.) Bless you, John; thank you Lotus!

Here’s a marvelous slideshow of what Lotus has done with maple leaves–three compositions and one close-up of the bough above those two crows.  After my lengthy hunt for appealing maple leaves painted in the CBP manner I’d say it doesn’t get any better than this!

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Maple Leaf painting:

I discovered there are at least four different ways to compose maple leaves. The first two are shown in my sumi-e books and online in Youtube videos. The third I discovered demonstrated online. The fourth I discerned from John Nip’s lesson sheets with input from Delightful Lotus.

Now all of these methods can be used to portray maple leaf boughs, but if you are intending to portray a larger tree, then scale becomes an issue. Chinese brush painters sometimes ignore realistic proportions of objects in order to draw attention to some element through exaggeration. Tiger and Eagle eyes are made larger to emphasize ferocity; human figures in landscapes are often made small and featureless to contrast with the grandiose nature of mountains and forests.

One of my horse-painting books includes this composition showing a tree that can only be intended as a maple, given the leaf shapes, and the scale appears to be correct.


Color combos in the painting are not so great; the horses are well proportioned. The leaves here could be painted by using any one of the following four methods:

Maple Leaf Method One: Press stroke

This is the method described in Yolanda Mayhall’s The Sumi-e Dream Book and is demonstrated in a bookmark painting on Youtube here.

It also appears to be the method used by another experimental artist who posted a Youtube video of maple leaves painted with food coloring. The result simply glows with color but I’m sure it wouldn’t survive the glue-mounting procedure done to stretch and preserve Chinese brush painting (food color would likely bleed once you started to wet-mount.) The dark ink veining is also very effective in this little vignette.


You simply load a soft paint brush with yellow, dip it in some shade of red or orange and then place the brush tip where you want the main leaf tip to begin, and press the brush to the paper. You then repeat the press-stroke to either side of the first stroke, and then two more (smaller lobes) either side of that.

The overlapping part blends together and the five points to the leaf lobes will hold the darker red tone. (If you want that color at the lobe intersection you’ll need to use one of the other methods described below.) You arrange leaves in sizes and gestures as wanted to form a cluster, then vein with ink or a darker color, and connect with branching. It takes practice to control the amount of water in the brush and to visualize a pleasing arrangement of leaves for a cluster on a bough.

Asian maple trees have a mostly smooth bark and the branches are best rendered in a medium to light grey wash. (The trunks on our older Canadian maple trees should look textured with grooves and similar grey coloring.)  You can mix green in with the grey for a fresh spring branch, and you can add green to your yellow-red leaf color scheme.

The press stroke method of painting maple leaves for a tree is illustrated in Chinese Landscape Painting Made Easy by Rebecca Yue.   The shape and coloring of her tree would suggest she had an Asian variety in mind, not the Canadian Maple.


Maple Leaf Method Two: Wipe/Side strokes

This technique is described in one of my Japanese sumi-e books and the demo is in ink tones. Basically the same five-pointed leaf is created by loading a brush in light ink dipped in darker ink, and then creating the leaf lobes (same order as in method one, starting with the larger central one) using side strokes. Each one is begun with the brush tip either at the point or at the leaf centre and wiped on an angle. One of my books describes this stroke more completely: plant the loaded bush at the point of intersection of the five lobes, and then while moving the brush sideways, lift your elbow so that the paint/ink trail diminishes to a point as you lift off the paper.


Maple Leaf Method Three: Bamboo strokes

I’m including this method because should you be aiming to portray a realistic looking spray of some Japanese maple variety this method works well.   I first observed this executed in a Youtube video using shades of ink.

I later tripped over an attractive composition employing dark red maple leaves that were obviously painted in this manner.  These leaves closely resemble those on a Red Emperor Japanese maple growing next to my front patio, right down to the consistent glowing deep red color and the slightly serrated edges.


Basically you create a five-pointed leaf by placing five successive (slightly modified) bamboo strokes intersecting at a single point; from that intersection you paint in a small stem. Those bamboo strokes need to be sized appropriately to render the leaf with five lobes., and you can curl the tips ever so slightly.  Order for painting again seems to be the centre one first, then one to the left and one to the right that are slightly smaller, and then two more even smaller ones to the left and right of those, angled appropriately.

Maple Leaf Method Four: Hook strokes

As in the first three methods described above, this method involves defining full maple leaves with a five-lobed formation, and also creating partials (three points only), new leaves (smaller and not fully formed), and old leaves (dried ones as well as lacy, transparent ones with skeletal veining).

John’s method was to start with a single down stroke, followed by two hook-strokes on either side. The last two points would be added with simple pull strokes, either away or toward the intersection of the five strokes as needed to create a leaf. Here is one of John’s original lesson sheets showing subtle variations to consider:


He used the double load of an orangey-red medium tone dipped in a darker shade of that tone in such a way that the darker color would suggest the ‘valley’ for the veins. The little hook on strokes two and three was necessary to create the proper leaf shape. John’s lesson shows veins done in ink and in color (see below). His own preference was for dark red tones done after the leaves were mostly dry.


Now I did find in one of my Japanese sumi-e books reference to this ‘hook-stroke’ in the instruction for painting grape leaves, but the accompanying illustration had sharp angles to the lobes and looked more like a maple leaf than a grape leaf to me. Note the different ordering of strokes here, moving left to right instead of from centre out.


Lotus told me that John was a stickler for students ‘finishing’ their maple leaves. His trademark ‘finish’ for maple was to dab spots on all leaves using pale mineral yellow (or yellow mixed with white). It was amazing to see on my studio table how his ‘finish’ truly enhanced the appearance of the leaves!!! I painted these leaves with a large bamboo/orchid brush.  Just look at the difference those light spots made in my bough of maple leaves–pure magic!

maplemagic1           maplemagic2

Veining for Effect:

While hunting for compositions with maple leaves I found at least two artists–one a sumi-e painter and the other a Chinese brush painter–who seem to have perfected their own distinctive ways of portraying maples. Joan Lok seems to be painting the larger maple leaves indigenous to the eastern United States; on her web site you can find this helpful demo sheet as well as a few compositions where she has employed the method.


The second American artist with a distinctive ‘fall color’ leaf that surely is maple is Virginia Lloyd-Davies. At her web site you’ll find this composition using maple in an effective manner with dark ink veining:

VLDfall colormaple

Both Lok and Lloyd-Davies appear to drop in veins in a curved manner, while the leaves are slightly damp. One can learn a lot by studying the detailing of their leaves and trying to replicate them. Overlaps, color variations (deeper values come forward, lighter ones fade to the background), leaf parts, leaves that are dried or bug-bitten, how they attach to stems—all these things can be carefully examined.

I spent an afternoon exploring the different ways to render a maple leaf, then another afternoon concentrating on John’s method, and finally most of a Sunday afternoon working on different cluster combinations for a setting featuring a horse.  Here’s my first bough (not yet ‘finished’ with the sparkle) that I considered to actually resemble maple. It was painted with a small soft brush.


The leaves tend to point in a similar direction–mostly down when not in a wind–and should overlap.  Varied tones and sizes add interest and branches should be lightly defined.

I tried to apply my understanding of cluster creation to a full composition; here it is still on my studio table.  I think I will try and add a falling leaf or two on the left and then color in the grass with some pale gold and orange tones to tie the elements together.


While hunting online for images of Canadian maple leaves I found many wonderful photographs where raindrops had beaded on the leaf surfaces (hydrophobicity is the technical term).  My guess is water droplets are the explanation for John’s clever dotted leaf finish! How curious that both photographers and artists observed the same remarkable phenomenon that enhances their images. Mind you, the dotting could also be evidence of bug bites; I prefer to think of it as ‘fairy dust’.

A final surprise while researching maple was to learn that an individual maple tree had been the inspiration for Alexander Muir’s much-loved song, The Maple Leaf Forever.  See this article.

Painting ‘the maple’ is truly fascinating, no matter which method used or which ‘maple’ emulated.  It is the perfect way to counter the gloom of an overcast weekend with endless five-lobed leaves in cheery shades of yellow, orange, bronze, and red.  Don’t forget the ‘fairy dust’.




Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, maple leaf, sumi-e painting | Leave a comment

The owl that winked at me

I just love it when I’m on the hunt for something specific, say a bamboo grove, and my searching leads me to a website with other items (fine figures) that simply command my attention, things I would have looked for if I had known they existed. Recently I poked around all kinds of sites that carried artworks by Huang Yonguy, a contemporary Chinese brush master known for abstract herons and egrets among lotus. His large, free-flowing blue herons certainly got my attention. And so did his ‘winking owls’.

Here are two of my early attempts at emulating his owls:

MytwoYHowls                  MysingleYHowl

Even though my main interest is the art, sometimes I can’t help but check out the context and stories associated with the artists. I mentioned in my post on the blue heron that Huang Yonguy was believed to be making a political statement with his trademark owl representing authority figures turning a blind eye to wrong doings. I tripped over one of his owl compositions showing six owls in a large tree, with several of them winking and blinking, and looking very somnolent. I saw them as owls doing what owls do: hanging out in the boughs of an evergreen, languorously leaning against one another, and occasionally opening one eye to scan the surroundings.

I do love owls—the barn owls we knew as children, the horned owls occasionally spotted hunting at dusk, the tiny burrowing owls at home in Manitoba’s Carberry Desert. And I have tried painting them. How shocked and saddened then, to learn that Yonguy was subjected to three-plus years of ‘hard labor’ by China’s Gang of Four in the early 1970s for his winking owl paintings! Right has triumphed over wrong to a degree: the artist now in his 90s paints on, while all four of his accusers are long gone. (For more about the controversy over his winking owl see here and for more on the gang of four see here.)

Owls in art and culture:

Most often associated with clandestine activities such as magic and witchcraft—they are nocturnal creatures after all—owls have inspired artistic endeavors for centuries. I own this wonderful book showcasing porcelain, stone, wood and soft-sculpture owls, some laden with jewels, feathers and other adornments. It is a compendium of owl-based art from around the world, chock full of inspiration.


Aboriginal people of the North American plains once wore owl feathers to protect them from evil spirits, and in Middle Eastern cultures the owl was seen as a sacred guardian of the afterlife. This site offers a lot of information about the owl in Japanese culture (where it is largely seen as a good fortune omen) and has some lovely photos to boot!

In China the owl is seen largely as a bad omen, its cry denoting an impending death. Of course that brings to mind one of my favorite novels focused on the Pacific North West, Margaret Craven’s The Owl Called My Name.  She envisioned a story centred on the old superstition held by some Aboriginal peoples in Canada as well as across much of Europe, that certain owls call out at the time of a soul passing.  After reading any of  her work you can never hear an owl’s call in the dusk without a shiver up the spine.

Another book on owls I keep for reference relates that some ancient Chinese believed that individual owls were ‘soul-keepers’ for individuals, and hence people revered all living species of owls. Too bad such beliefs were not held in North America into this century, and then we wouldn’t be facing near extinction among burrowing owl populations and dwindling numbers of others.


These three books on my reference shelf are all filled with owl images helpful to my owl painting studies.

In Renaissance England the hoot of an owl flying over one’s house was an evil omen, and meant impending death for someone inside. Shakespeare refers to the owl as the “fatal bellman” because it was the bellman’s job to ring the parish bell when a villager was near death. It was thus called the “passing bell,” and was a signal for all hearers to pray for the dying person. Scholars plumbing Shakespeare for such owl references find ample evidence of owl calls used to foreshadow a death. Here’s a blogger who has collected more than a few.

Oddly enough, the owl is not as popular a Chinese brush-painting subject as the eagle. I can only speculate as to why, surmising it has something to do with that nocturnal behavior and association with magic and bad luck. The eagle, with its highly visible weaponry—nasty beak, sharp talons—is a favored subject. Does anyone have any insights into that peculiarity? (Owls=not popular while Eagles=favored subject)

People do love owls:

Another owl resource book on my library shelf notes that the owl is probably the most recognized bird worldwide, because of its distinctive features: the large head, the stout body, the large eyes surrounded most often by feathered disc-shapes, and the manner in which it turns its head for auditory purposes. The author suggests the owl’s appeal is partly due to its human-like features—large eyes with drop-down upper lids, central beak sufficiently hidden in feathers so that it resembles a nose and looks less like the deadly weapon it is, similarly disguised talons looking more like toes, and so on. Its long time association with wisdom, learning and all things academic is believed to stem from the focused and penetrating stare bestowed on all who approach.


A.A. Milne included an owl  called Wol among the friends for his lovable Winnie the Pooh

It’s been noted that the owl is probably the bird most known to children, largely due to its presence in so many children’s stories. It’s distinctive call (who-hoo variations) and its face dominated by large forward-peering eyes, often surrounded by feathery circles and accompanied by tufts (not ears, those are usually hidden in the facial feathers) also make for commonly known markers. Curiously though, when asked to rank birds by preference, people tend to place the penguin, flamingo, peacock, and others ahead of the owl; it simply cannot escape its association with impending death. Even the eagle enjoys greater human admiration than the owl, and yet the eagle’s predatory weaponry is more evident than that of the owl.

Just WHOoo is the Owl?

Owls generally belong to the family Strigiformes, with two main categories within, the Strigidae or true owls, and the Tytonidae, those we consider barn owls and recognize mostly by their heart-shaped faces. The latter have other anatomical differences from the true owls, but those faces are the most obvious. For more details about specific owls to be found in Asia consult this site called The Owl Pages.

Under the menu item Physiology (then hearing) on that site is further explanation of where owl ears are to be found, and again those ear-like tufts on some species are presented as ‘display’ features.  The feathery discs surrounding an owl’s eyes actually aid hearing more so than seeing, serving to funnel sound waves into the owl’s auditory sensors on either side of his head.


With so many different kinds of owls having different feather markings, eye shapes, head tufting, and so on, for purposes of painting one should consult a reliable bird book. I must admit that I was so impressed by the loose style of Huang Yonguy that I did not grab my bird book when I first sat down to paint owls. His owls definitely looked ‘owlish’ to me, with all the right body parts in the right proportions and feathery surfaces. When I did check my reference books on owls, I was surprised to discover so many truly different feather markings among the numerous species. Rendering those could prompt many afternoons of experimentation with dry and wet brushwork, I’m sure.

Painting the owl


This little snow owl was created long ago by my toddler son and comes out every Christmas to take a place of honor on the family Christmas tree.

Jane Dwight includes a simple procedure  in The Chinese Painting Bible for painting an owl; I’ve added tufts to her bird in the final step.


I also tried a ‘sketchier’ version demonstrated in one of Pauline Cherrettt’s teaching books. I liked the line work and the washes, but was uncertain as to the body shape.  (Bird Woman’s advice to always consult a reliable bird book or a photograph came to mind as I put this one aside to dry. )


Here’s my technique for trying to emulate Huang Yonguy’s trademark ‘winking owls’.

  1. Out of habit I started with the eyes—two large circles painted in medium grey, with large black pupils. Those need to dry before you can color in the eye with an orange-yellow. To portray a winking or sleeping owl, indicate the closed lids with a dark horizontal line and then cover the eyelid with a bluish green.
  2. Using dark ink and a large orchid brush I dropped in the tufts, a few forehead feathers, and the beak.
  3. Returning to medium ink with the large brush I rounded out the sides of the head, wings at the sides, two stout legs.
  4. Feet and tail. Both of these were painted with dark ink, keeping the brush dry for the tail and making sure the toes had exaggerated talons.
  5. Chest feathers. These were done with a splayed dry brush using some light, some dark ink. I also filled in around the eyes, across the head and down the sides with medium ink to fluff out the full body. Yonguy used some indigo on his birds.
  6. Once the bird was finished I turned to filling in the surroundings: branches or a rock for perching. Yonguy seems to favor stick-like branches (to contrast with the fluffiness of the bird?) and moss dots that pick up the indigo in his feathers, or terracotta branches with black moss dots.


My Six Owls in a tree, in the manner of Huang Yonguy:

The progression of this composition from inspiration to completion was a fun experience, and benefited tremendously from art group critics.


The painting fits perfectly into a thick dark brown frame a friend gave me and is now ready for chopping.  These little fellows are just like potato chips–you can’t stop at one!  I’ve also found several more Yonguy owl paintings and may even take on the detailed feather work of the one featured in my owl book with wings spread to their fullest, almost five feet across.


Even the owl species unfamiliar to me hold appeal; just look at the feathers in this stocky guy.


These birds do have a way of ‘calling out’ without uttering so much as a peep, let alone a hoot.








Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, how to paint birds, owls, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in branches, Chinese Brush Painting, composition, painting plum blossom, painting trees | Leave a comment

Painting perfection: the persimmon

You have to understand some principles of abstract art before you can ‘get into’ what Picasso was doing with his ‘cubist’ approach, breaking up subjects or objects into pieces and re-arranging them to suit his own mind. You may need a primer on the nature of pointillism to grasp what Seurat was aiming for with his colored dotting technique. Likewise, when studying some of the CBP compositions from ages past, you do need to have some understanding of the principles of composition, the nature of brushwork, tonalities of ink, modeling methods for texture, and so on.

The need for context is never more obvious than when examining one that is highly  touted. When I first tripped over the 13th century Chinese painting titled The Six Persimmons, attributed to the monk, Muqi Fachang, or Mu Ch’i Fa-Ch’ang, my curiosity was hugely aroused. Just what was all the hoopla about? And why was it housed in Japan? It has been billed as the ‘ultimate in painterly simplicity’.


For more about the painting see this entry.

Berkeley’s Professor Emeritus James Cahill devoted a full half-hour in his lecture series (lecture 12 part 2) on landscape painting to exploring the mysteries of The Six Persimmons. Here is just that lecture.

And here are his lecture notes which I found after I’d laboriously made my own!

Introducing the Zen (or Cha-an) Painting:

Some grasp of what constitutes a Zen (Chan in Chinese) painting and history of their development helps in the understanding of Cahill’s lecture, but he also integrates such background into his talk.  Basically it’s a genre of CBP developed by a particular sect of monks and shared with other literati, in which the artist creates a simplistic composition–usually of a very common subject such as a vegetable–employing some painting techniques that instills in the viewer a sudden epiphany or moment of illumination. The arrangement or treatment of certain elements within the composition command attention in a powerful way.  The small painting featuring six little persimmons was shared among Zen Buddhists monks, including those in Japan where it now resides. It is much admired by art critics and artists in both countries.

The closest thing we have to a Zen painting in the western world is perhaps the still life. 

Back to the Six Persimmons:

To illustrate one of the principles at work in the Six Persimmons, Cahill shows us a landscape grove composition featuring several trees painted in similar yet different shapes (i.e repeat patterns), all with varied (contrasting) tonal values. He draws attention to the location of the darkest one—just slightly off centre—and proffers that the three elements (darkest tone, central placement amid similar shapes) cause our eye to see the grove as we would in nature; the one darkest tree gets our attention and hence is the focal point.

Cahill goes on to show paintings done in China, in the manner of Muqi, that were kept in China. None of them has the liveliness, the mysterious immediacy that his simplistic Six Persimmons composition does.

In Cahill’s lecture he provides several visuals to illuminate his insights into why this little painting warrants attention. In one comparative slide he shows Muqi’s Six Persimmons beside a handscroll painting of eleven persimmons completed by some unknown copyist; the fruits are all too similar in tone, shape and brushwork to warrant much attention.

Two other comparative slides from Cahill’s lecture I’ve captured and present below.


The first places the subject painting next to a photograph of six real fruits; a friend of Cahill’s took the photo in jest, but the professor of art used it to show just how complex the painting really is. The photo does line up six fruits in a very similar manner to the compositional layout, however there is little to distinguish the individual items: stems are too similar, color tones are very similar, shapes are similar, and so on. Muqi’s arrangement and treatment went a long way to convey multiple contrasting messages.

Later, Cahill shows two small paintings of a similar subject—chestnuts on a branch—with one painted in traditional manner and the one on the right presumably done by Muqi (Cahill provides several strong arguments as evidence).


The differences in tones used for the leaves, the mixed and rough textured brushwork to convey leaf surfaces, the vitality and multi levels of interest in the Muqi composition all contribute to the commanding presence of the composition. Such was the intent for a true Zen painting; a simple subject, painted with great care, aiming to command a viewer to GAZE at it.

In essence, The Six Persimmons comprises exactly what the title says: six garden variety persimmons are painted in shades of ink—greys through darker blacks—across the page. They appear to be placed relative to one another with some plan. Each one has some individuality, and each has some ‘roundness’ or depth to its presence. They are not flat on the page, they are not just tossed on a table out of a basket, and the tonal qualities of the ink goes a long way to portraying degrees of firmness or ripeness in the fruit.

If like me, you have read and re-read passages in the Mustard Seed Garden tome or other books on the theoretical aspects to CBP, you’ve wrestled with things like the following:

“Neither complexity in itself nor simplicity is enough.”

“Neither dexterity nor conscientiousness is enough.”

“To be without method is deplorable, but to depend entirely on method is worse.”

And finally:

“You must first learn to observe the rules faithfully; afterwards, modify them according to your intelligence and capacity. The end of all method is to have no method.”

My books on theories behind Chinese Brush Painting (CBP) are rife with such loaded statements that can leave you pondering for hours. I often consider there may be even more I am missing because of translation! But there is no doubt in my mind that Muqi’s little painting has a lot happening in it, and I do want to know what those things are.

Resources on how to paint persimmon:

My main resource on techniques for painting the persimmon is the (Book 2) Fruits volume of Johnson Su Sing-Chow’s four-volume set. It is shown here next to my pocket-book size version of the Mustard Seed Garden, which is so handy to take along to thumb through when gifted with lumps of wait-times in odd places.


He illustrates painting the heart-shaped persimmon (most likely an ‘hachiya’) that is grown in North America and the copper-basin, a large sweet fruit that is rather flat in shape. Jane Dwight, in the Chinese Brush Painting Bible, that handy little spiral bound compendium, shows a similar approach with side-stroke fruit (her choice is the stacked Tam-tams or maybe Tamopans) and double side-stroke leaves. Both finish off their broad leaves with a little tip to the leaf, which neither have described in the text; you have to catch that tip from the visuals.

What is the persimmon?

From Su-sing Chow I garnered that there are two main kinds of persimmons, those that have soft pulp and those that have hard pulp. Soft-pulp varieties, also called sweet persimmons, are mainly red and ripen on the tree. The hard varieties (bitter persimmons) are mostly paler colors and can be quite unpalatable due to their astringent tannins. They need to be fully ripe before their chemistry alters the bitterness and the pulp becomes both palatable and digestible.

Art group member Jany Li brought a frozen persimmon (large and flat-shaped so probably was a ‘copper basin’ variety) to our group coffee break one morning, telling us on her recent trip to China she’d discovered this way of serving persimmon so as to enhance the flavor. The jury is still out on that one, as we had mixed opinions.

While hunting through my big C.A.S. Williams book on symbolism in Chinese culture for his ideas on the persimmon, I noticed he said the most widely propagated varieties are often picked after exposure to frost, which sweetens the pulp and boosts the nutrition level. That sounds like what we Canadian gardeners do with broccoli and other such vegetables, and likely what Jani’s home freezer had accomplished.

Persimmons originate in China and are deemed a fruit of good fortune and an emblem of joy. They are cultivated in every part of China except the extreme cold regions. Williams mentioned one called ‘large millstone’ that can reach 18 oz. (500 g.) or more by weight. Some varieties are native to North America; all are in the family Diospyros and go by common names such as ‘date plum’; the variety D. kaki is the most widely grown.

The persimmon tree is deciduous with broad thick leaves, and pale yellow flowers. Fruit come in many shapes—ovals, spheres (Hachiya is the most widely cultivated one), square-ish lumps (Sheng ), and one distinctive variety (Tam o pan or Tamtams) even looks like two fruits stacked, or one that wears a cap in the manner of North American acorns.

Here’s a link to a California blogger who shows us a range of varieties and do note the green leaves next to ripened fruit in some photos; other photos show trees with fruit but no leaves, as they have fallen. (Under ‘painting technique’ later on I will pass on advice to avoid green!).

Fruit sizes vary, as do the reddish colors. Of course there are many ripening into the orange tones widely called ‘persimmon’. See this link on the color name.


This sheet showing numerous varieties of Persimmon is from an agricultural information sheet.


These are the Tam-o-pan variety that appear to be two stacked fruits, or one with a waist; the photo is from San Diego Magazine.

The ‘Seven Virtue Persimmon’:

Ancient Chinese lore has it that persimmons are valuable on seven fronts: they live long (about 80 years), provide good shade, offer good bird nesting, do not harbor pests/parasites, they can be used for fall decorations, are good to eat, and the fallen leaves are broad enough to write on. The painter Zhang Daquin called it the ‘seven virtue tree’.

Persimmons are commonly painted with birds; or with an herb called lingzhee to convey the greeting ‘may all your wishes come true’. I stumbled upon persimmons as a subject of interest when I found some odd little birds perched among them. While studying sparrow I became intrigued by painting birds head-on; getting the eyes either side of a flat stroke for the head offered a challenge. Two sparrows in this pose in a persimmon tree showed up in a Google search more than once. They got my attention and then The Six Persimmons commanded my attention.

Steps in Painting Persimmon:

Whether rendering persimmon in ink or color you’ll need some knowledge of the distinctions of their parts: stems, leaves, peduncle, calyx and fruit. Su-Sing Chow paints both heart-shaped (hachiya) and stacked (Tam-tams) using ink tones for the leaves and color for the fruit; he says avoid green for the leaves suggesting they have turned to fall colors when the fruit would be ripe, so fresh green would not naturally appear next to red fruit. Dwight also shows the pairing (ink leaves and colored fruit) and the few online comps I have found involve ink-toned, greenish or brownish washes for the leaves. Ning Yeh’s recently published Book Four (108 Flowers) in his series of Chinese brush painting lessons, features persimmon on the cover; his treatment is distinctive and it does use green for the leaves.  (The book is on my wish list!)


Painting the leaves:

Paint leaves first, aim for large size relative to fruit, avoid green as the leaves have fall colors or have dropped by the time fruit ripens.

Plan the comp with leaves and stems intended to surround a few feature fruit; you may be swiping in the fruit so they are behind a stem or partially screened by a leaf.

Bigger leaves require two strokes. Use water and ink, with some brown. Differentiate between light and shade (lighter ones behind fruit, on top of the tree where sun hits them; darker for undersides or out of the sunshine.) You may have to come back and tuck in leaves or parts of leaves behind fruit once they are done/dry.

Add veins to leaves when damp; though parallel they must not be uniform.


My first study sheet of persimmon leaves; the brownish-ink I thought I had applied in tones but the leaves dried to similar values.

Painting branches/stems:

“Suspend the wrist and use a centre brush stroke; apply inner strength, move the brush slowly, sustain and disperse the strength of the brush stroke to the very tip of each stem.” says Su-Sing Chow. Strive for crisp and fluent brush work.

Choose spaces for each fruit, close to a branch with room for a short stem/peduncle.

Painting the calyx:
The persimmon has four sepals/sections to the bud that, when opened, lie splayed atop the fruit. They are best outlined in ink with a detail brush, colored partly with umber, and finished with light mineral green.

Dwight left hers outlined only.

Painting the peduncle:

This short little stem that supports the fruit on a branch needs to be crisply done in dark ink. Be sure to tuck the stroke end back on itself and not just stop smoothly.

Painting the fruit:

Depending on variety portrayed—heart-shaped ‘hachiya’, larger and flatter ‘copper basins’ or the stacked ‘Tam-tams’ –the brushwork used involves side-strokes of color. You can play with loading a brush with orange dipped in reds. For the heart-shape you employ two paired strokes, for the stacked you place c-shapes one above the other.

Work from left to right, from top to bottom of fruit; then place the right to left stroke if doing heart-shapes. Patch up any ares with the brush tip to fill in the shape.

Leaving a bit of white showing between the strokes is desirable as it suggests light gleam on fruit; it also retains some of the curving look (3-D) to the fruit.

Use a larger soft brush

Practice to develop a ‘feel’ for the wetness, the color blending, the speed of the strokes, etc.


I tried both heart-shaped fruit and stacked ones. The bit of mineral green on the sepals has a nice effect.

Planning a composition:

Think out an arrangement ahead of time, such that the fruit can be shown with varied ‘faces’. Details of the four sepals go a long way to help convey the ‘turn’ of your fruit. Having leaves on all sides of fruit helps create the desired 3-D effect. Various ink tones in the leaves are desirable.  I set up my table and tried to replicate one of Johnson Su-Sing Chow’s exercises:

And then for fun took a stab at the composition found online showing two head-on cartoon-like sparrows:


Emulating Muqi’s Six Persimmons?

I have yet to try painting just the fruit, in just the ink….it’s too much fun playing with orange and red brush loads and the side-stroke shaping of fruit. I’d think mastery of fruit shapes, calyx directions, and crisp little peduncles are all necessary first. Striving for ink tonality and clever placement of fruits in different shapes and configurations will take time.   One has to be grateful to the Japanese Zen-Buddhist monks who carefully preserved the Chinese monk’s precious painting. In one of those online sources documenting the painting’s provenance, the story is told of a monk who saved it from a burning building by cutting his stomach open and tucking it inside his abdomen. Apparently the evidence is in a red blood smear on the paper near a corner or back of the paper. Ah, those art-collectors who create myth to enhance value…could it possibly be true?


Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, persimmon | Leave a comment

All in the eyes: painting sparrow

Shuttlecocks. That’s what many of the sparrows appearing in Chinese brush paintings look like to me—just extremely round heads with a trailing splay of feathers. Their heads are too big for their bodies. Sorry, I don’t think the effort to capture the spirit of the bird with such portrayals is working.

Sparrows have long been a favorite choice to paint with willow or bamboo, probably right back to the Song dynasty when the bird-and-flower genre was invented. They are indeed a cheerful little bird, one that twitters and hops around a lot. They also seem to throw themselves into the breeze for the sheer fun of it. They are painted perched on branches or rocks, usually in pairs or groups, and often airborne just after lift-off or just before landing. Those last two postures take some understanding.

I’ve been looking at a lot of old and newer paintings that feature sparrows and I’m not certain who decided they should be painted so ROUND, and ill proportioned. Generally, sparrows are small, plump, brown-grey birds with short tails and stubby, powerful beaks. (They actually have an extra bone in their tongue to aid in picking up seeds.)

What does draw my attention in sparrow painting is the eye treatment. There seems to be two basic ways of portraying them—one involves an outlined oval with a central black pupil (which can also be enhanced with a white highlight), and the second is to use a simple black round dot.  I’ve tried both methods as shown in these two small studies..

SparrowStudyRB  SparrowStudyYB


About the bird:

The differences between sparrow species can be subtle. Members of this family range in size from the chestnut sparrow (Passer eminibey) at about 4.5 inches long to the parrot-billed sparrow (Passer gongonensis) at about 7 inches. A fellow blogger named Jennifer Stone has a post dedicated to differences between two common varieties—the tree sparrow (Passer montanus) and the house sparrow (Passer domesticus). She includes lots of details as well as distinguishing photos here.

Sparrow folklore:

For a seemingly small and ordinary-looking bird, the sparrow has certainly amassed a range of significant meanings to mankind from different cultures and in different times. One flying into the house in my grandmother’s day meant an impending death in the family. In Greek mythology the sparrow was associated with the love goddess Aphrodite and deemed a symbol of true love.

The Indonesians saw the sparrow as a good luck omen, portending everything from imminent rain to fortune in love. According to the ancient Egyptians, sparrows would catch the souls of the recently deceased and carry them to heaven. Sailors often acquired sparrow tattoos in hopes the image would thus carry their souls to heaven should they be lost at sea.

Chaucer and Shakespeare both relied on the sparrow as symbols of lust and lecherous behaviour. My reading also revealed that sparrows were sold as food in Elizabethan times, and of course biblical references abound, mostly exploiting the sparrow’s small size to show heavenly regard for even the tiniest of creatures. Others employ the sparrow as symbolic of pious behaviour, hope, fertility and resurrection.

One surprise to me was discovering a tale from the brothers Grimm that exploited the cleverness of a sparrow to illustrate the triumph of goodness over evil in a rather graphic manner. It reads more like an Aesop’s fable.

In China the sparrow was supposedly a candidate for the national bird, losing out to the much larger and perhaps more exotic, red-crowned crane. Sparrows were perceived as a symbol of humility, their feathers being simple and relatively unadorned. For many, the fact this species of bird would rather starve itself to death than be bred in captivity showed great spirit. Together with their symbolic associations of strength, vitality and perseverance, it was thought that this would make the sparrow an appropriate symbol of the Chinese people — despite the fact that Mao Zedong attempted to eradicate sparrows in the 1950s.

Painting the sparrow:

Until recently I had few resources addressing sparrow painting that I liked. As mentioned, several artists render these little birds in a plump manner with ill-shaped bodies and wings. (Even worse, the wings are sometimes curved concave; cute they may be to some viewers, but how they fly with wings caved in boggles the mind.)


Many good bird books will include outline sketches (such as those shown below) to illustrate the correct ratio of head to body size and suggest postures for painting.


A rather basic book on bird-and-flower painting I picked up on eBay doesn’t name the bird illustrated in their simple step-by-step instructions, but it can only be a sparrow based on the images. It is shown on the left below:


The book on the right, which addresses several birds commonly used in CBP, is the one I used as a guide for sparrows with black dot eyes.


(TIP: Delightful Lotus admired the book for its several pages of kingfishers, but discovered the treatment of bird feet was not always accurate. One has to consider all resources critically and trust your own “creature knowledge”.)

It was an online resource that I used for the study based on outlined eyes. The artist also employs distinctive spotting on the bird’s back. His tutorial can be found here.  His manner of painting the eye certainly adds to the expressiveness of his compositions. Here’s my study again, but do check out the video which shows five on a branch.


My preferred sparrow characteristics:

–expressive eyes, yellow on the eyeball for contrast

–sharp beak

–spotted back feathers

–a head to body size ratio close to realistic

–wings curved naturally (not concave in flight, puh-lease!)

How to paint my ideal sparrow:

  1. Eye and beak—using a detail brush dipped in black ink paint a black pupil within an eye outline. A straight line across the top of the eye helps contribute to a focused appearance; leaving white or adding a white highlight after the pupil is dry also helps yield a piercing stare to the gaze. Strive for a short, sharp beak executed with a firm stroke. Train your eye to ‘see’ where the bird’s eye should be placed relative to the beak—behind and slightly above the ‘gape’ line. When dry, add yellow mixed with burnt sienna or a minute amount of ink so the eyeball really stands out. Raggedy Bird artist Neil Armstrong mentions white will also have the same effect, but I prefer the dull yellow.  I made this quick sketch to show how placement of the pupil can alter the bird’s look:


  1. Head and body (upper back)—using a larger soft brush loaded with dark brown touch the brush to the paper and ‘plant’ a stroke for the head. It takes practice to control the moisture and color in the stroke. Some blurring of the edge is okay, but you want the pointy part that will be ‘forehead’ to hold the darkest color to the stroke. You place this stroke with the ‘prow’ aimed in the direction the bird is facing. The body lies behind the head, is made with one large and maybe two smaller strokes on either side with a ‘wipe’ stroke that may be slightly curved to convey the roundness to the bird’s body. You are not filling in the entire back of the bird, just suggesting the fullness of the shape and allowing a viewer’s eye to pick up the overall sense of the bird. You want these strokes made quickly and confidently. Again, it takes some practice to get the moisture level, color placement, and ‘swish’ just right.

The bodies on these three turned out a deeper indigo than I intended, but their postures are useful to try again. This trio is on the cover of my general bird book mentioned earlier and I love  that head-on pose on the far right.

  1. Wings, lower body and tail. Using a lighter brown for the under body, and dark ink or really dark brown for the wing tips and tail seems to provide good contrast to your sparrow. Depending on whether your bird is perched or flying, you may have to define more wing feathers. Yang O-shi’s book Bird and Flower Painting offers six poses of the sparrow perched (sitting) that are very useful to learn; she also offers several in-flight poses for practice. In some of the compositions in the same book her sparrows have open beaks and appear to be ‘speaking’ to each other.
  2. Legs, feet and back dotting. Paint the legs and feet with the detail brush dipped in dark ink. The sparrow clutches on to branches with three toes forward and one pointing to the back. In flight, the legs hang loosely below the body, angled by the air draft with toes slightly curled as well. The artist at Raggedy Bird touches up his sparrow body outlines, adding feathery bits at the beak, the top of legs and along outline edges. He also sprinkles dark dots across the sparrow’s back topped up with white paint. These final touches contribute significantly to the character and spirit of his birds.


  1. Although the eye painted as an outlined oval with a black pupil is striking, sometimes the eye done as a simple dark dot can be effective.
  2. Getting the eye placed properly with respect to the gape line, that being the break between a bird’s upper and lower mandibles, is getting easier for me.
  3. Rendering a sharp little sparrow beak with a single stroke takes practice. Moisture level, the precise curve, length and speed to the stroke all must be ‘just right’.
  4. Painting sparrows in bamboo requires planning and coordination of TWO creative processes—the birds plus the bamboo. A simpler setting that can be roughed in after the birds are finished is easier to execute.
  5. A single sparrow (or maybe two?) with head cocked just so, eyes brightly focused on something, and body poised for action, can make a nice little scene.

One comp I was sort of pleased with; for little birds they are a BIG challenge!

Now that I’ve studied sparrows more fully in order to try and capture their essence on paper, I can see why they might be considered as ‘soul-catchers’. They do move about busily and seem to be aware of every movement in their immediate surroundings. Animated, perky, and energetic—they truly are all these things. That they could sense the passing of a soul is entirely credible, but I question they’d stay ‘on task’ long enough to carry one to its destination. I’d be more inclined to trust my soul to one of the big water birds. Just look at the steady wing beats and determined stare of a heron, cormorant, or pelican as they take off across a stretch of water. Sparrows flit. Soul-carrying strikes me as much too serious a business for such a little bird.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, sparrows | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, flowers, wisteria | 2 Comments

Hoary brushwork and other surprises: painting wisteria

My study of wisteria all began with a single word, but it took me to many different sites and various writers, and even down a mysterious and fantastical tunnel.

The starting word was ‘hoary’.

When I first read that portrayal of wisteria would require ‘hoary’ brushwork I thought maybe something was getting lost in translation from Chinese to English.

I tried to find an explanation online, only to discover the term was commonly used in describing the work of numerous old-time brush painters. I found at least three discussions of CBP art/artists where the term was applied.  The first used the term to describe brushwork in a painting called Pines and Summit from the 17th century. The second used the term in the context of the style of another painter from that era, and the third used it while discussing work from the 14th century (paragraph 11 of that discussion)  (Tip: you can use the Find function on your computer to locate the word ‘hoary’ in the text if it’s not readily found.)

Not finding ‘hoary’ among art terms, I looked for insight in dictionaries. I knew the adjective as it applied to certain frost formations covering a landscape, even admitting waking up to the wintry surprise of a hoarfrost-covered neighborhood is among the few things I miss from my former life on the Canadian prairies.

Two other dictionary definitions that showed up were: 1. ‘ancient or venerable’ and 2. ‘tedious from familiarity, or stale’ as in ‘please don’t tell that hoary old joke at tonight’s party, dear…’

Neither of those two meanings seemed particularly relevant in describing the brushwork required in wisteria, and that found in the old brush paintings. And neither appeared to be the usage Johnson Su Sing Chow intended in Vol. 1 Flowers of the Four Seasons (Spring). His word choice launched my wisteria research of the last few weeks.

My conclusion is that the term means the vine strokes are strong and brisk, leaving trails of ‘flying white’. (By chance, do any of my followers know otherwise?)


This amazing tourist shot of wisteria was taken in Ashikaga Park somewhere in Japan; the plants must be decades old and well attended!

For more photos of similar wisteria parks check out this site.

Other wisteria puzzles I uncovered pertained to its name (spelled both Wisteria and Wistaria), its growth habit (clockwise in China and counter-clockwise in Japan), and that my main anthology on symbolic meanings of all things oriental (especially flowers) had nothing on wisteria, yet an online search turned up tons of interesting lore.

From whence its name?

Whimsical, whispering, wishful—all word associations I—and others—have made with the flower’s name. Surely there would be a fanciful tale behind its name! No, it was simply named by American botanist Thomas Nutall to honor an anatomist, Caspar Wister, back in the early 19th century. Or maybe it was to honor the Doctor’s grandfather whose surname was spelled Wistar. Both spellings for the plant’s name are widely used.

The plant is a member of the pea family Fabaceae, related to the more familiar purple vetch and sweet pea. The wisteria presents florets that have the typical ‘banner’ petals behind a keel or slipper like structure. The florets grow in clusters (racemes) that start out pointing upward but soon face downward due to the increasing weight of opening petals. (An artist needs to note that the florets near the top, i.e. closer  to the supporting stem, open first and those towards the tip of the cluster open later and are often seen in bud form.)

The plant is native to Asia, and comes in various shades of blue, mauve, purple, pink and white. In the wild it was originally light purple and sprawled on the ground, producing long vines called rattans. Most people grow it on a trellis or other support and treasure it for its pendulous clusters that sway in a breeze and perfume the air. Artists have loved it for centuries; it embodies colorful large blossom structures, thick gnarly stems and vines, and leafy foliage.  Asian varieties are known for their fragrance, yet an  American variety commonly called Kentucky wisteria is scentless.

Wisteria can be exceedingly long-lived; I discovered online references to a plant in the UK that is about 200 years old, and another in Japan allegedly growing for twelve full centuries!


The wisteria cloaking Fullers Brewery in Chiswick, London grew from one of two cuttings brought from China in 1816.

Gardeners I know say it grows vigorously, and requires frequent hard pruning. One friend had to hack back a monstrous specimen that circled her house when it came time to paint, but the vine grew back in just a few years.

It was from another blogger  that I  learned that wisteria  grows clockwise in Japan (twining from left to right as it ascends) but counter-clockwise (right to left) in China! Now that was something I had to check out. This site confirms the growth activity known as circumnutation indeed is different in the wisteria commonly known as Chinese (Wisteria sinensis) and the variety known as Japanese (Wisteria floribunda)! The writer also offers photos to show the difference in twining direction; do take a look!

As I poked around web sites to verify correct presentation of wisteria I recalled an old (1972) Dan Fogelberg tune and soon had yet another wisteria puzzle to add to my list.

I remembered the tune as a haunting love song of sorts. An online check disclosed the lyrics had really been about a vampire.  See story behind the tune.

Symbolism for Wisteria/wistaria:

In The Chinese Painting Bible  artist Jane Dwight notes that wisteria is seen as the embodiment of all of life’s stages: the strong knotty stem represents old age, the vigorous curling tendrils symbolize youth, and the buds and flowers childhood. Other sources attribute immortality and longevity to the plant’s symbolic meaning.

One online source suggested that the wisteria’s habit of thrusting floral structures upwards at first, and then falling eloquently into tapered pendulous clusters is a visual indication of bowing or kneeling in honor or respect. Feng Shui practitioners apparently encourage planting wisteria in order to encourage moments of contemplation. Gardeners and artists would do so naturally as well—the plant is simply that intriguing to view.

Yet another online source added to this perception that wisteria commands reverence, by suggesting the blossoms lower their heads in gentle supplication; one branch of Shin Buddhism claims the vine gesture is a call for peace, quiet, and time to honor the divine.

I encountered numerous references to an 1820s ‘wisteria maiden’ being the inspiration for several Japanese kabuki plays, and through her the plant has gained symbolic association with romantic love. Wisteria also has been used in gift-giving to symbolize wishes for good fortunes, such as new beginnings in business, family (births) and relationships (marriage).

My Painting Resources:

Wisteria is such a popular subject in CBP that it is featured in many of my flower painting books. Interestingly enough, several of them treat the flower in very different ways. Here are those with distinctive styles:

1.In Chi of the Brush artist Nan Rae provides an ‘interpretive’ style that aims to capture the essence of the flower. You can also see her show some of the technique in a Youtube video here.

Basically she portrays the older, more open petals at the top of a cluster in a loose manner with swishy, suggestive strokes for stamens and pistils, and executes the younger buds in a more realistic fashion. Note her leaves are slender and end in fine points. (Her style is very similar to that used by American CBP artist Ning Yeh.)


2.Another artist (Feng Zhwu-Shiung) features wisteria in a composition with two cats in his book Painting Cute Animals. He treats wisteria more ‘interpretively’ than realistically. He does show the older florets with open petals, but dabs in yellow centes in a somewhat spotty manner. His younger floret buds appear below in an unusual profile manner with distinctive central stems. His leaves also appear more generic than realistic; wisteria leaves are slender, pointed and the veins are not as obvious as in his portrayal. Yet, I am fascinated by that image and have returned to it often to study what’s going on in the composition. The rib-like stems in each cluster, together with the heavier inked veins in the leaves, seem to reflect the tabby striping in the kittens. The wisteria also arches down and around the left side of the composition to pull your eye toward the main features, those darling tabbies.


3.When Delightful Lotus did a workshop on wisteria painting for our art group a few years ago she referenced Vol 1. Painting in Four Seasons (Spring) by Johnson Su-Sing-Chow. He devotes 12 pages to the subject and his style is more realistic in how he portrays the flowers, leaves, vines and stems. His treatment is the same as what talented brush painter Yang O-shi explains in an out-of-print book called 100 Flowers. Both show leaves growing alternately on the stems (accurate portrayal) but they paint them in a stubbier fashion than Nan Rae and Ning-Yeh.


4.A fourth resource on my bookshelf that I should reference here is a gigantic book simply called Painting Flowers by Jia Pao-min. His interpretation of wisteria is similar to Feng Shui’s with less realistic leaf shapes and strong inky veins. Over 18 pages he delves into the twisty vines, leaves and flower clusters. While some of his clusters seem to have old and new florets shown all along the main cluster stem (not realistic) he does provide numerous compositions to guide a newbie in using wisteria effectively. One thing he addresses that none other on my shelf has explored, is painting white wisteria! I intend to return to them for an afternoon of their own, as they do have strange appeal.

WisteriaJPdetail       WisteriaJPwhitedetail

Painting order and methods:

Several artists advocated painting the main vine structure first, then adding the tendrils and leaves, and finally the floral clusters. My preference was for the standby approach of creating a few main floral clusters, then filling in and connecting branches, stems, leaves and vine tendrils. Jia Pao-min pointed out some artists prefer flowers first, some prefer vines first, and others like to start with the leaves.  Here’s my brief exploration of the vine-first method; I never did get to adding leaves.

WistVineFirststep1     WistVineFirststep2

As I am just discovering how the wisteria’s distinctive ‘parts’ all fit together, I decided to go with flowers-first. Maybe once I’ve got some comps under my brush I’ll try a ‘vines-first’ to see what it does for the creative process. By the way, after my first afternoon painting wisteria  I realized this is one flower where a rounded-tip brush is desirable, not one of those that holds its point. How nice to be able to use some of those brushes that simply don’t perform many other CBP tasks.

1.The flowers: You want the wisteria cluster (raceme) to be shaped like a lilac cluster hung upside down, with darker buds closer to the tips and the more open (softer tone) florets closer to the top. I prefer striving for a 3-D look but some artists use a profile appearance that has some appeal.  The open florets have white spots at the base of the petals and yellow stamens. You can dab water on the paper and then place two colored strokes around the dab like parentheses, to result in the look of the upper banner petals. After playing with the form I realized I was neglecting to paint two small strokes to complete the ‘keel’ below those banner strokes!  So much to remember!


2.The leaves: There appeared to be two basic ways of rendering wisteria leaves, both involving painting alternate leaves on a stem.  The one style yielded slim, pointed leaves whereas the other resulted in more rounded shapes. The slim style could be done with either a single ‘touch-press and pull-lift’ stroke OR two overlapping ‘pull’ strokes


WistLeafcurved  WistLeafcurvedveind2


3.The stems and branches:  My resources offered lots of advice on ways to execute these elements. One of the tips Lotus mentioned in her workshop was to vein your leaves with green darkened by the blue or purple of your flower cluster. I quickly realized I needed a lot more practice to understand leaf shapes, tonal variations for older versus younger leaves, and just exactly how the stems emerged from the twisty old vines.

4.The tendrils and vines (the hoary bits, remember?)  Su Sing Chow provides lots of guidance on vines, the ‘home for the leaves and flowers’ he says. He advocates variety–dry , damp, deep, light, and dense–and encourages brushwork that is ‘fluent, weighted and restrained’.  He suggests standing while painting will enable freer movement of the entire arm,, and yes, do paint with a brush held upright.

5. Finishing.  Add dots for excitement, tuck in extra leaves to pull the comp together, and resist the temptation to fill in blank spaces around the featured arrangement!


My first full composition featuring wisteria; it needs more leaves tucked in to pull elements together.

Wisteria companions:

I’ve found many compositions have wisteria dropping over ponds with goldfish or mandarin ducks. I’ve seen them painted with ducks, chicks, roosters, hen families, even pigs and sheep.   They provide a natural setting for all kinds of Asian birds—crested mynha, sparrows, swallows, and many kinds of songbird. These are usually painted in pairs if perched on the vine, and in groups if flying about.

My favorite is little chicks, and that’s what I used in my first full comp. Now back to those leaves…


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