Ink, one of the Four Treasures

The weakest ink is mightier than the strongest memory.   (Chinese proverb)

Brushes and paper are the two treasures most often considered by those of us obsessed by Chinese Brush Painting (CBP). Ink stones and ink, the remaining two, seldom garner much attention, at least not on the same scale as brushes and paper.


Do I grind or pour, that is the question…

We spend time and money tracking down paper: we hunt for it in foreign markets while traveling, we purchase much more than we would ever use in order to have some for exchange with other like-minded scavengers, and we hoard it in our cupboards once we have a stash.

As for brushes, in reality we could manage with two or three—a large soft orchid brush, a fine detail brush, and a hake for applying washes efficiently. But the truth of the matter is that we succumb to the allure of just about every kind of painting instrument we see. Our brush pots, drying racks, and woven fiber rolls hold countless varieties—goat, sheep, wolf, badger, horse tail, squirrel, rat whisker, even some fashioned of human hairs. Then there are those of mixed hairs, some we have hacked up deliberately to create a ‘scruffy’, and even some we’ve used so long only thin wisps remain. All have their place in our hearts as ‘treasures’.

But ink? Other than choosing to use purchased bottled ink or grind our own from an ink stick, most CBP enthusiasts give ink little thought. I find bottled ink gets me to task sooner than taking time to grind. I know that the more traditional grinding serves a purpose: you clear your mind and properly ‘prepare’ for the painting session ahead. And if you select ink sticks with some discretion you can prepare a ‘stickier’, DARKER ink than you’ll get from a bottle. (Well, except when you pour bottled ink on a hot day and considerable liquid evaporates before the end of your session; that un-intended action can also lead to ‘sticky’ ink in the dish.)

THE book on Ink has been written!

There are times when a good work of non-fiction can outweigh the intrigue of fiction. The Social Life of Ink, culture, wonder, and our relationship with the written word by Canadian English professor Ted Bishop passes that bar and then some. His 2014 opus has been described as ‘part travel narrative, part hidden history, part cultural exploration’ and ‘fascinating, with writing as tactile and fluid as ink rolling across rice paper’.


As a retired wordsmith, I indeed found every single chapter compelling and entertaining. As an enthusiast of CBP, I could hardly put the book down once I got into Part II The Art of Ink. Bishop outdid himself in researching the history of ink-making in China. He visited factories, travelled to the famed Yellow Mountain region where the best inks have been made for centuries, and even tried learning to ‘write’ a few Chinese characters.

Much to absorb

The best parts of the chapter on ink for me, aside from details of his factory visits, were the insights into ink additives and all the old secret recipes and the poems. One excerpt:

“Traditionally, credit for the invention of ink goes to the third-century calligrapher Wei Ten. In his recipe, after you’ve strained your soot and dissolved your glue in the juice of the chin tree, you add five egg whites, one ounce of crushed pearl, and the same amount of must, after they’ve been separately treated and well strained.”

Bishop’s research uncovered a range of ink additives to improve color, consistency and aroma, such as peony rind, pig or carp galls, pearls, pomegranate, and sandalwood. He notes over 1100 possible ingredients!!! I will never sit at my art table with quite the same non-reverent attitude again.

And then there were Bishop’s poetic discoveries. Beginning with Xue Tao, a Tang dynasty poetess (c. 770-832) the author cites relevant verse (translations) to enhance his cultural and social history.

‘Old pine burned forming light charcoal flowers,

The exquisite ink-making skills of brother Li

How describe the deep, cool shining color?

Darker than the fair lady’s hair, a crow flying in winter.’


And another, this from a poet called Chang Yu:


‘Burning orchid-lamps, we invited the moon to join us;

drinking wine, we plucked the strings of our lute.

Who would have thought that for another evening of joy

we would have to wait for thousands of years!

Now your wandering spirit is far away in darkness,

and only cold words are left, in your own hand.

The dusty ink still gives off a light fragrance,

the paper is torn, but still has its lustre.


And from Li Po (aka Li Bai), China’s equivalent of our William Shakespeare, part of one of his poetic tributes to ink:


Soot made of Shang-tang Mountain green pine,

Mixed with cinnabar powder of I-ching,

And orchid oil and musk, a precious ink is made,

Its glaze shines so luxuriously that one is afraid to use.


The servant boy with two coiffures brought it in,

Wrapped in a brocade sack, carefully on his arm;

With this gift from you I am going at once to the Orchid Pavilion.

When inspiration comes upon me, I shall write happily with my brush and your ink.’


I must find this book for my shelf of favorite bedside reading.

I should really put aside the bottle and grind my own ink, now that I am aware of just some of its reasons for being so treasured.

I will sew a brocade sack for my stick and my stone, to carry them as they should be carried.





Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, ink | 1 Comment

Spreading peace, love and joy: painting peacock

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know I like stories that illuminate the spirit of the creatures I study. The older and more legendary the story, the more appealing it is for me.  Several gorgeous peacocks greeted us at a local lavender farm recently and  prompted me to consult my art books.


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The peacock, is probably the most striking and the most fabled bird of all time. Most legends concern its association with pride, its distinctive so-called “tail feathers” or its prowess at killing snakes. I found one blogger has already collected a host of such tales,  which made for delightful reading. My favorite story is one that explains how the peacock acquired its distinctive train feathers. See this link.

The tale ends by asserting the gift of a peacock feather spreads peace, love and joy. My CBP books claim it represents beauty, dignity, and high rank; it is also believed to ward off evil. That said, who wouldn’t want a peacock painting on their wall!

Primer on peacock:

Before delving into painting techniques I had to check out the bird’s anatomy. My first insight had to do with the peacock’s distinctive fan of brilliantly colored feathers: it’s NOT comprised of tail feathers, but is an appendage on his back that he allegedly uses in courting the ladies. Such a feathery construct would suggest to me the peacock is related to the Mandarin duck, which also has an unusual back appendage called a ‘sail’. I found no such proof or discussion.


This photo of a peacock posted in an art group forum on Facebook clearly shows the wing feathers with the collapsed ‘train’ lying along the bird’s back.

I learned there are primarily two species of peafowl in the genera Pavo. They both hail from Asia—the blue-headed or Indian peafowl (pavo cristatus) is originally from India and is designated the national bird; the green-headed peafowl (pavo muticus) is from southern Asia.

Oddly, both males and females of the green peafowl have brightly colored heads and feathers, whereas in the blue-headed variety, only the males sport the colors, with females presenting in drab brown-grey feathers. There is a third African species only found in the Congo Basin and aptly called the Congo peafowl, but it is not as widely known as the main two.

The exotic bird enthusiast who owned the lavender farm we visited had several peacocks strutting majestically through his meadows. He told us the white peacock is NOT an albino, but another species entirely. That recognition has only recently been made among ornithologists.


Both males and females of the green-headed one sport colored heads and the distinctive feathered train.

The function of the elaborate train on peacocks has generated much debate; Charles Darwin launched the ‘sexual attraction’ theory. Others have expounded on significance of the size, coloring, and number of ‘eyes’ in the fan. If only peacocks could talk!

What an artist needs to know:

Now knowing there are basically blue-headed (male only) and green-headed (both genders) peafowl, I’m not as confounded by different head or body colorings depicted in paintings. I suspect the authors of at least two of my books on painting peacocks were not fully up to speed on these facts, as one shows blue-headed birds with and without trains (hence falsely depicting the female as blue-headed) and the other shows pairs of green-headed ones, with the supposed female lacking a train. (Oh boy, do let me keep the coloring sorted out properly!)

The bird’s head is triangular-shaped with a short, pokey beak and eye markings. The head sports a tassel. The train that can be raised into a fan-like structure extends off its back; wings are often speckled with wispy bits trailing from the coverts. The peafowl’s feet are scaly-looking like most bird feet, with long toes showing toenails on the tips (three forward, one back).

I am glad to have lots of photos from our recent farm visit to help guide my studies.

Resources and methods:

Painting peacock is addressed in many general CBP books that include birds, likely because of the bird’s popularity. Jane Dwight includes it in The Chinese Brush Painting  Bible and so does Yang O-Shi in her Flowers and  Birds: a perspective. Birds depicted in both those books have muted tones which I find less appealing than colors used in some specialty books I found. (See below)

Artist Ng Yeesang is featured in The Art of Peacock Painting (the large format one on the right) and it was his birds I chose to emulate.


As one might guess, the peacock will consume large amounts of bright colors. It also takes careful consideration to choose an appropriate setting. Traditionally in CBP the bird is paired with peonies or placed on a tree limb, such that the bird’s spectacular train is displayed.


These close-up photos of real peacock feathers reveal train feather details.

As with any bird, starting with the beak and eye helps establish the bird’s nuance. Building the head and then neck and chest after that, works well. Sketching the body shape and array of feathers lightly is next. Then comes detailing of the head, chest and wings. The exotic feathers take several stages, starting with shading and definition of the ‘eyes’.

  1. Rough sketch outlines for your bird/s using very pale indigo/ink.
  2. Build up the sketch with a fine brush loaded with dark ink to show main head features such as eyes, tassels, markings; drop in details for body feathers (overlapping scallops), the main wing feathers that extend in arches, and horseshoe shapes for the eyes in the train.
  3. Continue to define the body feathers and the long feathers of the train. Each ‘eye’ on the train needs a dark ink ‘pupil’ with three concentric lop-sided ovals.
  4. Only when your inky under-painting is fully defined and you have shaded areas that will appear denser/darker, do you bring out the colors.
  5. Paint the (male) head first, a deep cobalt blue; consider using mineral paint on top. You can blend sky blue and indigo with the cobalt in your brush to suggest sheen to the short, bright feathers. Then treat each ‘eye’ to turquoise, yellow and orange markings. When the eye colors have dried, go over the whole train with shades of yellow-green, darker towards the feather ends. Any breast and wing feathers in sight should be shades of brown, orange, and grey.
  6. For a female bird, your sketch will NOT show a train. Her body should be slightly smaller than for a male, if you paint a pair. Her feathers are brown, grey, and orangey.

My first peafowl studies:


Wanting to define some of the fine details of the long train feathers with fine ink lines I played with using a horsehair brush on my Dragon Cloud paper.  I wasn’t too pleased with the subdued colors, but decided to try a full comp on that paper, hoping to bump up the intensity of the colors.  Here’s how my first few steps looked:


The female’s feathers need some tweaking as does the edge of the male’s train. I’m not happy with his wing treatment, but the foundation comp is worth finishing.


As I sat back to consider the end result (did the rock need more color? should I employ a background wash? etc.) I realized I had painted the female’s head blue, as it appeared in the Ng Yeesang book; I’m not certain that is totally realistic! Wasn’t it the green-headed peafowl that presented with colored heads on both genders and the blue-headed variety only had color on the male’s head?  My armchair critics raised no objections, so maybe I will glue it after all. (I’ll get it right on the next one!)

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

Boys and Girls together, figure painting

Any parent who has held a newborn knows the soft curves and tiny features that go into the beauty of human babies. Any artist attempting to capture childish glee knows the anatomy differs from that of adults in more than just size. You can’t simply outline a smaller version of an adult, add dimples and call it done. Nope, there’s much re-inventing to achieve, if painting children is your goal.

Among Chinese brush painters, there are some who do it best. The work of Zhou Sicong (1939=1996) comes to mind. I’ve yet to acquire a book of her work, but luckily a member of one of my Facebook art groups posted examples, and I now know a name for my watch list.


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To paint children, there are some basic anatomical insights an artist must have. You can likely find a few books in any art section of a library that detail such differences for people painting in any medium.

Here are a few from my art bookshelf:


Among the tips to know:

–Children generally have larger foreheads than adults; a child’s eyebrows should present at the (vertical) halfway mark on a facial oval, whereas an adult’s eyes will fall at that line.

–Youngster’s eyes are usually rounder and larger than those of an adult

–Adult bodies are realistically about 7 ½ x heads tall, but for centuries artists have drawn them closer to ‘eight heads tall’ to enhance the appearance. (And we thought airbrushing was a new phenomenon!)

My recent studies:

Armed with a new paintbrush-pen and several printouts of the Zhou Sicong compositions I first filled several pages of a sketchbook getting familiar with the cherubic facial features:


Then I tried a few with ink and colors:




These were all done with a concentrated effort to get the head proportions ‘right’, so much so that I merely ‘roughed in’ the setting details.  Now is the time to go back and complete one with full attention to all aspects…but I just tripped over some wrapping paper from a dollar store that is calling my name.  Looks like Hokusai sketches.  The children may have to wait.





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To art room, to art room… to paint a fat pig

You may have noticed that not too many general CBP instruction books offer direction on painting the pig—this, despite the pig (or boar) being one of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. Several of my books offer directions for “popular” zodiac animals, but exclude the domestic pig (Sus domesticus) and cousin wild boar (Sus scrofa).

The good news is that once you’ve mastered some line-drawing skills using brush and ink, and maybe painting wet-in-wet for body markings (or dry brush if you want that look) you can indeed paint pigs. You just have to learn some of the anatomical requirements: large head on an elongated body, snout, four-toed hooves, floppy triangular ears.

With a pig year fast approaching—2019—I’ve been considering porcine compositions.


My stock of zodiac-inspired cards is down to just these three. The one in the middle was inspired by artist Cheng Shifa who painted a lot of domestic farm animals.


The one book in my CBP library that does address pig painting in some detail (The Beginner’s Guide to Chinese Painting Farm Animals and Pets by Mei Ruo) also introduced me to an all new breed of pig, the Panda Pig or Liang Tou Wu.

I guessed this species unique to China was named because it has body markings similar to the panda. Sure enough, Mei Ruo explains it commonly has black hair on the neck and on the rear, hence its name Liang Tou Wu, which means “two ends are black”.

Mei Ruo offers numerous tips for rendering attractive piggy paintings:

–strive to capture its unique body features—short stubby legs, rounded body, floppy ears—with thick-thin outlining and contrasting shades of ink.

exaggerate the mouth and eyes to suggest more of a grin, thus enhancing the facial features.

–pigs, oxen and goats are all cloven-hooved; the pig has four pointy toes on each foot with the two front ones touching the ground and the back ones lift up slightly.

consider angles when defining body parts: the ears are triangular, the side-view of the head is a large isosceles triangle, and the head viewed head-on appears more hexagon-like than rounded.

–in keeping with the principle that ‘foreground objects are painted with dark ink and background objects with lighter ink’ Mei suggests defining the front end of the pig in dark ink and lightening the ink towards the rear end in order to establish depth within the painting.

–because the pig symbolizes good luck, it should be painted with a smile.

He offers detailed directions for painting the panda pig in freehand style, explaining positioning and shaping of body parts. This old farm girl needed little help with the anatomy, but I did appreciate the reminder to use my thick-thin outlining more effectively.

Here are some of my studies from this afternoon:



I’ve tried to put in the ‘panda’ markings with dry brush.


Here I used wet-in-wet brushwork to define the ‘two-ends-black’ markings on fat pigs.


I considered a comp showing pigs herded by a young child, based on an online photo; I simplified photo elements but didn’t get the pigs fat enough to resemble panda pigs. These look more like wild pigs and the child is not oriental-looking.

These two sketches held more promise as new piggy cards:

From three years ago I remembered this fun composition of three piglets in a basket which I’d left unfinished; it was painted based on Mei’s directions:


Pushing the two boy/herder sketches ahead with coloring I produced these:

I like both comps, but may have ruined the one on the left with the grounding. (It is too dark.)  His pigs are a little too ‘sketchy’ as well.  The one on the right looks more promising for a card.

Just after I finished these pig studies, a chance discovery of a terracotta pig in a local thrift store sent me back to the art room.  Surely this lovely critter will lead to some worthy pig paintings!  I’ve put out a request to the grandkids for a suitable name.






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My first mum festival

Life is what happens while you’re planning other things—such I learned a long time ago, but every so often seem to need a reminder!

Now I was planning to leave behind my studies of painting chrysanthemum, I was intending to move on to other painting subjects, I was seriously considering never painting a mum again. And then an owl came to visit us, a great-horned owl with large luminous eyes. She showed up one morning outside our living room window, hunting vermin and agitating other feathered creatures with her mere presence. I managed to snap a dozen or more photos.



So of course that sent me back to an old favorite artistic mentor, Huang Yonguy, the painter known for his socially critical ‘winking owls’.


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This time as I flipped through my two lovely volumes of his work, however, it was not his owls or even his blue herons that caught my attention; it was a lady lying drunkenly in a field of large yellow chrysanthemums!

As I looked more closely I spied a second kind of mum in her reclining garden, a spidery one with deep indigo petals. I noticed her eyes were closed and she held an empty wineglass. Surely she was a devotee of the September Mum Festival, allegedly observed on the ninth day of the ninth month throughout China with garden tours and sipping of chrysanthemum wine.

My lady may have tippled a bit much, or perhaps was overwhelmed by the abundant floral splendor in her garden. I love figure painting and could see myself inking in those large sprawling heads of golden and blue mums quite easily…yellow is such a cheerful color, the greens and blues so soothing. Before long I had a loose sketch and was on my way to more mum painting than intended.


The subject and treatment meant no need for great precision. Mixing the right skin tone went well and the yellow mums soon trailed across my page.

mymadymum prelim

Then I had to figure out a different kind of mum for some blue ones. Consulting Delightful Lotus, I had expert advice on ‘when to stop’ and ‘where to add’—one great advantage to art group membership! When I dismayed that my lady appeared greatly ‘influenced by the wine’ yet still held a full glass, Lotus came to the rescue with an explanation, and title! (A Full Life) :

It is a lovely day and the field of mums calls to me and I must lie among the blossoms….I must become part of them. The sun is warm and golden and I must feel that warmth. ….And here the glass of rich merlot fits comfortably within my slender reach…and I….one sip….and then….I rest.


My painting after a first background wash; after it dries I will assess values and perhaps bump up the foreground.


detail from ‘A full life’

Between painting sessions, while I pondered flower placements and treatments, what type of butterfly might be in my garden, and other such concerns I found delight in other figure paintings by Huang Yonguy. Then I painted this inspired group of dancers; I doubt anyone has ever made a ‘daisy chain’ from large mums, but the dancers seemed to need a chain of some sorts.


I think I’ll call this ‘sunny ways’.

I may not paint another mum intentionally, but I certainly will be looking at more of Huang Yonguy’s figures. They are such fun to paint! And yes, his owls are still captivating.



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Painting the fourth gentleman (part 3) chrysanthemum leaves

I am bewildered; despite learning lots of things about painting flowers in general and the chrysanthemum in particular, I’m finding I have to push myself through these current studies. C’mon, inner painter, get over it! Disliking the mum in the garden should have little bearing on learning to paint it.

I’ve flipped through my books endlessly, reflected on the features of certain painting styles I like, considered what much-loved animals I can paint with the mum, narrowed my challenge to just two methods for representing them in ink, played with colors and petal formations…and yet, my desire to paint them is still rather low key. But this is a ‘must-do’ as far as Chinese brush painting goes; I’ve got to trust that there are benefits to be gained from plumbing the knowledge base for painting this fourth gentleman. With familiarity surely will come greater appreciation?


As for the chrysanthemum flower, I have oodles of instructional material for painting the leaves. There are many ways to represent them, not many of which I am enticed into trying. For example, I know I am not destined to become a gongbi/meticulous brush painter, so that style is off the table. I can admire that someone would actually attempt painting the mum leaves in a ‘negative’ manner (i.e. visualizing the veins as white space AND then painting the leaves in ink AROUND the white veins!) and occasionally am surprised to see white veining on green leaves that hold some attraction. Those two treatments are not speaking to me.

After a brief chat with Bird Woman about our ‘druthers’ when it comes to mum leaves, I realized that the common black ink veins over shades of green don’t appeal to me either. Paint those veins in indigo and I am interested….

The instructional material for mum-painting from my library that I once again turned to were these:

–Nenagh’s workshop notes

–Johnson Su Sing-Chow’s volume on the mum from his four-volume set on the Four Gentlemen.

–Wang Hai Tao’s book dedicated to the mum

–Leslie Teng-tseng Yu’s Chinese Watercolor Painting in Four Seasons

–Prof Ju’s book on the mum

–four pages from Yang O-Shi’s Flowers & Birds, A Perspective

Mum leaf characteristics to consider:

–strive for a variety of greens (or ink tones) in a composition. Keep the fresher, light greens for the newer leaves nearer to the top of a stalk; render darker and browned leaves toward the stalk bottom.

–learn to create a variety of leaf shapes—turned ones require lighter undersides and straight edges where bent.

–think of the leaf formations as either all three-lobed or five-lobed on a single plant.

–note that auxilliary veins emerge from opposing sides of the main vein as you progress from leaf base to tip; they do NOT fork to both sides from a common point.

–veins must be painted into slightly damp leaves

–be sure the side veins emerge from the main ones ‘naturally’ as in run along the main vein slightly before angling out (do not skew at a right angle or plant them loosely and disconnected; of course that is a rule folks like Qi Baishi broke for effect)

–consider the curving of a leaf as you render the veins; work quickly to achieve a rhythmic brush

–‘dance’ and don’t worry about extending from the leaf surface.

–I like leaf veins done with indigo paint

–use side strokes for shaded tones to the leaves, curve slightly

plan leaf placement to block the view of a stalk or stem by leaving gaps as you drop in flower stalks once the flowers are created


Here are my study sheets:


I even tried monochrome leaves with dark ink veins:


I was far from satisfied with my leaves, finding results very inconsistent.  I reminded myself these were ‘studies’, I WAS trying different loads of color, different shapes for leaves, different veining….the sheets were bound to have a ‘dog’s breakfast’ look to them!

The next afternoon I decided to paint a few full compositions, focusing on making the leaves ‘work’ as they should to fill out a scenario. I figured if I stuck to a FEW leaf shapes (KIS) rather than trying to paint in a variety, I might have greater success.  So I started with a simple layout of red mums with inky leaves, painting the flowers in first:



Then I added simple leaf shapes, and while they were still damp I added simple ink veining:


The result lifted my spirits a bit as I could see several good things going on in this one–flowers of different sizes and maturity, leaves of varied sizes placed effectively,  consistent style veins that contrasted on the leaf surfaces.  So I selected a traditional basket of mums as a second full composition:

I found the earthenware jug in the background of the original detracted from the basket, so I ignored it and added a bee.  I got varied shades of green working in this one, but used the traditional ink veining.  I realized I was basically employing a similar leaf shape, but hey, can’t one develop a ‘stock piece’ and make it work for you?

The two white mums cried for a little outlining with pale green in order to enhance their white appearance.  The basketry looked a little muddy, but that might change when the piece is glued. Oddly enough, there are FOUR mums in this composition, a number traditional Chinese avoid as it signifies death. But the arrangement is pleasing, perhaps due to the tilt of the basket, the placement of leaves and the arch of the handle.  I like it.

I bravely attempted a third comp for the day; it has more flowers, more complex leaf arrangements, and a bird.  Out of practice with birds, I messed up the beak, and of course that destines the whole bird, to the scrap pile.  But not the whole composition!


I liked the looseness and coloring of my mums (and leaves!) so I played with possible croppings:

And in the spirit of play, I ended my session with some old friends:


And I do have to admit that with greater familiarity with the brushwork, color-mixing and veining techniques, I have more confidence in painting the chrysanthemum. While the knowledge is fresh in my hand and mind,  I should really try a spider mum comp, maybe with one of those felines above.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, leaf painting, painting chrysanthemum, the four gentlemen | 2 Comments

Painting the fourth gentleman, chrysanthemum (part 2)

Strength lies in compactness of shape and structure.

Gem-like petals fall into a flowering constellation.

The chrysanthemum is a surging sweep of sunny radiance

These are a few of the lead-ins by Leslie Tseng-Tseng Yu to her chapters on painting mums. Usually I find her headers quite inspiring; such has been my dislike of mums in the garden that I have difficulty in staying ‘on course’ with my intended painting study of this all-important flower. One HAS to appreciate the spirit of the subject in order to understand it, and thus to capture its essence on paper. I’m working backwards, trying to gain appreciation through learning to paint its spirit.

I’ve taken the time to LOOK closely at the parts of a chrysanthemum, and even photographed this one received as a gift last fall.

To date, I have attempted dozens of mum compositions, all with little satisfaction. I’ve even tried diverting myself by painting cats and roosters (two of my favorite subjects) as the host subjects, and then sneaking in the mums as the guests or contextual elements. Another common accompaniment for the mum is a crab, but after my first two attempted diversions failed, I didn’t bother with a crab.

Examining the mum paintings I admired (Qi Baishi’s and those Nenagh Molson demonstrated), I considered the qualities I wished to emulate:

  1. QB painted large blowsy heads, using dark colored outline strokes (not ink) and overlaid lesser tone of the same color.
  2. QB indicated the centre of his blooms with a few very loose, overlapping strokes (no black dots).
  3. QB arranged mums, usually of two colors (orange and red) so that the blooms dominated his scenarios, even when the other elements were two large roosters. Balance seemed to be the operating principle.
  4. NM added dark ink outlines in a third step, after outlining in light ink and dropping in color. Her lines were quick and dark, adding vibrancy to the blooms. The lines often missed the intended petal edges, resulting in a ‘lively’ appearance.
  5. NM didn’t strive to evenly color the petals; she allowed white to remain and add sparkle, as well as contribute to that vibrancy achieved by the confident ink outlining.
  6. NM aimed for lots of variety in leaf tones.

Knowing that the only way to move forward, is to keep moving, I decided to take a look at the other traditional method for rendering mum blossoms—moku or boneless.

Whereas painting mum flowers in outline style has two or three steps to each petal and uses primarily upright brushstrokes, the moku method entails loading a brush and using it mostly in slanted or press-lift strokes to render the desired forms. The moku method is particularly useful in depicting the large, spidery mums that are often painted on tea-stained or grey paper. I like that treatment.

Moku painting relies on letting colors MIX right in the brush and the surprise of each petal as you place it can occupy the brain enough that the actual painting becomes less restrained, more joyful. This is like ‘playing’ on a musical instrument as opposed to concentrating on the technique in a study piece. Moku painting may be just what I need to get my mum liking up a notch or two.

Resources for Painting chrysanthemum by the moku method:

Because of its status as one of the FOUR gentlemen, those subjects fundamental to ALL Chinese brush painting, the mum is addressed in pretty well any general instruction book as well as numerous dedicated books. My library has lots of reference material. Ms. Yu’s Chinese Watercolor Painting, The Four Seasons which I quoted above is an excellent resource; so too is an instructional video by Ning Yeh from OAS. Prof. I-Hsieng Ju’s excellent books on the four gentlemen are also high on my list of recommendations for study sources.


Notes: Following the Yu method is the easiest path to painting a mum in moku (boneless). Ning Yeh’s is more complex and takes more time to work through, BUT there are many pluses to having done so. He breaks the challenge into sections with different strategies for each, AND he explains how you can adapt each of those strategies depending on the outcome of each application. So yes, his moku method takes more time to internalize, but you end up with a much greater understanding of what is expected for each round of petals.

Prof. Ju’s book on the mum is absolutely jam-packed with information, and I’ll reserve documenting how it has helped my mum painting for another time in order to do it justice. His instructions can be absorbed in bits, they are helpful to beginner painters, but for me the true value of his work is as ‘grad studies’. Having previously wrestled with depicting mums from my own knowledge of the flower parts, some general instructions and some basic CBP techniques, I have many ‘aha’ moments as I work through Ju’s books. His work may be overwhelming for a beginner, unless one is good at self-directed studies.

Yu’s approach: She provides a good starting plan. Using tones of one color (yellow) she introduces a procedure for painting an in-curved mum. Simple expansion of the last rounds of petals using an S-curve stroke (she shows five variations) can yield a bloom with longer, thinner petals, as ‘spidery’ as you care to make it.


For the truly novice flower painter she notes:

–at the centre you should paint shorter, tightly curled petals in darker tones than those further out

–try to think of the blossom in three dimensions, having numerous petals arranged in layers.

  1. paint three successive curved petals left of centre; add a tiny one to counterpoint those three, then dab in three on the right
  2. fill in the flower centre at the far back, the petals of that first round that are furthest away from you. Keep them small, curved, varied. Leave white space at the very heart of the centre.
  3. Practice this ‘centre’ layer until you are satisfied with the dimensional look.
  4. Create a second layer in much the same manner, with strokes that are slightly lighter in tone, slightly larger/longer; add a third layer in the same manner.
  5. You now have a central clump with two outer layers; you can drop in little dabs with a lighter shade of yellow to ‘fill’ the blossom. Keep in mind that dark tones come forward and light ones recede into the blossom.
  6. For the next layer of petals you want to splay the petals, having them drop down in a variety of curves. Yu illustrates five variations on petals for this last round. These petals should be thinner at their base, and end with a slight curl back in the direction from which it came.
  7. Lastly, draw in centre stamens with light or dark ink as desired.



I tried to emulate one of Leslie Tseng-tseng Yu’s white mum compositions using her method.

Ning Yeh’s approach:

One of the few mums that does appeal to me is the spider mum, especially a white one painted on a colored background. Each head resembles an exploding firework, or a messy assemblage of ‘spider legs’ spilling out from the perimeter of a more typical, bulb-like structure of tighter, shorter petals.   The ‘legs’ are long, tubular petals that contribute most to their splashy appeal. Sorting out some ‘plan’ to their appearance can be challenging (Fibonacci sequencing?) but fortunately others have already done that!

A relatively structured approach to rendering a spider mum has been illustrated by Ning Yeh in a teaching video and shown in some of his books. What follows is my attempt to learn from his method. (I have not covered the materials he recommends, the color mixing he advises, or the brush loading he demonstrates—these are all integral to achieving results more similar to his. He also includes many delightful ‘stories’ in his teaching video that enhance the experience.) My study discussion is limited to trying to grasp his key steps in painting a spider mum blossom. There are many LAYERS or tiers of petals in a mum head and Ning Yeh explains ways to best depict each layer.

‘Fish seeking food’ is the over-riding metaphor he uses to describe how the mum’s petals ALL emanate from a central point, or POINT TO IT. One has to consider this imaginary centre in three-dimensions of course; holding a tennis ball or other round object in your hand can help with this visualization. Better yet, get a real spider mum from your grocer or florist! The closest I could come to was this large white mum with in-curved petals:

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(Use a small flow brush for steps 1-3; load the brush with a white-green mix tipped in red throughout.)

Step 1. NY Layer One and Two—create pumpkin. Ning Yeh begins his mum by rendering what is actually the second inner round (tier) of tightly curled petals, and then drops in an inner first tier/layer of even tighter (and darker colored) petals. He suggests you consider the shape of a PUMPKIN as you construct this first section (rounded, three-dimensional and hence fore-shortened in the ‘back’, ribbed, wider at the sides, longer on one side than the other if you want the head to tilt slightly). He describes the basic stroke as lowering the boom’, i.e. you load the brush and simply place the tip on the paper, pulling it into a slight curve. He also advises planning your strokes in segments—visually divide up the disc-like shape you are ‘filling’ and for each segment place one stroke in the middle with one/two to either side of that first sectional stroke.

(He’s right: if you simply lay strokes down one after another sequentially, they tend to appear ‘lined up’ or ‘piled up’ like little soldiers. When you paint in the recommended order the strokes tend to show more of a relationship to one another–they curve slightly, leaning towards the partners. This reminds me of my grandmother’s baking lessons when dividing dough for bread/buns—you in essence are dividing up a whole rather than building one.)

Do note that there should still be some ‘white space’ showing among those innermost curled petals. Your goal is to ‘close the space’ as NY says, but not to cram it full of color.



Step 2  NY Layer Three—go bananas. In fleshing out the next tier of petals NY uses two visual concepts to help illustrate the nature of the placement of petal strokes. He reminds us of banana clusters (where we have strokes curving around a stalk, somewhat ‘spooning’ one another) and also describes the relationship between paired strokes as ‘kissing up’ (one slightly smaller one tucks in beside another to fill the gap). One has to again visualize dividing the space to be filled into five/six spaces and then aim to place a banana cluster into each of those segments. Segments will not all look alike; those to the left or right will appear longer than those in your ‘foreground’ or ‘behind’ the flower’s centre. While there is a plan to petal placements, one does have to be ready to adapt the plan to each stroke outcome—that’s where the ‘kissing-up’ idea comes in: be alert to the visual effect after adding each banana cluster and consider how/where to tuck in an extra little stroke or two that unites the whole more pleasingly.


Step 3 NY Layers Four and Five—bow to boss. These two layers/tiers of petals are executed simultaneously and in fact differentiation between layers may be difficult to actually discern. (If like me, as a child you pulled petals off dandelions and observed the pockmarked surface of the calyx you know there is indeed a concentric circle pattern inside a mum head.)

Ning Yeh’s uses a visual metaphor that reflects his cultural background: peon and boss greeting each other, where the boss bows slightly but the person of lower class bows more fully. In placing paired petal strokes you can think of one longer one in relation to another shorter, more curved stroke. He reminds us to keep those bowed pairs aiming to the flower centre, considering always where in the three-dimensional object we aim to depict the petals are located. Some will be longer, others shorter, and the spidery ‘legs’ can curve elegantly in all directions.

He shows how to ‘seal off’ resulting gaps with tinier, darker strokes, and describes the paired petal placement thusly: paint one longer one, then ‘go downstairs’ ie. place the second in the pair at the foot of the former one. He completes the ‘circling’ of the flower head for these two tiers 4 & 5 with tick strokes across the front of the flower head.


Step 4. (Switch to a larger orchid/bamboo brush) Layers Six and Seven—ribbon dancing. For these next tiers of petals Ning Yeh suggests a ribbon-dancer metaphor: you ‘throw out’ one longish petal stroke’ and plan to add one stroke on each side; if your first long stroke doesn’t quite go the distance you ‘bring the petal home’ (or hand it off as in a relay) with a second overlapping petal. He explains this new strategy (ribbon dancing) with a larger brush is necessary to help you fill the larger areas you are now facing at the outer rim to the flower head. And again the strategy for petal placement has to be adaptive.


Tick strokes across the front and the ribbon-dancers extending from the pairs of ‘long-short’ should result in a seven-tiered spider mum.

At this stage in the training video he stresses the desired outcome is to have your flower painting look SPONTANEOUS, GRACEFUL AND DYNAMIC. As he applies this strategy of ‘throwing a ribbon’ and then ‘finishing’ the throw AS NEEDED with an overlapping petal, then placing strokes to either side of the ‘ribbon’ AS NEEDED based on the outcome of the first throw, one can truly grasp how necessary is a FLEXIBLE strategy.

Ning Yeh completes his flower by commenting on the touch-ups made to fill spaces or connect petals. He goes on to paint a second flower and finishes the composition with stems and leaves.  After working through his four-step procedure a few times and practicing each stage,  I felt ready to work more on each brush load, the color control, petal placement and  manipulating those ribbon-dancers for greater effect. Armed with insights into the purpose for each tier and how to use the brush to blend colors, I felt some sense of accomplishment after days spent deciphering the steps to this lesson. Perhaps a full spider mum composition is not infeasible.  I’ve got my ‘recipe’ down to four meaningful steps:


Leaves will have to wait for another week…





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