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:
- QB painted large blowsy heads, using dark colored outline strokes (not ink) and overlaid lesser tone of the same color.
- QB indicated the centre of his blooms with a few very loose, overlapping strokes (no black dots).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- paint three successive curved petals left of centre; add a tiny one to counterpoint those three, then dab in three on the right
- 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.
- Practice this ‘centre’ layer until you are satisfied with the dimensional look.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
(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…