Another dark encounter: Pine on Black

Despite sharing my Black Licorice double xuan paper with artist friends, I had several widths left, and that large gold bamboo frame beckoning from the art room. The simplicity of two cranes in a setting holds considerable appeal, and I had a working technique developed for painting them. So I set the challenge of painting pine around two cranes for the larger frame.  Below is my first (successful) experiment with painting on black paper; I called it “In Praise of Plum”.


The traditional method for painting pine clusters is to ink in the needles, then go over each needle with a dark green, and finally lay in a green-blue wash over each cluster (softening edges with water). You can either ink in branches, limbs and twigs with outlining and texturing, or depict them freestyle with color. Obviously ink outlining was not going to work on black paper, nor would the use of white paint for the needles. I had some experimenting to do.

First off, I searched online to see if any other CBP artist has gone down this discovery path and posted anything. All I found was one Youtube video demonstrating painting on black cardstock using acrylics. The subject (lotus) and method is CBP but the paper handling is not. The result is stunning, but too intense for my vision for pine.

I sat down to try a few different methods and ended up with one that seemed to work. (Lucky for me I had several highly skilled CBP artists to consult in my two art groups; their input is always helpful in ‘developmental’ work.)

The Plan

I intended to paint two cranes slightly off centre, looking to the left, and dominating the scenario. I aimed for pine that would fill the upper right and part of the lower left. I intended to ‘ground’ the cranes with a light wash around their feet, and lastly drop in my chop in the lower right.

The Cranes

I would render these fellows in the same manner as for my “In Praise of Plum” composition: outline in white paint, paint the eye in black over white paint, fluff in body and wing feathers with white tones, paint red over top of white for the head marking, paint the beak and legs with gold and add some black ink scale marks to the legs, and finally, add black ink and gold paint to suggest the wing tip feathers (those that look like tail feathers because of their placement).

 The Pine

I had experimented with different ways to depict pine on the black paper surface. I found that I could lay down pine limbs and smaller branches, using several rust and rose shades from my pearlescent paint box with a large orchid/bamboo brush. For the needles I used a detail brush loaded with green paint and then dipped in the blue and sometimes the green from the pearlescent box. I placed moss dots on the needle clusters with gold paint and also dotted the needle cluster centres. I even managed to suggest cones among the pine clusters using the pearlescent brown.

The execution:

I completed the composition pretty well as planned, brushing some very light green pearly paint at the feet of the birds to ground them, adding inky swirls to the pine boughs, and bringing the pine behind the birds at the right in order to add to the depth within in the scene. I discovered that the addition of moss dots in deep blue enhanced the coloring of needles and pine bark.


I sprayed the painting several times with fixative, letting it dry between applications.

In preparation for gluing I made sure my painting was large enough to fit the frame (just barely) and sprayed the composition with fixative. I added my chop in the same manner as with the plum painting. Having lost much of the pearly and gold paint from my previous painting on black paper (In Praise of Plum) in the gluing process I double-dosed my pine painting. I also sprayed lots of water on the back of the painting as I stretched it with the gluing brush to avoid leaving a milky glue haze to dry.


Telltale signs of paint left on the gluing board; touch-ups will again be needed!

As soon as I flipped the painting to the drying board I could see that despite the copious spraying of fixative I had yet again lost about 25% of the metallic and pearly paints in the procedure. Once the painting was dry (and still stretched on the board) I had to touch up the entire composition. The cranes were the least affected this time, so maybe the extra spraying had helped the white painted areas.


Before gluing


After Gluing


Once the composition had dried, I cut it to size and popped it in the frame.


I now had TWO paintings on black paper that were show-ready, and three days left before the show hanging.


In Praise of Pine

My paper stash yet includes a few sheets of the black licorice paper; with a workshop on painting chrysanthemum coming up, perhaps I’ll tackle that fourth gentleman before my ‘black paper days’ end.



Posted in black paper, Chinese Brush Painting, painting crane, painting pine, using gold paint, using metallic paint | Leave a comment

Exploring the dark side: painting on black

While experimenting with gold metallic paint and aiming to fill a large gold bamboo frame, I made some pleasant discoveries about painting on black paper. With my first few bamboo/cat paintings I had learned that even after careful spraying with fixative before gluing, my art lost much of the metallic paint and required touch-ups while still stretched on the board. That was easy to work around. Other insights required more thought and effort.


Remember this fellow? His sad eyes still beckon.

1. Pre-planning. Working with two cranes and a branch of plum blossom as my subject, I planned a large composition. On a large sheet of medical paper (the kind used for patient protection in doctor’s examining rooms can be purchased in medical supply stores; Nenagh says it is great for bamboo painting) I sketched two cranes and roughed in a branch for plum blossoms. KIS is a credo for Chinese brush painters at any time, but more so when you’re trying something new; the less you are fussing with the better! Hindsight (in the form of a trusted art critic after the fact) told me I should have made sure the plum branch would enter the picture above or below the halfway mark of my frame. And I had to do some fancy brushwork to try and hide two strong branches that came out looking very parallel in growth pattern. The eye can be distracted by such ‘railroad tracks’, yet such growth is common in plum trees.

Cranes are basically big white birds with some black and red markings, plus golden beaks and legs. The gold paint would thus go on the beak and legs, with some enhancements on the black wing tip feathers (those that LOOK like they are tail feathers). The whole bird will thus have to be outlined with white paint. The plum branch could be laid down with the gold paint directly, and flowers done with some of my pearlescent paints for the petals and white for the stamens

2. Transfer of sketch. When painting on white paper any pre-planned composition layout is easily slipped UNDER paper to enable me to quickly rough in the major compositional lines with pale indigo ink. With black paper as the foundation for a painting I had to rethink this process.

First I tried cutting out my crane shapes and tracing around them with white chalk on the black paper. Alas, as I moved to outlining the birds with white paint and LIFTING errant chalk marks with brush and water, I made holes in the black paper. It is clearly softer than other painting papers I’ve used. My trusty art buddy suggested I forget the preliminary sketch and simply outline the bird freehand. (She was right: I CAN draft bird bodies. I outlined cranes on a new sheet of black paper…freehand.)

Later on, after more insights about the pearlescent and gold metallic paint had been gained, I transferred another preplanned comp by carefully tracing over the major lines with a dull pencil. This leaves a slightly indented outline in the soft black paper, which can easily be seen while over-painting in pale white. It disappears with the gluing process.

3. White paint. I found I had to under-paint the head tops with white before adding the distinctive red marking on the crane heads, or the red wouldn’t show on the black. Using my large bamboo/orchid brush with diluted white paint I scuffed in bird bodies that looked ‘feathered’ and three-dimensional. (This was easier than with ink tones on light paper.) The crane eyes took some re-thinking to maintain their shapes. I found I could paint white over ink, then ink over the white again and again until I was satisfied with the result. Once I had inked in the black marking on the crane’s neck I realized the thin white outline of the bird had to be retained or my bird disappeared into the black paper. I learned I could ‘lift’ erring white paint with brush and water, dabbing with paper towel, fairly easily.


Here you can see the little white hole above the neck curve caused by too aggressive ‘paint lifting’.


The hole is masked by black ink, the gold branch is enhanced and the blossoms brightened.

4. Metallic paint. I tried mixing the paint with water-based glue to see if I could get it to stick more firmly and not lift during the gluing process. Didn’t work. Best option remained to touch up after gluing while the painting was still on the board. I added a few swipes of gold brushwork in the wing tip feathers that were mostly black. I also discovered I could paint in black marks over the legs once they were rendered in gold paint to yield a scaly effect. A gold highlight in the eye simply looked spooky, so I reverted back to black and white eyes. I had to seriously touch up the plum branches, sepals and fine branching of the plum after the painting was glued. While I had considered moss dots of another color (green was suggested by fellow artists) in the end I added them in gold AFTER the painting had dried on the board.


Just look at all the metallic residue from the plum branch that adhered to my gluing board after I glued the painting, despite spraying with fixative.

5. Pearlescent paint. I used these colors for the plum flowers and buds, striving for variations in tone (darker for the buds). The sheen and some of the tone ‘lifted’ in the gluing process so I tried touching up after gluing; this was tricky as my white stamens overlapped petals for the most part.

6. Brushes. I used a detail brush for outlining, a small soft brush for applying the gold paint, and my large orchid/bamboo brush for the plum branch, petals, and bird bodies. The large brush worked really well with shades of white paint in rendering the crane’s feathered body and wings.

7. Gluing. I used fresh glue and sprayed extra water on the painting as I glued it, brushing carefully to avoid leaving a glue residue. Previously in gluing black paper, I found the process left a white haze in patches so this time I took extra care with the glue application. I backed the paper using Moon Palace practice paper. With my last trial painting I inadvertently made a small hole while lifting errant white lines, and while the painting was yet on the board applied black ink to mask the hole. It vanished!!

8. Touch-ups. When painting with white paint, metallic paint, and pearlescent colors one has to be ready to do a lot more ‘touch-up’ work after gluing (and dry on the board). Even using fixative did little to alleviate this problem. As noted above, I also swished on some ink washes to hide the white backing showing through a hole, and over some areas where lifting errant white lines had left a white haze.


The main branch of the plum needed metallic paint added while on the drying board.

9. Composition. ‘Less is more’ definitely applies to planning a painting where you intend to incorporate white, metallic or pearlescent paints. If your foundation paper is to be black, then you’ll want to be absolutely minimalist in composing a painting. Cranes proved a good subject (shades of white worked very well in rendering their feathered bodies and wing; the gold on their beaks and legs did too.) Any furred or glossy-skinned animal (cat? monkey? horse?) or feathered creature (owl? night heron?) that by nature is active in the dark would be a good subject for a painting on black paper. I prefer the results of portraying bamboo and plum in gold paint to how mums and orchids looked when executed in gold, a consideration for contextual elements in a comp intended for black paper.

10. The chop. A final concern for painting on black paper pertained to ‘signing’ the painting: how could I stamp my chop? I tried applying pearlescent paint (the color used for the plum blossoms) to the chop and stamping it on a scrap of the bonded black paper. Wouldn’t you know it, my first trial on a scrap worked rather well, but when I moved on to chopping my actual painting, the result was not so good. I easily lifted the pearlescent paint and re-applied the chop. Again parts of the signature did not adhere well. I tried touching up with paint and black ink. This pearly paint was showing TOO shiny next to the plum blossoms (remember they had been softened in the gluing process) so I tried to water the paint more. Fearing another dreaded paper hole, I stopped fussing without any satisfaction over the look of the chop. There comes a time in many a project when you simply have to go with what you’ve got; this was it for my cranes and plum on black paper.


Now to return to a larger sheet of the black paper, larger birds, and more thought to how to apply a better chop; I’ve still got the large golden bamboo frame to fill. I wonder if I could do pine for the setting instead of the plum…. the box of pearly paints does include greens and blues.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, Gluing, painting crane, painting on black paper, painting plum blossom, using metallic paint, using pearlescent paint | Leave a comment

The Midas touch, painting with gold ink

From time to time members in my art groups amaze me with their curiosity and creativity. After a few weeks away from painting, hosting a houseful of guests, or just a bout of the blahs many of us need some new subject, a new paint brush or art book to reinvigorate our painting.

Lotus tends to flip through books until she spies a new way of treating a subject, Bird Woman gets her brush inspired by different papers, and TOB (the other Barb) has so many grandchildren and great-grandchildren she checks her ‘special requests’ and starts on an untried subject. I sit down with a cup of tea and consider what’s new around me. I absolutely love it when two or three ‘inspirations’ come together and proclaim an experimental session of some sort.

This last month I had a new book featuring cranes in bamboo settings, an order from OAS with an enclosed bonus lesson on painting with gold and white paints, and a roll of black paper that was getting squished in the bottom of my art bag synchronize their appeal to me. I simply had to try painting with gold paint on the black paper with some of the interesting bamboo clusters from my new crane book.


The gold paint pan on the right was donated to the library at one of my art groups. With a gift lesson on painting in gold ink arriving with a purchase from OAS and some black paper in my stash I was all set to play at my art table.

Subject Considerations:

The Ning Yeh lesson demonstrated painting with gold and white paint on black paper in four simple compositions showing each of the four gentlemen: bamboo, plum, orchid and mum. Simple elements do indeed seem appropriate to painting in gold.  I tried the bamboo and plum exercise Ning Yeh set out in his gift lesson:


Bird Woman had already taken a piece of my black paper for a ‘test dance’ with her brushes, AND one of her favorite subjects: bugs. She advised that one had to think negatively when composing for painting on black paper. Dramatic effects could be achieved if you gave careful thought to the ‘outline’ and the most ‘forward’ parts of the subject material.


When Bird Woman and I first tested the black paper she painted bugs, and I tried this cat. We found the paper glued beautifully but one had to dilute the white paint carefully–too much water and it would disappear as it dried.

Local CBP artist and teacher Barb Elford entered two stunning compositions of bamboo painted with WHITE paint on black composition board (with gold bamboo frames) at a recent oriental art show. The same could be done in gold. I have confidence with bamboo; I even have some gold bamboo frames kicking around my art room. Gold painting on black paper might also be well suited to any other shiny gold/brass metal frames that are often too flashy to pair with monochrome ink compositions or traditional CBP subjects.  I painted bamboo leaves, striving for variations in shades of gold. Achieving variations in value was easier with the gold than it is with white paint. (Photographing the gold ink on black paper before gluing posed glare issues.)


Some experimentation with diluting the gold ink, and with a few go-to brushes (orchid and detail) revealed I could get variations of gold shades, and fine or sharp lines if desired.

With these thoughts in mind, I set out to paint bamboo leaves around a sitting cat. (Cats are favorite subjects and I always have a new sample or two on my desk.) I was pleased with my first two quick ‘cat-under-bamboo’ compositions…and then neglected to “fix” the one on the right before gluing!  Maybe I can title it ‘Cat seeking shelter from Rain’? (Lesson learned: spray gold paintings with fixative before gluing.)



For my large golden bamboo frame I considered a composition similar to the famous one by Wu Cheng (1280-1350).  This classic bamboo portrait which shows up in many CBP books has such wonderful leaf clusters!


I immediately had two challenging issues:

  1. Including STALKS of bamboo would likely conflict with the bamboo frame. I decided to avoid the stalks and just show leaves and branches over a moon. That was easy.
  2. Considering that the painting on black paper would have to be matted likely with black matting, and that unless I purchased special black matting with black core paper, I’d have a thin white line surrounding the composition I considered where else in a composition to introduce white. Several of Ning Yeh’s sample lessons of the four gentlemen involved white and gold together in one composition. I tried gold bamboo leaves over a white moon. Thinking the white outline was too stark, I softened it with a spritz of water and quick brush strokes. I dabbed in some cloud-like mist.


This composition was starting to look ‘too busy’, especially if a black mat showing a thin white line at the edge were to be added.

Further reflection told me to skip the plan for a mat and paint on paper large enough to fit my frame. I had the paper, I had backing paper, I had the gold…

Then while sitting in a waiting room the following day, flipping through old magazines I stumbled on just such a painting!!! It featured cranes and plum blossom.


This I will have to try–it is MY frame, and done on black paper with no mat.  The cranes are basically done in white paint, the plum branches in gold, and the colors might be done over white paint….Obviously another experimental session is in the offing!  But first, maybe I’ll go back and re-do the cat that got rained out.  He was so promising.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting bamboo, using gold paint | 2 Comments

‘Hurry Weavers’– the cricket speaks

Years ago during a stint in radio drama production I learned to truly appreciate crickets. Before that, they were simply annoying creepy-crawlies to me, that appeared in the garden and looked somewhat threatening with their rather long antennae. The distinctive chirping of the lowly cricket in radio was the quickest way to convey an outdoors, after dark, most likely fearful situation for a protagonist. How you paced the chirps, what kind of musical chord you struck, or what thoughts an actor expressed all contributed to the drama. Crickets were king.

Now that I need to paint one as a guest in a Chinese brush painting composition, I am surprised to learn that cricket chirps in Chinese culture have a meaning on par with the rooster crow at dawn, or the bay of a hound in the distance.

Johnson Su-sing Chow in Insects, one of four in his set Vegetables, Fruits, Insects and Aquatic Animals, explains:

In olden days women folks spinned (sic) and wove cotton at home. They set up for themselves certain targets of production for the year. Every autumn, the song of the cricket would remind them that year-end was coming, that they had better hurry with their weaving. Hence the name “hurry weavers” for the crickets. Travellers wandering far away from their hometowns and villages are also reminded of home by the song of the crickets.

Chow also describes how Chinese people of the Tang dynasty (AD742 to AD756) used crickets in fights for betting purposes. The Emperor himself engaged in these events. Ordinarily the cricket has a life span of only 100 days, and the males do love to spar, often devouring their own young. In Chinese crickets are called ‘chuzhi’.

Of necessity, painting the cricket

Years ago, when I fantasized over how I’d spend my retirement years, painting insects was NOT EVER on the radar. Landscapes for sure, flowers maybe, animals such as horses and cats a given…but insects? Never.

But here I am only a few years into full retirement and I have books, files, and sketchbooks brimming with insect images. Chow’s book is helpful with illustrated steps to painting a brown cricket and several compositions using different poses.

Jane Dwight also does a basic cricket (in brown or green she suggests) in The Chinese Brush Painting Bible. She also notes that in China the cricket symbolizes summer and courage.

I am puzzled that that I recall only black crickets in the garden, until I read that they do come in a variety of colors. Wikipedia entry gives me this:

Crickets are small, often nocturnal insects. They are usually dark brown or black, so that they blend in with the ground. They have six legs. Four are walking legs and two large back legs are used to make very long jumps. Attached to the head are two long antennae, also known as feelers, used for touching and smelling. Crickets are sometimes confused with grasshoppers because they are similar in size and body shape, but grasshoppers have shorter antennae and are green in color.

Cricket studies:

I quickly paint up a green one based on Dwight’s four-step method:

  1. Using a small firm brush and sage green paint a few short lines and o couple of dot to indicate the head and mouthpiece.
  2. Add two strokes to create the thorax and two strokes for a short stubby wing
  3. Add a second wing behind the first. Paint a leaf green abdomen using two strokes. Use a fine brush dipped in indigo to add details to the abdomen, dots for the eyes, and dots at the base of the wings.
  4. Add lines to the wings in indigo and then define legs and antennae. Add a few small dots along the hind legs to suggest spines.


And then a brown one following Chow’s five-step instructions:

  1. Use light umber to draw the eyes, the head, and the neck.
  2. Draw the wings and the exposed part of the abdomen.
  3. Draw the front, the middle and the hind pairs of legs. The hind legs have to be big and strong. Use umber to outline and then shade around the knee joint.
  4. Use black ink to outline the head. Use a darker umber to draw the vein patterns on the wing and the cerci at the tip of the abdomen.
  5. Lastly use a very fine brush to draw the antennae.


Of course one never paints a cricket alone in a Chinese brush painting, so surely you’ve guessed that I am procrastinating from tackling my main subject in a planned painting. Yes, I have a grandson who wants me to paint a portrait of his pet Bearded Dragon lizard named Stick.

I rather doubt I’ll find one as a subject in any Chinese painting book, so I’m studying photos and working up sketches. Painting a ‘hurry weaver’, an insect that urges workers to get on task, seems somewhat ironic!

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, cricket, insect painting | Leave a comment

Pushing the plum, doing more!

Friend and mentor John Nip (1937-2017) was a man of few words; his customary comment when you showed him a painting that didn’t meet his standard of execution was: do more.  He didn’t have to be here, or to even say it, but I knew my recent plum studies demanded I ‘do more’.

And I heeded Prof. Ju’s advice and concentrated on the outline style (for the most part). Whenever I had a few idle moments  I grabbed my notebook and challenged myself to defining plum buds and flowers in as many postures as possible.  My internalized repertoire is growing.  I find it makes composing clusters more quickly and confidently when you know what to put where.


I printed out numerous plum compositions that I liked and analyzed what kind of blossoms–back view, head-on, tilted up, tilted down, tilted right, tilted left, profile, tight little bud (the eye of crab) and fatter bud (peppercorn), etc.–went where on a stem.  I tried to get the angles of the flowers working to SHOW more roundness to a stem, more depth to the field.  Below is an elegant plum composition Ju included in his Book of Plum.


I printed out a copy and marked up the KINDS of blossoms and buds he used.  I noted locations–above the viewers sight line, below it, head on. I observed the bud profiles and placements.


A good next step would be to paint the same composition, I’m certain, but I decided to let this one sit for awhile.  Instead, I pulled a couple of unfinished paintings from my art room and considered a few that could be finished with just the addition of a bit of plum.  Then the next day I glued them.  Oops…..DON’T FORGET TO SPRAY YOUR REDS BEFORE GLUING!


I was pretty PLEASED with the variation and placement of the buds, flowers and branches in this vase holding two plum sprigs, BUT neglected to spray it with fixative before gluing.  (Next time….)

I scanned a few similar comps by Jia Pao-min that involved plum sprigs, and then FLIPPED them in order to study what happens when you curve in the reverse direction. Here’s one that involves a ‘sketchy outline’ style that I particularly like.  (The outlined flowers and buds are accented with an outline of pale peachy-burnt sienna.)

OutlinePlum 1 right  OutlinePlum 1 flip

When you do this ‘flip trick’ on your computer you should record the flip in the image name, just in case you ever want to copy the calligraphy.  (I know a few artists who have inadvertently painted mirror-images of the calligraphy, or ‘written’ words backwards because they had forgotten they’d flipped things around.)

I tried a spray of plum in this ‘sketchy outline’ style. (The flower centres can also have a bit of yellow dropped into them, as per Jia Pao-min.)  On my first attempt at this comp I tried using moss dots in a heavier orange shade on the branches; it looked ghastly!  The effect might have worked if I had painted a more colorful plum branch using Nenagh Molson’s famous double or triple-loaded brush, so that the deep orange value was already present in the painting. (Gotta plan for that element of ‘unity’ in design!)


With these latest plum studies I discovered there are numerous appealing vases/pots in the two big instruction books by Jia Pao-min on my shelves, I found a few more magpies on branches that I liked, and then a huge composition of a BLUE flowered plum…dare I tackle such an opus?




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

Power of P’in, arranging plum blossoms

My grandmother often cautioned me that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. If she’s right, then I’m surely bound to go down that road quite soon. Last month saw little in the way of productive painting, and mostly days packed with ‘good intentions’. I blame it all on THE COLD.

Oddly enough some of my brainpower WAS working—when I reflected on my magpie studies, I realized I had little confidence in composing clusters of plum blossoms. I knew the steps to individual flowers, to buds, branches, trunks, and twigs—all of the details. I knew the names of all of their parts, and how they grew.

What was LACKING was understanding HOW to place flowers in clusters, which ones to point up, down or sideways; which ones to paint darker in color, how to tuck in softer tones behind those more forward.  Here’s a closer view of the blue plum blossoms I used as context in a recent painting. The clustering is ‘overpainted’.  My brushwork was hesitant and some blossoms are downright messy.


I had a pretty good idea which of my books might offer insights into this concern. Professor I-Hsiung Ju’s Book of Bamboo had advanced my bamboo painting tremendously with lots of illustrations, explanations, and compositional insights; I was certain his Book of Plum would do the same for plum.

Ju frequently cited the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, so I hauled my copy off the shelf as well. (My version must be more edited than the one he accessed, as mine does NOT have the discussion of ‘design’ for clusters he cites.)


And for good measure I pulled out Leslie Tseng-Tseng Yu’s book, Chinese Watercolor Painting, the Four Seasons.


Slow of heart, but swift in hand

Ju’s third section in The Book of Plum, The Flower, was limited to painting outline petals and single stroke (moku). I was surprised to read the description of his own traditional teaching—he was urged to learn to paint plum blossom in OUTLINE STROKE first, then in ‘single-stroke’ or moku later.

The reasoning is that once you have UNDERSTOOD or TAKEN TO HEART the teachings, then you can move QUICKLY in laying down your brushwork. Similarly, once you have mastered plum blossom in outline strokes, placing the moku strokes comes naturally.

So I did what the master ordered: I reviewed painting plum flowers in outline stroke before getting into arranging them in clusters.

It worked!!!!

Here are a few of my practice bits, trying to emulate Ju’s lessons, mixed with portrayals of illustrations from the MSGM:


Basic plum flowers painted in ‘outline’ involve two strokes–one defines the three humps, the second adds the two remaining curved petals to the five-petal flower.

PlumStudy     PlumUp&Down


Plum3Dirs    PlumJu&MSGM

I intended to do them all, I really did. But once I had filled a few pages with circles (as per Ju’s childhood practicing) and rendered a dozen or so of his models, I couldn’t resist trying a larger plum composition, AND I jumped ahead to trying single-stroke (moku) petals in color.

My brush moved much MORE QUICKLY as I dropped in flowers back to back on stems, flowers as seen head-on, flowers turned slightly away, turned slightly down, facing left, facing right…. I kept striving for placements of fuller flowers closer to the trunk, half open flowers as I moved out from the trunk, buds nearer the branch tips.

Power of p’in:

In his section on grouping flowers, Ju cites the MSGM regarding a concept based on the Chinese character (or word) called p’in. The character means ‘a class or order’ and consists of three little squares, one above the other two.

Ju writes: “Our masters are talking about three elements: either three buds or three flowers, either two buds and one flower or one bud and two flowers. These three elements should be placed in the p’in pattern: one smallest element at the top and two larger at the base.” Ju goes on to demonstrate variations of the pattern, and to advise us to look for such patterning in all the ancient masterful plum paintings.

As I looked for the presence of such patterns, I quickly realized it was a triangulation, a pleasing placement of an odd-numbered of elements. It reminded me of the groupings of shrimp one plans for a larger composition.


Plum2Pinsjpeg    PlumWhiskers

Key Insights:

practice OUTLINE flowers first, tackle single-stroke (moku) once you have internalized their shapes, placement, finishing with whiskers and sepals

–use the right kind of brushes—stiff medium thick for the petals, very fine detail brush for the stamens (whiskers)

–use light ink for the flowers, dark for the stamens and pollen dots

control the moisture in your brushes with frequent wipes of the heel; a little ink goes along way

–draw the flowers in TWO parts—one three-petal stroke, followed by a two petal stroke.

–alter the two-petal stroke by turning it into two ovals, slightly fore-shortened.

–fill pages with these shapes head-on, then turn up, turn down, face left, face right.

–arrange THREE flowers on a simple twig structure

–make a small single circle bud (pepper corns)

–make two stroke buds (crab’s eyes)

–make a fatter bud with a half-circle on either side (smiles)

–try a few variations of p’in arrangements of buds, half-open flowers, and full flowers until you think in threes naturally

–Ju does his whiskers based on groups of seven—if a flower is in profile start at the centre at 90 degrees, then paint seven thin, slightly curved lines on the right, then SEVEN on the left. If the flower is head-on, do the same and complete with seven across the front, fore-shortened. Splatter with the dots. He advises not to worry if your SEVEN strokes fail to leave an ink trail, establish a rhythm and count SEVEN, then move on. Likewise, as you drop in the pollen dots, count seven and be sure to vary heights.

–be sure to curve the whiskers toward a central point, the throat of the flower (it was suggested by your original outline strokes for the petals; think of the flower as a cup or bowl shape in three dimensions.)

keep the peduncle (that little bit of stem at the base of a bud or flower connecting it to the main stem) short; if your distance from the branch appears too far, FIX by adding a twig before you dab in the short peduncle.

–be sure to dab THREE sepals cupped at the base of a bud, FIVE showing at the back of a fully opened flower that is behind a branch/twig.

–add twigs in dark ink toward the ends of branches AFTER you have the flowers and buds all in place.

START an arrangement with a few head-on full flowers, then add flowers facing in different directions, at different heights near-by, then think about the narrowing of the branch and where buds would be, place a few half-open flower in between the buds and the full flowers

–avoid trying to cluster flowers (like balls on hydrangea, or in lilac spray shapes); plum blossoms do NOT grow like that!!!! They DO appear back to back in twos or threes along a branch/twig.

–work with your ‘half-turned’ flower shapes to convey a ‘depth’ or volume AROUND a branch; avoid similar head-on flowers in a row, as that looks FLAT, non-dimensional.

For future reference, I added Ju’s buds to my MSGM plum blossom pages:



My first post-Ju plum comps:

Below is a vase of plum blossoms I painted BEFORE and AFTER I studied Ju’s instructions and illustrations:

BadVasePlum   GoodVasePlum

Here is my first plum composition painted in outline stroke applying Ju’s ideas.  I am pleased with all but a central section (just above the cub’s right ear) where hindsight tells me I should have left a gap in the main branch and anchored a cluster with a ‘head-on’ blossom, surrounded by flowers facing in different directions.  Ju does say that gaining confidence in planning where and how to leave gaps for flowers when you paint branches first comes with experience.  So I’ll count that insight as ‘experience’.



I considered that most workshops on plum painting I’ve attended have been INTRODUCTORY, most books I have offer GENERAL instructions geared for the largest possible audience, beginners. Ju’s lessons were serving as ADVANCED TECHNIQUES. I was having a ‘learning moment’, or two, or three…

I thought I was ready for a larger composition of many plum clusters. And that I fully INTEND to do soon…




Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, flowers, painting plum blossom | 2 Comments

More joy, painting magpie 2

Despite painting many magpies I’ve still not generated a whole lot of ‘good fortune’ this month: back-to-back nasty colds, a dental mishap and not a single magpie to be pleased about.  This one in a colorless setting was encouraging, but it looked too generic for my tastes.


We had a timely workshop on plum blossom from Nenagh Molson that helped boost my confidence with the traditional setting for magpies, but I wanted to do a better job of the bird. So I reviewed Chow’s pointers, studied images I liked, and put brush to paper.

My notes review:

  1. The Head:

–start with eye and beak, outline strokes using a fine brush and dark ink. For pointers on better bird beaks check out Virginia Lloyd Davies notes and video here.

–define the shape for the head using light ink (can continue with a rough sketch of the full body with main outlines of wings, chest, and tail; key is that the tail is aligned down through the central back)

–fill in the head shape with black ink using a fine brush (or the tip of a larger brush) placing strokes in the correct direction feathers follow (away from the beak, down through the back)

–Chow says: make sure the fine coverts on the brow are loose and natural looking.

–continue stroking in ‘feathers’ (coverts) down the chest, becoming lighter in tone when reaching the back.

  1. The Body

–a key bit of anatomy to be aware of is the alula (or bastard wing). The Latin word means winglet, and it basically refers to the first freely moving digit on the wing portion; it typically bears three-five small flight feathers. Depending on how you pose your bird, the alula will be more or less defined, but you will always want to think about where that hook-like stroke should best be placed. A bird’s wing has three bending points—shoulder, elbow and wrist—and the alula (see pink section 3 below) is located at the wrist.




–use dark ink for the upper-tail coverts, making the center pair the longest (slightly longer than the bird’s body length)

–add thee pairs of upper-tail coverts in symmetrical fashion, either side of the main tail feathers.

–use light ink to define feathers that LINK the back to the tail and to fill out the wings. You want the bird’s body to appear as a single entity, yet leave wing areas sufficiently “open” to take some blue color, and the area from body to tail to take some burnt sienna-ink wash later on.

  1. Legs

–magpie legs can be rendered in the usual manners used for rooster, heron or other birds—either outline in dark ink and then add color, or put down with medium ink and then mark with darker ink for the claws and scaly look while damp.

  1. Coloring

–use a greenish-yellow for the eye

–reddish orange for a tongue

–mix an indigo/sky blue wash, dull it a bit with ink and apply over the wings

–mix a burnt sienna/ink wash to apply over the body feathers at the base of the tail

–Chow mentions keeping white speckles showing on the bird’s wrists, that bending point

–beaks are more realistically a grey-indigo mix, but a yellowish tone is not uncommon in compositions.

My studies:

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After several sessions playing with magpies painting—trying different poses, trying different strokes for the tail effect, trying to use color for effect—I considered what I was learning, what was working, and what was still eluding my brush.

I had learned more about bird wings, bodies and tail feathers. I liked the expressiveness of magpies painted by certain artists, and I did not think I would soon achieve more ‘realism’ in portraying the bird.

I went back to my books and files. I discovered more magpie compositions in one of my books dedicated to a selection of popular Chinese flowers (Painting Flowers by Jia Pao-min) that appealed to me, and realized they had aspects common to those in my specialty book on magpies—exaggerated eyes, rough feather work, loose color applications.



I found more of Xu Beihong’s magpie compositions online, recognized the simplicity of line and color he used so superbly in his horses also worked in magpies, and printed out a few examples.



Two magpie paintings by Virginia Lloyd-Davies also had great appeal.  One is simply a single bird, a magpie portrait if you will:


In the second one she uses wisteria for a setting:


With these conclusions in mind I set out to complete a full comp with several magpies in plum blossom, aiming for the more expressive (less realistic) style I both admired and felt more capable of rendering.  I called this  one After The Rain.


Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, how to paint birds, magpies | 3 Comments