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

Glad tidings they bring (magpies)

Some of us have been struggling a bit to get back in our painting grooves after the holidays. (Good to know I wasn’t the only one!) After some unsatisfactory pine-and-panda painting sessions I put the subject aside and poked through my library and files. Others around me were trying new papers, new brushes, and new methods. I settled on a new subject–a traditional Chinese symbol of happiness and joy, the magpie. If in life it truly is a harbinger of good fortune and joy, then painting it should also “fix” my poor luck at the art table, right?

My first magpie appeared long ago as a flash of black and white rising from the highway in front of me; my mind flashed: flying skunk? It was the Common Magpie we know in North America, with its distinctive long tail, and all-over smatterings of basic black and white. I’ve since learned that the ‘pie’ part of its name refers to exactly that, the large blotches of intense colors. Apparently the clever Pied Piper of Hamelin who rid the German town of rats earned his title from his habit of wearing clothing covered in bright patches, or at least wore multi-colored outfits.  For more on the nature of pied plumage  look here.

What is the magpie?

There are 20 species of Magpie and Treepie in the world and they are mostly confined to an area centered in India and China. Our familiar one, the Common Magpie, is found in Europe, Canada and parts of the USA. Spain has an Azure-winged Magpie, and California is the only region favoured by the Yellow-billed Magpie. All magpies are of the corvid (crow) family, except for the Australian Magpie, which is classified as a shrike.

The Common Magpie was originally known simply as ‘the Pie’, but in 16th century England the prefix Mag was added, meaning ‘chatterer’. All are capable of mimicking other birds. The raucous ‘caw, caw, caw’ call is given frequently, reflecting the intensely competitive and social nature of this species. They can be trained to talk and are known for lifelong pairings.

Magpies nest in trees and tall bushes, using sticks and mud as building materials and crafting a dome-roof to protect the nestlings. With its black and white plumage, and green and blue gloss, the magpie is an unmistakable bird. In flight; it can be easily distinguished by its long-tailed profile. In the open it flies, rising awkwardly, with quick flaps and glides, like a skittering kite. Among trees the species moves confidently, reflecting its agility. On the ground the tail is often held high as the bird ‘kangaroo-hops’ along. Young Magpies have a washed-out appearance and short, stubby tails.

Large numbers of magpies (just like their common crow cousins) gather in ‘parliaments’. No one is entirely sure why, but speculation is that gatherings occur when a pair tries to invade another pair’s territory; the ensuing competition for breeding space may attract large numbers of magpie ‘gawkers’ or onlookers. And the gawkers soon become squawkers.

In common with jackdaws, magpies are attracted to shiny objects and are notorious for stealing rings and other jewellery left on windowsills or tables out of doors. (I have been known to confess a ‘magpie complex’ when my propensity to buy small treasures at thrift stores is noticed.)

The Magpie in Chinese culture:

The belief that magpies bring happiness now shared by most Chinese people comes from the Manchu culture. One legend involves a boy named Fancha and the most ancient patriarch of the Manchu people, Bukulirongshun.

One day a heavenly goddess (Fokulon) and her two sisters were playing beside a lake when a beautiful magpie with a red fruit in its mouth flew above them. The magpie dropped the fruit. Fokulon picked it up and ate it. Some months later she gave birth to a boy she named Bukulirongshun.

Bukulirongshun and his descendants were all heroic and skilled fighters and thus became a threat to neighboring tribes. They formed an alliance and decided to wipe out the rising tribe. A boy named Fancha ran from the slaughter with the alliance warriors hot on his trail. He kept running until exhausted and when he halted, a magpie lighted on his head. He stood motionless hoping to look more like a tree trunk in the dim field. The hunters were deceived and ran on in another direction. Fancha thus became the only survivor of the genocide, thanks to the magpie.

Fancha was grateful to the bird and believed it to be something sacred; it had brought him happiness and good fortune. In keeping with those thoughts, killing a magpie is also thought to bring bad luck or misfortune.

In other cultures the magpie (or simply its song) is variously associated with approaching better weather (Mongolia), impending news or the arrival of friends (Korea), or a good drunk/winefest (Italy). In parts of France, villagers heeded a magpie’s call as warning of an approaching wolf. The Germans had a system for covering ALL of those bases—one sighted magpie was deemed unlucky; two brings merriment or marriage; three is a successful journey; four is good news and five indicates you should expect company.

My research uncovered many strange customs pertaining to the magpie, such as carrying an onion to counter the bad luck it carried, or chanting verses. One website ended with this caution that magpie-magic is double-edged: It requires mastery of your magpie spirit to achieve things; un-mastered, it will be self-destructive. Gossip, or uncontrolled chatter, and an unreasoning attraction to shiny things – be it materialistic objects, people or an inability to concentrate – spells danger just as oratory, or controlled chatter, concentration and the quick opportunistic observation can be used to devastating effect.

My interest in mastering magpie painting thus had new impetus!

Painting resources:

I have two excellent books on painting magpies. One is dedicated to the familiar black and white bird and the other throws in the Grey Magpie (softer grey color with a reddish breast) for good measure.

  1. Book No. 3 in Johnson Su-Sing Chow’s series The Fundamentals of Chinese Floral Painting.
  2. Magpie Map (Chinese) by Wang De Lu Hui


My studies:

Chow’s book put the magpie in a common setting—contrasting with red plum blossom, which he called Ascent to Joy. He provided excellent introductory steps to getting the bird ‘right’. Wang’s book is a trove of expressive-looking birds in many, many postures. Then I also had access to my Bureau of Better Chinese Brush Painters (BBgirls?), those who have been painting the flower-bird genre for many more years and are very knowledgeable about birds to boot.

I STARTED to follow Chow’s basic steps:



I played with heads as per Wang’s book:

MagpieStudy Head

I neared execution of a full bird:


Then I consulted the BBgirls: Which direction do you use for the tail feathers? How long should the tail be? etc.

One paints the tail strokes toward the bird; another paints away from the bird. One tactfully interjects: depends on what effect you want to achieve.  I gave painting in both directions some practice:


OH boy, I WILL have to figure out what works for me…just like the old ‘chicken-egg’ argument over which came first, I had to discover that “eyes and beak first’ for bird-painting gave me a more confident bird. Some books SHOW starting with a sketch of the body shape. So, discovery time it will be for me and my birds. And yes, Bird Woman I am looking in bird books and at photos of real birds; I do NOT want to replicate bird anatomy errors committed by others.


While some artists show the magpie tail roughly equal in length to the bird’s body, this image shared by Birdwoman shows the tail is LONGER.

I do LOVE Wang’s expressive magpie eyes, however, so I will try to emulate his STYLE. Right bird proportions yes, right coloration yes, but accurate eyes….no.

XuBeihong doublehappiness

This simple composition by Xu Beihong, the acclaimed horse painter, is called Double Happiness. I am intrigued by the bird postures he chose.


The three compositions above were in an art book Nenagh Molson recently used to illustrate plum painting. I couldn’t help but notice the pairings with magpies and that the bird’s pied plumage fits naturally with the limited color scheme.  I AM inspired to keep on pursuing the magpie.  I have yet to work through ALL of Chow’s directions for body, legs, feathers, and coloring. And I may even have to brush up on plum in order to complete the composition; those darned holidays do mess up one’s continuity.




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

Pursuit of the perfect panda painting

Growing up I had uncles who loved to tease the heck out of us. Their corny jokes are hard to forget. One I can’t seem to shake is Q: what is black and white and red all over? A: the newspaper. Then that morphed into Q: what is black and white and black and white and black and white? A: a nun rolling downhill.

That’s the utter nonsense kicking around in my head while I ply my brushes painting pandas chomping on red bamboo. The subject was addressed in a timely Nenagh Molson workshop before Christmas to give us some non-traditional ‘red’ ideas for greeting cards. I didn’t get around to doing ‘homework’ until now.

Painting pandas

I’ve addressed the basics in an earlier blog.  As always though, there’s something for everyone in one of Nenagh’s sessions. And doing the homework meant I dug out my books. I have three dedicated to the subject, jam-packed with LOTS of inspiration.

3panda books

And art group buddy Dormouse seemed to be on the same wavelength as I was this week, because an email from her brought me this outstanding image of pandas in a pine tree. “Photo-shopped!” pronounced the others at GH this week!



I wish I could source this image for you, but it has been over many digital miles and I can’t find the origin. Isn’t it fantastic!

Pandas simply aren’t that sociable, unless in captivity together maybe. Twenty-seven in one tree is amazing. Digitally altered or not does not matter—the image offers lots of variety in panda poses!

Nenagh’s workshop had numerous inspirations as well.


Panda Painting pointers:

  1. To get a furred edge to panda body parts (or on other furry animals such as cat, dogs, ducks.) learn to “break the ink”. Paint your body part, let it dry almost completely and then run a brush of CLEAR WATER along the edges.
  2. To help convey three-dimensions to the panda’s upper arm use THREE strokes—one on either side of the planned limb, and then one overlapping the both of them through the middle. You can narrow the limb at the elbow.
  3. Add dry brush strokes to face and body using light ink to suggest the fluffy white panda coat.
  4. Think about the oddly shaped head and body and capture that in your poses.
  5. My books also showed using light colors such as vermillion, bunt sienna, and even green as hastily added light tints to the edges of the panda’s white coat.
  6. Try under-painting the panda ears with pink for realistic inner ears, especially if you’re working in large scale.
  7. Traditionally you try to stroke the distinctive eye ‘patches’ in dark ink LEAVING the white inner area white. Nenagh always advocates using your white paper instead of using white paint. But should the paint blur and fill in the eye, don’t be shy about fixing it with white paint once the ink dries.

PandaStudyPandaStudy 2PandaStudy 1


With these things in mind, I set out to compose a group of pandas in a pine tree. I started with an estimate of the length of paper that would fit in a tall frame I had on hand, tons of panda poses (thanks Dormouse for the inspirational tree!), and lots of panda-pine-bamboo comps in my three books.

I roughed out seven bears (an odd number is best) and the trunk and major limbs for a pine tree. I opted for several pandas at the base of the tree munching on bamboo. I used some of my new greens to get the bamboo in the panda hands, mouths, and laps. Even before adding the blue-green to my pine needle clusters I considered I was going to have problems with contrasting greens—blue green in the tree and grassy green in the bamboo. I extended the bamboo into a bit of a grove at the base of the tree trying to overcome the inverted Tee look to the rough comp. I stepped back.

My PandaPlan1

Midway through this painting, and I’m not seeing how to tie together the two areas that involve such different greens. It looks disjointed. Maybe I should cut back to a smaller size?

Further consideration had me seeing different pine needle strokes in different areas of my pine tree. I spied sections of the tree trunk that needed fixing—a trunk has to NARROW gradually as you move toward the treetop. That was easily fixed, but the differing pine clusters bothered me. Assured by some of my art group buddies that the self-critic was on overdrive, and that only I was bothered by the foundation to pine clusters, I forged ahead adding color, first the dark blue-green strokes over the needles, then the colored wash over the clusters.

Still not happy with my pandas I considered cropping the comp to use only part of it–maybe just the middle, or perhaps the three uppermost bears?


With indecision ruling the day and frustration over the pine mounting, I put it aside for another day. Next week is another Nenagh Molson workshop and she loves to see our ‘homework’. Boy, have I got a panda/pine problem for her!

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting pandas | Leave a comment

Bring it on! (the Money Frog)

Who couldn’t use a little extra money this time of year? Well, the prospect of free-flowing cash could be as simple as placing a frog on your doorstep! Not just any frog. This has to be a sculpture or image of the magic three-legged frog, aka Money Toad, Fortune Frog, Wealth Toad, or Chan Chu.

My pursuit of figure painting led to the discovery of Chan Chu when I tripped over various paintings of Liu Haichan, an immortal allegedly based on a civil servant and alchemist of 10th century China.  Here’s one example.


and another:


He is often painted playing with a frog—petting it in his lap, dandling toys in front of it, happily showing it off to anyone he encounters. The most common toy is a string with coins threaded on it, supposedly money the toad has helped Liu Hai pull from a well, or coins Liu Hai uses to entice the toad out of the well.

It’s also believed that the Money Frog appears every full moon, near houses that are about to receive auspicious news. Some of the tales suggest the frog/toad could also transport Liu Hai anywhere he wished. In Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives, C.A.S. Williams pulls together lots of these legendary tidbits about the magical amphibian, and names my inspirational composition of Liu Hai and his pet as “Liu Hai sporting with The Toad”.

Among the various tales my favorite has to do with the origin of the tripedal toad. Legend has it that a lunar goddess stole the elixir of life from her alchemist husband and then fled to the moon where she was turned into a toad.

Liu Hai is sometimes painted on Mahjong tiles too, with his three legged toad and string of coins:


Two paintings I recently completed were initiated as figure painting studies, but evolved into portrayals of the Money Toad. A challenge for me was to pose the frog in such a way that one is aware of the traditional missing hind leg. Money Toad sculptures don’t make this fact terribly obvious, but placement of such a sculpture near a front door would encourage me to examine it for a missing leg. Such sculptures I have viewed usually include a handful of coins and the significance is more readily picked up. Other artists seem to have faced this challenge as well; the toad is often portrayed with red eyes and spitting out coins. It would be hard not to realize such a toad/frog has some special meaning. (If you go back to that Wikipedia link near the top of this post you can see an example of a red-eyed sculpture.  He looks a tad strange to me, if not outright evil.)

Skipping2 copy

In this first one, I planned for a tripedal toad, but forgot while I was outlining his limbs and he ended up with four legs!

In this next painting I aimed more specifically to portray the Money Toad with his traditional companion:


If images of Liu Hai Sporting with The Toad do indeed attract wealth to a home, I should soon know. These two have just been filed in the shelves in the foyer of my home. Like I said, bring it on!

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting figures, painting frogs | Leave a comment

Impressionism, extremism…Zen?

Finding your style in any artistic endeavor is always a bit tricky. I wrote ‘finding’ as opposed to ‘developing’ because I believe we are all capable of playing at art, but some of us are better at silencing the judgmental tones of our Left Brain and trusting the impulsive, creative gifts of the Right Brain. Granted, once we glom on to our preference for realistic landscapes, large boldly colored flowers, or whatever the case may be, we tend to work more at that thing, and hence ‘develop’ the inclination.

I know what I like: three of the four gentlemen, figure painting, and pretty well any animal. And I don’t mind depicting any of the usual ‘guests’ that go along with rendering those things. One concept deeply associated with Chinese brush painting (CBP) and sumi-e is that of portraying qi—one strives to capture the spirit or essence of a person, place or thing when painting. That I embrace as well.



Paintings such as this one by Hakuin Ekaku called Hotei On A Boat  are most appealing.

Three recent events made me think more about individual style in CBP, and the portrayal of spirit or inherent ‘being’.

BIG insight from LITTLE images

Friend and mentor Nenagh Molson lent me a book on figure painting. It was all in Chinese and did not have an ISBN number. But it did have page after page of intriguing illustrations with a definite visual message. The illustrations consisted of numerous classic figure/zen paintings from centuries ago; I quickly recognized such entries as The Sixth Ancestor Chopping Bamboo, Hotei Wading the River, and Catfish and Gourd. What was different about this presentation is that for many of them the editors presented at least three images—one showing the whole composition, and then two showing closer and even closer detail shots.

To a CBP artist who loves figure painting, these illustrations are hugely important. When we are accustomed to seeing images of painting only in books we can lose sense of the true impact they carry. Many ink paintings were created on large scrolls—four feet tall and 15, 20, and 30 feet long! Such images shrunk to less than page-size in any book—even those we call oversize—show us very little of the true brush work and tonal value range of the ink. We can’t see the magnificent swipe that carries dark tones to the edge of an arc, imparts thick and thin shaping to lines, or leaves degrees of wet and dry to rapid or slow strokes.

Below are three successively closer images of The Sixth Ancestor/Patriarch Chopping Bamboo; just SEE those brushwork details as the lens takes you closer to the work!

6thPatBambooStudy1  6thPatBambooStudy2


Here’s the same revelation using the painting called The Sixth Patriarch and Tearing of a Sutra:

6thPatSutraStudy1 6thPatSutraStudy2



Walking the Dog

With a Dog Year (2018) approaching, many in my art groups are turning to painting dogs. While the Pekingese is considered the quintessential Chinese dog, any breed of dog can be used to represent this sign on the Chinese Zodiac. I have blogged about painting Pekingese before and have dabbled at depicting other breeds, with varied success. It was heartening to discover while reviewing past dog lessons of dear friend and mentor John Nip that he too faced some issues in getting proportions and scale of doggy parts just right.

And then I hesitated as I examined his dog portrayals…was he truly ‘getting it wrong’ OR was he ‘deliberately distorting a line or feature’ with the aim of humor or whimsy? Perhaps his oddly shaped ears and funny muzzle that didn’t quite convey ‘Pekingese’, and didn’t truly say ‘spaniel’, yet definitely held quizzical appeal in doggy essence, was the intended artistic result? Was he giving me the impression of a funny, furry creature balefully looking up at me after perhaps toppling a potted plant or leaving wet paw prints across my kitchen floor? Maybe he had just captured the true essence of a naughty, playful pup? Did it matter that I didn’t recognize any one breed in the portrayal?

JNdogs3  Myyellowdog

John’s dog is on the left; on the right is my version of a playful puppy peeking out from among some yellow blossoms, probably wintersweet.  Now is it a spaniel? a mutt?

Getting more into ZEN

I’ve acquired several art books dedicated to Zen painting. Two are oversize volumes loaded with illustrations of art housed largely in Japanese galleries/museums. One is a smaller book with a more academic approach—it shows numerous classic Zen paintings, and includes an essay for each, discussing its zen qualities—mentioning the theme, the intellectual challenges, the koan that many see in it.


One painting that really stands out for me is Three Blind Men Crossing a Bridge from 17th century artist Hakuin Ekaku.


I was initially drawn to the image because of the simplicity of the composition, the figures in profile, and the intriguing title that suggested there was something mind-bending about the subject material. Authors Stephen Addiss and John Daido Loori gave me greater appreciation of all three aspects. Here’s some of their commentary:

The great master Hakuin is pointing to the difficulties we encounter while attempting to navigate our lives. He advises that a mind that can cross over is the best guide. I ask you what is the mind that can cross over? What does it mean not to just look but to see? ‘Seeing’ is a whole body and mind activity in which the separation between seer and seen has completely dissolved. As Thoreau said, it is a seeing that is ‘beyond the verge of sight’. At just such a time the ‘mind that can cross over’ realizes the other side and this side are a single reality.

Addiss and Loori helpfully draw attention to some key elements in the Zen painting: The three men are blind, yet are attempting to cross the bridge (achieve enlightenment in ‘Zen-speak’) each in his own manner. One reaches out with his staff, another is down on his hands and toes to feel his way, and the third has placed sandals at the end of his walking stick in the manner of a trapeze walker using a balancing aid. The bridge does NOT completely cross to the other side; there is a noticeable gap. The bridge, albeit incomplete and hence not a true bridge in my estimation, spans what could be a very deep gorge. The authors say that Hakuin drew on folklore and everyday life is his creations; here he depicted an imaginary bridge in the mountains hear his home and added three legendary blind men to help convey his insights into the meaning of life.

What the thinking did to my painting

While these thoughts were filling my head, I was playing with figure painting. Looking at some ancient compositions I was surprised to find arm extensions not truly anatomically correct, some foot twisting that could only mean a practiced yogi or extraordinarily flexible individual, and even some unrealistic bone lengths.

Look closely at the shoulders of the two fellows in this painting with up-raised right arms–the one pummeling a downed guy on the left, and he one lifting his instrument to join in the skirmish.  The right upper arms should have more length to them to be anatomically correct, should they not?


Similarly in the figure below, the right upper arm again seems to be  ill-proportioned.


This last figure was titled Patriarch returning from Chopping Wood. Perhaps the artist intentionally distorted that arm to enhance the sense of weariness and muscle soreness. (On days when I have foolishly over-exerted myself in the garden–cleaning up old beds or turning sod for new ones–I swear various body parts have felt badly distorted!)

I wonder if the twisted forearms, the wrenched ankles, or lengthy calves really matter? Does my eye not simply take in the full figure? And, more importantly, when I lay down strokes to show a foot, an arm, or leg, do I have to leave a solid trace to the boundaries of the skin and bone? Did the masters not leave some of the delineation to the imagination?

I pledge to worry less about incomplete lines in my figures and strive for strokes that reflect the energy of the individual: an angry figure will get Zs and Ws as per the patriarch ripping his sutra, happy figures such as Hotei wandering around with his bag of goodies and odd companions warrant only curved lines with lots of thick and thin variations.  I’m not so sure I buy into the idea that the bridge the blind men attempt to cross should be incomplete.  I want to know they have a real chance of crossing over.









Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting figures, painting qi, zen art | Leave a comment

Out on a limb: pine cones

All that exists is, in a sense, the seed of what will be born from it.” — Marcus Aurelius

With pine branches being such a common setting for animals or birds in Chinese brush painting (CBP), you’d think there would be an abundance of instruction for portraying pine cones. There is not. Many of the books that address painting pine, and there are many, look at the tree and branch shapes, the bark, and the needle clusters; they overlook the cones entirely.

From observations on my many walks and hikes I am quite aware that cones can emerge from branches of different conifers in different ways: some point upwards and some down, some present as long and curved while others are fat and round. Some appear tightly wrapped when new and then loosen up as they mature. Some emerge in clusters while others present as individuals or pairs.

Sorting it all out can be challenging. Here is a site that increased my factual knowledge of pines and their cones.  And another. My research led me to this site that has great information and a diagram naming pine cone parts at the end.  It’s also where I discover a bristlecone pine tree in California considered one of the oldest living organisms on earth, aging out at 4800 years old!

And then I wondered just how much I really had to know?


Here’s an assortment of pine cones I’ve collected over the years and have never altered into the intended Christmas crafts. What a trove for painting!

Here’s a cone assortment recently spied on a mantlepiece at Goward House (where one of my art groups regularly meets).  The large one at the back is about eight inches tall and the smaller ones out front have opened into rosette shapes.


Conventional pine boughs

Most of us westerners consider pine boughs with a few cones to be standard Christmas card fare. Add a chickadee, cardinal or Canada jay and a dusting of snow and you’ve got the makings of a cute card. But which pine are we painting, and how should we depict the cones? And maybe we are unwittingly depicting a spruce or hemlock, or other conifer…does it matter? Perhaps my CBP instructions for depicting cones, limited as they were, would be enough for me to capture their essence in a credible manner?


A watercolor artist named Kate Dolomore has taken many more pains than I to sort out pine cone identities for this helpful field guide.

My resources:

Among my general CBP instruction books that do include cones in their sections on pine painting are these:

  1. Johnson Su-Sing Chow in his Manual of Bird Painting No. 3
  2. Caroline and Susan Self in The Art of Chinese Brush Painting
  3. Jane Evans in Chinese Brush Painting
  4. Yolanda Mayhall in The Sumi-e Book
  5. Wing K. Leong in Chinese Painting Step by Step
  6. Fang Zhwu-shiung in Painting Cute Animals


I considered the similarities of methods in these books and attempted to emulate the lessons from four of them.

My studies: 

  1. Su-Sing Chow’s method included color washes. He employs dabbing strokes of dark ink, starting at the cone tip and working toward the cone base. He places those dabs in roughly defined arcing rows, aiming to convey a rounded shape. From the base he inks in a short, firm stem that attaches the cone to a pine branch (peduncle). In keeping with the traditional manner for suggesting the green coloring of pine needle clusters (graded washes over clusters) he lays a reddish-brown wash over the cone. One could vary the ink shades used for the individual ‘scales’ in a cone, define them in brown shades, and play with adding accumulated snow (using white paint) for variations.


  1. Caroline Self and Yolanda Mayhall both illustrated cone painting using a tick-stroke with dark ink. Ms. Self suggested working down the left side of your cone first, then doing the same on the right side, and finally filling in three or more such rows of ticks to flesh out the central part. It helps to know that the peduncle (that short stem attaching a cone to a pine branch) extends as a central core to the entire cone. Mayhall’s version was a slender, longish cone, while the Self depiction offered insight into conveying a fatter cone. Here’s my attempt at mimicking the Self study.


  1. Jane Evans’ method for painting pine cones appears to be a variation of the Self method. Here’s my study following her technique. Her strokes are based on the tick-stroke, just executed with a bit more of a flick to the brush, or ‘flourish’ as you plant and then drag the tick off into the air. Clearly you can work up a rhythm to planting your strokes and you’d be wise to have visualized the shape and placement for your cone before laying in the first stroke.


  1. Wing K. Leong provides a slightly more detailed rendering of cones. He used a dabbing stroke that he twisted slightly to create a slightly rounded dab. He creates them with a brush loaded with light ink dipped in medium dark ink, and then with a fine brush loaded in dark ink, he adds the little hair-like projection (aptly called a prickle or bristle) at the tip of each of the scales protruding from the core of the cone.



Compositional concerns:

Once I had played with using tick strokes and the rounded, double-load method I moved on to trying a full composition. My cone quest was inspired by the unusual posture of a large squirrel discovered on someone’s Pinterest page. The creature dangled precariously from a pine branch, swinging towards the viewer, and as I contemplated how to use the pose, I realized he needed a focal point for his upward gaze. Enter the need to paint a realistic pine cone.

First I worked out the niceties of squirrel body parts. Those paws they use to turn and manipulate food items do NOT have an opposable thumb as one might conclude from watching them dismantle a cone at rapid speed. They have four ‘fingers’ (with the two middle ones being longer than those on either side) extending forward, with a fifth much shorter one placed behind the set of four. Think of other pawed animals you may be more familiar with, such as cats or dogs, and you’ll recognize the back ‘pad’ as that hind-most finger/thumb.  That fifth ‘finger’ is used strategically to create an opposing force against the pull of the other fingers, when squirrels crawl vertically down tree trunks.

Not having painted fur in some time I had to refresh my memory of laying down dry brush strokes and using colored washes. Red squirrels have pointy ears, whereas the large grey squirrels that scamper in the oaks outside my townhouse window have rounded ears. They have beady, dark eyes and short whiskers. There must be a squirrel species in Asia with distinctive stripes similar to the chipmunks we know in North America, as many CBP compositions feature such creatures.


My reason for wanting to paint pine cone was to give this furry fellow a suitable focal point.

It took several attempts to get the squirrel and pine worked out before I could drop in my pine cone. I’m quite happy with the end result, but nevertheless still want to discover what kind of pines sport which kind of cones. Here’s a starting point. And another.



Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, painting pine, pine cones, squirrel | Leave a comment