Wiley and beguiling: painting Wisteria 2

Stymied by where and how best to begin a wisteria composition I realized I needed to understand more fully how the plant’s parts grew and fit together.

Now I’ve pulled many a dandelion, picked the flowers, braided the stems, scrubbed the sappy residue, gathered and washed the leaves for salads, dug the roots from numerous lawns, and so I thoroughly know dandelions. I could paint any part of them, at any life stage, in my sleep if I had to. Not so, the fascinating wisteria. I haven’t even attempted to grow one.

GHwisteria west

Once established, wisteria can put on a spectacular display, such as this mature planting surrounding Bird Woman’s nest.

Wanting to paint this popular subject of oriental compositions, I set out to study the plant parts more fully.

The Flower:

Wikipedia has an excellent illustration of the wisteria floral parts here which I’ve imported below.


I’m familiar with the basic ‘pea’ floral structure—banner petals, wings and keel. And they usually present in pairs. Pedicel and peduncle were helpful terms to acquire to aid in discussing floral painting.


The proportions of the parts are much the same from wisteria plant to wisteria plant, although some are showier (larger or more varied in color). Interesting that the wisteria has ‘fused pistils’ with one that lies free of the other nine. They are indeed a bright yellow and would be most visible in the more open florets. The traditional varieties (Chinese, Japanese) do present in an all-over single color (lavender, blue, white), although there are cultivars with mixed tones. Combinations on a cluster are NOT as striking as with fuchsia plants or bearded iris.


In this specimen one can see how the leaves emerge from the vine and the succession of bloom along the raceme.

The calyx sitting atop a pedicel (short flower stalk) must be the bud casing that opens to reveal the flower, and then sits there gleaming out, as one of the ‘dots’ brush painters like to add for ‘excitement’. I notice from the many photos I examine online that the wisteria clusters can be more cylindrical than conical on some species. This would explain why some painters prefer looser structures and others favor the more symmetric ‘cones’ in their compositions. The little stems within a cluster that hold the florets (pedicels) can appear light green or brownish, so painters who like to adjust their green tones with burnt sienna, blue or red are free to do so and stay true to life.

Armed with these insights, I felt more confident in revisiting the wisteria. I had a better idea how to achieve the rounded 3-D look to a cluster and how to shape petals. As for colors, blues and mauves hold the most appeal; the white outline version illustrated by Jia Pao-min still fascinates me, so it may yet get tackled.

The Leaves:

My examination of photos of real plants confirmed my notes that said alternate leaves along a stem, plus the end one. Workshop notes from Lotus said 9-13 leaves along the stem were the norm. I discovered the difference in leaf-painting style I had observed (narrow symmetric leafs versus looser, dark-veined ones) was explained  by varietal differences and age of the leaves. This photo shows typical leaf shapes for wisteria:

Wisteria sinensis - Chinese Wisteria

One artist who inked a biological illustration noted the narrower (newer) leaves were usually lighter green than the wider ones.  The peduncles (stems holding leaves) emerged from fresh vine growth and ‘cascaded’ away from the vine much the same as the racemes (flower clusters).

Hail the Flower Painting Queen: Yang O-shi:

Having learned more about the flowers and leaves I went back to my CBP library and hunted for more compositions featuring wisteria. I soon discovered they could be a backdrop for featured creatures such as chicks, ducks, roosters, and goldfish OR they could be the centre of attention with perhaps a small insect, butterfly or a few bees hovering nearby.

I also gained considerable insight from the step-by-step instructions from the author-artist Yang O-shi who excels at both flowers and birds. I have two of her books that address wisteria. In fact the cover of the one on the left below features wisteria.


Here are two detail shots excerpted from her work that clearly show distinctions between  the new and old leaves:

You can clearly see the newer leaves are lighter green and not fully formed, whereas the older leaves are darker with darker veins and more rounded, fuller shapes. She tends to put the newer leaves in profile and the older ones turned forward slightly. Some stems with newer leaves emerge from newly extending vines as well and these often trail in a breeze. The older leaves typically are clustered somewhat as a canopy over numerous flower clusters.

Once at my art table with this knowledge I then felt more comfortable starting with leaf structures, planning to place floral clusters below them.  An odd number seemed most pleasing. Having learned that the dried, brownish tendrils remaining from last year’s growth are what appear as the wandering lines in a painting, I understood why they should be done with dry brush and reveal flying white.

Wisteria belongs to the woody (as opposed to fleshy) vining plants so the heavier, main stems do need to look rough, twisted, and old. AND, if you want to be true to showing a Chinese wisteria as opposed to a Japanese one, you can wind to the right or to the left ascending the main stalk, as befits the variety! Now who would really be looking for that authenticity?

Composition Schemes:

In CBP one studies the subjects and gets familiar with brushwork, then plans a complete composition with great concern for white space. You usually choose and arrange your elements (flowers, leaves, stems, and of course ‘guests’ or ‘visitors’) keeping in mind how lines draw the viewer’s eye through the composition.

A number of such planning schemes for wisteria are these:


A convenient aspect to a wisteria flower cluster (raceme) is that its profile is like a broad arrow, it clearly points in a direction. To boot, you can slightly curve the raceme cone, and with additional curved vines/leaves/tendrils accentuate the ‘loft’ of the airborne plant parts, suggesting the presence of a gentle breeze. Bird Woman does just that in this composition she painted on some handmade paper embedded with organic bits:

GH 15 Hummingbird

My wisteria opus:

I played with wisteria for a few days, often ending up with paper covered too densely with leaves, and messy floral structures. Satisfying results eluded me. Only when I tripped over a few compositions with cats in a garden under some wisteria did I accomplish anything I deemed worthy of gluing.

Here’s an early one I kind of liked and considered how it might look with various cropping and/or frame shapes.

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I suspect I will be painting more wisteria, probably as a setting for a creature I like—cats for sure—until such time as I get more confident with all of its parts and how to paint them in relation to one another.

And I learned yet another word in the process; I am truly astounded that such a technical term as “torus” (plural tori)–meaning a surface of revolution generated by revolving a circle in three-dimensional space about an axis coplanar with the circle–shows up in a translation from Chinese.  Yang O-shi used it to describe the shape you aim for in portraying the banner petals near the top of the wisteria racemes.  Art, botany and geometry lessons all in one–such fun!

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

Hoary brushwork and other surprises: painting wisteria

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

The starting word was ‘hoary’.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

From whence its name?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Symbolism for Wisteria/wistaria:

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

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

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

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

My Painting Resources:

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

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

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


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


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


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

WisteriaJPdetail       WisteriaJPwhitedetail

Painting order and methods:

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

WistVineFirststep1     WistVineFirststep2

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

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


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


WistLeafcurved  WistLeafcurvedveind2


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

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

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


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

Wisteria companions:

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

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


Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, flowers, wisteria | Leave a comment

Sentinel of the swamp: great blue heron

For years a highlight of my working week was heading to the lake on Friday night or early Saturday morning. One of the things I most looked forward to was spying our lakeside ‘greeter’, usually perched on one leg on a small marshy hummock just around the same bend in the off-road from highway to waterfront home. Much like the famous Walmart greeters, ours wore blue! He was a handsome Great Blue Heron. And his consistent appearance in that marshy corner of the off-road clearly said ‘welcome to my wild, folks; have a good weekend’.


This fine fellow was spied on a recent walk enjoying some early spring sunshine.

My study of CBP has largely been whim-driven; I go where the brush wants to go. I’ve wanted to paint herons, and have tried my hand at a few compositions, but with little satisfaction. The long neck wouldn’t curve just right, and I found posing him in profile was all too common. He is a popular painting subject for western and oriental artists alike. While entirely accurate, such poses come across to me as still and somewhat ‘waxen’. The bird’s spirit is not often apparent.

Then recently while hunting for a composition of lotus, some striking blue herons leaped out at me.


Beautiful Summer by Huang Yonguy 2002

A contemporary CBP master in China named Huang Yong-guy (also Yongyu) is largely self-taught and paints herons, cranes and owls in a most distinctive style described in several places as ‘abstract expressionism’.

Look at his work here

and learn more about the man here.

His owls appear comical, almost cartoonish, and yet have great appeal. They also allegedly were devised with a sociological message in mind; their ‘one-eye-closed’ presentation supposedly is critical of a corrupt government that turns a blind eye to certain activities. Now really, he could be just a cute little bird whose likeness sells well, couldn’t he?


Huang’s herons, egrets and cranes are all painted large and loose, with stylized feathers, necks and feet. The eyes are exaggerated black dots in yellow orbs, the wings and feet are thrown akimbo in dynamic poses, and the lotus settings are charged with vivid red flowers and mineral green splotches. His herons are loaded with feathery appeal; they are alive.


This composition by Huang Yonguy had my art group buzzing; the style held great appeal for many.

I had to try painting heron in the manner of Huang. But to paint in this style, you truly need to know the bird. Huang’s details may be exaggerated, yet they are true to the bird.

What is the Great Blue Heron?

He is a ‘stately’ bird says my trusty field guide. And he can be found at riverside or in marshes, usually standing quite motionless, scanning his surroundings for prey. The distinctive grey-blue plumage and relative size contributed to his name, I would guess. In flight the GBH’s profile is also distinctive—he pulls his neck back to form a tight S-curve, and lets his long legs trail behind.

He is the largest of the North American herons and has a significant wingspan as well as black swipe through his eyes and into the head area. The dagger-like beak is useful in spearing fish or gophers, and when thus motivated he moves with lightening speed. So that statue-like appearance hides a coiled-spring of powerful bird muscle. More about the bird can be found here.

How to pose him?

I think it’s because so many artists have painted the bird, and most of those paintings do depict him in that same statue-like pose, that I thus far had resisted painting him. How does one capture the essence of this fine specimen, yet stand out from the crowd. Painting him with wings spread would be interesting, but also challenging because of all the feathers.

My CBP library yielded three resources of interest:

  1. Painting Water fowls by Chi’en Shing-chien. This book includes a host of water birds found in Asia and all have bodies similar to our Great Blue Heron. Chi’en paints in outline and boneless styles throughout, tending to create expressive eyes, beaks, and plumage. He includes excellent step-by-step instructions for herons, cranes, ibis, egret, storks, as well as many smaller shore birds. There’s even a section on composition with lots of tips as to creative placement of these typically long-legged and long-necked birds.
  2. An introduction to Chinese Painting by Danny Han-lin Chen. His version of the blue heron leans more to the realistic, and following his steps is helpful if you want that look.
  3. I also had some fine illustrated notes from a Nenagh Molson workshop.


And given my recent research into Huang Yonguy, I had several dozen examples of his work with egrets, cranes and herons. Once I got into exploring his compositions I realized one could adapt any Chinese brush painting illustration for cranes rather easily, and so I pulled out my files and books on painting crane.

Learning about the great blue heron:


I discovered a host of silhouettes of herons in flight, landing, taking off, and standing on one or two legs at a royalty-free site called shutterstock. These seemed extremely useful in understanding how the neck muscles worked, how the feathers collapsed to form a hunched-back look, how the wings spread, and so on.


I spent some time just sketching these shapes with a charcoal pencil on Moon Palace paper.Then I moved on to some hasty compositions of herons in flight and standing still, just to familiarize myself with the bird’s shape.

Bird Woman offered some ‘keepers’ from her files: photos of Harry (the Heron who lives in Beacon Hill Park) and other no-name herons in flight. For more about Henry/Harry and his heron mates see this site.  I’ve only seen Harry high in a tree but he has posed by the pond for other local bird-watchers.


Bird Woman also regaled me with tales of lazing away hours near her summer retreat watching whole heron flocks fishing in the ocean. That would be a LOT of necks and beaks to get right, twice as many wings to feather out in the right directions. I actually scoured online images for heron flocks. I found even photographers seemed to prefer single birds as subjects.

I decided to simply try the heron pair Nenagh had used in a recent workshop, one from the Painting Waterfowl book. In the end I didn’t get past doing one of the pair.

Order for painting:

Painting a GBH should follow the usual bird-painting regimen—eye and beak, then one-stroke head (for moku style), followed by neck and back feathers, continue with wings, body and finally tail; then with careful attention to the ‘line’ from beak to tail, paint in the legs and feet. With heron, as with rooster, be sure the feet are flat, not on tippy-toe.

1. As with any creature I started with the eyes, then added the beak. It’s important to get the right shape to a spear-hunting bird’s beak, and to position the eye behind the beak with an appropriate ‘gape’ (that line at the hinge of the beak). The GBH has a tiny round black eye inside a circle, with a yellow beak. For artistic purposes, the eye can (and probably should) be exaggerated in size.


One should practice strokes to the left and to the right; you can also turn your paper about 90 degrees to position the ‘down-right’ beak if you can only master the stroke horizontally.

Nenagh reminded us that one could convey a considerable range of emotions in birds depending on where in the eye you place that black dot.


Once I had the stroke somewhat ‘mastered’ I started a full bird:


The master painter Li Kuchan (1899-1983) developed great skill in painting birds with a wide range of expressions. You can study some of his examples here or here.

His albums are filled with compositions of eagles, herons, and other birds; this classic shows up in numerous albums or instruction books.  Just look at that eye!


2. As per Nenagh’s approach, I roughly sketched the GBH’s shape with very light indigo/ink: head, neck, upper body, wings and tail. I dropped in the facial black mask. and added color to the beak and legs.

gbhstep2 gbhstep3

3. While checking a brush loaded with indigo and tipped in dark ink, I discovered how I wanted to feather my bird.


Getting the moisture level just right on an orchid brush so that the stroke blended only slightly and didn’t disappear into a blur once pressed to the paper proved tricky.

gbhstep4 gbhstep5

While I was working on herons, more photos of Henry aka Harry showed up in a local art show. Bird Woman suggested a nesting pair with chicks, and a neighbor showed me a marvelous life-like carved bird she had purchased on Wolf Island, located across from Kingston, Ontario.

It wasn’t for lack of ideas that I wasn’t zeroing in on a heron to call my own. Then, while rifling through art books in my library, I tripped over an artist describing how she injected more radiance into her traditional watercolor bird paintings: she applied washes over feathers done with an ink pen.

Very much like Chinese brush painting, I thought. I turned the page.

And there was a pair of great blue herons facing off in courtship ‘bobbing’. I liked the pose. Her necks weren’t quite right (too fat like some of my early ones), but the interaction between birds was inspiring. Painting two was likely easier than taking on a fishing flock. The wing feathers and even the feet would not require much attention as in most fishing poses. And furthermore, the full side profile (an easier envisioning) would have more impact than an angled view.

The Painting Waterfowls book is filled with a range of oriental birds related to our GBH—egrets, cranes, ibis. As I thumbed through the pages I realized the settings contributed a lot to the impact of the comps. Then I noticed that I could easily alter the birds in those comps—flatten the head, add a black swipe and wispy topknot, elongate the neck, add blue plumage—and thus have a GBH painting. Aha, I could make by GBH more distinctive than the typical statuesque profile pose. So I played a bit with the layouts. BUT, would a GBH really be seen under banana leaves? This is when a classic Japanese screen painting of a white egret against a willow tree came to mind.


In this screen painted by Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858) it is hard to say which grabs your attention most, the bird or the willow.

Another comp from the book that held appeal showed a no-name oriental heron fishing behind a swath of bamboo. I gave it a quick brushing on to paper. Would our GBH be seen next to bamboo?

The other Barb (TOB) suggested he could plausibly be fishing in Brentwood Bay next to our Butchart Garden….

It matters not, the paintings had merit; it was time to take one through to completion.

Here is my first composition showing three great blue herons in willow.  These are painted in outline style posed in the manner of Li Kuchan and I think they merit gluing.


Before putting the paints away for the day, I started another comp of a heron in moku (boneless) style.  The head and neck worked out okay, but too much water messed up the body.  He holds promise for another day.


Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, great blue heron, how to paint birds | 2 Comments

Language of the opera: orchid-speak

I’m not a huge fan of opera music, but I do love the theatre for its ‘suspension of belief’ and colorful costumes. How stories are enriched through staging, lighting, and language fascinate me. On learning that Chinese opera performers use orchid petal formations with their hands to convey meaning I was astounded. The concept was most intriguing. (For more on conventions of Chinese opera see this article.)

Human hands have five digits that bend and twist in predictable manners. The Chinese orchid has five petals pointing in pleasing directions. The hands of a performer could be manipulated to focus attention; an observer’s eyes usually are drawn to the flowers at the heart of a grassy framework of orchid leaves. Hmm.. Yet another of Professor I-Hsiung-Ju’s insights from his instructional books on the four gentlemen has me off and playing in my art room.

Orchid petal handiwork

The Beijing/Peking opera actor credited with codifying (if not inventing) hand signals with definitive meanings was one Mei Lanfang. Just look at his hands in these two publicity shots:

meilanfangl  meilanfangr

You can read more about him here.

And watch a short video or slide show on Youtube of the man at work. We have a Gustav Thomas to thank for his interest in researching and tracking down images to showcase the talents of this opera favorite of the early 20th century.  (See a second version without Chinese script but music.)

Here’s an illustration I found online on some of those hand ‘messages’ used in Chinese opera:



Curiously my hunt also turned up similar hand gestures that are supposedly conventions in East Indian dancing:


I can’t read the words, but some of the gestures convey meaning.

Ju writes:

No matter which action it performs—holding, waving, pushing, pulling, pitching, throwing—the lady’s hands assume the attitude of orchid flowers. Facing up or bending down, under the sun or suffering the rain, and so on.   The wrist is the base and the fingers are petals. Her hands are always as beautiful as orchid flowers.

My artistic quest

Ju presented six hand gestures to illustrate his point about the language of the orchid, complete with sketches of a hand and an orchid flower. I isolated each, and aligned the corresponding hands to orchids in a row to study the petal and finger placements. Two were executed with the left hand and four with the right.

The thumb and the pinky finger usually represented the petals often shown in somewhat horizontal positions, with two of the three middle fingers reserved for the two upright central petals (you usually paint those first) and the remaining one to represent the third petal that appears at angles to the floral base.

Thus far, the analogy made sense.

Having recently acquired a new long, springy brush and some Japanese watercolors that mixed a pleasant orchid purple, I was in the mood for some orchid painting. As I studied Ju’s sketches I realized I was twisting and turning my fingers, so I grabbed a camera. Just as I thought, two of the gestures were not easily posed. Mei Lanfang’s talent just stepped up a couple of notches in my estimation. How did he do that?

Following are copies of Ju’s sketches, photos of my hands, and finally some brushwork efforts for each of the six hand messages.

1. Come Over:

comeoverorchid  comeover


2. You don’t

youdontorchid  youdont



3. Let me think:

letmethinkorchid  letmethink


I discovered Ju’s fingers and petals differed in their pose for this one.

4. I’m Surprised

imsurprisedorchid  imsurprised


5.  I’m Delighted

imdelightedorchid imdeligted


6. Sad

sadorchid sad


Reflections and outcomes:

  1. Checking out Ju’s orchid petal messages pushed me to explore the orchid more closely. The petal strokes are derived from bamboo leaf strokes, which I’ve been working at for several months now.
  2. I’ve got a new respect for opera, albeit Chinese opera. (Forget the music; pay attention to the hands!)
  3. Painting ‘sad’ didn’t always yield a sad-looking little orchid; sometimes it just appeared delicate, alone, waif-like.
  4. Usually you paint the two smaller, inner petals first, and then add the other three outer ones. I found that in order to achieve some of the apparent ‘finger crossing’ I had to paint outer petals first and then dab in the central ones.
  5. In at least two of Ju’s renderings (I’m Delighted and Let Me Think) the finger placements differed from the petal formations. Concentrating on trying to get the petals placed accurately meant my strokes were more labored, less fluid.
  6. I found my petals had blurry edges (too much water/too slow execution) and that I often could not tell which were intended as the two smaller central petals and which were the longer, outer ones. In hindsight I attributed the difficulty in controlling edges and shapes to the business of trying to copy the models exactly, and this affected how they looked: blurry, sloppy, poorly related to one another, often obliterating instead of overlapping and providing depth of field.
  7. I discovered that if some petals were painted AWAY from the calyx central point (instead of towards it) the petal placement was a tad easier to replicate. Note the traditional technique calls for the ‘TOWARD centre’ stroke direction and not the AWAY. I used to think this was a hard and fast rule, but once having observed master painter John Nip use an occasional TOWARD stroke in order to get a certain shape, I realize this rule (like many others) can be broken in order to achieve results.

I tried making a little reference card showing the six orchid petal formations I’d studied:


Overall I’m not so sure these ‘opera-speaking’ orchids will show up in my paintings, unless I get comfortable enough with orchid petal strokes to paint them more ‘at will’. Right now, my brushwork is too labored (hampered by the desire to replicate position?) to yield dancing, fluid petal strokes. BUT….I did get better at bamboo through practice, so maybe there’s some hope for my ‘operatic’ orchids. Perhaps once I can see all five petals in relation to one another at one glance,  then writing that flower would be more natural, easier to accomplish.

Time will tell, but right now some ‘blues’ are calling—a bird and a flower.






Posted in painting orchid | 2 Comments

Grove principles for Bamboo

My instructional books on painting bamboo—and I do have many—devote very little attention to principles of creating groves. They go into great detail on individual leaf, stem, shoots, cane and node creation. I’m grateful they do that; there is considerable wisdom to impart.

The books discuss the niceties of style—monochrome, color, vermillion, outline, detail outline, freestyle, and variations thereof. They discuss treatment differences for bamboo in sun, in rain, in snow, in wind, and at different times of day. But when it comes to painting bamboo in clumps or groves, usually as part of a landscape or occasionally the feature of a composition, a brush painter has to glean principles from all the other topic sections.

I got pretty excited to see that Johnson Su-sing Chow actually dedicated a chapter in his Book of The Bamboo, volume 3 in his set of The Fundamentals of Chinese Floral Painting to Bamboo Groves. Alas, his direction proved rather general and offered little insight. He did attribute the “invention” of painting bamboo in groves to a Madame Guan (or Kuan) Tao-sheng (1262-1319), and noted such painting has carried her name ever since. See this Wikipedia entry for more about her. She is arguably the most famous female brush painter of all time, given her dedication and talent for bamboo painting.


Madame Guan’s Bamboo in Mist and Rain.  National Palace Museum, Taipei

Chow also identifies his own painting instructor (Wu Tzu-shen) in the introduction to his bamboo book; he was a 20th century master also known for expertise in painting bamboo. What Chow has to say then comes to us from Wu, and also Madame Guan. I therefore read his chapter ‘31 Bamboo Grove’ carefully and repeatedly.

My grove inspiration

I was inspired to create a grove for several reasons. First of all, I had tripped over a figure painting of two gentlemen drinking wine in a moonlit grove.


The simple monochrome study held appeal, the traditional moon shining on bamboo was attractive, and I do admire Chinese figure painting. Another bamboo composition featuring a clump against an indigo sky had me thinking about other ways of treating moonlight.  I considered how to blend the best of both and learn about painting bamboo in groves.


My growing confidence with bamboo painting (thanks to recent studies prompted by I-Hsiung Ju’s excellent book) also gave me more courage to tackle a large bamboo grove. I even had a large silver frame and white matting stashed away for just such a possibility. I had some new brushes that held fine points, and a bottle of silvery ink that just might yield glistening leaves. I thought I had all the makings for a successful afternoon of painting.

My afternoon stretched into days, and then weeks.

A bamboo grove proved elusive. But I persisted, and after close to two-dozen starts I finally framed “Two friends enjoy a moonlit grove”. I tried to capture my insights along the way.


What I discovered:

  1. As Chow wrote “The entire cane is painted from its base to its tip; this requires a thorough understanding of the structure of the bamboo and its movement in the breeze.” He was sooo…right! I could never have completed this composition without first practicing leaves, stems, canes, nodes, and MOST importantly, studying how and where to use various leaf formations. My thanks again to Professor Ju and his guidance; see my earlier posts on those lessons.
  2. Full bamboo stalks can and should arch slightly from base to tip. Be sure, however, to keep the sections between the nodes straight. You alter direction ever so slightly with each successive section.
  3. Canes should be of different thicknesses and heights. You must avoid painting “parallel lines” and “railroad tracks” and cross your canes in appropriate ways. One of my books noted that a classic way to cross canes is to think of the Roman numerals IV or VI and to plan those shapes left or right of centre on your paper.
  4. You want to have tonal variations among leaf clusters—dark ink for those more forward and lighter shades further away from the viewer. You’ll want to achieve at least three tonal values in a painting.
  5. Newer leaves occur at growth tips—the very top of a stalk, or maybe a stem emerging from a node, and especially new growth near the base of a clump. Bamboo does grow quickly so a clump with all the leaves pointing up would not be un-realistic. Some varieties of bamboo also present narrow, sparse leaves pointing upward as their natural growth pattern. Many very old paintings show that kind of bamboo, including Madame Kuan’s work.
  6. Placing groups of leaves in clusters takes planning. You do have to consider where stems emerge from nodes—alternate sides going up a stalk—when it comes to placing clusters, or you end up with a spotty-looking arrangement. In real life a bamboo grove may have very dense growth, but portraying the growth with such density appears too ‘overdone’. In some of the early versions of my grove I ended up with messy-looking leaf formations and I realized I was trying to get too many layers of leaves in a cluster.
  7. Scale and proportion of leaves to canes, and to other compositional elements (like figures!) must be considered. In one of my early attempts the leaves were too small and looked more like a swarm of gnats had descended on my partiers. In another, I’d got the leaves too big and they stated to resemble shredded banana leaves, or maybe a collection of umbrellas.
  8. Trying to emulate my inspirational piece too closely hindered my success. I soon discovered I couldn’t get my leaf clusters to look exactly like the ones in the model. The other painter seemingly had placed bamboo leaves in an arbitrary manner, as opposed to a planned, natural extension from cane to stems to leaf formations. I had to revert back to my Ju lesson insights and plan where leaf formation should appear based on my canes. Brush painters in China tend to work at much larger scale (sheets of three or four feet high) than we do in North America (15, 18 or 20 inches high). A HUGE painting reduced to 10 x 12 inches could appear highly detailed (very ‘busy’) and not entirely ‘reproducible’.
  9. Bamboo groves are best painted exactly as they grow, from the ground up. Start at the base and lay in the canes, lightly at first in case you want clumps to block all of the cane from view in places. Also lightly dot alternate sides at each node going up the canes in anticipation of where the stems shoot out to hold leaf formations. Thicker canes may hold longer, arching stems with several branches leading outward. Those arching gracefully in front of a moon, or off to the sides need particular attention.
  10. Employ all you know about repeat leaf clusters, and then tuck in extra ‘one-offs’ to fill out an area. Be carful not to have clusters at similar heights from the ground. Just as with painting pine, one should visualize (or even lightly paint in or use ovals under your paper) oval areas for placement of leaf clusters. You need to consider number, height, relative size, and overlapping for those ovals.

When my grove was done, and I thought ‘chop-ready’ I propped it in the art room to reflect on for a few days. The silver ink had not stood out as well as hoped (maybe I could over-paint with silver paint?). The blue sky needed some touch-ups to fill out the intended mat. One guy’s head blended into the bamboo cane (it needed the ‘separation’ of a white line left between head and cane to convey the distance between the objects). I later added a thin ink line around the moon to help draw attention to it; soft edges were not enough demarcation for the centre of attention in the composition.

Got my ‘Grove on’!

Simultaneously while painting the two fellows drinking by moonlight, I also wrestled with some red bamboo growing in a clump by water. This painting was inspired by a composition in a book on goldfish. I fully intended to paint three black angelfish converging behind the red clump, but in the end stayed true to the original with two black carp. Here it is:


Art friend and mentor Nenagh Moslson says this one is ‘chop-ready’.  I have some reservations, but am also reminded we can be our own worst critics. Squint at the red stalks and you might see it is based on the ‘VI plan’.

Bamboo is a major player in Chinese brush painting; I’m glad to say it no longer limits my choice of subject material. I’m ready for more groves, and perhaps even a look at ways to portray snow on bamboo leaves.



Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting bamboo | 2 Comments

Altered thinking: transmit by copying

Something special seemed appropriate to mark my 100th blog post. I had long thought a large wall scroll depicting the four gentlemen—bamboo, orchid, plum and mum—would be a suitable achievement.


This little three-fold  panel created for a display case at an art show is the closest I’ve come to painting all Four Gentlemen in one composition.

With the occasional prod from Bird Woman and frequent questions from new members in my two art groups, I determined it was time to expound on one of the most puzzling principles of Oriental brush painting: it is okay to copy, in fact you should endeavor to copy!

Of all the ancient wisdom passed down from master painters of old, the concept of ‘learning by copying’ can be troubling to the western mind. It is so ‘not right’ to take the creative work of another and try to replicate it or worse yet, present the results as your own!

East vs. west on copycat thinking:

But in oriental painting there are some subtle considerations to this trusted maxim for learning by ‘copying’. Even among westerners there has been some recognition that the work of another may provide great inspiration to alter, redefine, or transform an idea. A contemporary London-based author/artist, Nick Bantock, captured the essence in his book The Trickster’s Hat, a Mischievous Apprenticeship in Creativity:

To copy another person’s work without trying to understand and reinvent it is plagiarism.  But to imbibe it, reconstitute it, and breathe a fresh life into it, that’s different.  That’s how we learn and grow. The Impressionists were strongly influenced by Japanese woodcuts, the Cubists by African masks; everywhere you look though the history of art there are artists learning from others by observation and interpretation.

Author Kris Schiermeier in Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement (2013)  devotes several pages to an essay titled Imitation or Innovation?  Therein he explores how much Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh drew from his knowledge of Japanese iris paintings. Re-invention it was for sure.

The oriental tradition of copying in painting and calligraphy was a method aimed at the formulation of personal style. Exact replicas were not seen as the goal, instead artists copied in order to gain techniques and to probe the essential qualities of a past master’s style. Direct copying through grid, pounce, and tracing techniques was also done to preserve and transmit the work of masters. Tracings and rubbings became major pedagogical sources for artistic training and workshop practice. Calligraphy copybooks and painting manuals were thus created to provide standard models for teaching, the most famous of which is our beloved Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting. (For more on those old methods of transferring knowledge see this essay.)

Where it all began: canon six:

Most instructional books that do address the reasoning for ‘learning by copying’ cite a very old set of principles. Fifth century writer, Chinese art historian, and critic Xie Hie summarized six elements that define a painting. All six canons are worth looking at, but it is the sixth one that challenges the western mind.   Here are all six:

  1. “Spirit Resonance”, or vitality, which refers to the flow of energy that encompasses theme, work, and artist. Xie He said that without Spirit Resonance, there was no need to look further.
  2. “Bone Method”, or the way of using the brush, refers not only to texture and brush stroke, but to the close link between handwriting and personality. In his day, the art of calligraphy was inseparable from painting.
  3. “Correspondence to the Object”, or the depicting of form, which would include shape and line.
  4. “Suitability to Type”, or the application of color, including layers, value, and tone.
  5. “Division and Planning”, or placing and arrangement, corresponding to composition, space, and depth.
  6. “Transmission by Copying”, or the copying of models, not from life only but also from the works of antiquity.

My online hunting sometimes leads to treasures such as this 1949 book that is more theory than art instruction.  The original owner’s annotations were also insightful as she studied in China for several years.

While various CBP books devote a few paragraphs to the concept of copying as a traditional route to learning, my library has at least one that tackles the issue in a full chapter. Kai-Yu Hsu and Catherine Wu take it on in chapter five of their Magic of the Brush with “The importance of copying”.

They note that even the Mustard Seed Garden Manual urged “basic design should be according to tradition”.

Hsu and Wu assert that for calligraphy characters basically possess definite forms, and westerners understand that using those symbols is not much different than our own ways of printing and writing. We do acknowledge that scrolls filled with meticulously executed calligraphy are works of art, but the western equivalent of fine penmanship has never reached quite the same stature.

For painting, however, Hsu and Wu write “copying a model constitutes the process of learning the master’s vocabulary—how to paint a tree, a rock, a flower, etc. It is also a process of learning how the master looked at things. Copying enables the student to share the master’s optical experience as well as his technique of capturing this very optical experience.”

In short, they maintain  “in copying a master work the student is sharing the master’s mind”. One needs to be reminded that traditional Chinese brush painters do not paint with the real object in front of them; rather, they observe objects and then in the quiet space of a studio recall the experience and record it on paper. They seek to recreate the optical experience from the mind’s eye. Hsu and Wu liken the process to that of a musical performance: while a later pianist may play the same famous composition, his interpretation of it on the instrument constitutes an original art of his own.

Friends of the brush, paint on! (The subtleties as I see ‘em)

So yes, there is much to be learned by trying to emulate another’s work. And if you take the work of an acclaimed master as your subject matter, then you do indeed get drawn into his methods and meanings. BUT there are limitations. For centuries Chinese brush painters have also acknowledged their mentors through the time-honored manner of inscribing ‘in the manner of….’ on their work. We should do the same.  In the painting style known as gongbi, it is allowable to trace the outline of a subject from an instructional book  because the artistry is in the layering and toning you give to your creation. It is NOT okay to trace the shape of a composition painted in the outline  method of the xieyi style, and then add your brushwork for the details.  The result is NOT gongbi and it is NOT your creation. You can of course at any time work up a sketch with pencil and eraser until you are satisfied with it, and then place it under your paper while you establish faint outlines for the objects. That is all YOUR work; you can’t plagiarize yourself by definition.

It is extremely challenging to study another’s work and practice to the extent that you can actually execute a composition that truly resembles the original. Knowing the Chinese love of puzzles, I can see that in some circles that would be subject material for ‘salon’ entertainment!

Being able to paint such that your work could widely fool art historians and critics would mean an accomplishment of sorts, for sure, BUT presenting your work to be the works of those you copied would indeed be fraudulent. Just as in western society, passing off a creation as the work of another for financial gain in China is deemed fraudulent. There have a been a few painters who have indeed gone that route, the best-known in recent times being the great master lotus painter, Chang Da-Chien. He allegedly also explored ink and paper composition to assist in his presentations.

In some discussion of Da-Chien’s artistry the point is made that such skill level is only seen once every 500 years. Having worked diligently for several years now, only occasionally stumbling on one perfect bamboo leaf, or one amazing bird’s claw, flower petal, horse tail, etc. I know for sure that ‘learning by copying’ has great merit. In practice, it is far more challenging than most people can imagine to actually achieve a true likeness of a master’s work. So, my friends, therein lies the rub!

Now back to my bamboo painting…. one leaf at a time.

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Bamboo Breakthrough 3: boosts from Ju and something new (bling!)

Paint sessions playing with bamboo continue; the insights seem endless. These are indeed happy days at the art table as my brush surprisingly produces bamboo leaves, clusters and stalks almost on command. Getting them all together in the desired manner still has some challenges.

The reasons for my ongoing fun are many: I continued to explore Professor Ju’s leaf formations (swallow, flying bird and landing bird), I acquired two new brushes at an art show sponsored by local artist/instructor Andy Lou, and I purchased some inks with metallic powder suspended in them. Most of all, I practiced, practiced, practiced.


Ju’s last three leaf formations

In my last post on bamboo I reported on my studies of the numerous  leaf formations presented by I-Hsiung Ju in his wonderful CBP instructional book on bamboo. Having learned how to use a deer horn stem structure to support leaves, then how to place leaves in repeat clusters of set formations, and most importantly, having investigated how real bamboo plants grow, I’ve made great strides with bamboo painting. Fellow artist Ken Lee says I am ‘doing calligraphy’. He means that I’ve reached a threshold where the strokes have become second nature, and my brushwork is not hindered by ‘thinking moments’.

I left off exploring Ju’s categories of leaf formations with three out of his eight yet to try. Before getting into their niceties, I reviewed the last session’s material. My bamboo leaf repertoire so far:

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And now to look at Ju’s remaining leaf formations.


Fittingly enough, this first leaf formation named for a bird, is ‘a bird’s eye view of the Between’ according to Ju. Think of looking down at a four-petalled flower, he says. The Swallow formation is used on a short deer-horn, and always in front of the trunk, or close to the trunk. Consider first how two leaves pointing in opposite directions resemble the wings of a bird:


The Swallow formation usually shows five leaves, painted in order: leaf 1 is the bird’s head and appears relatively small and thin; leaf 2 and 3 are slightly larger, and are painted in a similar manner to the goldfish tail, going down, pointing at slight angles to one another; leaf 4 (sometimes omitted, when a cluster is too thick for the space) and leaf 5 are larger leaves pointing outward on slight stems. These last leaves give the bird ‘loft’ and suggest the flight of the bird.


The swallow done on a deer horn going up, then on one going down:

swallowsup  swallowdown

Then a swallow on a sideways deer horn structure:


The swallow done in repeat clusters:



Tips for using the swallow:

1.Give your clusters air and sunlight, i.e. leave white space around them.

2. Do not make the last two leaves (4 and 5) pointing upward too strongly or your bird appears frightened.

3. The swallow appears the same, whether it is on an upward, downward, or sideways deer-horn.

4. Swallows can fly in slightly altered directions.

5. It does not matter which leaves are long and which are short, as long as they are varied

6. Sometimes leaf 4 is omitted

7. Leaf 5 is a prime candidate for the ‘extended tip’ look.


Leaf 5 is a prime candidate for ‘extending’ with a fine line to suggest a dried tip. This technique can look ‘just right’ in some places but at first mine all looked stilted or downright clumsy.  (Must do more!)

While practicing these extended tips I recalled another favorite instructional CBP book (Chinese Painting in Four Seasons by Leslie Tseng-tseng Yu) wherein the artist showed how to use these extended tips to portray wind-tossed bamboo.  I took a few minutes to try and replicate her study page:


Thanks to Ju I now recognize all of these formations as repeats of the ‘goldfish tail’. Thanks to him I know where the three leaves must emerge from the branch and can focus on individual strokes.  It’s tricky to visualize each one and then literally pull it off!  Thank you master painters Ju and Yu! I think I’m getting it!

Landing bird:

This formation is very similar to Swallow, appears on a short deer-horn, and is usually found near the trunk as well. The difference between a ‘landing bird’ and Swallow, is that leaves 4 and 5 appear almost horizontal. Think of your Swallow about to light on a branch; the bird’s legs are extended to reach the branch and its wings push against the air as though it is ‘braking’.


Frightened bird:

Yet another variation of Swallow, this formation is made with a few subtleties: leaf 1 is small and points upward (the bird is startled and looks up quickly to see what danger is afoot). It appears to me that the order for painting in leaves on this formation is reversed from Swallow and landing bird; after establishing the bird’s presence with leaf 1 (the head) you paint wings to either side at slight downward angles, and then two quick leaves 4 and 5. Ju shows the last pair of leaves as either short or long.


Trying to get my inner eye to register differences among these three bird leaf formations, I aimed to paint all three together.  I thought I had two plain swallows on the first branch (on the left) but on second look I realized the higher one had ‘wings’ placed horizontally, not slightly drooped.


This was a good exercise; it reinforced for me what Ju intended as distinctions among his ‘birds’.  The plain swallow has wings (leaf 4 and leaf 5) at slightly lowered angles, landing bird has those leaves almost horizontal, and frightened bird pops his head up above his wings. (You also paint his  wings before the two body strokes.)

Bamboo Bling:

A hockey tournament in Vancouver for number two grandson gave me the opportunity to check out two art shops on my ‘must return’ list. In one I picked up bottles of black ink embedded with silver powder as well as gold, but put the silver back. I’ve had some inspirational red lotus with black leaves edged in gold in my ‘current’ file for sometime and the gold metallic ink thus held greater appeal.

Then a sheet of chartreuse wrapping paper with tiny silver horses caught my eye across the store (I’d seen a pink version of the paper earlier, and although I love horses, could not fathom pink borders with any of my horse compositions!) Instantly I connected a silver frame, wee silver horses running wild in chartreuse borders, and a large black horse with silver-black ink highlighting mane, tail, and all those wonderful horsey muscles….I took both bottles.

The silver-black ink required some experimenting and what better subject than bamboo leaves in the moonlight. (Recently at a Christmas art show I had spied two compositions of white bamboo on black paper with black frames by local artist/instructor Bard Elford. Stunning pieces! Also hugely challenging, as white paint is not as manageable as ink; it globs and brushes don’t hold much.)  I quickly found that the silver gloss appeared over the surface of each leaf and each leaf seemed to be ‘outlined’ in black.  The ink did not dilute to a lighter tone as easily as my regular ink, but the overall effect was promising.


I tied the silver metallic ink  on some bamboo leaf formations I was considering for a large scale bamboo composition in moonlight. Add a black or silver frame,  white matting…maybe even double mat with black?

Bamboo Comps coming soon:

I’ve had numerous bamboo compositions kicking around in my right brain (home of creative thinking) for weeks now. One is a simple one with a moon and cobalt blue sky, another is a swath of red bamboo with two black fish swimming below, and the third is a figure painting of two old men drinking wine under a moon in a bamboo grove. Yes, a whole grove of bamboo with tall canes, new shoots, and lots of leaves, is now on my horizon. Ju’s lessons have given me the courage to ‘think big’ and ‘think bamboo’.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, deer horn, painting bamboo | 2 Comments