When other visitors won’t do, paint spider

Unexpected garden visitations in the form of ‘creepy crawlies’ have never really bothered me. But when I moved to Victoria some eight years ago I had to get used to the sudden appearances of great big spiders in my home. See this local newspaper article for details.

They typically pop up in bathtubs, around the fireplace hearth or—most startling of all—in the middle of the floor of a room I’ve just entered. Such encounters involve the both of us remaining stock-still as we assess our next move: the spider looks for an escape route and I look for a ‘whacker’.

Despite reading articles such as the one linked above, and hearing all kinds of assurances that the European funnel web spider is relatively harmless, I am invariably spooked by their ‘visits’. It has something to do with the flurry of movement as they scramble away, or maybe the contrast of dark body against a white bathtub or beige rug.

Painting an insect (or small human figure, an animal or bird, beetle, butterfly, etc.) into a Chinese brush painting (CBP) composition is conventional. You do it to enliven the scene, to show interaction of creatures with nature. One of my instructional books says it ‘adds an exotic element’.

Most brush painters quickly develop a repertoire and often have their preferences. So far, I’ve not given much thought to my arsenal of ‘visitors’. But last week’s art session came on the heels of time spent with a grandson who can’t get enough of the Eensy-Weensy spider song. So when it came time to finish an autumn scenario I thought I’d simply drop a spider into the mix and put it aside for gluing.

Not so simple…I wrecked my painting. (His body was too blobby; his eight legs looked strained; the thread he hung from was too thick…and so on, and so on.) I turned to my bookshelf for help with spider painting.

Spider painting resources

Even though the spider is NOT an insect (which have six legs, antennae and wings) they are often addressed in the same chapters as insects in CBP painting books. Spiders are classified as Arachnids and are related to scorpions, lobsters and crabs. (For more on anatomy look here.)

What an artist needs to know:  there are two major body parts divided by a slim ‘waist’; they have eight jointed legs which emerge from the abdomen; spinneret/s are hidden in the butt end; facial appendages vary from spider to spider and have fancy names like chelicerae and pedipalps, but a few tiny lines convey the intent for most varieties. Spiders do not chew food; instead they inject a juice that liquefies the substance, which in turn is sucked up.

My most helpful resources proved to be these:

  1. Pauline Cherrett includes them in her book Chinese Brush Painting.
  2. Curiously the composition she painted for her book is also in The Chinese Brush Painting Handbook edited by Viv Foster.
  3. Jane Dwight has also illustrated spider painting in The Chinese Painting Bible. She does both a striped body and a spotted version.
  4. Johnson Su-sing Chow addressed them in volume 3 of his four-volume set titled Fruits, Vegetables, Insects and Aquatic Life.



Cherrett’s morning glory composition with a spider in its web as the focal point appears in her book (top left) and again in the Brush Painting Handbook edited by Viv Foster, open at the front.

Spider steps

  1. With dark ink and a detail brush define a small round head with two cupped projections facing forward.
  2. With burnt sienna/red mixed into a soft brush paint a larger round shape for the body.
  3. While the body is damp add stripes in dark ink. (Su-Sing Chow painted lengthwise, Jane Dwight painted horizontal stripes.)
  4. Add four pairs of legs extending from the body. Each leg should have about three segments with the tip of the outermost tapering to nothing. They are typically used in pairs, hence the first on either side of the body often point forward while the others are pointing backward; two pairs forward and two backward, or the two hindmost cling to the end of a thread/twig while the others are engaged in activity.


Web designs

While you may simply ‘drop’ a spider into a painting literally hanging from a thread, there are times you may want to create the environment of a web. The spiders that sneak into my home are usually of the European funnel spider variety and they make messy funnel-shaped webs in the garden. (I’ve found a few underneath furniture as well.) Their webs are not too glamorous-looking but would likely be easy to depict with a scribble of lines.

The more familiar webs of garden spiders take greater consideration and can enhance a CBP painting or even become the main focus (such as in Pauline Cherrett’s rendering noted above.)

Su-Sing Chow offers considerable advice:

–use a very fine brush with a delicate touch, relatively dry ink.

–draw the dominant radiating threads first and attach to leaves, branches, etc.

–paint your spider near the center of the area planned for the web (you can plan the middle of the web to be ‘off centre’ for greater interest I would think!) Cherrett will have painted her surrounding morning glory before moving to the web design.

–the radiating threads do not have to be equally spaced but need to appear natural.

–drop in the connecting horizontal threads; these are typically closer together near web centre and farther apart as they reach outward.

–longer threads should appear to sag as though the wind is blowing against them.

–where threads intersect or meet, let your brush linger slightly to depict the slight knob of joined ‘silk’.

–strive for lines that are thin, even and strong.

Spider as savior

When I returned to my ruined painting to reflect on where it had gone sideways, I considered if it could be salvaged. After all, sometimes you use a spider or other ‘visitor’ to cover an ink drop or imperfection in fibrous paper; could another object/creature be used to cover my spider? Given the size of area covered by my blobby spider, and the need for dark ink to mask it, my salvation could only lie in a large black mass, hence a cat. Here’s the outcome, scanned before a final layering of extra dark ink to mask the original spider covered by the cat body.


From now on I aspire to PLAN more carefully should a spider happen to be the most appropriate visitor for a painting. I’d much rather they drop into my paintings than my bath tub, that’s for sure!

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

Harmony and Joy, two birds on a branch

While updating my growing CBP library database recently I discovered a few books I had missed inputting. As I flipped through one to consider its most relevant coding I discovered a composition with two sparrows flitting through maple, two subjects I had recently studied in depth and blogged about.

Although pale in tone, the maple leaves were artfully arranged and the birds captured with realism and spirit. The nearby text had a reference to a much-admired master painter, Johnson Su-sing Chow. But the book title cited seemed much too lengthy: The Fundamentals of Chinese Floral Painting No. 3 Manual of Chinese Bird-Painting /No. 1.


I’ve ‘played’ at painting little birds before, but lacked detailed and systematic instructions; my new book find fills the gap.

My library already includes three wonderful four-volume sets by this outstanding artist/instructor and I know them well. There’s the set on the four gentlemen (bamboo, plum, orchid and mum), there’s one on flowers of the four seasons (spring, summer, autumn and winter) and the third covers Aquatic Life, Fruits, Vegetables, and Insects. My heart did a little flip at the latter part of this long book title in front of me…bird painting? Dare I hope there’s another four-volume set out there?


Chow’s four-volume book set on painting the Four Gentlemen


Chow’s four-volume set on flowers of the four seasons


Chow’s four-volume set on veggies, fruits, insects and aquatic life

Ten minutes online and I had my answer. It must have been the confusing sur-title reference to floral painting that had thus far kept the set of books undiscovered. Lucky for me a single ABE Books bookseller had all four volumes, and in new condition.


Chow’s four-volume set on Bird Painting

When the books arrived I found more reason to understand their secretive existence—unlike those in the companion sets these lack ISBN numbers. You (and the seller as well) have to enter the full title precisely to get a true hit in used book databases.

Chow Birds as “missing link’?

Most of us start our love affair with Chinese Brush Painting (CBP) with the traditional four gentlemen, and eventually move on to flower/bird compositions, maybe animals and/or landscape painting. The detailed and helpful instruction afforded by Su-sing Chow’s books follow that route as well—four books on the gentlemen, four books on flowers (one-half of the flower-bird combo) and four more on bird painting. And lo and behold, as I flip through the first several chapters of the first volume I see his path to techniques for individual bird species follows a familiar sequencing—start simple and increase the degree of difficulty in detailing.

He starts with a basic formula in monochrome tones—one-stroke head, black dot for the eye, black swoosh for a beak, three overlapping strokes for wing, dark dabs for covert feathers (those that overlap or ‘cover’ the next layer), wing tips and two for the tail, a long thin line for the chin, chest and belly, then narrow lines for the legs and finally three toes forward with one heel back.


Stroke direction can be important; painting the beak toward the head results in a tapering toward the head. The two tail feathers are also best painted toward the bird’s body.

Chow calls it “abbreviated ink” style and it appears consistent with the Japanese sumi-e approach to oriental painting. It is also the introduction to bird painting I have witnessed demonstrated by three master painters in workshops/lessons I’ve been privileged to attend. His four-volume set on bird painting is the (detailed) instructional link from ‘four-gents’ to traditional ‘flower-bird’ that I didn’t know I was missing!

Su-sing Chow’s first bird posture is strictly a left-facing profile; then he does the same facing right. And then he devotes several chapters to simple variations—branch-grasping, quick dodging, preening, glancing up, glancing down, and so on. There’s more than two-dozen poses complete with observational tips of bird behavior.

The illustrations are all done in two ink tones (light and dark), the brushwork is all fully explained (direction, tone, speed, degree of moisture), and additional elements are kept simple (a branch, a twig, a swaying bit of willow. Su-sing Chow prescribes much practice with these little darlings before taking on other more distinct and complex species. He eases into sparrows and swallows in the last quarter of his volume one. The remaining books of the set graduate to other more complicated species—mynahs, kingfishers, ducks, geese, peacocks—some 26 species in all.   This four-volume set offers the ideal transition for beginner painters wanting to move ahead with their CBP studies.


My studies:

Having benefited from Chow’s excellent instructions in the past, I sat down to try and work through his many ‘abbreviated-ink’ compositions and thereby ‘learn the poses’. I couldn’t do that in one sitting; I managed most of his perched and standing poses in one afternoon but the duos overlapping and birds in flight had to wait for a second afternoon.  I have previously blogged about painting little birds and some of Chow’s advice reinforced former insights, but there were a lot of new ideas in his introduction.  After the first left-facing pose he demonstrates four similar poses.  My efforts are here:

ChowBirdA 2  ChowBirdA 1  ChowBirdA 4

ChowBirdA 3 ChowBirdA 5

Then he moved on to pairs of birds (he described them as ‘harmony and joy’), which I tried to emulate:

ChowBirdB3&4  ChowBirdB1&2

And he demonstrated three ways to ‘perch’ little birds:

ChowBirdC3   ChowBirdC1 ChowBirdC2

Then he gives us five ‘flight’ poses (and yes, I was having trouble with tail feathers appearing smooth; my birds do look a little bedraggled. )

Chow next provided four poses on branches; he recommends paint the bird first (in relatively wet ink) then render the branch in dry ink, placing the branch between the bird’s feet before branching left and right. Here’s my studies for this group:

Chow’ s last group of bird poses were a bit more tricky; I tried the ‘building’ from one to four birds that he demonstrated:

ChowBirdF 1

Here’s One…


ChowBirdF 1&2

Add Number Two (oops, no tail….)

And then add Number Three and Four:


I gave the last two another shot:

Throughout his introduction to bird-painting Su-sing Chow frequently cites his own observations and other ornithological wisdom, all of which contributes to sound compositional advice. (I have lots of notes!)

In another  book dedicated to this artist’s body of work that resides on my ‘oversize’ book shelf, I discovered a composition of small birds in a tree that clearly incorporates many of these introductory bird poses.  He titled it The Tune at Sunrise.  Here’s a thumbnail of his version on the left and my effort is on the right.

His pose of the left-most bird on the middle branch is intriguing and merits further study. And I still have three whole books of Su-Sing Chow birds to work through!



Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, how to paint birds | 1 Comment

What, me worry? (painting daylily)

Not a big fan of flower painting, I can be enticed when there’s a neat trick to learn or a great story behind the plant. Painting daylilies is covered off in several of my CBP books, but when I recently tripped over a Henry Li instructional video and saw that he used a hake brush to render both the flower and the leaves, I stopped to take note.

Now I’ve used hake brushes before. They come in handy for quickly laying in washes or defining distant hills or mountains. I’ve used one to apply a thin glaze to a salmon and have whisked white guard hairs to the surface of a tiger’s fur coat.

With this video I now have even greater admiration for the versatility of the flat, goat-haired brush known as the hake. Mr. Li demonstrates how to use it to define daylily petals as well as the flower stems (called scapes) and leaves.

Helpfully, he explains the petal stroke (inside-out, he calls it) and comments on his composition as it emerges. He also shows how to correct the dreaded ‘parallel stroke’ fault (aka railroad tracks) that can absolutely ruin a painting. Watch carefully how he adjusts his leaf cluster to overcome the initial parallel paths.

Named for its habit

The daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) is native to China and is indeed sometimes called the Chinese lily. Hemero is Greek for beautiful, callis for day, thus the name reflects its odd blooming pattern: a blossom opens, matures and withers all in one day. Fulva is Latin for tawny, a common hue for the wild daylily (a soft brownish orange) and in China a common name for the plant (tawny lily).

Other common names include railroad lily, ditch lily, meadow lily, washhouse lily and outhouse lily. The name I heard in my childhood was homestead lily. All these common names, as one might guess, arose because of the widespread appearance of the daylily across North America in ditches, near out buildings and old homesteads.

The plant is extremely tough and grows from a cluster of rhizome-like, bulgy roots. When settlers pulled up a clump and threw them into their wagons bits often fell to the wayside (ditches) or got left behind on abandoned farms. The plants are very long lived, grow in almost any soil, and are viable even after a long period of drought.

In the ground, stands of daylily can become quite invasive, spreading under fences and into other gardens via the compost trail if you’re not careful. My first clump migrated on its own from next door, and was quickly coaxed into filling a thirty-foot swath outside my back fence in heavy clay where nothing else would thrive.


With blossoms that open only for one day you might wonder how they’ve gained garden popularity. Fortunately the plant opens the flowers in succession, starting with the uppermost on a scape, moving down the stalk, so a good-sized clump does sport blooms over a few weeks. If you like the look of a lot of tall, grass blades arching up from the base, the daylily can easily be a performer in any garden.

Considering all the ‘lilies of the field’…

The daylily is NOT to be confused with true lilies; the most common candidates are those known as tiger lilies  or even our native wood lilies (the one Saskatchewan claims as a provincial flower).

True Lilies–family named Liliaceae–have flowers emerging only from the TOP of their scapes, with short, spikey leaves jutting out from the length of the stalk. And you often see tiny purple-black bulbils forming in the crotches of all those spikey leaves along the scape of a lily (not a daylily).

There are indeed lots of gardeners who absolutely love the daylily and have hybridized the dozen or so naturally occurring color variants into some 20,000 combinations. From that original orange version (Hemerocallis fulva) we now have different colors, bi-colors, ruffled petals, skinny petals, and so on. The original orange (Orange Meadows) remains a favorite and so does a (shorter) plain yellow one (Stella) and a popular combination (Christmas) has a dark wide red petal with yellow throat that re-blooms later in the growing season.

In the late 1990s in my former home province of Manitoba a couple of daylily lovers donated 100s of varieties to the Assiniboine Park Conservatory where they became the basis for a feature garden. It was pretty spectacular to bike to the park and wander the field of daylilies in bloom. One of the many daylily societies that have been founded around the globe is centered just outside of Winnipeg (Beausejour) where they have created a popular tourist attraction based primarily on 100s of varieties of daylily, augmented with true lilies, peonies and irises.  Here’s a link to the Canadian Hemerocallis Society where you can see some of the many unusual varieties now available to gardeners.


Daylilies are an ‘old-timey’ plant often featured in beds such as these on the Mackenzie Estate in Gatineau Park.  This was the summer home to Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s family. The tall yellow daylilies are likely Stellas.

Parts of a daylily

See this link for a widely distributed diagram which identifies all the pertinent parts to a daylily plant.  What the artist needs to know—six petals emerging in a funnel shape, five stamens and one pistil, long ribbon-like leaves that arch upwards from the plant base. Whereas true lilies sport flowers only at the top of a stalk with several open simultaneously, the daylily will first open one near the top of the scape, and other buds emerge on short stems from that main stalk. While pollen may appear sprinkled on a daylily bloom, it does not dominate the bloom quite the way those black spots do on the tiger lily.

Artistic licence?

While studying the several daylily painting instructions in my books, as well as sample compositions, I noted that most artists—including Henry Li—show only five petals. This was true of the note package some of my art group members kept from lessons given by our friend and mentor, John Nip. Here’s a sheet from his lesson plan. He used the traditional orchid brush for the petals, and prescribed a set order to placement.


My guess is that the five petals are representative while not crowding the composition. The eye can always be teased into believing a complete flower is there if it rests on individual parts that are convincing. In photos of course, the six petals are always there, but the overlapping of parts is also obvious. In a painting the eye may accept that five petals somehow complete a blossom, or that the sixth is present, just hidden by the turn of the funnel-shaped bloom.  Here’s a page from my first attempts at getting the petal formation into my head; six do appear crowded.


Flower symbolism

As Henry Li mentions in his video, the daylily is considered worry-free and that is the message you convey in giving one to someone. It is a common gift to mothers and also shows up on Mother’s Day cards. Several other resources noted an ‘old wives tale’ that consuming daylily while pregnant would result in a male child.

In China the flower buds have long been a food item, and have made their way into gourmet cooking elsewhere around the world in recent times.

Methods of painting

The daylily does make a delightful painting subject. I have at least two instructional books that provide excellent step-by-step illustrations for painting a daylily. One is a Walter Foster book and the other is that wonderful compendium 100 Flowers by Yang O-shi.  John Nip’s note package is also enlightening.


My first daylily studies were attempts to emulate Henry Li’s method because of his use of a hake brush.  Whether you paint daylily by Li’s method or with  orchid and detail brushes in a more traditional manner, the order for elements is much the same:

  1. flowers–petals, trumpet, throat
  2. stems (scapes)
  3. bud casings
  4. leaves–long arching strokes from the root crown upwards
  5. petal striping
  6. pistils and stamens; also leaf veins (one central one)
  7. bud petals in the casings

Wielding the hake

If you’ve never used a hake brush before you may want to play Henry Li’s video several times and focus on the brush hold a few times, the petal shapes on others, and the composition on others.  There’s so much to learn from watching a CBP artist at work. In real life you also can study how the artist mixes colors, loads the brush, controls moisture, pre-tests color/moisture/brush, and so on.

Basically you hold the hake in the same manner you hold a house-painting brush, thumb on the under side and fingers on the uppermost.  For this exercise a one-inch brush is needed, and it’s best to have already ‘broken in’ the bristles.  For some strokes you pull the width of the brush downwards or upwards (a wide wipe such as in the wider parts of leaves or petals), for others you push or pull the narrow width of the brush along a path (for the narrow stems and the flower trumpet).  At other times you pivot the brush onto one of the two corners of the bristles (to form the petal tip with a blob of color).  In Li’s very first petal stroke of the video he combines all three maneuvers.

Forming Flowers:

I played Li’s video several times and used my computer freeze-frame and screen-grab features to isolate his flowers. Doing so allowed me to study the petal shapes more closely.  Here’s my study sheet showing some of the many insights thus gathered.


Forming Petals:

Daylily flowers/buds are perched on the end of short stems leading off the main scape.  Do remember the blooming pattern from top to bottom and don’t have buds above the open flowers!  Buds are formed with two overlapping brush strokes.

Painting Leaves:

The daylily leaves extend from the root crown in the manner of orchid leaves, arching and overlapping.  The leaves have a central ridge or bend, and this can be indicated with dark ink applied to damp leaves, or with a color change. For painting leaves with a hake you achieve the thin parts with an angled push of the narrow width; do note how Li does an ‘angled wipe’ to get the wider portions.

Painting buds:

Buds are easily rendered with two overlapping strokes with an orchid brush, or two overlapping strokes of the narrow part to a hake, with a bit of manipulating to fatten the area closest to the bud base.

Adding the pistil and stamens:

Stamens and pistil are slightly curved, dark and therefore easily rendered with ink and a fine detail brush, best done on damp petals. The pistil stands slightly taller than the stamens.

My first full studies:

Here are my first several daylily compositions; the first three were done with the hake and you should recognize close resemblance in the first one to Henry Li’s composition.  The first two in the bottom row were done with an orchid brush in the more traditional manner, and the last one is painted using the outline method.

Reflections on using the hake brush to paint daylily:
–the brush can be loaded with yellow and/or orange then dipped in any red you have and the colors will blend in the brush.

–you can paint intense colors or water them down for pastel shades.

–you can blend pale yellow, green, even red shades into the throat of your daylily once the petals are in place. (See Yang O-Shi’s method.)

–using a hake to paint the scape results in a stroke that appears segmented because of the way you lay down the color and mimics the daylily look.  Nice effect.

–the flowers and leaves do naturally appear somewhat striped, and that is easy to do with a detail brush and slightly darker color

–five petals, while botanically inaccurate, appear to form a complete blossom; it is tricky to get the color lighter at blossom centre, darker at petal tips using the hake.

Daylily compositions:

I’ve discovered a number of daylily comps where they appear in the wild next to a rock with a bird or two perched on the rock. Quite a few artists have painted them as per the Henry Li comp. My online research to see what daylilies look like in the wild in China led to discovery of vast fields of the worry-free plant.  Here’s one showing a popular postcard image produced by Taiwanese firm Rainbow Arts and Humanities Co. Ltd.


And I thought my back lane display was pretty spectacular!!!!

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.



Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, flowers, painting daylily, using a hake brush | Leave a comment

Bee-sting compositions

Part of my maternal cultural heritage is a delightful teatime treat called Bienenstich Kuchen, or Bee-sting cake. It is traditionally a yeast-based cake filled with creamy custard and topped with a honey-glazed almond coating that crackles in the baking.   (The article linked above speculates on two different origins for the cake’s name.)

Some recipes include honey in the cake as well as the topping, but my preference is for the sweet, carmelized topping to contrast with a bland but flaky base and custard filling. I like that ‘sting’ of sweetness on the tongue.

Similarly, in Chinese brush painting one often adds a bee (or other insect) to a painting—especially a flower-bird composition—to provide that little extra something, that bit of buzz, or ‘evidence of life’ as some painters word it.


One of my favorite monkey-painting books features several paintings with bees as objects of interest as shown in this excerpt.


Two bees hover over a daylily in this detail from a lesson in my Walter Foster book–a typical bee application in CBP.

And while those of us who pursue accuracy (or at least fair representation) in how we paint a scenario, the Chinese do not see a huge difference between a bee and a wasp. That’s understandable, as they do look alike. According to at least one of my bee-painting resources, the wasp is often just called ‘yellow-bee’ in Chinese. For bees vs. wasps go to a page maintained by the Saskatchewan Beekeepers’ Association where they have this handy image:



Here’s a site that provides a primer on the differences between honeybee and bumblebees (with pictures!), and for differences in bees and wasps, look here,  The Regina Bee Club has thrown in wasps, hornets and something called the Blue Bee. Turns out that insect I know by the name Mason Bee.

Chinese Bees, really?

My big book on Chinese symbolism and motifs (author C.A. S. Williams) tells us the bee commonly seen in China is the domestic bee or Apis mellifica. With that being the scientific name for the honeybee, I’m presuming most of my CBP books will likely be illustrating honeybees. Williams assures us the Chinese bee is “of a very gentle disposition”. But then he goes on to note that the written symbol for the bee means awl, with reference to its stinger. Gentle indeed, Mr. Williams.

Williams does admit the bee in China, as in the western world, is seen as an emblem of industriousness and thrift; that a crowd of people is metaphorically compared to a swarm of bees; and also that honey mixed with oil is a euphemism for false friendship. How odd to see the similarities in bee associations across the globe!

While bees are not cultivated in China to quite the same extent as in the western world, Williams notes that bee products—honey and wax—have been used for centuries in similar manner to how we use them. The honey is used to sweeten products and the wax for candles.

Where the Chinese do use bees more than we, is in the realm of art. It is very common to paint a bee in a traditional CBP flower-bird composition, whereas such an inclusion in western paintings would likely be seen as over-done, too cute, or too cliché. In photography on the other hand, capturing a bee visiting a flower is praiseworthy.

Bee Anatomy:

The websites linked above provide good descriptions and images to help understand bee body parts and relative sizes. (The bumblebee is the larger, furry-looking one.) The bee has the three major body parts: head, thorax, and abdomen. The last one—which also bears the stripes—ends in that highly distinguishable weaponry, the stinger. Two protruding eyes, two antenna, three pairs of leg and two wing sets complete the picture. The legs are segmented and the hind legs sport the pollen sacks. Bees collect nectar from flowers by sucking it up and storing in a honey sac/stomach which is separate from the digestion tract. For more on how they make honey look here.

My painting resources:

Many of my CBP instructional books include treatments of the bee, usually in sections on finishing flower compositions. I have two books that focus solely on insects.

  1. Walter Foster Arts series, Chinese Painting 2 addresses the bee on a page devoted to the tawny or daylily.
  2. Jane Dwight in The Bible of Chinese Brush Painting gives the bee a whole page.
  3. Johnson Su-sing Chow in his volume Insects (part of a four-volume set with Aquatics, Vegetables, and Fruits as the others.)
  4. One page in Drawing Birds and Insects by Ling Mao Caochong Juan.
  5. One sidebar illustration in Eileen Fong’s book An Exploration of Chinese Watermedia.



On the right is the Walter Foster book with the bee details in the lower right hand corner.  Ling Mao’s book also lies open to the bee page. Jane Dwight’ Bible is between the two with a book addressing nature painting in Japan, titled Birds, Beasts, Blossoms and Bugs on the left. That book has a 17th century painting featuring two wasps.

Painting the Bee

As I sit down to paint the bee, I can’t help but think of Ariel’s song from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Where the bee sucks, there suck I:

In a cowslip’s bell I lie;

There I couch when owls do cry.

On the bat’s back I do fly

After summer merrily.   

Merrily, merrily shall I live now

Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.


Here’s my first bee study, based on Jane Dwight’s approach:


Then there were variations observed in my other resources:


Then I resorted to some doodling:


Johnson Su-sing Chow and Ling Mao Caochong Juan offer bees in profile whereas most other artists render the bee as seen from above.  I’ve isolated Su-sing Chow’s bees in this little slideshow to better SEE the poses:


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Now I realized I had to take the time to study bee-painting while I was pursing the niceties of painting daylily. Old friend and CBP mentor John Nip excelled at insect-painting and he always had one or more in his flower paintings. On looking at his daylilies more closely I discovered he painted wasps (not bees) in those compositions. Here’s one of his lesson pieces showing two wasps in flight.


His wasps with their lovely long legs  reminded me of the book on Japanese art mentioned earlier. Sosen’s huge wasps (see below) are both walking on a surface, whereas John’s were midair.  Just look at the fine detail!

BeeWaspdetail 17thcentury Sosen

I’ve yet to finish the daylily studies, but am ready to ‘finish’ any floral painting now that I’ve looked at bees.  A custard-filled cake is all the more appealing with a carmelized honey topping (and a fancy name like Bienenstich), so I guess a flower that has already attracted other visitors in the form of insects has more visual appeal than one that hasn’t.  The mind’s eye works in mysterious ways!



Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, insect painting, painting bee | 2 Comments

Foliage Fun, wu-tung and friends

Wanting to set my figures from the Nanjing tomb wall murals in their original surroundings led me to some surprising discoveries about trees. So far in my self-directed study of Chinese brush painting (CBP) I’ve not been too smitten with landscapes per se.

Several members of my two art groups are truly adept at layering in clouds, mist, mountains, rocks, trees, and evidence of life—birds, animals, people, bridges, and buildings. They can ‘read’ the methods in old paintings, and are familiar with the papers that work best under those circumstances. My tree repertoire has until now included pine, willow, cypress, and a few nondescript, deciduous-looking trees that could flesh out a distant woodlot.

With the discovery of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove and Ron Qiqi my investigation of tree painting expanded significantly. There are ten trees depicted in the two large wall murals discovered in a tomb near China’s southern capital in 1960, five of which are stylized gingkoes, two are willows, and the last three are believed to be locust, pine and wu-tung (aka plane).

Below is a photo showing part of the Nanking mural with gingko on the left and then pine to the right; you can see the bricks and the wall is lit well enough to see the raised surface of the designs.  The pine needles are done in a very unusual manner that I have not seen in any of my instructional books or online.



Wu-tung, common yet not

Once my attention was drawn to painting wu-tung I realized the treatment of its foliage is commonly shown in instruction books. The method seems to be offered more or less as a generic way to create deciduous tree foliage in landscapes. Sometimes the leaves are shown with four strokes, and sometimes with five. Here’s my first study sheet for this foliage treatment:


You complete one leaf in a single fluid stroke.  Using a small brush loaded with ink you start with a ‘hesitation’ to yield the little knobby bit, then move up and to the right, proceed down towards the left, and hesitate for the next knobby bit. You can lift the brush or just lift slightly as you move back along the stroke to the top and down;  continue with the up-down movement such that you create fingers splayed out.  (Another method for foliage is to outline a set of ovals in place of these five fingers.)

Accepting that this foliage treatment represents wu-tung led to a puzzler. Close examination of the one tree in the Nanking mural that had to be the wu-tung (by process of elimination) revealed it was not painted in the manner so designated in my instruction books! The Nanking ‘wu-tung’ had leaves that looked more like an elongated elm tree leaf—they were broad at the top, tapered to a point, and had distinctive veins. They did not have saw-toothed edges, however.


In keeping with the stylized manner of tree treatment throughout the two mural panels, I rendered my wu-tung tree thusly:


What is the wu-tung?

In trying to reconcile the look of the tree in the mural designated a wu-tung with what several of my instruction books were calling wu-tung, I zeroed in on what is alleged to be commonly called a parasol tree.

This bit of research I did one morning prior to our last summer BBQ in a setting where several large deciduous trees dominate the landscape. As I enjoyed the sunshine and off-ocean breeze from a deck chair, I noticed that the strong sunlight glinting off leaf shapes on those several trees did indeed outline shapes like fingers in the manner of the instructional book ‘wu-tung’. The trees before me were large maples, definitely not parasol trees or elms.  The sun and warm air caused the leaves to hang and overlap in just the precise manner as depicted by the centuries old way of painting, as per my study sheet above.

Returning to the Wikipedia entry linked above, I examined the photo more closely and saw how the light reflected from the leaves in the parasol/wu-tung in much the same manner as I noticed at the BBQ. Here’s the photo of the parasol tree (Firmiana simplex) from that site.


Checking back with the mural, that so-called wu-tung simply didn’t have finger-shaped leaves…. What could it be? Scholars more knowledgeable than I have said ‘wu-tung’, but that term seems to apply to any number of trees.

I went back to listings for plane trees and looked more closely at the Platanus orientalisis. The leaf for the Asian plane tree does look a lot like our maple, and they could be depicted in the study sheet manner.  So my study sheet wu-tung is likely a plane tree, but the mural version is either a radically altered treatment or not a plane tree at all.  I think I will have to accept that I have two foliage treatments, but not unequivocal tree identifications.

One delightful bit of ‘wu-tung legend’ I tripped over in more than one resource was that it is the only tree the (mythical) Phoenix will light on. (One  source named the tree as the dryandra tenuifolia , which I learned was native to Australia and more of a prickly shrub than a tree!)  Whether the Phoenix prefers one that resembles the parasol tree, or the plane tree, or one that looks like the mural wu-tung is anyone’s guess.

With three new tree foliage styles—the stylized willow, the unusual pine needle arrangement, and the widely used wu-tung treatment—now in my repertoire I tried to include all in one simple landscape scene. And then for good measure I threw in the foliage as per two other treatments from my CBP books. Here’s the result.



I don’t think willows (which prefer moist soil) would be growing so close to pine, and I suspect the wu-tung on the right and its neighboring triangulated-leaf tree would both more likely appear with the willow, but not the pine.  I do like the feathery pine treatment inspired by the murals, and the very linear treatment of evergreens in the distance.  (Lotus has been playing with that foliage method these last few weeks and it offers great variety in distant tree densities; I am inspired to ‘do more’.)  The mural treatment of willow was very stylized, with short, tassle-like clumps of branches.  As I colored them in, I instinctively started to feather the branches into longer, more realistic shapes.   Now that I’ve got all ten trees of the murals figured out, it’s time to go back to the figures and their distinctive features.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, landscape, painting pine, trees and foliage | Leave a comment

Dog days of summer, painting Pekingese

With next year ‘coming up puppies’—2018 will be a dog year according to the Chinese zodiac—I was thrilled to find an instructional CBP book devoted to painting the Pekingese, that quintessential Chinese lap dog.  Previously  I did take on ‘painting the dog’ (Nov. 2015) as part of completing art cards for each of the animals in the Chinese zodiac.

At the time I also learned Pekingese dogs in North America are all likely descendants of four or five special little dogs brought to England in 1860 as part of the spoils of war. One of them was presented to Queen Victoria and aptly called Lootie. How much of Lootie’s life story is fact and how much fiction is anyone’s guess.  Another blogger has posted photos here and recounted some of the story.

By all accounts Lootie was a beautiful specimen of good temper, and thus an appropriate gift for the queen. Truth is that she had been one of many such ‘royal’ dogs bred by a staff of eunuchs in the kennels of yet another royal dignitary, the Empress Dowager Tsu-hsi (or Cixi)’.  I could not find a photograph of either woman with a Pekingese dog,  but nevertheless here they are with Lootie in the middle:

**cixi  **LootiebyKehl **QVicandDog

Lootie’s legacy

Since my first exploration of ways to depict cute puppies I’ve acquired not only the dedicated instructional book mentioned (by artist Sun Dahong), but also a wonderful book on Lootie’s life. The latter is titled The Butterfly Lions, the Pekingese in History, Legend and Art and written by Rumer Godden, a smitten Pekingese owner herself.



She lovingly recounts Lootie’s story, as well as the history of the breed in China before that, thereby weaving a delightful history of what Marco Polo called ‘the golden-coated nimble dog’. Godden adeptly chronicles the appeal of the small dog for two reigning women who lived a world apart—the Empress Tzu-hsi of the Summer Palace in China and Queen Victoria of the Winter Castle in England. It is a fascinating history to have kicking around in your imagination as you strive to capture the spirit of the dog on paper.

A unique breed, the Pekingese:

Allegedly this breed of dog is one of the closest on the evolutionary tree to the wolf, having been isolated from other dogs some 4000 years ago and bred only in royal Chinese kennels thereafter. Distinctive features of the animal most pertinent for the artist are these:

  1. large, luminous, round eyes
  2. black roundish nose
  3. shortened muzzle with a deep vee-shape above the nose and between the eyes
  4. long, silky fur
  5. floppy ears and majestic tail usually held aloft
  6. rolling gait
  7. sturdy, low-slung body

Because of its size, the Pekingese is most often perceived as looking upwards, giving full meaning to the expression ‘wide-eyed and bushy-tailed’. Here’s a site with information about the Pekingese breed.

Sketching this dog:

Dog lovers (and lovers of dog art) may already be familiar with the vintage dog sketches by two British illustrators, Lucy Dawson (1875-1954) and Christopher Gifford Ambler (1886-1965). A wonderful study of the Pekingese signed in the lower right ‘C. Ambler 1934’ shows up on many Pinterest boards; it took a good hour of sleuthing for me to trace them back to Ambler, as I do prefer to give credit where credit is due. Here’s his lovely Peke study which was published with the caption “HIGHLY TEMPERAMENTAL. Clever studies by the well-known canine artist, C. Ambler, of the Pekingese in a wide range of moods and attitudes.” It truly captures the essence of the always charming Peke!”


And I sat down one afternoon to see if I could approach his talent….


There was also a prolific American illustrator and children’s author (Dorothy Pulis Lathrop) working about the same time as Ambler and Dawson, who created many a Pekingese composition that looks very oriental in style and content.  Here’s two examples:

LathropPekejumps              LathropPekeandmouse


Sun Dahong’s book provided some excellent insights into the geometry of the Pekingese face. While one might anticipate circular shapes to be at the heart of the dog’s features, Sun chose triangles. My research uncovered several approaches to deciphering the body parts of a Pekingese dog, but none proved as helpful to me as Sun Dahong’s.  I tried replicating his study sheet in order to get the proportions and positioning into my brain.


Although his ‘triangulation’ of the dog’s face does not work out to be magically proportioned in factors of whole numbers, it truly helps in getting the eyes and nose positioned correctly. One has to nudge the proportions a bit to get the right combination, but the shapes worked better for me than imposing a rectangle (for the muzzle) over a squared-off balloon shape.  Here is such an approach worked out by an artist called Doggie Doodles at www.deviantart.com:


For Dahong’s method you consider one equilateral triangle with its base across the top of the dog’s head, and then a smaller inverted one superimposed (and nudged upwards slightly) along the central axis of the first one, to define positioning of the nose and chin.




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Unless you’ve mastered envisioning three-dimensional shapes, it’s best to start painting Pekes by considering the animal head-on. Here again Sun Dahong has provided some helpful insights; he provides five quick sketches of the dog, all using the same forward-looking face. I drew one face, traced it five times, and then tried building bodies off the face. Here’s my study page with six sketchy postures:


Armed with such a visual repertoire one can then move on to compositions involving one, two or more dogs. With their natural propensity for ‘looking up’, the dog works best in compositions with a floral sprig or some other item of interest in an upper corner. Placing a bug or butterfly within their visual range also works, or even a cat on a tree limb or rock teasingly just out of reach.

Painting the full Peke:

Some dog lovers prefer certain coat shades. (For the record, Lootie was a soft caramel color.) Sun Dahong shows numerous possibilities in his book. Some of my other books on dog painting describe the necessity of good management of the ‘feathered-edge’ brush stroke. It is described by one this way: First, press the brush open in the palette, and then depending on the texture of the hair, you may either curve the strokes in an s-shape or paint it in a straight line.

I sketched Pekingese dog faces for a few days, tried a few simple compositions, and then worked on feather-edge strokes.  By happenstance, my painting Pekes involved different papers and brushes.  I soon learned which of my brushes and papers led to more satisfying results.  I also found the faces gradually became easier to depict. (My first few had dreadful looking muzzles, as the shape was so unfamiliar to me. I grew up with collies, shepherds, labs, setters and terriers.)  Unlike cat eyes, the Peke’s eyes are not on a level plane; they should be slightly angled.  Dahong’s triangulation imagining helps with that.


I’ve still got six more months to ‘perfect my dog’ and I’ve just discovered another book that allegedly has some helpful instructions on white and ochre-colored Peke’s.  The stray images that show up on the Internet are enticing enough that I’ve now placed an order. The grandkids would prefer I get a real dog.


Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting dog, painting Pekingese | Leave a comment

Not seeing figures for the trees; gingko on display

There is a tree on the farm where I grew up that became the “go-to” backdrop for family pictures; it is still standing today, and gets photographed whenever one of us passes through the Robson Valley. Over the years it gets larger and statelier. I can totally relate to Chinese figure paintings that include trees as setting details. So when I stumbled on a marvelous composition called The Seven Worthies Of the Bamboo Grove and Rong Qiqi I not only studied the eight gentlemen on their individual mats, but I also looked closely at the trees that framed them.

The composition is in two parts, and the originals are wall murals (in relief) discovered in a tomb near Nanjing in 1960. The tomb is entered facing west, with one mural on the south and one on the north wall, and a raised pedestal in an alcove where coffins for two individuals (believed to be man and wife) once rested.


This is a rubbing of the south wall mural, depicting the literary figure Ron Qiqi and three of the seven sages.



A rubbing of the north wall mural shows four of the seven sages.

The murals were formed in a curious manner—designed on some surface and etched into to boards that were pressed into wet bricks. Once fired, the bricks were assembled into the walls in horizontal layers of three alternating with a row of upright bricks, each brick bearing markings to indicate correct placement.   The scenes are 2.8 meters long and .8 meter tall, with placement starting about .5 meter above the floor.  The images I found were photographs of wall rubbings, which are displayed in a Museum in Nanjing.



The two murals make a fabulous single ‘scroll’ which no doubt allows for more public viewing than does the actual tomb.

Why the seven worthies/sages were NOT shown in a bamboo grove, but instead surrounded by three or maybe four different kinds of trees was my first question. It was followed by many more! Fortunately for me, the Nanjing wall murals have also fascinated several scholars. Audrey Spiro wrote an entire book on the murals, titled Contemplating the Ancients, Aesthetic and Social Issues in Early Chinese Portraiture.  I acquired a former Library copy, but the contents can be viewed online here.

The first individual of the south wall panel is the only figure not depicting a real historical figure.  For an introduction to Ron Qiqi check here.  Reasons for including the fellow with the seven sages are not known, according to Spiro, and neither is full understanding of the subject choice for the tomb walls.

While the eight figures themselves are endlessly fascinating, it was the trees that held my attention over the last few weeks. I presumed the first tree to be intended as a gingko. The distinctive leaf shape and ‘tassel’ arrangement of peduncles could only be some variety of gingko. The shape—fan-like with curved sides—has been a popular textile and ceramic motif in oriental art and I know it well. After first seeing the exquisite golden fall display of foliage in Vancouver one dreary day about 40 years ago, I added gingko to my garden wish list. I currently have a dwarf variety growing in a pot on my patio, shown below:


If you’ve never set eyes on a gingko, take a look at photos of one over 1400 years old next to a Buddhist temple in the Zonghnan Mountains of China.

The Ten Trees of the Nanjing murals:

While the relative size of the gingko leaves in the murals is much too large for the tree trunks, other trees in the two murals also seem miss-proportioned. Two of them (the fourth in each panel) strongly resemble willow. The branches end in arched sprays of drooping foliage that, if longer, would clearly represent willow. It makes sense that the ‘willow’ branches were shortened to ‘fit’ more pleasingly with the other assembled trees. Both panels have a gingko at either end, with one of them featuring a gingko in the middle as well. The three remaining trees—the second in the first mural and the second and third of the second panel—are all individuals, and were not immediately recognizable to me.

I checked out Spiro’s index for entries on the trees and learned that: “Agreement on the species of the trees in the reliefs, apparently forerunners of those frequently depicted on some sarcophagi of the sixth century, is scant. Pine, willow, gingko, bamboo, and locust are among those proposed.” and “Few earlier pictorial sources for these trees have been found.”

In another footnote pertaining specifically to details of the whistling figure (second figure of the south wall panel) Spiro speculates the “curious shrub…could be the tree of ringed orbs or fruits often associated with the Daoist figure”, but she doesn’t name the species. On the next page in a discussion of a rubbing made from another part of the tomb, showing a hare under the moon with a tree branch, the tree is identified as a cassia, which “everyone knows grows under the moon”. She adds that it resembles no cassia tree she knows, but the cassia’s association with the moon by the 15th century was entrenched.

I sought images of various kinds of locust trees—black locust and honey locust seem to have foliage resembling the stylized versions in the murals. I discovered that one of the locusts is sometimes called the pagoda tree, possibly because it was commonly planted next to a pagoda, and sometimes scholar tree, because of its common usage in scholar paintings. (NOTE: Most scholar paintings I have studied involve pine trees.)

All of the locusts are members of the Fabaceae or pea family and produce the characteristic pea flower clusters and seed pods. For some common varieties look here  and here. They also sport similarly shaped leaf structures, botanically described as pinnately compound with no leaf at the tip. That tree next to the whistler does appear to  have pinnately compound leaves.

The non-gingko and non-willow trees in the murals must surely be some varieties of locust or plane (wu-tung). My ‘need to know’ would have to go un-resolved, I thought. Then I tripped over a 1967 doctorate thesis in the U of Vic library titled Scholars and Sages, a Study in Chinese Figure Painting that focused on the Nanjing tomb murals along with a scroll painting called the “Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden”. Author Ellen Johnston Laing helped me significantly with the tree identification as well as biographies for the eight figures portrayed in the murals.

In the early 1960s she spent several years in China on grants (and was under the guidance of the renowned Prof. James Cahill) studying the art firsthand. She had access to excellent interpreters and museum staff. Her identification of the trees is therefore highly credible. She writes: “No bamboo appears among the five kinds of trees (gingko, willow, locust, pine, and perhaps wu-tung) which separate each figure.” The accompanying footnote cites two sources that led to her conclusion.

Spiro’s book had photographs of the actual wall murals, with the raised lines on the bricks showing the figures and tree outlines more clearly; from those I discovered the pine tree did look very pine-like, although the needles were rendered in an unfamiliar manner. The possible wu-tung leaves were also outlined in a non-traditional wu-tung manner. Those two would require further research.

The fossil tree got to me!

All of my Chinese painting instruction books that pertain to tree painting identify few trees by species; pine and willow tend to get individual attention. The typical approach to CBP tree treatment is described by Alison Stillwell Cameron in her book Chinese Painting Techniques: “Many varieties of trees grow in China, but they are painted simply as certain types: trees with outline foliage, those with ‘dot’ foliage, and those with bare branches…trees are often grouped by seasons; for instance, flowering fruits are typical of spring and bare-branched trees suggest autumn or winter.”

I have previously investigated willow and pine, given their frequent appearance in CBP compositions and my own interest in their portrayal. I have explored gingko motifs in textile designs and now sought to paint them.

All about the gingko

Early in my research into gingko I tripped over a website with quite possibly absolutely everything one would want to know about the tree!

The website creator Cor Kwant writes: THE GINKGO PAGES are about the tree Ginkgo biloba and all its aspects.  I created this site because of my fascination and respect for this unique tree, a living fossil, unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. It is the sole living link between the lower and higher plants, a symbol of longevity and is seen as one of the wonders of this world.

Among the most intriguing finds for me was that the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem and attached two gingko leaves to send to a woman he admired back in 1815. The poem in Goethe’s handwriting is featured on Kwant’s website, complete with translations into many other languages.  It is great art!



You will also find numerous photos, videos, poems and other artistic creations inspired by or based on the gingko. Plan to bookmark the site and make many return visits!

Gingko in Chinese brush painting

Given the unique shape of a gingko leaf and its current appeal as a quintessential oriental art motif in textiles, I am surprised it does not appear more in traditional CBP. I found only a few flower-bird paintings with gingko foliage, most of them being the ‘outline with color’ style.  Here is one by an unidentified artist:


I discovered a few paintings by Choa Sho-an with gingko leaves rendered in soft yellows and gold colors, surrounding featured birds, a kingfisher and a white peacock. His ‘freestyle’ brushwork is more like traditional watercolor painting, and the gingko was most likely selected to provide a colorful foliage mass, not to showcase the tree variety.



Rebecca Yue in her Chinese Landscapes Made Easy painted bright yellow gingko trees in a contemporary landscape, but she used a daubing method to portray the leaves that does little to suggest the distinctive curved leaf shape. The painting does capture the glowing essence of the tree and shows reflections on nearby rooftops in the detail shown below.


For my gingko studies I started with some monochrome outline leaves:


The desired effect of dark outline superimposed over paler leaves could be better achieved with two separate paintings fused during the gluing process.

I then moved on to using color for outline and adding a wash.

GinkoStudy 1

I experimented with ink outline and a pale green wash.

GinkoStudy 2

Finding the detailed veining of the leaves tedious (stroke width control and color control is of the utmost importance, and ‘not my style’!) I reconsidered the more stylized gingko of the Nanjing murals, and then completed this quick sketch in ink, adding color only to the leaves:

GinkoStudy 3



–I like the Chao Sho-an gingko leaves to a degree, but they seem to disappear into a foliage mass.

–I like the effect of outlined leaves with color added, but that style would appear too ‘zebra-like’ surrounding a bird in a composition, IF it were planned in a realistic ‘scale’.

–One of the key attractions to the Nanjing murals (aside from the figures as prime subject) is the stylized look to the trees and the fact they are NOT painted to scale.

–My quick study of a loosely outlined gingko with the figure Wang Rong was pleasing to me. (I made his rui into a pipe, kept his distorted left leg—maybe he was doing yoga?—but stayed true to most details despite moving down in size from the wall-size composition)

–The guys in the murals are all shown on individual mats, framed by trees, and each one would serve as a single composition; they were ‘portraits’, after all.

–The figures in the wall murals were drafted at 80 cm tall (the slouching one presents at a lower height) and the trees about a full meter tall; I may have to simplify lines to draft compositions of smaller size.

–The method of portraying the pine in the murals is unusual and warrants exploring.

–I’ve not done much with wu-tung (plane), locust, cypress, and other trees indigenous to China.

Conclusion: With so much good reading in the Spiro book and the Laing dissertation I’ve had little time for my art room, but the Seven Worthies keep beckoning, and now stylized leaf shapes float in my mind’s eye.  Dare I tackle all eight figures and ten trees from the Nanjing murals in ONE splendid composition?












Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting gingko, painting trees | Leave a comment