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

True messenger of dreams: the goldfish

In the introduction to a great instructional book titled Drawing Goldfish and Golden Carp Ho Kung-Shang waxes poetically as he describes the featured artist’s skill:

Lin Wu-kui’s goldfish give us dreams, thoughts and hopes. If in life we find fewer difficulties, but more flowing rivers; if in life we find less pain, but more leaping joy; if in life we find fewer farewells, but more touches; if in life we find less jealousy, but more love; if in life we find less hatred, but more concern, then we are those goldfish.”

Indeed, if one could only be less burdened by worldly cares as a result of gazing at a Chinese brush composition featuring a few goldfish lazily hovering among sea grasses. Let’s have such paintings in every home across the country!


Madonna rules the murky depths of the large koi pond featured in Vancouver’s Sun Yat Sen Garden

We westerners have not developed quite the same fascination for goldfish as have our oriental counterparts. One or two specimens in a bowl while our kids are pre-teen are the likeliest encounter; and then we hardly take the time to learn much about their idiosyncrasies, if at all. A few avid gardeners may experiment with koi ponds, but usually a neighborhood heron drops by for lunch and the experiments cease.

Goldfish are indigenous to China and are believed to have been a mutant carp dating back several thousand years BCE. Their popularity as a Chinese brush painting (CBP) subject is understandable: not only are they abundant in murky Asian rivers, they are also small, colorful, and fascinating to observe. A few goldfish in a bowl have resided in many a Chinese home for centuries, and they have amassed considerable symbolism and legends to boot.

What means these fishy jewels?

My big book on motifs and deeper meanings to all things in Asian countries (authored by C.A.S. Williams) states they are an emblem of wealth or abundance, because of a similarity in pronunciation between words for ‘fish’ and ‘super-fluidity’. Owing to its reproductive prowess, the goldfish also stands for regeneration. Because of its seeming comfort or tranquility in even the smallest dish of water, it also symbolizes harmony and connubial bliss.

Another source tells me a goldfish pair is commonly painted as a wedding gift, carrying with it wishes for both marital happiness and many progeny. Williams goes on to say a goldfish can be a symbol used to avert evil, and because it moves so freely in its element it signifies freedom from all restraints. He goes on to explain the appeal of such an emancipated creature to those of the Buddhist faith. That seems like a heavy load for such a little creature.

Goldfish Legends

Oddly enough I didn’t find goldfish legends from ancient China in my CBP books or even those dedicated to animal history and symbolism. It was in a Barron’s reference book called Goldfish and Ornamental Carp that I found a chapter on the history of goldfish in China, and it included several legends.

One legend has it that after a prolonged severe drought in the province of Shen-Si, during the reign of Emperor Peng-Wang the starving people entreated the gods to provide relief. After an acceptable duration of prayer, the gods took pity and drenched the countryside in rain. The goldfish appeared with the water as a gift from the gods.

Another legend has goldfish originating in the heavens, where they cavorted among the clouds. Some of them who were careless slipped through the cloudy layers and fell to earth, where they have lived to this day.

Yet another cites the depths of the ocean as the original home to goldfish. Violent storms stirred up the waters and tossed goldfish into a sacred lake at Tsche-Tschian; fishermen returning to the lake after the storm captured a few in their nets and took them home to keep in bowls as reminders of difficult times on the water.

And as is often the case, one legend involves a beautiful young lady (even more stunning than the dawn’s first light) in love with a fellow who spurned her advances. She cried profusely and as her tears touched the ground they turned into pearls that bounced into the water and turned into goldfish.

The authors searched for historical references in China where goldfish breeding secrets were passed down orally within families for decades, and found mention in song lyrics as far back as the 6th century. The treasured little creatures first appeared in North America in the early 20th century and have been in and out of favor over the years, sometimes supplanted by tropical fish among hobbyists. Artists have shown a sustained interest, probably ever since those first pearly tears hit the ground so long ago. (Yes, that’s the story I prefer.)

My Resources

In addition to a few odd goldfish compositions in some of my more general instruction books, and ample notes from workshops by Nenagh Molson, I have the book featuring Lin Wu-kui’s beautiful work: Drawing Goldfish and Golden Carp. The first few sections cover off basic fish anatomy, then a few chapters introduce ten different varieties of goldfish, and finally many pages offer some compositions. The book also addresses painting of carp (koi) and catfish, and provides several kinds of water plants to augment one’s paintings.



My growing CBP library includes these goldfish painting resources: Wu-kui’s art is in the book on the left, my newest (all Chinese) book  is in the middle, and a reference book with good anatomical information is on the right.

For an absolute beginner, unfamiliar with fishy parts, two books that include introductory techniques for rendering a goldfish are Jane Dwight’s Chinese Brush Painting Bible, and a large format Chinese Painting book in the Walter Foster series. Both methods employ minimal strokes to portray recognizable fish.


These two general instruction books both have simple yet effective instructions for painting goldfish.

Pearlescent paints have a definite place in your studio if you fall in love with goldfish painting. I fell in love with the paints for dragonfly wings, and a ‘deal’ on the pearly paints means I have a variety of colors already to use should I get smitten with these messengers of dreams. I also learned how to wipe a thin white or pale green wash over a fish body to convey some of that pearly look.

Basic Fish Bodies

Eyes, mouth, fins and tail are the dominant features to a fish. The body shape tends to be relatively familiar to most painters–the basic pumpkin seed shape placed horizontally.



Tails and eyes are dominant features in goldfish; the ribbon-tail or veil-tail species has a tail that is longer than its body length. Some master brush painters have perfected elegant ribbon strokes to portray that tail.

After a recent workshop on goldfish painting I went online to seek inspiration for a goldfish composition. I found more than I bargained for in a wonderful book on painting goldfish that featured two black carp swimming out from the shadow of some red bamboo. (Of course I ordered it!) All kinds of anatomical illustrations can also be found, such as this one:


My online research also discovered a Henry Li lesson on the bubble-eye goldfish; his trailer has some good ideas in it. He tells us how he tracked down a painter who had trained with a master renowned for goldfish painting, in order to gain insights into the technique for beautiful ribbon tails. (see detail image below.)  The secret seems to be in using an orchid brush with a twisting action.


He also does a demo on Youtube of a more basic goldfish here.

Order for painting

As with most animals, painting eyes first works best for some of us, followed by head, body, tails, fins, mouth and final tweaking. Other painters like to get the body and tail down before adding the eyes. I’m an ‘eyes-first’ painter. Ever since I learned the secret of proportion and spacing to get a cat’s eyes looking right, I’ve leaned to paint eyes first in other creatures. Their spacing is also key to proportions of all body parts in a good-looking horse.

With this sequencing of body parts I wanted to tackle Wu-kui’s ten little fish, and then move on to trying a few of the compositions Nenagh showed us in her workshops (2011 and 2016). But first, as always, a quick little study to review shapes, proportions, brush strokes, etc. refreshes the brain and eyes about the subject. Besides, completing a painting always brings some reward—a bag, a card, a painting, maybe even a masterpiece! The more complex bubble-eyed and veiled or ribbon tail fish certainly held appeal.

Following the Walter Foster exercise (Helen Tse and Rebecca Yue, illustrators.)

1. Start with a pale sketch—some use pencil, others use charred rice paper or charcoal pencils, I sometimes use very pale indigo. Experienced artists will visualize their entire composition, planning the main features (goldfish) and ‘guest’ elements (duckweed, willow, bamboo, etc.)

2. Using a small stiff brush dipped in medium ink outline the mouth, eyes and body of your fish. Goldfish are plump little creatures, especially when limited to containers with only short swimming distances and no predators.


3.  Use a large soft-hair brush loaded with pale crimson and yellow (orange?) dipped in darker orange to place four sidestrokes emanating from a central point at the end of the fish body. You can curve these strokes to suggest swimming movement.

4. Add fins in much the same manner (pale color, curved sidestrokes.


5. Mix a wash of light blue and white to wash over the body and mouth. (I’d wait until the parts had dried somewhat.)

6. Add head and body spots with a darker orange using a large soft brush. Touch up darker lines in fin and tail with the smaller brush if needed.

Instructions for completing the scene—water, weeds, willow—are all given as well.

Following the Jane Dwight exercise:

1. Load a small firm brush with dark orange, and holding it upright paint four short firm strokes to depict the head/face of the goldfish (shortest strokes on the sides). Add a short stroke across the front of the head to depict the broad mouth.


2. Load the brush with pale orange and paint two longer, larger strokes for the body. You can curve these to show different swimming postures. J.D. provides four. Stroke in four short strokes—two up front and two near the back of the fish body, for fins.


3. Add a three-pronged tail using the side of the brush loaded with the pale orange.

4. Depict the eyes at the sides of the head, using a dab of blue and ink lines.

5. When the tail and fins are damp to the touch, use the tip of a detail brush dipped in red or darkest orange to suggest lines emanating from the body down the length of the tail section or fin. Place a few dots on the body.


The presence of water and swimming movements are suggested with different body nuances. Usually you paint several fish together, interacting with one another and their environment.  As with birds, paint larger groups of  fish with smaller groupings within them.

In one of Nenagh’s ‘stash’ books on goldfish anatomy (all in Chinese) were some of the most intriguing inspirations. The chapter heading pages each had Chinese brush paintings in different styles: one showed several very round orange fish with only a grey circle on the page (perhaps meant to be the circular bottom of a glass fish bowl as you look directly down into it?), and another showed orange-grey fish painted using a single circular stroke as the starting point for the entire body. Both paintings were startling for their original thinking. Clever painter, that unknown illustrator!


The single circle body stroke used to portray these fish intrigued me. I had to try it!


My first effort to figure out that single stroke fish wasn’t too successful, but they got better! (see below).


I ended my session playing with those ‘single stroke’ fishes. I could see hours of daydreaming ahead, planning out ways to depict feathery tails and fins, watery depths, and shimmering scales.






Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, goldfish | Leave a comment

Bamboo Breakthrough 2: learning leaf formations

I can’t believe this is me; I am excited about painting bamboo!

Oh, I  have been interested in bamboo painting, I have tried painting bamboo many times, I have even painted my way through wads of newsprint with only bamboo leaves as subject. But now I can load a brush and actually place stalks, stems, and leaves in a pleasing, respectable manner.

Several hours of study and practice with a helpful little instructional book from I-Hsiung Ju was the key to my breakthrough.

His guidance to understanding where and how the leaves should go, based on the dependable framework of a deer horn (see my last post) helped me finally grasp how all the elements work together. He’s taken most of the guesswork out of composing with bamboo, so I can now focus on technique. And yes, there are tons of things to remember as you place every little leaf stroke….


My recent bamboo studies prompted several afternoon walks in search of the real thing.

Armed with insights from his book on bamboo I went hunting for full compositions to practice. And was I ever surprised—with his lessons behind me, my eye was much more discerning. I could actually see how much really bad bamboo painting clutters the Internet! Best of all, I could pick out the good stuff.  Here’s a site as an example.

Leaf Lessons

The concept of learning one leaf formation and then repeating it throughout a painting was not new to me. Several of my other books on bamboo painting provide numerous leaf clusters for just that purpose. One of my favorites is Chinese Watercolor Painting the Four Seasons by Leslie Tseng-tseng Yu. I have a copy of her book in monochrome as well as in color. Her illustrations are very helpful, and now that I understand more about using a deer horn branch structure to lead to those leaf formations, my attempts to replicate her lessons are much more successful.

Here’s my recent studies addressing Ju’s ‘formations’ with some insights into where they are best used. I painted these on a fibrous paper called Dragon Cloud; it takes ink differently than my usual Moon Palace practice paper, offering more ‘drag’ to a brush.

1. New moon. This simple leaf is either very young or very old. You place a single thin leaf near the tip of the deer horn, hanging downwards, often pointing to the left. It is located near the top of a bamboo plant, or the end of an exterior branch. Think of the tiny slip of the moon when it is ‘new’ and it’s clear where this leaf formation got its name.

A single brushstroke ‘formation’ occurring near the tip of a branch, pointing to the right and usually appearing more horizontal than the new moon, but similarly thinner than other leaves on the bamboo plant, is called boat. Ju says the new moon and a boat can be placed on old and broken horns to suggest other leaves have been ripped off in a storm or have fallen because of the late season. I noticed these occur on certain types of bamboo; some clumps I’ve spied in my neighborhood sport very lush growth, with pointed growth tips.



2. Fishtail is the name given to a leaf formation involving only two leaves, having one on either side of a segment. The leaves do NOT start at a common point nor are they of the same length. The fish tail is usually shown as full frontal view, meaning we see it as a “vee”. Ju also introduced double fish tails early in his illustrations and in fact he used them in showing the progression from deer horn to leaves (which I depicted in my last blog post). It is possible to paint complex-looking leaf clusters using only the single and double fishtail formations!

fishtail  dblefishtail

3. Goldfish tail is composed of three leaves on the same segment; one extends from the deer horn framework out from the middle of the formation and then you place a leaf on the left and one on the right, starting from staggered points down the horn. They are slightly separated and do NOT overlap. The middle leaf should be slightly longer than the side leaves.

The formation does resemble a goldfish tail in terms of overall shape, except that the three leaves do NOT share a common starting point. I thought it clever to paint a goldfish composition with bamboo leaves in this formation hanging over the water, but then realized the fish tails pointed in the opposite direction to all the leaf tips; my intended mimicry was lost.



4. Between  This next leaf formation involves four leaves on a segment. You can place these leaves going up to the right or left (usually when the plant is in sunshine or for new growth) or hanging down, or slightly to one side. Bamboo leaves hanging down suggest they are in rain/snow or the plant is older and dried out. These leaves are best painted in sequence starting closer to the segment tip and painting leaves of varying length: right, left, right, left: you should strive for longer leaves nearer the tip. Repeated ‘betweens’ can make an effective little composition. And if you’ve dreamed of painting bamboo leaves steadily with good rhythm, this formation is an ‘enabler’!



5.  Division. Ju’s next leaf formation is actually just a different ‘view’ of the last one, the Between. You have to imagine you are viewing the four-leaf Between from the side. And this is where bamboo leaf painting can get a bit tricky if you’ve never truly LOOKED at bamboo. Again, Ju shows how to repeat the leaf formation called Division and end up with a neat little painting! He also shows where the division grows on a bamboo plant, off the tip of a side shoot emerging from a bamboo node.


The last three major leaf formations in Ju’s arsenal were all named for birds—the swallow, a landing bird and a frightened bird. I decided to leave those for another day, and dig into what Ju had to say about using repeat patterns of the first few leaf formations. In a later chapter of his bamboo book he discusses principles of bamboo composition and shows clusters of leaf formations.

Repeat Clusters

The new moon and boat leaves occur at tips, and naturally appear alone.


In this illustration in The Scholarly Bamboo by June Greene, a new moon leaf is added at the top of the branch to balance the arrangement.

If you are portraying a large clump with several growth tips then perhaps you’d show several new moons in a painting. Ju relays that masters of old determined (and he says this is supported by observation) there are only FIVE ways to make clusters of leaves. These include repeating fish tail, double fish tail, between, division, and swallow. Because I’ve yet to practice and discuss the bird formations, I’ve only got four studies to practice so far. And bless Dr. Ju; he provided several illustrations for each such clustering!

1. The cluster of repeated fish tail is for the tip of hanging branches growing over a wall or a rock.


repeated single fishtails.

2. The cluster of repeated double fish tail is for a branch of young bamboo growing upward or horizontally.  I tried them in different directions

repdblefishtail  repdblefishtail2


3. The cluster of repeated ‘betweens’ is for old leaves hanging loosely at the top of the bamboo plant


On reflection, this particular pattern of repeat ‘betweens’ has motifs too similar in size and shape; the individual elements should be varied for greater interest.

4. The cluster of repeated ‘divisions’ is for heavy leaves at the top of a bending bamboo plant.  I stacked a few ‘divisions’ in my first practice piece (scroll back to view).

Field Trip

While studying these leaf formations, I couldn’t resist getting outdoors and checking for real life evidence of Ju’s assertions. Bamboo is a popular garden choice in my climate zone (although some gardeners live to regret it as bamboo roots typically reach VERY deep—up to four feet down—and can be very invasive.) I quickly discovered several specimens in my neighborhood.

A large planting of black bamboo has fascinated me for years as I passed it almost daily. The new growth tips would shoot up suddenly in the clump and appeared as though someone was ‘staking’ the clump. Once the gardener nipped the shoots to try and manage her front yard clump, I realized the pointy ‘sticks’ were the new growth shoots rising above the old growth. There were no ‘new moons’ up there.

Three blocks away I found a lush, un-managed clump. Close examination revealed leaf formations of the fishtail, double fishtail, and between varieties.

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There were no single new moons near the tips, nor at the bottom where old growth could be expected. We’ve had more than the average fall storm activity so surely the plant could be expected to show some leaf loss. But then again, our summer has been wetter than usual, and the bamboo reflected that with an abundance of leaves.

Remembering that bamboo comes in MANY varieties, I continued on my jaunts; a few days later I found two locations for what seems to be ‘golden bamboo’. The stalks were obvious from a distance, and the leaves much smaller than in the huge lush clumps previously examined. Closer examination revealed mostly single leaf formations. A chat with the gardener led to my returning home with a few stalks pruned from close to the top of the clump.

My first observation was that a leaf ‘leaning left’ could easily be viewed as ‘leaning right’ if you viewed it from the other side, or turned it around in your hand! Here are some ‘shadow studies’ I improvised in my workroom with a bright light and white table. I was in search of that elusive ‘new moon’.

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I also recalled taking pictures of bamboo examples Nenagh had brought to a September workshop. She noted that one variety was the basis for some of the outline styles of portraying bamboo, with white veins. You can see that  leaves seem to emerge from their stems at common points in the one on the left; those on the right emerge alternately.


Other bamboo varieties she brought in were fresh and green, but did not have single new moon leaves near the tips.  My pruned stalks acquired from a neighbor later in the season had drier, smaller leaves, and they seemed to be what remained after fall storms.  Most of those remained as ‘singles’ but pointed in random directions, few hanging in the pleasing form of a new moon.


Nenagh also showed us a rarity in the bamboo grove—flowers! She mentioned an old saying that once bamboo flowers it dies. I had to check that one out:  This site explains there is some truth to the saying, but also that much is yet to be fully understood.

I’m still working on understanding principles for painting leaves; the flowers will have to wait.  Bird formations here I come!





Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, painting bamboo | 2 Comments