In my dreams, painting rocks and streams

My first few afternoons working on waterfalls was no different than had I gone clambering around the slippery rocks of a real waterfall. There were moments where I thought I had a grasp of the brush work, then I would slop on too much water, stroke water spray in unrealistic directions, or discover I’d not varied the tonal values enough and there was no going back.

Painting a waterfall is deceptively complex.

I went back to the guy with the YouTube videos and watched all five in his series of three-minute takes on creating a large waterfall composition. He used only two brushes, a large one with bristles that could be splayed and a smaller detail brush.

He inked in his rocks first, leaving white space for the water. The closer larger rocky surfaces became darker than those farther away. He inserted protruding rocks in the path of the water—varied in shape and always just where they seemed to belong! He stroked in the branches of a tree and dotted in foliage (my Biff brush would do that effectively I noted.) He added more moss to the large foreground rock surface. Pale greenish-grey washes went on the rocks, darker where the rocks were cooler and in shadow, lighter where the light would shine on them.

Ah, if only my brush could dance that way!

While searching for solutions (indulging in procrastination perhaps?) I tripped over an absolutely delightful short (22 minutes) animated film posted on Youtube titled Feelings of mountains and water.

The imagery, the music, the painting—I’m not sure which aspect was the most engrossing.

Fully inspired, back to the falls

With the animation and music filling my mind I turned back to my art table. Surely I too could wield a Chinese brush in the minimalist ways of rocks and water.

In planning to continue with the waterfalls (ultimately aiming to capture the spirits of my two favored ones, Rainbow Falls and Treebeard in the Ancient Forest near McBride) I sought direction on adding color. I found some very concise and helpful guidance in yet another book in my CBP library. This was a book dedicated to the Lingnan School of painting, by artist Lo Ching-Yuan.


His direction for painting a waterfall composition has five steps, which I’ve simplified here:

  1. Outline rocks either side of intended falls and define a few within the path of the water. In his words: broad arrangement of whole picture.
  2. Paint flowing water in pale ink; strokes should be smooth and agile. Apply texture strokes to the rocks and add small trees.
  3. Apply wash of ochre ink to shining spots of rocks and dark blue to darker parts. (This brings forward the parts hit by light and puts others into shadow away from you.)
  4. Use thin dark blue mixed with mineral green to color the darker parts of the falling water, so that it is more conspicuous. (I think he means comes forward or stands out.) Apply mineral green to the parts of rocks that protrude. Rocks within or next to the falling water stay wet and support moss; hence they should appear brighter green.
  5. Examine the whole composition and touch up where needed. Add moss or weeds. Apply chop and write annotation.

I set out for my next art group afternoon fully geared up to paint waterfalls! I aimed to try a colored composition in the manner of Lo Ching-Yuan. I had rough sketched my two real inspirations (Rainbow and Treebeard Falls) with two 10 by 14 frames in mind. From my files and library I pulled out two more attractive waterfall compositions, one with a bridge in the far distance and the other with a lot of tumbling water spreading widely into the foreground.

That’s when things went sideways. After a few hours I had naught but messy sheets of paper in front of me. I had to take a step back and consider what was happening.

Reflection on the slippery rocks

  1. I was expecting too much. Perhaps I should scale back the size and scope of my goals. (Paint ONE waterfall composition?)
  2. The rock lines in my first stab at Rainbow Falls were all too similar and much like the dreaded “railroad tracks” of BAD tree branch arrangements. (Forget what was real and adjust for a pleasing composition. Use your artistic licence.)
  3. Rainbow Falls captured by a camera appeared wide; hence they were best represented in a “landscape” or horizontal mode, not the vertical arrangement I was forcing them into. (Rethink the composition.)
  4. My color choices were resulting in a starkly orange-and-blue painting. (Too much thinking about that ochre wash on the light rock faces and blue wash on the shadowed parts! Rethink the color application.) Watercolorists know they’re in trouble when the palette shows a muddy mix; mine held sharp contrasts.
  5. My washes applied to rocks were bleeding into wet “blooms”. (Yikes! Don’t forget to blot and don’t try to color so many surfaces with one brushload.)
  6. Waterfalls are hard, said TOB. Don’t worry, this is like riding a bicycle; two weeks away and you may be a bit rusty, but it will all come back, said Lotus. Their kind words only reinforced what I knew: it was time to review plan A.

Plan B for the waterfalls

I decided to give Treebeard Falls a go. They were naturally more suited to the vertical comp I had in mind. The falling water made a simpler path to portray. The surroundings could be altered by foreground foliage. And the messy sheets of my attempts to capture Rainbow Falls were too much in my head.

(At this stage I serendipitously viewed a FB posting on Billie Jean King describing how she “deleted” from her computer/brain incorrect responses to approaching tennis balls. So I cleared my head of prior attempts at painting falls, and conjured up the afternoon I spent at Treebeard Falls in the Ancient Forest.

I followed Lo Ching-Yuan’s steps as best I could.  Here’s the result, with the inspirational photograph following it.

img_5378 TreeBeardFalls

I then worked up a composition based on the distant bridge with wider tumbling falls moving into the foreground.


In the end I was displeased with both results on many levels: messy water marks, too dark ink on the rocks, nondescript foliage.  Rocks and waterfalls would simply require more practice, more study, and perhaps less hurry. Sometimes you just can’t get water to run downhill that easily.  And maybe I’ll  have to work on Billie Jean King’s mind control method as well.  (Delete, delete, delete.)



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Waterfalls: a landscape painting stalwart


In Chinese brush painting many fundamentals come in groups: four treasures, four gentlemen, six principles, and even 17 types of strokes for folds in clothing. How unusual that the main elements used in landscape painting—trees, rocks (including mountains), clouds, and waterfalls—do not have a group name. I propose the four stalwarts.


Horsey Creek is one of the larger creeks near the farm where I grew up. When snow melt adds to its volume in spring it turns into a raging torrent with many small falls and rapids. Our creek remains nameless as it normally carries much less water than this one.

A stalwart (noun) is defined as “a loyal, reliable, and hardworking supporter or participant in an organization or team.” I cannot think of a better term for those basic elements we employ when constructing a Chinese landscape painting!

Admittedly there is a term for a style of traditional CBP that involves or depicts scenery or natural landscapes using a brush and ink, rather than more conventional paints: shan shui or “mountain-water”.

Water equals wealth

In traditional Chinese paintings, mountains, for their power and majestic manner, are frequently used to symbolize solid family fortune and fame, while waterfall means your fortune and wealth will be coming to you continuously. In Chinese culture water symbolizes wealth, and the waterfall represents profits pouring in from all sides

In China, mountains were long viewed as sacred places, home of the immortals. See this site for more.

Here’s a site that elaborates on the auspicious messaging of a traditional landscape painting.

Waterfalls equal marrow and blood

In my study of waterfall painting I was surprised to discover a range of insights into the nature of water running downhill. I kind of felt like the little girl I once was, playing in the creek on our farm arranging and re-arranging rocks to reroute the water’s path, create pools at the banks, and make dams that would eventually give way.

I found five helpful resources in my CBP library, and they all provided different insights into the essence of waterfalls. Mind you, three of them referenced one: the Mustard Seed Garden Manual.

waterfall books

These five books are my main resources for this topic. See annotations below.

There are two basic approaches to painting waterfalls: one is to paint the rocky banks first and then insert strokes to define the water, the other is to create the path of the water first and then fill in the rocks that would permit that flow to happen. Either way makes sense.

Among the gems of wisdom sprinkled through my instructional materials:

“In a picture a road has direction and water has a source”.

“Spend five days painting a stream, ten days painting a rock.”

“Consider both the appearance and the spirit of the scene you would paint.”

“Waterfalls form the structure of rocks, rocks form the structure of mountains.”

“Whether trickling, flowing, spraying, foaming, splashing, or in rivers or in oceans, (water) is the very blood and marrow of Heaven and earth. Blood nourishes the embryo and the marrow nourishes the bones.”

“Water in all of its many forms is the feminine element of a landscape, soft and yielding amidst the massive masculinity of the rocks and mountains.”

“The strength of the water is its ability to flow steadily on its course, overcoming all obstacles in its path, and wearing down all resistance to its fluid movement, until eventually the water itself shapes its surroundings.”

I also tripped over some descriptive terms that sounded poetic: silver streak, horsetail, white ribbon, white thread cascades.


  1. The Chinese Brush Painting Bible by Jane Dwight has a single page entry that offers enough guidance to get you started. She does rocks first, then the water.
  2. The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting provides 12 full pages of direction with illustrations on waterfall painting, from high streams to low ones, from multi-tiered falls, to single ripples, and even one thundering under a rocky bridge.
  3. The How and Why of Chinese Painting by Dianna Kan has two pages of guidance. She advocates strongly for the path of the water first, elaborating on the feminine nature of water cited above.
  4. Caroline and Susan Self offer three pages of illustrated direction in The Art of Chinese Brush Painting. They describe a fun ‘splash ink’ technique: you wet four sheets of paper and then splash or dribble on dark ink where rocky banks might be located so that it penetrates all four, separate the sheets and then define on each how the water would flow through the splotches.
  5. Li Xiongcai’s Landscape Painting has seven pages of full compositions demonstrating different kinds of waterfalls; both his narrative and illustrations are clearly based on the examples given in the MSGM. Both are unclear as to the preferred order of painting (water or banks first) but they offer a wide variety of kinds of waterfalls, and also stress the relationship between the water and surrounding rocks.


I also looked for demonstration videos and found two:

1. First up is a guy with a wide dry brush in two Youtube postings, here’s one, and then the second one.

2. And then from Virginia Lloyd-Davis is a promo demo for a longer instructional video for waterfall painting. She uses a medium-sized mountain hair brush on rice paper and shows how to add fall colors and mountain mist to the scene. Her point that ‘less is more’ when it comes to placing strokes to define the water tumbling around rocks is repeated throughout all of my resources above.

Start at the source

The key characteristic of water is running, according to Xiongcai, and a stream thus gives life to a mountain. Whether it is narrow or wide, trickling or cascading, gurgling or thundering is all determined by the rock around it. A painter should thus spend considerable time reflecting on that relationship before putting brush to paper.

How better to do so than actually parking yourself at the bank of a stream or waterfall and thoroughly immersing yourself in its essence? In the past the extent of my contemplation at waterside has been more along the lines of the poem by Frederick George Scott (why hurry little river, why hurry to the sea….)

On a recent trip into my home province’s northern reaches I got to sit by not one but two wonderful waterfalls and study just how their rocky bounds defined them. One location, Rainbow Falls near McBride, BC was a familiar haunt. I had visited it often in my childhood. The rocky ledges have not changed noticeably in over six decades. The falls appear differently depending on the volume of water tumbling through the rocky niche.


The second was new to me, but oh how very ancient the setting is! The Ancient Forest located some 94 kilometers west of McBride near Dome Creek has trees estimated to be 1000 or more years old, one measuring at least 16 feet in diameter! In less than a decade since their discovery, volunteer work crews have worked on walkways, including a universally accessible portion that leads to Treebeard Falls.


Note the mossy rocks that surround this waterfall.

Tree Beard Falls is in the Ancient Forest, Driscoll Range. Along the trail was this inspirational poem, allegedly directly from the trail to me:


Without water! Water everywhere,

our Ancient Forest would be bare.

Storms pushed from Pacific sky,

crash upon the mountain high.

Rain and snow meet, and dally,

then settle in the Robson Valley.

Winter snows get up and run,

under the warming springtime sun.

Water races down the forest slope,

searching for the Pacific with hope,

quenching a thirsty forest on its way,

and keeping the threat of fires at bay.

Precious water, please never fail.

–Your friend, the Ancient Forest Trail

(We were fortunate the day we tramped through to meet up with the real poet—Nowell Senior—the leader of a group of volunteers from Prince George which has invested thousands of hours in developing the site for public access. Bless them all, starting with the grad student who brought the existence of the trees to public attention less than a decade ago.)

China’s own

I wondered about the inspiration for traditional shan shui paintings and turned to the internet. Here are China’s top five waterfalls.

And here you can see an assortment of Chinese paintings of waterfalls.

I can’t really leave the topic of inspirational falls without acknowledging Canada’s most famous one, which happens to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Niagara Falls.

Just how that flow of water has altered its course and eroded banks over time is well documented.  I know Niagara Falls is much photographed, but am unaware of any iconic paintings.  Here’s a tourist image that captures the full breathtaking spanse of water that forms the Canadian and American arms to the waterfall.


My waterfall studies:

I decided to experiment with both approaches (1. rocks first and define the water flow, then 2. water path first and follow with banks and obtrusions). The first method is sometimes called negative painting, i.e. you paint in the objects that the water tumbles over and around, then light strokes to show shading of water. I also contemplated working through the examples given in the MSGM, and using one of Xiongcai’s full compositions as a model for my first full waterfall painting. My ultimate goal was to capture the spirits of those two I visited this summer, Rainbow and Treebeard Falls.

Here are my first monochrome waterfall studies, starting simple and working up to a more elaborate scene.


This small monochrome study is based on one of the Mustard Seed Garden Manual illustrations of a multi-tired waterfall between rocky banks.


Also based on the Mustard Seed Garden Manual, this study shows wider falls of lesser height.


Another study inspired by the MSGM; this one shows a waterfall with a stream feeding into it at a higher elevation.  The closer waterfall marks look a tad awkward but the softer tones for more distant peaks worked out well. The layered rock shelf on the left is exactly what I need to do when painting my Rainbow Falls.


This study was based on Diana Kan’s instructions; rocky banks went in first and then I added waterfall marks.

I next tackled a monochrome waterfall composition based on one of the seven in Xiongcai’s book on landscape painting.  Now that I have the progression photos set up as a slideshow, I can see it is ready for adding color in the manner Virginnia Lloyd-Davies describes.  I could also turn the painting over and add some misty shapes in the upper left. I put it into a slideshow to reveal the ‘water first’ method.

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With so much inspiration I had to leave color application for another day, and attempts at rendering Rainbow and Treebeard Falls held promise for several days at least.







Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting landscapes, painting waterfalls, water compositions | Leave a comment

Aquatic arsenal—painting water plants

The devil is in the details.

This observation has variously been attributed to Mies Vander Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Gustav Flaubert. I would surmise any creative person sooner or later discovers that attention to the small details does indeed contribute to the effectiveness of an overall project. Or, as my Granny used to say, look after the pennies and the dollars look after themselves.

Following is my first full shrimp composition in which I tried to use aquatic plants to add ambiance.  I haven’t put a chop on it because I didn’t see it as ‘show-ready’; I found the laciness of the common water plant too similar to the spidery lines in all the legs, whiskers and antennae.  While looking for a water plant with more contrast in shape and texture, I realized I knew little about the subject.


In Chinese brush painting, particularly landscapes and aquatic scenes, the choice and treatment of contextual elements contribute significantly to the success of the composition. In Johnson Su Sing-Chow’s excellent instruction book Aquatic Life he offers a list of commonly used aquatic plants that fill that role for most fish, shrimp, crab, and waterfowl compositions. Thankfully he used some scientific names in his introduction: vallisneria, ludwigia, hygrophia, giant sagitaria, cabomba. And then he added others using common names I recognized: rush, horsetail, horsewhip.

Of course there’s also lotus and water lily for a brush painter to learn, but they have each amassed a considerable ‘body of knowledge’ and are best studied on their own. I have previously blogged about painting lotus here and probably will tackle water lily at some future date.

Three workhorse aquatic plants

Knowing there are a huge variety of water plants, and that distinctions among varieties may be minor, I first needed a general understanding of their classifications and growth habits. This site offered three general groupings: submersed (those that grow entirely or almost entirely underwater), emersed  (those that grow out of the water but are rooted to the bottom), and floating (those that may or may not be anchored to the sediment but have leaves floating on the water surface).

For the three workhorse subjects that show up most often—coontail, duckweed and eelgrass—I checked for scientific names and photographs before moving ahead. As best I can determine these plants are: Ceratophyllum demersum (coontail), Lemna minor (duckweed), and Vallisneria gigantea (eelgrass).

Coontail and eelgrass are examples of submersed plants, whereas duckweed is a common floater. Lotus and arrowhead clearly belong to the third category of emersed plants; they are rooted in the sediment but lift their flowers and leaves above the water.

Coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum) Study

My study started with this plant, commonly named for its resemblance to a bushy, striped raccoon tail. For a quick fix on its habits and a photograph look here.

More such descriptions abound; here’s one:

It is a free-floating, rootless, perennial native aquatic plant that is capable of forming dense colonies covering large areas of water. The green, forked, serrated leaves are relatively stiff and are arranged in whorls on the stem. These leaves have a strong resemblance to a raccoon’s tail, which is probably how coontail got its name. The plant is found in ponds, lakes and streams across the United States, Mexico, Canada and much of the world. It reproduces through very small seeds and fragmentation. Fragmentation occurs when a portion of the plant breaks off and becomes a new plant. Coontail and other aquatic plants spread to new areas when impoundments containing the plants overflow into other water bodies or when seeds or fragments are introduced by birds, boats, livestock, etc.”

I first admired what I thought was coontail in a painting of one of my art friends, Ev Downs. She had layered several plants in different values and thus created considerable depth to her painting. Nenagh gave us a quick demo at the end of a shrimp lesson, but my head was so full of shrimp facts that I didn’t take note of her precise method. Aquatic plants tend to be deceptively complex, and I regret not paying closer attention.

When I first considered what brushwork was required to achieve coontail’s whorl-based appearance and stem branching, I noticed that in some paintings the fronds were painted toward the stem whorl, leaving a slight knobby end to each frond. On others those strokes were executed away from the whorls, ending with pointy tips. Then I noticed that in some paintings the plants were denser and more heavily branched than in others.

With a little more research I concluded perhaps artists were not always painting coontail, but maybe had another similar plant in mind, with the Latin name cabomba.

And my research led me to a site that mentions this common confusion of coontail with cabomba, as well as a third plant. Yikes!

Cabomba tends to branch more and show a denser growth habit, whereas coontail has sparser growth along spiny stems. And then again, maybe some artists were simply exercising their license to paint whatever they pleased–knobby  ends or pointy ends, densely leafed or not, feathery stalks or stiffer spine-like ones–with no care to reality. The final look was the important thing.

Here’s a small study of coontail I made to show the method. Simply load a small detail brush with light green and gently mark in a willowy stem; at intervals construct a series of curved lines towards a common centre on the stem. Paint away from the whorl for pointy ends.  If you want knobby ends use nailhead strokes painting toward the centre.  Be consistent for the whole plant, and don’t mix plants in one composition.


This is meant to be a coontail plant

AquaPlant 4

Here I tried to achieve darker stems in the near distance, with lighter ones further away; once the ink was dry I re-wet the paper and added green washes to enhance the sense of depth.

Duckweed (Lemna minor) Study

In earlier examinations of some CBP aquatic scenes I noticed what appeared to be masses of small lily pads. Then when I hunted for photos and descriptions of duckweed I realized it comes in many sizes, not just the tiny little bright green dots I’ve seen in ponds or aquariums. Again, I concluded that CBP artists might not always be realistic with the size or scale of either duckweed dotting, or lily pads. Maybe I was wrong and those small oval green dabs in some aquatic compositions were really meant to be lily pads, but the artist had no idea that relative to the ducks or other main elements the pads should have been larger to be realistic, or if duckweed was intended, maybe the relative size would have been minimally different from just green algae bloom.

Look at this site for descriptive detail and a photograph showing human fingers covered in duckweed, intended to provide a sense of scale.

“Common duckweed is a very small light green free-floating, seed bearing plant. Duckweed has 1 to 3 leaves, or fronds, of 1/16 to 1/8 inch in length. A single root (or root-hair) protrudes from each frond. Duckweeds tend to grow in dense colonies in quiet water, undisturbed by wave action. Often more than one species of duckweed will be associated together in these colonies. Duckweeds can be aggressive invaders of ponds and are often found mixed in with mosquito fern or watermeal. If colonies cover the surface of the water, then oxygen depletions and fish kills can occur. These plants should be controlled before they cover the entire surface of the pond.”

Painting duckweed is easy, and lots of fun! You simply load a suitable brush—small for small dots, larger for larger dots—with bright green (or mix dots of different greens)—and plant dots in masses, all in the same horizontal manner to convey their presence in water. Depicting the smallest variety of duckweed can be challenging as it has a very small leaf, but a mass of such dotting with ducks or other waterfowl does indeed convey ‘duckweed’ to most artists concerned with some measure of reality.

Here’s a small study I painted on Dragon Cloud paper to show the effect:


Eelgrass Study

The third common aquatic plant used in CBP is a ribbon-like plant growing from a crown in the sediment with long undulating leaves of varying widths. I wondered if it couldn’t be confused with sea kelp. That conundrum was soon forgotten when I found the common term eelgrass could be either of two possibilities–Vallisneria or Zostera marina.

For the latter I found a photo and description here.

For the Vallisneria I found a sketch and description here as well as another more detailed description here.

As far as I could discern, the differences in these plants had to do with habitat and the nature of their roots (white rhizomes vs. a rosette crown), neither of which mattered a whole lot to someone painting sinewy water plants to showcase some prized tropical fish or a shoal of shrimp.

My eelgrass study:

AquaPlant 2

The wispy eelgrass helps suggest water depth and movement around two tropical fish.

AquaPlant 1

Here’s another way to suggest eelgrass–or is it kelp?–in an aquatic composition.


So there you have it:  I too was falling into the camp of those artists who wanted to drop in a few context elements to suggest the environment for my subject, and I made choices based on shapes—feathery or wispy—and contrast—finely detailed like the coontail/cabomba, or solidly rendered like eelgrass/kelp.

I tried to sort out the true identities of the commonly used water plants in order to better understand their characters and habitats.  Their very nature as ‘common’ and the fact several may have the same common name, confounds the issue. I did find others less commonly used that I could incorporate into my arsenal, and those I can be sure of naming correctly.  But then maybe it’s not that important; aquatic plants are usually mere underwater or floating context, not the Big Idea in a painting.

There’s also another option: don’t rely on water plants.

In his introduction to Aquatic Life Su Sing-Chow pointed out that the master painter Qi Baishi was particularly skilled at suggesting the  water in his aquatic compositions without the use of water plants. So yes, I’m heading back to my library to dig out all the Qi Baishi aquatic scene examples I can find. Will keep you posted!




Posted in aquatic plants, Chinese Brush Painting, Uncategorized, water compositions | Leave a comment

Beyond the bridge, a mountain slope

Although it took me almost 40 years of avid genealogy research to trace my roots into the highlands of northern Scotland I always knew there had to be some Scots blood in me. I love the swish of a kilt, the skirl of bagpipes and most of all, the trace of high hills along the skyline. I even like my daily ‘parridge’.

Lucky for me my parents settled in a small farming community in the Rocky Mountain trench, the valley with the mighty Fraser River at its low point.


The Fraser River as seen from an old look-out station on McBride Peak

The Rocky Mountain range runs roughly in a northwesterly direction from near Jasper, Alberta. The Cariboo range flanks the other side of the valley for most of the same distance. I saw a lot of mountains in my childhood, and to this day am easily calmed by distant peaks or undulating high hills.


My photo albums hold many photos such as this one taken on a camping trip to Alaska.  The fog makes the scene look similar to those from northern China commonly depicted in Chinese landscape paintings.

Last month I set out to paint bridges and departed from conventional footbridges and stone arched humpbacks to take on a wooden truss bridge that once crossed the Fraser River near my home. I figured out the intricacies of portraying the bridge, but was stymied when it came to filling in the background. The overlapping slopes of the mostly treed mountains behind my bridge scenario simply got the better of me.

Now it’s true that one need not be a slave to realism when painting with Chinese ink on rice paper. And it’s also true that few onlookers to my art would even recognize the setting, let alone know what should be in the background.

I could have gone with a nondescript forest or a rough-hewn cliff more in keeping with conventional Chinese landscapes. But I wanted the scene to look right to me. So I dug out the landscape painting books and scoured my CBP library for ideas.

Scan 2

This traditional Chinese brush landscape painting depicts mountains similar to some parts of the Canadian Rockies

What is a mountain and when is it just a hill?

Unlike with many other landforms, there is no universally accepted definition of a mountain. It is generally agreed that mountains are higher than hills, and that they have a recognizable summit. Many geographers define a mountain in terms of height—it is a landform that stretches above the surrounding land in a limited area, usually in the form of a peak, and is greater than 300 m above sea level. Russians apparently define ‘hill’ as an upland with a relative height up to 200 m, whereas the UK restricts the term ‘mountain’ to landforms over 600 meters, but even then, not always. If the higher landform is a sudden change from the nearby ground, then 300 m (1,000 feet) is the bar.

Other definitions make distinctions about the degree of slope (including two degrees or five degrees). In Scotland, however, where one of my great-great-grandmothers was born, landforms with distinct summits are called ‘hills’ no matter what their height!

It seems that the designation of hill or mountain is all in the eyes of the original beholder. And the distinction can be hugely important, as evidenced in this movie aptly titled The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain.

The assignment of ‘hill’ or ‘mountain’ to a landform is thus purely subjective. Whatever the person bestowing a name on the said rise of ground originally decided, is what remains.

That explains why my current hometown has both a Mount Tolmie (120 m) and a Mount Douglas (225 m) that are smaller than some of North Dakota’s famed Black Hills (highest being 2280 m). The Black Hills are so named from a Lakota phrase describing the dark appearance of the hills from a distance, as they are covered by forest.


From a distance the evergreen trees appear dark, almost black and hence the Lakotas of old referred to these hills as the Black Hills.


Even from space the treed hills stand out from their surroundings.

The two ‘mountains’ in my hometown were named for historical figures, Doctor Tolmie and Governor Sir James Douglas. The latter was earlier known to native Songhees as Pkols, meaning ‘sacred place’.

To someone who grew up at the foot of BC’s tallest peak (Mount Robson), all of these landforms seem more hilly than mountainous, but all are distinctive and make worthy CBP subjects.

While I was trying to sort out hills and mountains I discovered a site in the Philippines with distinctive land forms dubbed the Chocolate Hills.  Just how the hills came to be is a matter of conjecture, and of course local legend includes several wonderful folktales about their origin. Now if only it were true they were made of chocolate, dark Belgian chocolate….


The unusual Chocolate Hills on an island in the Philippines


Bonnie AND brazen to me

As children sometimes do, I apparently ‘mis-heard’ some of the lyrics to common Scots folk tunes sung in grade school. When I reflect on familiar mountain forms from my childhood I often get sound bytes floating through my inner ear. In addition to ‘oh, the heiland hills’ other lines from Loch Lomand come bouncing back.

“By yon bonnie banks…” was right, but I recall it was followed by “..and yon brazen breaks”. A Google search to find the full song lyrics reveals I got it wrong. And moreover, ‘breaks or brakes’ as in brackish would likely have something to do with the ocean or maybe a marsh. Silly me, the next phrase should have been ‘…and by yon bonnie braes’.   Now there’s a lovely word for hill!

And I’ve also got more lyrics to play through my inner ear as I paint:

By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes,
Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond,

 Where in purple hue, the hieland hills we view,
And the moon coming out in the gloaming

My search also brought to mind a host of other hill/mountain terms to think about as I studied ways to convey the mountain backdrop to my Fraser River bridge. Among them: summit, shoulder, brow, brink, precipice, and pass.  Here’s a site with a whole lot more.

And then a look at my favorite ‘heilan hills of home’.

My mountain slope studies:

Hunting through my CBP library for insights into painting the sides of mountains was not greatly productive. The most insightful was Landscape Painting with a Chinese Brush by Jane Evans.


Two CBP instructional books by Jane Evans describe ways to depict mountain slopes; my files also include inspirational prints such as the reflected overlapping ranges above painted in acrylics.

Trial # 1

I decided to try and modify Evans’ method in portraying the treed mountain slope behind my Fraser River bridge. In her book she illustrated two variations on portraying a hill.  Both start with using clear water to place a hill shape on the paper. Next you load a soft brush with light ink tipped in dark, and ink in the hill.

Variation One involves a side stroke with the tip creating a dry edge just outside of your original wet hill.  Variation Two requires the same load and stroke, but you keep the brush tip inside the wet hill shape, resulting in a furry edge.


Trial #2

Evans also described another method for hills or mountain slopes. First step was to evenly damp the entire paper; I spritzed my paper and blotted the excess with paper towels.


Next I loaded a soft brush with medium ink.  I held the brush so that the tip pointed towards the top of the page and rolled it to the right.  I tried creating overlapping hills. My brush got twisty and it was tricky keeping the ink depositing so that the “trees” pointed upwards on the hills.  I liked the edges to that upper left hill.


I did another one, this time dabbing in some extra dark ink on the closer range of hills.


And because my Bif brush was handy, I tried that to see how the ink dabs would look.


Trial # 3

Wanting to get on with painting mountain slopes in color, I tried the above ‘damp-roll-dab’ technique using blues.



I used a detail brush to add darker color along the hill tops

I then moved on to painting two overlapping mountain slopes in roughly the positions I had planned for my bridge scene.  I started with light shades of green and gradually built up darker shades for the lower part to the slopes.

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With this last mountain slope trial completed I thought maybe, just maybe, I was ready to tackle the bridge scene one more time.  I put the mountain slope study down next to my bridge trial to assess the overall plan.



Thoughts of those Chocolate Hills on an island in the Philippines still lingered, so I put the paints away to break for tea and something chocolatey.  I noticed that Jane Evans had included some Scottish scenes in her landscape painting book and wondered if perhaps I could find images of the hills my Mackie ancestors had frequented, those yon bonnie braes. And a moon coming up in the gloaming would be kind of nice as well.







Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting landscapes, painting mountains | 2 Comments

McBride, Monet and Me: Bridges

My younger sister was born on a bridge. Right in the middle of it, if family legend bears truth. It was a crisp night in early December 1951 and our parents were hurrying as best they could on snowy roads to get to the hospital in McBride BC.

Her bridge no longer crosses the Fraser River, as it was replaced by a newer, leaner version in a better location.   But bridges have always held great fascination for me, especially old wooden ones or those installed in Asian-themed gardens. The more rickety, the more charm I say.

Monet’s marvelous bridge work

The other day I picked up a child’s book on Impressionist painters and was delighted to see four versions of a bridge by Claude Monet, all displayed on the same page:


monetJbridge 1

Apparently in 1899 when his garden in Giverny had finally started to take shape, he embarked on not just four, but 18 such paintings. Some years earlier the passionate horticulturist had purchased land with a pond near his property, intending to build something “for the pleasure of the eye and also for motifs to paint.” Images of his famed water lily garden abound, and more often as not some part of the bridge is in them all.

This website entry detailing the Monet collection in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, elaborates on his garden and his art, beginning  “It took me a long time to understand my water lilies…. I grew them without thinking of painting them…. And then, all of a sudden, I had the revelation of the enchantment of my pond. I took up my palette.”

The water lilies and bridge then became an obsessive focus for Monet’s art for several decades.

I understand.

So do countless other art-lovers, gardeners and artists of every skill level, working in any and every medium. A simple, arched bridge can be endlessly fascinating.

(If you want to view more of Monet’s wonderful paintings, have a look here.)

The Mustard Seed Garden Manual weighs in, bridge symbolism

Bridges of any ilk—rustic wooden structures with or without handrails, strategically placed stepping-stones, and humpback stone structures constitute the simplest forms—can capture the artist’s fancy. Our modern river cities contain a huge variety of steel and concrete. Even the magnificent Fraser River that dominated the farmlands of my childhood, has a wide variety of bridges spanning its width at points all along its 855 miles.  I can even warm to those concrete and steel behemoths that connect various parts of the sprawling Fraser delta in and around Vancouver.

The MSGM devotes several pages to outlines of various bridge structures. The brush painter who favors landscapes can literally ‘shop’ for a suitable specimen to insert into a painting. There doesn’t seem to be any major significance for bridges in Chinese culture, other than to show linkage between parts of the scenes.

The Japanese however, attach greater meaning—a bridge denotes a journey beginning or ending. In the same way that well-mannered westerners accompany a guest to the door (or garden gate) upon departure, an ancient Japanese custom dating back to at least old Edo was to accompany a departing guest or family member to the bridge at the edge of town. Most towns had them; the bridge became a recognized point of departure, or greeting for that matter. Hence the depiction of a figure walking or riding over a bridge is a common Japanese brush-painting element.

These bridges are often the smaller, more rustic structures indicated with just a few brush strokes. Some painters take the scenario further and fill a larger bridge—any of the hump-backed stone versions are popular in this role—with several human figures engaged in numerous activities—fishing, chatting, smoking, reflecting, and so on.

Whatever the role served by a bridge—place of meetings/departures, or just a natural stopping point for relaxing and reflecting—their shapes can contribute line work to the overall composition. Lines that span mountain chasms, lines that break up garden vistas, arches that contrast with smooth horizontal water or riverbank lines, or even the zigzag lines in boards across stones—all can be a point of interest.

In my garden dream list file I have this link to an assortment of Japanese bridges. Any one of them would be a suitable painting subject.  Books of Japanese woodblock prints also hold numerous compositions with arched bridges, often in moonlight.  My inspirations are endless.

My bridge studies:

First, I sketched several simple bridges from the MSGM.


and some more:


Then I rough-sketched a composition featuring an arched bridge:



I tried a composition showing a rider leaving town on a pony:


I tried to capture the bridge of family legend, working from a 1925 photograph.  I found the trusses in the framework challenging to simplify and wasn’t certain how to convey the far bank on the left.


I looked up truss bridges to gain some insights, and tried a few ink and indigo paintings. I thought a horizontal view showing the full bridge would emphasize its existence as a linking of the two riverbanks, and that foreground trees would hint at its existence in a forested area.  Lower bushes such as willow and tall grasses would line the closer bank.

And in keeping with the CBP principle of contrasts, I considered lines, textures and colors: have the truss line-work contrast with foliage shapes, have soft background mountain slopes contrast with more detailed foreground elements, and maybe bathe the bridge in warm tones surrounded by cooler elements such as evergreen trees. I had a plan.

I worked up two paintings based on that plan. I was not happy with the results. A day later I returned to the project, determined to improve on the plan.

After positioning a frame over the first two paintings in numerous ways I concluded a vertical composition might show my bridge in better contrast to its surroundings. Yes, it is longish and spans a wide part of the river, but it also is in the lowest part of the valley, and  its environment makes what is a large human creation seem diminished in size.  Now the Yin and Yang of it was speaking to me.

The vertical composition then allowed for more line and shapes for the mountain slopes in the distance.  I adjusted the fore-shortening of the bridge to suggest more depth of field, made the foliage on the far bank shorter and thus farther away, and shortened the tallest of my foreground trees

My next effort, showing the lower half:


While the bridge, river and foreground were all emerging as planned, the background mountain slopes needed more work.  I went hunting for photographs in my albums and landscape CBP compositions for guidance. I also kept tripping over images of stone arched bridges–Royal Roads, Beacon Hill Park, and the Pacific Horticulture Centre were just a few of the local examples.

Obviously I have more bridgework in my near future, as well as the challenge of the mountain  slopes.



Posted in bridges, Chinese Brush Painting | 1 Comment

When water will not flow, paint green heron

Sometimes when you have a goal in mind and the path you take to get there just seems to be less and less productive, the best course of action is to give it up. Yes, as Kenny Rogers would tell us, you simply ‘gotta know when to fold ‘em’.

While working on studies of the Great Blue Heron I encountered several dead ends. First off I couldn’t find a pose for the bird that didn’t seem cliché. It’s in his nature to stand perfectly still in an open spot, often on one leg, while fishing or hunting for other prey. And he fishes a lot. To me, the pose is simply overdone.

Then I developed ‘bad beak syndrome’—I couldn’t for the life of me get the GBH’s strong, pointy, dagger-like beak executed to satisfaction. And thirdly, my necks kept fattening out of proportion. My ‘blue period’ seemed to have come to a halt.

I did find the answer to a troubling question left hanging at one of Nenagh’s fine bird demos several months back: what is the difference between a bill and a beak? Someone called Owlet posted this great response, complete with visual.

Birds of prey and in general all those who strike or peck at their food have ‘beaks’ and all our smaller songbirds apparently have bills. Then there’s a bunch of oddities like crows, finches and sparrows, that fall in both camps.

In CBP unless you execute the beak and eye absolutely ‘spot on’ there’s no point in proceeding with the rest of the painting. So I did what needed doing, and sat down to practice, practice, practice

Beak studies and the GBH

A page in Painting Waterfowls by Ch’ien Shing- Chien was helpful.


He offered numerous outline sketches of various bird beaks: spoonbill, ibis, coot, avocet, purple swamp hen, and flamingo.


On another page he showed an outline for the colored stork with the line of the beak clearly leading to the position for the bird’s eye. His instructions however, were minimal: draw a bold outline sketch with charcoal.

While instructions fell short, the artwork certainly was telling. All of his cranes and herons sported crisply pointed beaks, clearly painted in single back-and-forth strokes. They were dagger-like. They meant business.

I also consulted my trusty Peterson’s field guide. And another nature sketchbook on my shelf drew attention to a bird’s gape, the line showing where its beak hinges. That certainly gets more attention when painting baby birds with their gawps open. Or maybe adult herons actually doing something other than standing still…could I paint one squawking?

That would be in keeping with the CBP principle of injecting some ‘noise’ into the picture. And Bird Woman had told me of spending endless hours watching several herons fishing together on a beach near her summer retreat. Research told me they do cohabit in ‘heronries’.   But now I was creating a bigger problem for myself—considering painting not one but several blue herons on one page. All those beaks to get right!

Green Heron to the rescue

The Painting Waterfowls book is jam-packed with all kinds of birds, some known and many previously unknown to me. A composition showing a green heron beside a waterfowl appealed to me for several reasons—the heron offered a different take on the ‘heron on one leg fishing pose’, the setting showed good rock and waterfall movement, and my research of the Green Heron led to some unusual poses for herons.

Could it be that Green Herons, being smaller than GBHs are more daring in their fishing methods? I found photos of green herons balancing precariously on reeds in acrobatic poses, stepping nimbly on to the back of a turtle, and splashing into unknown waters after some tasty morsel. These were photographs, so the poses were not ‘unlikely’. And the poses offered so much more character than the statue-like sentinel pose favored by the GBH. I followed the steps in Painting Waterfowl (excepting that I did do the eye and beak before the rest of the head) in my first effort:


Mr. Green appears to be a fine candidate for some mineral paint on his back. I could also crop the left for a less symmetric composition.

And then with green and rusty brown paint remaining in my dish, I went on to try the Green Heron in poses similar to my photo finds.

Here is Mr. Green about to step on a turtle


and here’s a simple head study (note: my beak is improving!)


I also tried posing Mr. Green precariously on a reed as per one of the photo finds. The legs aren’t quite right, but the beak is definitely getting more dagger-like.


What I learned:

Before returning Painting Waterfowls to my bookshelf I thumbed through the introduction to learn more about the artist. In the forward he cites an old Chinese proverb: without a source, the water will not flow. His observations pertained to the relevance of studying traditional CBP methods before moving ahead to original creations. But he could also be talking about bird beaks; without a good beak the bird simply doesn’t evolve.

I may not have painted a Great Blue Heron to my satisfaction, but did discover the Green Heron. And lo and behold a few pages away, Chi’en shows a Purple Heron. Just maybe I can sneak up on the Great Blue Heron with some color distractions.  With first the green and next the purple, can the blue be far behind?

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting green heron | Leave a comment

Painting with numbers: shrimp

At first glance a composition of shrimp may seem an unlikely subject for painting, let alone a lifetime of dedicated study. Once you gain some insight however, it’s understandable that a master painter wielding a Chinese brush might do just that. Qi Baishi (1864-1957) was born in Hunan province and started out as a carpenter. Largely a self-taught painter, he became known for his playful treatment of such creatures as mice, birds, and particularly the shrimp.

Some critics have analyzed Qi Baishi’s many shrimp paintings and determined he painted them in 13 brushstrokes. This site makes reference to that magical number 13.

After studying the basics of shrimp painting I tried to verify Qi Baishi’s brushwork; a minimal count of 13 only applies if you count the long three-part bone strokes in the two arms as individual strokes and not three separate ones. That would mean defining a ‘stroke’ as the movement from brush touch-down to lift-off; the trouble with Chinese brush-painting is that within that entire duration the brush wielder may be moving the brush back and forth, wiggling, swiping and bouncing or combinations thereof. Then, on further thought I considered the translation, and maybe the critic meant 13 “brush loads” as opposed to 13 brush strokes. Nevertheless, one has to agree that his shrimp are lively, whimsical and delightful to decipher or just admire.

Qi Baishi Deciphered

The Baishi approach has been de-constructed by at least one painter-scholar, Professor Rao Wei. She has published her ideas in an art instruction book and one can view videos of her painting shrimp on Youtube. Here is one:

Before delving further into the mysteries of shrimp painting, I had to determine what collective noun correctly applied to a bunch of shrimp. (And let’s not re-open the old discussion of shrimp vs. prawn). I found a few ‘slippery’ explanations and then finally Merriam-Webster gave me this:

Animal groups on the move can take different configurations. For example, groups of fish can either be ‘shoals’ or ‘schools’: shoals are simply aggregations of individuals; schools are shoals exhibiting polarized, synchronized motion.

And the sometimes-imprecise Wikipedia actually had more insights into the intricacies of both shoaling and schooling.

With Canadian geese flying in formation we readily pick up on the honking as a means of communicating ‘go left’ or ‘take five’, but what do the fish (or shrimp) do? And anyone who has watched tropical fish in a tank, or even tadpoles in a pond, knows the ‘school’ can suddenly turn, or flit, or both, and narry a one seems to be out of touch with the pack. Qi Baishi’s shrimp all seem to be ‘artfully arranged’, yet each is engaged in some activity—walking, talking, diving, attacking or merely poking elbows at a buddy, so some are shoals and some are schools.

My resources:

  1. Workshop notes from Nenagh Molson
  2. Qi Baishi examples from various sources
  3. One dedicated book on shrimp and crab (all Chinese)
  4. Aquatic Life, one of a four-volume set by Johnson Su-sing Chow has six pages with good visuals and some helpful insights into the nature of the creature.
  5. The Chinese Brush Painting Bible by Jane Dwight offers instructions that yield a fairly good specimen.
  6. Several online videos

shrimp books

Professor Rao Wei has a book showing the Qi Baishi method available at Blue Heron Arts. I have one dedicated to the subject which is all in Chinese (above left), so I have to read into the pictures. To my surprise this is getting easier with each subject I take on.  Often the steps are well presented and one can truly see what is expected.

I found the Chow book (above right) after I had painted shrimp for several days; then when I went hunting for details of appropriate aquatic plants I re-discovered Chow’s Aquatic Life and his great chapters on various sea creatures.   For his entire repertoire of fish, crabs, lobster, shrimp, turtles, and shells he provides step-by-step paintings as well as Chinese lore and physical descriptions.  His insights were most helpful in understanding how shrimp swim, and now I even understand more of what’s happening in Qi Baishi’s paintings.

Sorting out the Shrimp

Chow tells us the shrimp in traditional Chinese art are not the sea variety but those living in freshwater rivers, and they can be categorized into two groups—a green variety and a white. Whereas the green freshwater shrimp does present in shoals or groups, apparently the white ones tend to be loners.

Chow also comments on Qi Baishi’s shrimp studies; he explains that when Qi was in his 60s he painted shrimp with as many as ten legs, but as he ‘perfected’ his methods he gradually reduced or minimized the number of legs per shrimp. By the time Qi was in his 90s his shrimp appeared with only five legs. I have yet to check that particular bit of Qi Baishi lore against his body of shrimp work; perhaps there’s work for a masters’ student in leg-counting among Qi’s many shrimp compositions!

I’m glad I tripped over my Chow book before leaving shrimp painting, as he has lots to say about how to get more life into them. Example: their arms will appear long and straight when swimming fast, but bent when relaxed, and slightly curved when swimming slowly. The feelers should all be pointed backward when they are swimming with speed, but appear scattered when resting or swimming slowly. He calls the five little legs under the body swimmerets and suggests four feet beneath the thorax.

Learning the count

In a recent workshop on shrimp painting, friend and mentor Nenagh Molson had more ‘number theory’ to share with us. Constructing shrimp in a shoal is simplified if you keep track of body parts by the number. Nenagh had a little post-it checklist in her shrimp book, and I quickly devised one for myself as well. Once you’ve memorized the order of the brushwork, the kind of loads to use, and the placement of the body parts, the rest is indeed just a matter of ‘putting it all together’.

First of all, learn the order: head, body, abdomen, tail, legs, feelers and whiskers, arms, eyes and other details.

For starters you need TWO brushes—one large and soft, the other smaller for the detail work.

You want ink mixed in at least TWO values—light and dark. Painting a shrimp with good tonal values can depend on the kind of paper your use; Dragon Cloud paper gives greater satisfaction than the more commonly used practice paper called Moon Palace.

The main body parts are these: ONE head (done in either of TWO methods) with TWO eyes (one slightly longer than the other and they are best done dry). TWO forearms with THREE segments each plus a TWO-part claw at the end. TWO antennas, made nice and curvy. SIX whiskers emerging from the mouth end of the head. THREE-SEVEN curved body sections (if you’re going to bend the creature do so after segment THREE; must be a ‘hinge’ in the joining cartilage?) The tail has THREE tear-shaped strokes, one longer than the other two. You can place tiny little curved legs all lined up, ONE per curved body segment. Remember that QI says FIVE are perfect.  And then there should be FOUR legs under the upper body or thorax.

More like the waltz than a rhumba

This numbering business may all seem a tad confusing, until you get into the rhythm of planting the brushstrokes: plunk, plunk, plunk, swish, swish, curve, curve, curve. Rest. Curve, curve, curve, curve…and so on.

I studied the parts, prepared my ink and selected brushes and paper. Here’s a study of methods for creating the head.  Method one involves painting a medium dark line and then adding a stroke on either side, before adding the projections facing forward and two dark nail head stroke eyes.  Method two starts with a single stroke pulled slightly along the paper before you plant it flat and wiggle slightly side to side.  A dark detail stroke will be needed to suggest the beginning of the digestive track. My attempt to follow yet a third method from Chow’s book involved placing two strokes somewhat overlapping and then adding the darker digestive track line. His approach obviously needs more practice as I’m not getting the desired look of rounded, translucent shell structures.



I practiced arms and body sections over several large sheets of paper.


And finally worked up to painting full bodies.


Legs forward mean swimming fast; the antennas have yet to be added (swishing back with the force of the water).  Bend at the elbow to denote slow swimming or relaxing.


Color your shoals

Nenagh had also demonstrated painting shrimp with colors. You want them very pale—green tipped in a little red yields a nice effect. Blue shades with ink details are another favorite treatment. Avoid pink as that implies a cooked shrimp. The aim is to impart a translucent look. Very thin outlining may be added to enhance body shapes once your pale shrimp are in place. Extra touch-ups are sometimes needed to draw attention to the digestive track visible through the flesh.

Shrimp brushwork

Students of CBP need to learn and practice certain brush strokes and there are several incorporated in painting shrimp. The most readily recognized is likely the bone strokes of the forearms. Then the distinctive curly body parts should remind you of one of the strokes (dian) in Yong, the symbol for everlasting. The tail is rendered with three teardrop strokes, which can be pulled either away or toward the shrimp, but do need to be distinctively rounded at the same ends and pointy at the others. The side-by-side, long ovals you aim for in one of the methods for the head are also variations of the teardrop. The black eyes are easily deemed characteristic of true shrimp with nail-head strokes. To inject grace and movement into your shrimp you need to get comfortable with quick, delicate outlining. For perfectionists and others who can’t seem to loosen their grip on brushes, such fine line work may require conscious effort to literally ‘loosen up’.

Composing shrimp shoals or schools

Always arrange smaller groupings within a larger major group (shoal/ school). Use the direction of forearms to suggest interactions within the group—swimming, floating, fighting, walking, and so on.

Consider the space around the shrimp carefully and try to SUGGEST the presence of water. This is where the curving of water plants needs some planning. Our club library books showed compositions with bamboo, willow, flowers, and even grapes hanging above or beside the shrimp to suggest a viewpoint looking down into water. ( So far in my hunt for accurate aquatic plants I’ve discovered the Coontail, which Chow shows in several of his fish paintings.)  Here’s my first full composition of shrimp, painted near the end of a morning at the art table.



  1.  Oops, should have outlined the lotus first, then added water and color second.
  2.  The shrimp in the upper right appears to be swimming fast–arms forward and antenna back–to catch up to the others.   The others are floating together.  Good.
  3. With a flower in full bloom, maybe at least one full open lotus leaf is needed.
  4. Oops again.  Even with all the counting of body parts the guy at the bottom is missing both forearms!  (could still be added if I thought this one was a keeper.)
  5. Do more, do more….

And I plan to count silently if ever painting for a crowd; let ‘em wonder just how on earth I know where to place all those body parts.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, painting shrimp, Uncategorized