Frill-seeking me, painting a western orchid (cattleya)

First off, let’s be clear: there is no such plant as the western orchid!

I’m using the term very loosely here to refer to the several kinds of orchid we in the western world cherish. The family Orchidacea is absolutely huge and re-categorizing goes on continuously. Orchids grow in virtually every kind of climate and come in an endless array of colors and combinations.

I found one Internet source that offered a quick briefing on the several main families commonly grown/marketed.

The first three orchid varieties described at that site are those I am most familiar with: the Cattleya (sometimes called the corsage orchid); the Phalaenopsis or moth orchid (which sports a spray of flowers and you see widely sold for house plants these days); the next is the Paphiopedlium or lady slipper, which outdoorsy people love to discover/protect in natural settings. I’ve often hunted for these ‘wild orchids’, which come in pink, yellow or white colored flowers, or even combinations. And the calypso orchid native to my current environment is especially intriguing given its tiny, tiny size.

When invited to submit an orchid painting to the annual Victoria Orchid Society show last year, I first turned to the traditional CBP variety. This year I decided to tackle the Cattleya as a subject.

The two main traditional CBP orchid varieties are the grass orchid and the marsh orchid. I have addressed those two previously in blog posts.  You can find them by searching in the blog listings to the right, or use these links:

Here   And here.

And yes, there are aficionados who know all the ins and outs to identifying and growing orchids.

Cattleya features:

As always, I find  it helpful to check out the special features of anything I set our to paint. Here’s a quick look at the Cattleya.

Five petals surrounding a tube-like petal which ends in a lip make up the flower. A single flower tops a stem that emerges from a ring around the main stalk, and usually two or more leaves emerge from that ring as well. The stalk ends in a root structure.

They are epiphytes, and hence grow in the crooks of tree branches in tropical climates. They have ‘roots’, but the roots merely hang out at the end of the stems/stalks and do not penetrate soil at all. They pull nutrients from the air, albeit a muggy, moisture-filled air that surely sucks back things other than pure carbon dioxide.

Meant to be special

My very first orchid was a 1960s corsage (yeah, how common is that?) on a date to my high school grad. The flower was probably what is commonly called the “corsage orchid” and it featured a purple striped flute surrounded by white petals. Every girl in the room wore one. Its common appeal aside, I never truly warmed to the flower.

On this foray into Orchidacea research I was pleased to see Brazil has made one its national flower; mind you the variety seems to come in numerous colors.


This is Brazil’s choice.

And Columbia also seems to have officially adopted a variety of Cattleya  orchid as one of its national emblems.


And this is Columbias’s choice for national flower.


Oddly enough, I found I had not one but two helpful guides to painting the Cattleya orchid as near as my own bookshelves:


  1. Yang Oshi included a western style orchid in Chinese Brush Painting Techniques for Beginners # 1 Flower and Bird, A Perspective. She offers a step-by-step guide to executing the flower and one full composition.
  2. Johnson Su Sing Chow addressed the flower in his Vol. 4 of the four-volume set Flowers in Four Seasons. He provides several pages, expounding on both the flower structure as well as the leaves. I found his flowers appeared rather stylized, BUT his leaf section spurred me on to a wonderful new discovery—splendid two-stroke leaves.

Painting Strategies:

Painting western orchids using CBP techniques involves the usual planning—paint the blossoms first and then add leaves, stem, roots and some setting element or ‘guest’ if desired.

The flute:

Yang Oshi’s approach to the flower was to start with the frilled edges of the fluted section, i.e. the darkest color. She showed some simple strokes laid down beside each other (drop and press) with a small brush. You let the brush tip leave a rounded edge, and don’t worry too much about how even or precise these strokes appear.

Next you clean the brush and load with an intense yellow, setting down similar strokes merging with the first dark strokes.

To complete the flute, Yang added a few white stokes at its base. Chow describes much the same process, however he is more poetic—he describes that last step of painting the white base to the flute as ‘powdering the nose’. Some Chinese brush painters do indeed use white powder instead of white pigment.

The outer petals

Most western orchids sport five major petals surrounding the fluted section, and these petals often consist of three smaller pointy ones arranged next to two larger rounded ones. The appearance, as in most of the natural world, can be very symmetrical. Some orchid floral descriptions call the five-petal structure a ‘star’.

Whereas that moth orchid commonly sold as houseplants these days sports a series of seven or eight such blossoms along an arching stem, cattleyas have the one flower per stem, with maybe two or three stems per clump. Given the striking appearance of these flowers, one or two truly seems plenty to paint in one composition!

One can work the shorter outer petals with a simple pull stroke away from the flute. As for the rounded ones, you can plant the brush and then move the base end in a circular fashion while keeping the tip in one spot. If you want veins showing on the petals, you wait until the petals are damp and then define them with a very fine brush.

Here’s my study sheet showing the steps as per Yang Oshi’s method.


The leafy wonders

Chow’s discussion of painting western orchid runs on for about a dozen pages and he offers ample colored illustrations. I found his choice of flower extremely uniform in color and shape and preferred the contrasting colors of Yang’s illustrations. Chow’s description of the leaves however, I found outstanding.

Always appreciative of an artist who studies the subject’s nature, I was pleased to see his plant knowledge “interpreted” in the manner of painting the leaves. AND, most importantly, once I had played with his method for a bit, I found I was getting very pleasing results.


Chow describes a two-stroke method for the orchid leaves. You require a pool of appropriate green, dip in a large orchid brush and wipe the back of the brush. Dip the tip into black sticky ink and slap it quickly against a paper towel to check you have the right amount of black on the tip. Too little and your leaf will be all one shade of green, too much and you’ll have black leaves.

Now here’s the secret: you need to work quickly! Speed is of the essence. You want a big sloppy brush dipped in black ink. Quickly place the brush tip on your paper where the leaf tip should be and run an arching side stroke from there to where the leaf should end, lifting the brush near the end to taper the ink trail. AND THEN, reload the brush and quickly place another such stroke starting in the same place, overlapping the first one, and end in the same place as the first one ends.

The black tip of the second stroke blends into the green of the first, providing you with a lovely centre mark perfectly placed on the leaf centre. Because of the wetness and the speed, the colors blend and your leaf edges appear dynamic. Without the speed the leaf looks stilted and flat. Without the wetness, the leaf may not be fully formed.   I found you could tweak the coverage of the green (be sure to push from wet colored paper into dry paper so it doesn’t leave an edge) as needed around a flower shape or if the base wasn’t as tapered as you wanted it to be.  I played with this one afternoon and was ecstatic to see leaves emerge so easily…IT WORKS.


You have move quickly, letting the second overlapping stroke blend into the first.

Eventually I got back to thinking about the Orchid Show. Here are my two potential entries drying on the gluing board.


They may not make it to the show, and even then not be seen as special in any way, BUT in creating them I discovered the magical two-stroke leaf. My glass is more than half-full today. Paint on!

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting orchid, Uncategorized, wetern orchid (cattleya) | Leave a comment

I stuck in my thumb; got more than one plum

Retirement has its benefits. You can indeed welcome each day as a day of possibilities, and just do whatever turns your crank. You might not feel terribly sociable on some days, want to get your hands in dirt on others, or maybe finish one of those darn WIPs in your sewing basket. Most days I want to paint.

With so many tasks on my to-do list lately, I really didn’t feel much like going to art group the other day. And then I reminded my inner critic that there were always surprises sprinkled throughout one of artist/mentor/friend Nenagh’s CBP workshops. The topic was plum blossom, one of the four gentlemen. And yes, I’m the one who just recently praised the virtues of frequent re-visits to those fundamentals.

Our little group of CBP enthusiasts expands to about a dozen or more on days when Nenagh plans to drop by. She brings a basket of supplies–select brushes, papers, colors–and a sampling of both her own work and numerous other artists. It never fails that I don’t bring home a few more ISBNs to search for in the used/rare book markets. Alas, some of the treasures from her library have no number or the details are all in Chinese. Knowing that the skills and interests of our group members vary greatly, she aims to include something for everyone in her workshops. Her repertoire is amazing, and we all come away inspired.

And the basket of the day holds…

On this last outing Nenagh’s basket held two of my favorite dedicated plum books:

  1. Fundamental Chinese Painting of Plum, Orchid, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum, painted by Choy Kung Heng and compiled by Liang Yin-Boone
  2. Vol. 1 Book of the Plum in the four-volume set The Fundamentals of Chinese Floral Painting by Johnson Su-Sing Chow



In addition, she had a large book (all Chinese text so we had no idea of artist, publisher, etc. and no ISBN) with bookmarks on pages of several large red plum blossom compositions. Another was an accordion-fold Chinese book with gorgeous red and gold brocade covers, and it held an array of unusual plum compositions.   June and I spotted several which featured calligraphy in unusual placements on the artwork; most we liked but one looked too ‘over the top’ with the calligraphy placed as though it were dangling branches from a willow-like tree.


The calligraphy here looked interesting.


But here the calligraphy looked a bit weird

All of us were struck by the variety of blossom treatments in the book—red flowers with orange or yellow centres, pink flowers with blue dots dispersed through the canopy (leaves? sky? just artistic effect?), white blossoms with unusual petal shaping, and several treatments of blue/green plum blossoms we’d not seen before.


The blue dots around the orange and yellow blossoms in this treatment had some appeal

Another little book that featured small birds was book-marked on pages where the little birds frolicked among plum blossoms that arguably were meant as ‘hosts’ in the compositions. Because plum was our topic of the day, our eyes turned more to the frothy treatments of the blossoms and not so much the birds. Plum treatments do indeed seem endlessly varied. (That book had an ISBN for my wish list!)


The blurred plum blossoms got our attention in this composition despite being only the ‘host’

Additionally, Nenagh pulled out several plum compositions for display and reference during her demo. She had a few done in red blossoms, some in moku (boneless) and some in outline. There were several in uncommon colors—green, purple, and white. We did not lack for visual treats on that gloomy grey day.

The artistic homily:

As mentioned, Nenagh’s workshops attract a crowd, and the skill/interest levels are “all across the board”. Nevertheless, we all usually come away with learning moments.  My lessons from this last session were mostly about technique and composition.

To reinforce the learning, I planned for a few days of homework—first itemizing the tips, and then attempting to visually capture the concepts. I managed to work through most of my new tips in the next few days before the neglected to-do list could no longer be ignored; here’s some of my plummy studies:

1. Remember YONG and its compilation of basic brushstrokes? For plum blossom petals in the moku (boneless) style you use one of those strokes a lot: the twisty circular one—dian. You keep the brush tip in the petal centre if you want the darkest shade toward the flower centre; position it to the outer edge if you want it darker at the outer edges.  One style per tree, please!


These plum blossoms made with the circular stroke are ready for the next step–adding corolla, stamens and anthers.

2. Respect the centuries of wisdom and paint in order: branches, blossoms, moss dots. Blossoms are done in the order of petals, corolla, stamens, and anthers. This means you have to PLAN where the blossoms will go and leave room for them. In my recent study of Japanese sumi-e (which places more emphasis on the simplicity of line than does CBP), the artist advocated “idea must precede the brush”—you should THINK about where you are heading, what you want to achieve, and THEN do it. Reminds me of my messaging to 25 years of PR students on the virtues of PLANNING: how do you know you have arrived if you never set measurable goals and objectives in the first place?

3. Nenagh showed us that after you have put the blossoms in the planned spaces, you pick up a small brush, dip it in lighter shades of the mix used for your branches, and add the smaller twiggy bits of new growth at branch ends and offshoots and/or suckers.



Details can make a lot of difference in a composition; note the pale green new growth added at the end of this branch after flowers were completed.  See also the darkened bottom edge of the branch elbow above right.

4. Plum branches come in any color imaginable, mixed with ink of course. AND the color you choose for the moss dots should be the opposite, based on the principle of contrast, or yin and yang.   So if you have chosen a green for the branches, apply orange-based moss dots; if you went with a warm-based branch color (reddish purple) then go with a cooler hue for the dots (teal?). Nenagh showed us (again) how to double load a large soft brush with color and ink and then swish out a wet branch with quick strokes, bent from time to time, diminishing in width. It is important to have the brush wet so that the edges blur a bit. You also should strive to keep the ink-tipped edge along one side (the under side or the upper side), thinking about how the branch grows, how strong the light is and what direction it comes from. Weather can also influence how the plum should look.

PDorangeONgreen PDgreenONorange

I painted these two branches to illustrate the warm vs. cool color contrast principle  and also to show moss dots in horizontal (on left) and vertical (on right) placements. After painting the colored branches I used dark ink to add texture and enhance the “vee” edges with that crotch stroke shown on the far left.

5. Once your main branches are in place (and you left holes for the blossoms) you do some shaping and texturing with a DRY brush loaded with ink. These are rounded strokes, meant to further define the shape of the branches. Using a horsehair brush for this part helps achieve a textured looked; other brushes tend to leave an evenly colored stroke that simply makes your branch all an even dark shade.  The three buds shown below were done with a wet brush; their crisp little sepals were done with a very dry brush of dark ink.  There are many contrasts to consider in painting plum!


6. Use the V-stroke (crotch checks) for effect on inner and “outer elbows”. This stroke may take some practicing to get it executed consistently with a fullness in the bend.

7. Part of the pre-planning when painting plum has to do with some topic knowledge: how plum branches grow (in bursts of growth that take angled turns), how suckers emerge (in groups usually from an elbow), how the blossoms unfurl (before the leaves), and where buds would sit (near the tips of branches). Then there’s the consideration of contrast (warm and cool colors, wet and dry brush work, soft petals and hard branches) as well as pleasing arrangements. Nenagh has shown this principle before when placing morning glory and magnolia blossoms: plan them in groupings with a mix of fully open, partly open, and newly budded; have some turned toward you, some away, some in half profile. Paint a few with petals partly dropped. Buds of course will appear in deeper tones.

And another major consideration is style: outline or moku (boneless) is your first decision. If choosing outline style, then you have choices for how the petals are executed (one stroke, two stroke, or San-ti) AND then you’re making choices about color combinations. On one of my plummy afternoons I tried different colors and blossom styles, making sure to let the petals dry before I added the stamens and anthers.

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A compositional pointer gained this particular afternoon was to let the branches provide structure to your painting, and the blossom clusters thus become centres of interest. Nenagh suggested beginners might actually lay circles of paper under their paintings in progress to guide their eyes to placing blossoms in circular grouping.

8. When it comes to placement of moss dot on plum branches Nenagh reminded us of the basics: place in clusters, place on the old growth, be sure they are on the branches and not in mid-air, apply when the branches are dry, and don’t overdo the effect. She suggested we consider direction—placing them with all horizontal dabs or all with vertical dabs can result in two very different looks.  See number 4 above.

9. After this particular workshop I wanted to practice white petals in San-Ti style with a color wash background. This entails completing your branches and blossoms as usual, letting them fully dry, THEN covering each blossom cluster with clear water and following with a background wash. The purpose of the water over the blossoms is to repel the wash.  That lesson will have to wait for another day when maybe I’ll be ready for a larger composition.


The San-Ti style of petal is created by adding a little crescent moon shape in  dark ink after defining the petal in two light outline strokes.

10. A last consideration for those more accomplished brush painters in our group was the addition of calligraphy. Nenagh noted that if you painted delicate outline petals then one style of calligraphy was more suitable than another. Given my lack of familiarity with Chinese calligraphy, this pointer I could only look for in the work of others.

My day turned out a whole lot more interesting than I anticipated. And to boot, when I got home there was this delightful gift from a four-year-old grandson. Little Bear knows a few things about coloring trees. One might think colored leaves are incongruous with green grass, but he was only drawing what he saw—Ottawa had green grass over this last Christmas holiday!


Little Bear may have been aiming to paint leaves, but his way of doing branches is not far off traditional plum.


Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, flowers, painting plum blossom | Leave a comment

Not your basics: painting red bamboo

The gap between ‘wanting’ and ‘doing’ is never so obvious to me as when I try painting bamboo. I am simply not happy with my results. Too many leaves look like sausages, some stalks line up as railroad tracks, and leaf clusters look less life-like and more wind-tossed than they should.

With December so devoted to all things red—poinsettia, holly berries, warm sweaters, cozy mittens—red was on my mind lately. Then with the achievements of friend Peter (see last post) reminding me that regular practice of the ‘four gentlemen’–bamboo, plum blossom, mum, and orchid–contributes to overall advancements, bamboo re-entered my consciousness. To cap things off, mentor/artist Nenagh Molson suggested red bamboo for our group’s annual art show invitation.

She also demonstrated (yet again) new aspects to bamboo, in a pre-holiday workshop, showing us how to double-load red and black for an unusual effect. Delightful Lotus subsequently painted the red bamboo we used in our invitation shown below.  Bird Woman always does a fine job with the design and layout of our invitation, but this one tops the chart in terms of ‘elegance’, I’d say.  It too gave me more reason to practice, practice, practice…

GH 15 invitation copy


As luck would have it, I had found several gorgeous red bamboo compositions when I studied fan paintings.  Here’s  two from an old instruction book :





I also have a few outstanding pieces in one of my two favorite bamboo books, Johnson Su Sing Chow’s Book of Bamboo, vol. 3 in his four-volume set dedicated to the four gentlemen. My second favorite bamboo book is The Scholarly Bamboo by June Greene; while her work is all in black tones, the instruction on all bamboo parts is very in-depth.


My favorite books dedicated to painting bamboo

To clarify, there is a variety of bamboo named ‘red bamboo’, but that plant (Himalyacalamus asper) still shows mostly green with some dark ‘purpley’ colored veining.  I found other bamboo varieties with names like ‘red clumping bamboo’ and ‘fall red bamboo’, but they too were not really all red.

As a painting subject, the convention of bamboo rendered in vermilion ink has been attributed to the Northern Sung dynasty painter Su Shi. (See favorite book number one.) When I set off to learn more about this fellow, I was surprised to see so much about him on Wikipedia.

Among other things, I soon realized his image is widely used in books about Chinese art. He was a poet, a politician, and a very imposing figure. The image below was used by Wikipedia and it shows up in about a dozen of my art books.  Su Shi certainly made his mark with more than just the start of a red bamboo craze.


While searching the internet to learn what I could about painting red bamboo, I found a set of four videos demonstrating a composition of red bamboo next to rocks. Although I can’t understand a word of the explanation, the brushwork intrigues me—I have never seen stalks painted in the manner the artist uses (a single long stroke depicting the stalk plus nodes one after another). Here’s the first one.

Each video is about two and a half minutes long and they should be viewed in sequence.

The leaf shapes did not pass muster with some of my more traditionalist art friends, but we all agreed the simplicity of the composition had appeal.  Here’s the second one.  And the third.

(If after watching these several times you start to think you actually understand the artist’s narration, you are not alone!  The demos certainly hold one’s attention.)

And the last.

Not lacking for inspiration, I set out to paint red bamboo at the start of my first afternoon in the art room in the new year.  Here are my studies:


There are a few good leaves in this lot, but not enough to warrant keeping. I must ‘do more’.

I have yet to try the one-stroke stalk painting, and am a long way from ready to try a fan composition. My bamboo practice expanded to fill the afternoon and I never did get back to Plan A (finish that tiger for my front hall).   And I think I also need to restock vermilion chips; I can see more red in my future. Maybe improved bamboo will follow.



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

What’s in a line: sumi-e informs Chinese brush painting

Back in grade school I recall discovering the concept of infinity. We were challenged to consider how long one could make a line. Then in high school a teacher set us up with the trick of forming a paper loop (with a twist of course, which I now know is called a Mobius strip) and cutting, cutting, cutting…seemingly forever and never getting to ‘the end’.

I’ve been pondering the nature of lines these days.

Chinese brush painting is all about the ‘lines’ you make on paper. Even more so is Japanese ink painting, or sumi-e. The two kinds of painting do have similarities, but there are also subtle distinctions. Most sources I’ve looked at over the years contend the Chinese devised brush painting (with animal hair brushes, soot-based ink and fiber-based paper generically called rice paper) back in the Han dynasty (roughly 200 years before and after the birth of Christ). The practice emerged from calligraphy and was primarily the domain of the educated class or ‘literati’. That word has also been attached to the style of painting.

Similar forms of art using ink and rice paper developed later in Japan and Korea; many online sources will collectively refer to them all as ‘sumi-e’ or ink-wash painting.

This site seems to explain the subtleties best (meaning I agree with the insights offered and/or have been exposed to the same philosophical interpretations!)

In general, Chinese brush painting (CBP) involves shades of ink and use of line, whereas sumi-e (the Japanese form) is concerned more with the simplicity of line. Re-organizing my growing art library recently, I found I had 18 books dedicated to sumi-e. The most recent acquisition was a third little book by artist Takahiko Mikami.


He was born in Tokyo in 1916 and started his art career at age nine. Sometime before 1957 he came to the United States, for in that year he founded the Japanese Art Centre in San Francisco. He went on to teach sumi-e on television and authored several books. Here is a quick composition of two horses I could not resist trying when I saw his various studies of horses. I almost feel like a cave woman when I watch these beauties emerge from the paper.


About the same time that I allowed my new Mikami book to distract me from my full tiger projects, Delightful Lotus showed me a recent email from a painting friend from the United States. He sent her this delightful bird composition painted in the sumi-e manner.


Artist Peter Blyth has been studying sumi-e for a number of years and met up with Delightful Lotus while both were snow-birding in the Arizona dessert. Two months ago I saw this execution of red bamboo Peter had shared with Lotus.


Lucky Peter lives in Minneapolis where he’s found numerous opportunities to develop his sumi-e painting skills. He started painting about a dozen years ago with classes at a recreation centre, moving on to study with a classical tutor named Reiko. Under her tutelage he earned his Japanese name ‘Makota’. For the last few years he’s been working with Marion Brown in nearby Orono, MN. He notes that her classes all start with the practice of one of the four gentlemen. Not a bad idea, I’d say. Peter’s brushwork in this forward leaf of this orchid simply dances in the wind!


Bravo Makota!

I think I’ll have to get back to practicing my lines. And I intend to ask Santa for any other Takahiko Mikami books he can find.













Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, sumi-e painting, the four gentlemen | Leave a comment

In a class of its own: the Red Panda

You’d expect a creature with ‘panda’ in its name to be, well…a panda, don’t you think?

Not so, apparently. The animal known as the Red Panda has been variously classified as a panda, a bear, and a raccoon. Today it is deemed to be none of the above. Phylogenetic research has placed it in a class unto itself: the genus Ailurus, and family Ailuridae. Along with the weasel, the raccoon and skunk families it is part of the superfamily Musteloidea. Two subspecies are recognized and neither is closely related to the giant panda.

Some familiarity with the Red Panda’s habits and physical features casts light on the confusion surrounding its place in the animal kingdom. It is primarily an herbivore that dines customarily on bamboo, and thus its  association with the giant panda seems obvious. The name panda is said to come from the Nepali word ‘ponya,’ which means bamboo or plant-eating animal. Both animals are native to the eastern Himalayas.  This link will take you to a great image of a Red Panda, plus a map further down on the page that shows its range of habitat.

Then there’s the striped bushy tail and the ‘masked’ look to its facial features that suggest a raccoon relative for sure. They also share the omnivorous appetite and body shape of a bear.

Further research tells me the creature spends most of its time in trees (even when sleeping) and is able to move with dexterity because of retractable claws. Like the giant panda it has a ‘false thumb’ that is actually part of the wrist bone.

The red panda is slightly larger than a domestic cat with a bear-like body and thick russet fur. The belly and limbs are black, and there are white markings on the side of the head and above its small eyes. They use their long, bushy tails for balance and to cover themselves in winter, presumably for warmth. Red pandas tend to prefer a solitary life, rarely traveling in pairs or family groups. Their numbers in the wild are declining due to loss of habitat and the WWF classifies them as a ‘vulnerable’ species.

The Red Panda is deemed to be a favorite subject for CBP, says one of my resources. Yet I found very little guidance in my growing library to help me understand its nature. With a newscast near the end of November introducing two tiny red panda cubs born at the Philadelphia Zoo this past summer, I was inspired to investigate the creature I deemed to be a smaller, more colorful version of the giant panda.

My photo hunt uncovered images of single animals hanging limply (asleep?) in evergreen trees, or peering steadfastly at the camera in the manner of our native raccoons. The few examples of Chinese brush paintings I found also showed single animals in trees or munching on bamboo. With its attractive physical features, the red panda is a compelling painting subject, not needing much in the way of setting.


I found two similar approaches for painting the red panda in my CBP books. Rebecca Yue includes the red panda in her Animal Painting Made Easy, describing her method as similar to the approach for painting domestic cats. A more detailed strategy is given by Pauline Cherrett in a kit called Chinese Brush Painting, a master class.

Red Panda books

Cherrett’s kit on the left includes instructions for painting several animals including the Red Panda

 Strategy for painting:

1.    Using a detail brush and black ink define the eyes, nose, and lip. Add curving lines either side of the face for cheeks and tufts of dark fur pointing outward. On my first attempt I got these cheek lines placed too high and my animal’s face was too round. The proper shape is more pointed, with white cheeks similar to a raccoon’s.

2.    Mix burnt sienna with vermilion for a deep reddish-brown. Load a soft brush and place two sidestrokes down the forehead, with slightly smaller ones either side. Splay the brush tip and lightly mark in the ears and other facial hair.


3.    Start the body with the shoulder and forearm, then the back leg.  Paint these parts using a rounded sidestroke, with your brush loaded in the reddish-brown and tipped ever so slightly in black ink.  Fill in the animal’s back and then add a wide, fluffy tail.

4.    While the tail is still damp, tip in some medium ink with the brush tip at intervals along the tail to suggest striping. (Yue uses darker reddish-brown for the tail striping instead of ink.)


After only a few stabs at rendering a red panda, I attempted a full composition. The setting I chose was largely filled with bamboo painted in the outline style. Here it is:


I played with a few more red panda studies, but a proper head shape confounded me; I decided to leave the unfamiliar creature aside for awhile.  But the bamboo stand painted in outline style rather pleased me, so the day was not lost entirely.



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Eleventh hour, eleventh animal: the dog

“Let the Lion dog be small, with the swelling cape of dignity round its neck and the billowing standard of pomp above its back.” Thus begins C.A.S. Williams’ account in my big book on Chinese symbols and motifs of the 19th century Empress Dowager Tzu Hai’s edict for palace dogs. She was spelling out her royal expectations for the then popular Pekingese dog, or Buddhist Lion, as it had been called since the time of Confucius.

Williams notes that this quintessential Chinese dog has obscure roots back in the Chou dynasty (about 1000 BC). An early name for them was “Pai” meaning ‘short-headed, short-legged’ and belonging under the table. The Chinese used low tables until about 1000 years ago; under-the-table dogs were what we call ‘toy dogs’, those under seven inches high and 12 inches long.

I turned to studying the Pekingese dog as a painting subject, when I needed to complete my set of zodiac animal cards. The first dog I knew as a child was a Jack Russell terrier, followed by a collie. Later in life I admired a neighbor’s German shepherd and fell in love with both golden and black labs. I expected any of these familiar faces to become my choice for representing the zodiac sign of dog. While studying the relationship between calligraphy and Chinese brush painting I tripped over a delightful dry brush rendering of a Pekingese dog. His round luminous eyes and perky ears spoke to me.

First lesson, spell the name right

The Empress Dowager had much to say about her preferred doggie companion, the Pekingese (for some unclear reason I had ‘Pekinese’ in my head):

“Let its face be black, its forefront shaggy, its forehead straight and low. Eyes large and luminous. Ears like the sail of a war-junk. Nose like the monkey god of Hindus. Forelegs bent so that it shall not desire to wander far or leave the Imperial palace. Body like that of a hunting lion spying for its prey. Feet tufted with plenty of hair that its footfalls be soundless. Lively and pompous. Timid to avoid danger.

Color—golden sable (like a lion). To be carried in the sleeve of a yellow robe…”

She went on to prescribe its care and diet, the clothing it should wear, and even the manner in which it should wash its face—like a cat, dainty.

I found Williams’ explanation regarding the ‘Buddha lion dog’ a bit confusing. I thought at first it was just the reference to the preferred color similar to tawny lions, and maybe the shaggy mane. After several re-reads I finally grasped that the Pekingese dog was originally a gift to people of the Manchu dynasty, and they had taken their name from the Manjuari Buddha. They delighted in the little dog with lion-like looks, and it was highly favored among those living in the Imperial palace. The dog’s special status was thus reflected in its sobriquet.

The Wikipedia entry on Pekingese dogs quotes the Empress Dowager more fully than I have; it also provides more dog history and a few legends near the end.  Folklore has it that the dog resulted from a cross between a lion (hence the color and shaggy coat) and a monkey (the ambling, bowed leg gait).


The dog is much valued for its fidelity, though despised for other reasons, says Williams. It fulfils the dual role of guardian and scavenger. And yes, there are some breeds (eg. chow dog) raised on a special diet on farms, destined for restaurants in China. (Chow dog, really?) Jane Dwight’s Chinese brush painting Bible tells us the dog figures in many Chinese folktales, including one that maintains the dog introduced rice to mankind. It is fittingly seen as symbolic of faithfulness.

Painting the Peke

My art books have few compositions showing dogs. Husky dogs are shown in Painting Cute Animals by Fang Zhwu-shiung. A generic-looking black and white puppy (maybe a spaniel) is Jane Dwight’s choice. Some older Chinese compositions show small, black or yellow-brown dogs with tails curled up over their backs; Williams’ book mentioned that these were the ancient choice for palace dogs, preceding the Pekingese breed which was brought in from Constantinople. In the few brush paintings I could find showing Pekingese dogs, they were tiny companions to the featured ‘beautiful lady’. I was on my own figuring out how to paint a Peke, except for the one dry brush painting by Kwo Da-Wai, the calligraphy scholar-artist.

Studying Kwo’s art I derived the following strategy:

1.     Paint two very round black pupils, leaving white highlights or touch up with white paint. Use a detail brush and very black ink. Complete the eye shape around the pupils.

2.     Sketch in a V-marking for ‘eye-brows’ above and between the eyes. Define a black nose with nostrils, and then place the distinctive curve from lower cheek up and around the nose, down to the other cheek that conveys that large fold of skin that seems to come from having a flattened face.

3.     Paint tufty ears, chest hairs, forefeet, and body behind or to the side.

4.     Add color if desired.   I opted for shades of ‘lion fur’ achieved with yellow, ink and some burnt sienna.

Here are my first two under-the-table-dog paintings:


I also tried a composition showing a small beagle romping with a butterfly:


As fun as it is to play with puppies, my heart is still drawn more to horses, tigers and monkeys. Lucky me,  2016 will be a Year of the Monkey.









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This little piggy went painting

Outwitted by a pig. That was the shame a sister and I had to live with for much of our childhood. We spent the better part of one afternoon locked in the barn, contemplating the intelligence of pigs. We wondered if it was pure happenstance that the sow had chased us across the farmyard, and then jumped up against the pig barn door and jostled the latch enough to lock us in. She had good reason to be annoyed with us: we liked to scoop up the smallest of her litter, rinse them in the creek and then dress them in doll clothes.

Lately I’ve been contemplating the intelligence of pigs once again; there must be good reason for the Chinese to have selected the pig as one of their 12 zodiac animals. Looks can’t be it. Their bulbous-shaped bodies, floppy rag-tag ears, and long noses ending in a snout have little appeal. Their snuffling and grunting at the trough aren’t too pleasant either. And if you’ve ever stuck your nose in a pig barn, you’ll know their manure can be rather odiferous.

My big book on Chinese symbolism by C.A.S. Williams offers some enlightenment. A fancy name for the pig, he says, is ‘the long-nosed general’. Many Chinese bear the surname chu (pig) apparently in the belief evil spirits will imagine a person so named is actually an animal, and thus not worthy of tormenting.

Williams notes the symbol for pig has a roof-shaped mark, reflecting that peasants often shared quarters with their pigs. He notes a common Chinese proverb: the coming of a pig into the house betokens poverty, and the advent of a dog, riches. The essence is that pigs only eat and sleep, whereas a dog earns its keep by protecting the family.

A wild boar, according to Williams is a symbol of the wealth of the forest. It descends from its lair in the wooded hills to commit depredations upon the fields. In old times the Chinese snared them in deep pits hidden by long grass. Specimens over 400 pounds with 10-inch tusks were known to frequent the Yangtze valley.

Such wild hogs yield an important export product for China: the 2 – 6 inch long hairs or bristles, of which a single hog can yield about 6 pounds. And these bristles are used in the manufacture of brushes. Ahh…. I do indeed have some regard for the pig.

Painting pig

With the goal of printing cards depicting all animals of the Chinese zodiac, I hunted for guidance on painting pigs. Two kinds showed up in my art books: big roundish pink ones like those of my childhood, and the dark-skinned Vietnamese pot-bellied variety.

Jane Dwight painted a simple grey outline specimen in her Bible of Chinese Brush Painting. Her technique is to outline the main piggy shape with a detail brush and then convey some of its roundness with sidestrokes.


I added a frog for interest in this pig composition; they seemed likely ‘mud puddle buddies’.

Dwight’s pig had large black spots on its sides, probably inspired by some of the distinctive pig breeds in her native United Kingdom. (I have inspected numerous such breeds in the Agricultural Museum in Ottawa, recalling the largest specimens were Yorkshire pigs–aka the English Great White Pig–weighing in at a hefty 500-700 pounds.)

Cheng Shifa, (the master known for painting donkeys) included several pink ones in his repertoire of rural scenes. He often painted them with children on their backs. The brushwork for pigs proved quite easy, but the addition of figures inspired me to actually finish a composition for a card. Here it is:


Pig noses bestow good luck

As I dabbed in the floral bouquet for this composition, I remembered the unusual bronze statue of a wild boar that graces a courtyard in my hometown Butchart Gardens.

Butchartt Tacca

Tacca occupies a prime location near the gift shop in Butchart Gardens.

The boar is seated on his hind legs; passersby rub his nose for luck and hence it remains shiny, whereas the remainder of his body has aged to dark patina. Turns out he is a copy of an Italian statue created centuries ago in a small village in Florence, Italy. The website for Butchart Gardens tells us:

The boar is a rare bronze copy of a casting of the marble statue displayed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. This bronze is known affectionately as “Tacca,” in honor of Pietro Tacca, the artist who created the statue in 1620. His snout is finely burnished by thousands of visitors who give it an affectionate rub for good luck. Tacca is dedicated to all the children and dogs who visit The Gardens. “

Here is Pietro Tacca's original bronze piglet.

Here is Pietro Tacca’s original bronze piglet, created nearly 400 years ago.

I discover ‘il porcellino’ meaning ‘piglet’ is the name Pietro Tacca gave to his original sitting boar with the lucky nose. The musical name rolls around in my head as I continue to paint pigs.

Soon I’m back to contemplating the intelligence of pigs. A little research confirms scientists are impressed with piggy brains. But then the wild boars inhabiting the ravines in Edmonton and rural Manitoba, and those in France trained to ‘rustle up the truffles’ are strong evidence. And who knows what genes our old Susie passed on to her progeny. (How coincidental is that: the formal designation of pig is Sus scrofa domesticus. Our Susie was well named.)


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