Green pearl of China—painting grape

In my wildest dreams I’ve conjured a vineyard that stretched for miles, trellis upon trellis weighted down with a bounty of green, red, purple, blue and black grapes. How astonishing it is to find that such a place actually exists!   It is appropriately called Grape Valley.

The city of Turpan, located at the eastern-most end of the ancient Silk Road connecting China to Europe, in what now is Xingjiang province, has hot dry summers and is home to fully one-quarter of China’s annual grape production. The region has been so given over to grape production that it is known as Grape Valley and hosts an annual festival to celebrate the fruit. Some of the indigenous grape varieties growing there have been doing so for centuries.

Two of the most unusual are the mare’s teat grape (so named for its elongated oval shape) and the green or dragon pearl. The horse-lover that I am cannot imagine how one would market a grape called mare’s teat, although it appears to have maintained strong human appeal for centuries. It is said to be distinctively juicy and sweet tasting, drying to a delightful raisin much sought after and traded worldwide. I am truly amazed not to have tripped over it sooner, or at least found it a subject of Chinese brush painting.


It’s easy to see how the mare’s teat grape got its name.


When dried, the mare’s teat grape becomes an unusually sweet raisin.

Plump round grapes tend to be the norm, and in shades of red, blue or purple, if colored. Monochrome ink studies of grapes can be just as intriguing as studies of lotus. In my CBP library, paintings of colored fruit clusters with black shades for the grapevines and leaves, are as common as those of black lotus leaves with colored flowers/buds.

It was purely by chance that I thought to research what grape varieties were native to China and wonder what contributions the country may have made to wine production. Surely the people who gave us paper, gunpowder, and a host of other ingenious discoveries will have done some experimenting with fermenting fruits over the years. And surely artists will have sought to paint this enigmatic plant with such accessible fruits and intriguing vines. Oddly enough, much of the China’s viticulture has occurred only in the last few decades. Wisteria, yellow squash and morning glory appear to be the preferred vining plants for CBP artists.


The grape has not garnered nearly as much symbolism, folklore and legend as other fruits in Chinese culture. If anything, it tends to be associated with bounty and wealth.

In western culture the grape has garnered considerable Biblical symbolism, much of which is referenced in John Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, as well as the song from which the title was derived, the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

There is evidence that as far back as Ancient Egypt, man has been transforming grapes into wine and associating ‘wining and dining’ with romance. But even before transformation into wine, grapes were considered symbolic of love, fertility and virility. The ancient Romans, acknowledged as the first civilization to cultivate grape vines, made both grapes and wine emblems of Bacchus, god of ecstasy (not to mention fertility). Even pre-dating the Romans, in ancient Greece it was a tradition to give clusters to newlyweds in the belief that the grape’s seeds would bless the couple with many children. For more legends and lore check this site.

Painting Resources:

Several of my CBP art books have grape compositions, which feature either grapes in a basket or hanging clusters with insects or small birds as ‘guests’. Jane Dwight’s The Chinese Painting Bible and vol.4 Fruits from Su Sing-Chow’s four-volume set offer instructions on painting grape. I found these as good starting points, but the leaf treatments raised many questions. I needed to go ‘listen to the grapevine’ (research the grape’s parts and physiology) before getting on with painting.

While looking for greater understanding of grape leaves I tripped over a great grape-painting video by American-based CBP artist/teacher Virginia Lloyd-Davis. She also has a few grape compositions on her site and further down on the same page a demo by a Chinese master Han Jia-Xi worth checking out. (In his short demo you get to see him loading his brush and painting several globes mixing reds and greens.) Both artists paint the grape leaves before they add the berries.   My internet research also led several times to Youtube videos by Henry Li which show some excellent grape leaf effects and how to load and wield the brush to achieve them.

Leaf Insights:

 The essential plant parts for grapes include: vining stems that twist and curve; leaves that may appear as buds, freshly opened, side views, or older dried partials or even just lacey veined structures; greenish tiny flowers that are seldom represented in art, the distinctive round/oval fruits in various whites, greens, red, blues, purples and blacks on stems and in clusters; and distinctive tendrils, those delicate-looking curled parts emerging from nodes along the stem which serve to attach the vine to walls, trellises, etc.

I soon learned that different varietals can have quite different leaf shapes. They all feature some basics—a general shape like the human hand, serrated edges, and roughly five pointy parts (lobes) to each. On some varietals the five lobes are quite distinct, whereas on others the basal lobes are barely separated from the others such that the leaf appears to have only the three divisions.

Here are a few leaf outlines I traced from a site with good images of grape plant parts.


The concave shape between the five points (called a sinus) can be anywhere from very deep to barely suggested. Leaves can be larger than a human hand, or much smaller.   One thing they share is their function—to protect the berry clusters; hence leaves are usually found bunched canopy-like over fruit. The vining stems curve and twist as they grow, with finer tendrils emerging from nodes to simply wrap around vines/supports or suspended in curls around the vines themselves.

And here are some outlines to help grasp how grapes fill out a cluster.


Learning that grape leaves can indeed vary in size, shape, and veining helped me understand that all of the CBP compositions I examined could be accurately representing the essence of grape. The variation in treatments I was seeing was due to variations of the plant itself. This also meant that probably only a grape-grower looking at my art would know whether my red grapes had leaves of the right shape or proportion, or if my green grapes belonged under such minimally serrated leaves or not.


I took several photos of these ‘white grapes’–very light green skin with flesh so pale they are called white–to study how the light hits the globular shapes.

Painting the grape ‘berries’

Round, moist and translucent—that’s the triad of desirable characteristics to convey in a single grape. Not an easy achievement by any means.

Conveying ‘round’ is fairly easy; you take a small stiff brush, load with ink or color and first define a narrow ‘C-shape’. Beside that C, you then create a wider backward C that touches at the top and bottom of the first to form an enclosed circle, leaving a small white area.



Conveying ‘moist’ is managed with variations in shading of the ink or color. Han Jia-Xi in that short demo on Viginia Lloyd-Davis’ site dipped his brush in clear water after loading and drying it off, then quickly curved the two grape strokes allowing a highlight spot to remain white and the watery start to end up looking softer in tone. He used a ‘springy’ small brush.

Conveying ‘translucent’ is the most challenging. Traditional watercolor methodology requires two of those white arcs per grape to suggest the globular shape and that lights passes through it. This is where one must carefully consider a light source for your painting, and then aim to have those light spots appear where the light would hit the rounded grape skins.  Some watercolorists (and no doubt Chinese brush painters as well) paint their grapes and then use a bit of white to adjust the individual light marks.  Here are two of my practice pieces:

Painting grape leaves

After looking at several ways to execute grape leaves I settled on two that I liked. I found that rendering grape leaves with three slightly overlapping sidestrokes each, whether in ink tones or in color (and then adding veins) did not result in leaves of pleasing shapes. I preferred leaves that had five lobes (hence five strokes when viewed in full) and variations in color. I also liked leaves done with a brush loaded with green and tipped in indigo or black ink.  Here’s one of my many study sheets:


Adding the vines, stems, and tendrils is done in much the same way as I studied for executing morning glory.  Here are a few of my attempts at full grape compositions:

I am gaining confidence in painting the berries and clusters, but not the leaves. Perhaps it’s time to paint a basket full of grapes where leaves would play  only a minor role or not appear at all.  Or more likely, I’ve got more afternoons of leaf studies ahead.  Ah, there’s that Chinese brush painting mantra: do more, do more!

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, painting grape, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Painting bitty birds in a flock

‘Not walking in those shoes’ I say to myself as I pass by all those stacks and racks of adult coloring books popping up in stores like puffballs on the lawn after rain.   My granny’s advice not to judge another until I’ve walked a mile in their moccasins goes by the wayside when I see the trappings of this latest fad. Mindfulness achieved through coloring in blanks? De-stressing, unwinding, Zen-finding?

I shouldn’t be so disdainful. After all, I aim for all those things in almost daily dabbling in ink marks on paper myself. What I can relate to is the obsessiveness of the activity. There always seems to be some new aspect that is totally captivating.   The simple placement of eye dots on paper as a starting point for painting a flock of birds that will be artfully ‘arranged’ and inter-connected when done, is my latest inspiration for hours in the art room.


This surprising little secret to a pleasing placement of birds in a group was part of a recent workshop, courtesy of artist/mentor/friend Nenagh Molson. She had whizzed through the basics on painting birds—the order of parts; the shapes to eyes, beaks/bills, bodies; ways to check alignment; guides to color values for body parts; perching and flying tips; mixing wet and dry strokes; variations on feather and claws; how to convey expression or mood; when to dot the eye. And then she took up a new piece of paper and carefully set down half a dozen similar-sized round black dots. Then she took a small detail brush dipped in dark ink and defined beaks for each of the dots/eyes. (Yes, in traditional bird painting you do the beak first and then place the eye—‘behind and above’ is the rule of thumb—and move on to a one-stroke head.)


Steps one and two are done: dot in eyes, add beaks.

Then she loaded her brush (a medium soft brush) and wiped off the excess water. She proceeded to stroke in bird heads. Some of them ‘bloomed’ a bit, and she explained the catch-22: a soft wolf brush loaded will last long enough to do all of the heads in most flocks, but the moisture level is harder to control. You’d like them to all end up similar in tone/color so a single load is desirable. A stiffer brush will be less of a challenge water-wise, but then achieving similar tones becomes a concern.



Steps three, four and five done: heads, bodies, details are added

She went on to defining the backs for each of the little birds. At this stage it became very obvious the placement of the eye dots was NOT random. In keeping with the principle of comprising a large number of creatures (shrimp, birds, fish for example) of several linked groupings of different sizes (three groups of two, three, and four respectively, for a total flock of nine is one such plan) her dots, once furnished with beaks, heads, and bodies, revealed the smaller groups within the whole.

Placing the beaks determines which direction the birds are looking—up, down, left, right, forward, away. And as the bodies go in, your bitty birds should overlap, some coming forward while others go behind. You might have a loner off to himself; just give him an appropriate nuance. (And you can convey gender, in a very subtle way perhaps only noticeable to a bird-watcher: boys are slightly larger than girls.)

Simply wetting the brush used for the backs softened the color enough to do breasts and bodies. We noticed Nenagh was using a mix of indigo with black for darker body parts, and a burnt sienna/orangey-brown for the lighter feathers. For little birds, single strokes can convey full bodies. With a detail brush in dark ink (mixed with indigo) wings and tails went in across the flock. Similarly the little feet were defined with quick line strokes.

At this stage one usually moves on to setting elements. Nenagh had a composition showing a flock of quail among banana leaves on the display board.


This flock has three sub-groups (one, three, one) with interactions between them

It was now clearly obvious she had painted it using the ‘dot-plotting’ technique just demonstrated. There were more than a few ‘Ahas’ around the art room as she pointed that out.

My own dot-plotting studies:

The very next time in an art room I simply had to try this technique. I pulled two suitable compositions from my files to act as a guide. One had a sprig of plum blossom above four birds on a rock. (I could continue to explore plum blossoms as well!) I observed the delicate blossoms contrasted with the angled rocks; I could make them in blue to contrast further with the orange-brown rock faces.



I’ve placed eye dots on the paper



Beaks are placed so that the eye is behind and above an imaginary extension of the beak line.


I had to widen some of them; one stroke was not doing it. Bird woman reminded me later that bird heads are not round, but somewhat flattened. I tried to get backs and bodies painted in. Then I dropped in the tails, wings and finally feet, and lastly the setting elements.



My first composition done from an ‘eye dots’ starting point

Reflections on dot-plotting and bird-painting:

1.  You have to really think about the dot placement, considering which direction you’ll point each bird and which ones are snuggled in a smaller group within the whole.

2.  Single dots for eyes are okay, but dots within inky circles seem to yield more expressive birds.

3.  The fun of following a formula and seeing where it takes you adds to the creativity yet pushes you to finish the composition. Too often beginning artists tend to have over-active inner critics and they scrap compositions before finishing.  More experienced artists will heed the critic yes, but then step back and consider ways to adjust what’s happening on the paper.  Knowing how to extend a too-thin stroke, how to hide a boo-boo with a bug or branch, or perhaps simply how to crop a painting and frame a smaller portion of it are all ways to salvage work not proceeding quite as planned.

This small demo within a larger workshop on painting birds led to many happy hours in the art room and numerous discoveries.  To think it all stemmed from a ‘connect-the-dots’ parlour trick was surprising.  I now look at all bird paintings quite differently.





Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, how to paint birds | Leave a comment

Playing catch-up: painting the poinsettia

You’d think it being the middle of February I’d be painting roses, and red roses at that. Now I do have an affinity for the rose, but my favorite is the Chicago Peace which is a soft yellow tinged in pink. Because early December saw me playing ‘hermit crab’—discarding one shell in favor of another—I missed Lotus’ fine demonstration on the poinsettia. And all the bright red of Valentine’s Day has only reminded me of the poinsettia’s painterly appeal.


No other plant seems to have quite the same command of red, although in truth the red coloring is embodied in leaf-like bracts, not floral petals at all. The true flowers to a poinsettia are in the yellow-green knobby bits in the centre of a cluster of those larger, RED bracts.

The emergence of the red coloring, as in the other seasonal favorite aptly dubbed the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera or zygocactus), is due to a process called photoperiodism. The term means exactly what it sounds like—if subjected naturally or artificially to short days of light and cut back on water and nutrients, the plant triggers inner chemistry to explode brilliant coloring into those special bracts.

And everyone just LOVES the poinsettia. According to the American Phytopathology Society (APS)—a global organization that exists to study plant diseases in order to maintain and improve species—the poinsettia is the number one flowering potted plant sold in the United States and that all happens in conjunction with Christmas.   The APS website claims over 65 million plants were sold nationwide in the year 2000; I can only guess how large a figure that would be if you rolled in Canadian stats and updated to 2015.


This plant is not a traditional CBP painting subject, but occasionally shows up in instructional books that focus on flower painting.

Plant history

The colorful plant we welcome into our homes in dreary mid-winter originated in Mexico in a small area near present day Taxco. It is a member of the genus Euphorbia, a large (upwards of 2000) plant family whose members have a milky, white latex-like sap, and unusual and diverse floral structures. Another related houseplant is that prickly cousin, the Crown of Thorns.

Once considered poisonous, the sap of the poinsettia is most often described as an irritant, perhaps an allergen for some people. In centuries past the sap was used by the Aztecs to relieve fevers.   In its natural form, the plant is a shrub and grows upwards of 10-15 feet tall.

Discovered by an American botanist in the early 1800s, the plant is named in honor of the first American ambassador to Mexico, (also a botanist of some renown, Joel Poinsett) who sent plants back to his native South Carolina. And the rest, as they often say, is history.

The plant has been tinkered with by many a grower, most notably three generations of the Ecke family in California. From the early 1900s onward, Paul Ecke I, II and now III cornered a large segment of the poinsettia market because Ecke number I developed a means of engineering a bushy, showy plant, and his business acumen remained a secret for decades. Only recently did other plant scientists figure out the timely pruning method to produce similar plants. A fuller story of the Eckes is on Wikipedia; they are credited with kick-starting the huge industry associated with this one plant.

More on the plant’s history can be read at sites such as this one.

What is this brilliant sappy plant?

The poinsettia, I daresay, may also be one of the ‘most often painted’ plants in the world. As noted, the true flower is in the centre part and consists of a single female flower, without petals and usually without sepals, surrounded by individual male flowers all enclosed in a cup-shaped structure called a cyathium. Yes, those yellow knobby bits sometimes covered with pollen make up the ‘flower’.

Plant cultivation has resulted in a huge array of colors for the bracts (white, cream, yellows, pinks, reds, burgundies). Even the leaves now come in darker greens and curly varieties. My favorite has to be this one, called Plum Pudding:


Some plant lore:

My study of the poinsettia uncovered some curious bits of plant lore. It is known in China as San Dan Hung, meaning Christmas Red, or sometimes Yi Ping Hung, which means First Rank Red. The natural occurring red poinsettia is very much like the dark red worn by top rank officials. The Aztecs’ name for it meant “flower that grows in residues” referring to its preference for poor quality soils.    It is known in Mexico and Guatemala as Flor de Noche Buena meaning Christmas Eve flower. The Spaniards call it Flor de Pascua, or Flower of Easter. In Chile and Peru it is called the Crown of the Andes.

Not surprisingly there are also a few legends as to how the plant came to be; among them is the tale of Pepita, a poor Mexican girl who had nothing to bring to present to baby Jesus so she gathered a bouquet of roadside weeds. Of course by the time she and cousin Pedro arrived at the manger the weeds had miraculously burst into the showy red bracts we all cherish at Christmastime. (It’s getting pretty crowded there manger-side with all these gift stories; first there was the little drummer boy and now Pepita and Pedro.)

Painting resources:

In addition to Lotus’ workshop handouts I found a delightful CBP how-to video online. This video was made by Moon Bear World for Ichen  Art Academy in 2014 with artist Ichen Wu. The artist uses tube colors with a large orchid brush; her video is worth watching for her color blending and brush strokes. She offers good instruction on composition and bract placement as well.

Painting Strategy:

With poinsettias the overall approach is to paint the central flowers, then the red-colored bracts, and lastly the leaves and stems.

1.    For the centre—sprinkle some different-sized dots across the paper in roughly an oval -shaped area where you’d like the floral centre to be. Use the tip of a large soft brush double loaded with green and yellow. (These dots look best if executed with the ‘dian’ stroke.) Once you’ve finished the rest of your painting you come back and over-paint with some white in order to convey the fullness of these tiny flowers.

Here’s my first practice sheet trying to arrange the dots; the blobby one shows how easy it is not to control the water in the back of your brush:


2.    For the color bracts—the same brush now cleaned and loaded with orange tipped in red is used to create a variety of ‘leaf’ shapes using strokes either pulled toward or away from the floral centre. You want narrow ends all pointing to a common imaginary centre of the cluster. These bracts should be darker closer to the centre, lighter as they pull away. In the video linked above IchenWu shows how to define the bracts so that the cluster has ‘depth’. She explains how to widen bracts with a second stroke and leave white edges between the overlapping bracts to provide ‘separation’. Once she has a pleasing arrangement of red bracts and they are still slightly damp she sketches in darker vein marks, curving the lines to match the bract curvatures.

I practiced the strokes first going right and then going left.  In the third row I tried tipping in blue and widening the shapes.  The last column is red tipped in ink.


3.    For the leaves and stems—Ichen Wu uses little white saucers for preparing her colors; this really helps you see your color mixing. For the leaves she uses indigo and gamboge, mixes up a brush filled with a green, and then tips it in black for the darker bracts. The outer bracts are done with a lighter shade of green, tipped in the darker green. Blends of color in the red and the green leaves is quite desirable. The leaves are also veined. Lotus prepared some excellent sample sheets for her demo, showing leaves done in three ways: 1. as above, darker shade over lighter green, 2. with white veins over the green, and 3. with veins done in ink over green.   For stems a common practice is to load a small brush with the light green already on your mixing saucer, tip it into the red left on the other mixing dish, and then define one main stem leading up to each floral/bract cluster. Poinsettias have umbels (think ‘inverted umbrella rib structure’ here) at the stem tips, holding up those flowers and bracts.

Here’s my first poinsettia with bracts and leaves (no veins yet)


Then I defined some veins using a darker red:


See what adding white to the centres does:


Then I painted this poinsettia start to finish:


Wanting to finish something glue-worthy at this sitting I tried a composition I thought would work for a greeting card.  As  bad luck would have it, I splotched the painting with green paint. I quickly wet the area  with clear water and a clean brush to try and save it.

It is still wet in the image below, and I don’t think the effort to save it was successful (you don’t know for sure until it dries). You scuff up as much color as you can with a brush without disturbing the paper, blot the paper several times,  and watch that you don’t leave a water’s edge mark. Cropping shows there’s some hope the painting might work…at which point I decided Mr. Cat needed more practice before this painting could be truly finished.  I do have a few months before December rolls around to work on that!


Further Options

Because poinsettias are a favorite subject among artists in many mediums, there are many wonderful compositions and treatments for inspiration. The colored bracts make ideal subjects for pearly over-painting. Or one can spatter white or gold or maybe dark green. I wouldn’t go so far as to add the amount of glitter one sees on some specimens these days; that gets tired very quickly.

Just as in poinsettia cultivation, one does not have to restrict the palette to shades of red. Lotus showed me some of her poinsettias done in opera pink as well as a marvelous grapey-purple she blended from indigo and crimson.  Ichen Wu also  demonstrated  the  color-mixing and brushwork for a creamy white poinsettia which could easily be extrapolated to more such  clusters.

These plants are very forgiving of imperfect leaves or sloppy dots in the centre—those seeming ‘mishaps’ only add to the beauty of the composition. I found a very striking such painting done by an artist known for his insects and monkeys, Chao Shao-An, and he presented only a single stem of poinsettia. (It’s on the table ‘informing’ my bract study above.)

Ichen-Wu’s Youtube video is absolutely packed with technical tips and is worth watching ANY time of year.  There’s so much to learn in that one 16-minute demo, I could well be working on poinsettias right through ’til next Christmas!






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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.


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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