The Long and Short of Thick and Thin (fabric folds)

By all accounts there are 17 different kinds of strokes to be used when defining folds in the fabric of clothing on figures. And some scholars suggest 18.

When I first encountered figure painting as a sub-genre of oriental brush painting I was fascinated by the intricacies of fabric folds in the garments worn by men and women alike. I noted that small human figures usually remained faceless (no details shown for eyes, noses, and mouths) and larger ones had such features inked in with subtle nuances. In the hands of skilled painters, even the tiniest of figures appeared dynamic and alive. I marveled at the lines and shapes. Then there are the huge wall murals of Shanxi and Dunhuang in China that are on my must-see bucket list.  The confident flowing lines in large scale paintings by Wu Daozi are captivating.


Wu Daozi’s  Eighty-seven Celestial People

In a workshop conducted by artist Nenagh Molson I learned there were three fundamental steps to rendering human figures: 1. outline in light ink 2. define the shapes with fine lines that are ‘thickened and thinned’ as needed to convey roundness and shaping to the exposed limbs and clothing  3. add color using water, dark strokes and lighter washes to fill the shapes in a loose manner. (See earlier posts.)

My first few figures remained somewhat one-dimensional, and inanimate. Then Nenagh reminded me of the simple up-down pressure to a detail brush that would leave thin and then thicker lines on the paper, and that you judiciously applied the pressure to convey dimension to faces, arms, legs, bellies and butts.

Aha! I thought.

Then she described how you suggested depth and fullness to the clothing encasing body parts. She distributed two handouts that had mysterious little images accompanying numbered brush strokes. My eyes were on her continued lifting and pressing of a fine little brush that never seemed to run out of ink.

Only later when I filed away my workshop notes did I try to reconcile the handout instructions with what she had demonstrated.

Calligraphy and painting, forever linked

I’ve mentioned before the historical relationship between Chinese calligraphy and Chinese brush painting.  In the rendering of fabric folds calligraphic brush strokes again can have significance. The clothing for paupers and beggars is supposedly portrayed with one kind of stroke, women’s clothing another, and so on. With the promise of up to 18 kinds of strokes, figure painting suddenly held greater appeal. I was intrigued by the mysterious ‘rules’ (or at least associations) that might apply to pairing of lines with subjects.

My intent to sort out the 17/18 kinds of fabric fold depictions was recently re-invigorated with the discovery of a scholarly book on CBP. The thin, blue-covered book is titled Some Technical Terms of Chinese Painting and was written by Benjamin Marsh in 1935, reprinted in 1969. I purchased the book thinking the mix of Chinese and English might help me unlock the mysteries of my Chinese-only books!


The plain blue-covered book on the right is my latest treasured resource found first in a library and then from an online bookseller.

Marsh devotes a chapter to the 18 fabric fold strokes. He gives the Chinese name for each, its English translation, and directions for painting.   He includes two Plates, each with nine images illustrating the strokes at the back of the book. In the preface he sourced those two plates as excerpts from a book called Tien Shuh Chai Ts’ung Hua. I thought I’d struck gold in finding Marsh’s book. Alas, the images in the plates are not numbered or labeled, and the outline strokes are not large enough or distinct enough for me to discern which is intended as which.

I turned back to my library and computer to try and unlock the mysteries of fabric folds.

Comparing the Resources:

  1. Nenagh’s two workshop handouts (Exhibits A and B) with small figures in robes, outlined seemingly with different kinds of strokes; the strokes are named but differences are not hugely discernible. No instructions for creating the strokes are given.

Exhibit A – This well organized handout is helpful for understanding a few of the fabric fold strokes; unfortunately details are NOT discernible in most of them.


Exhibit B – This handout mixes full figures with inset details but still does not clarify the distinctions for ALL of the stroke variations.

  1. Ben Marsh’s book Some Technical Terms of Chinese Painting. The book provides Chinese names for all strokes, describes the execution of each, and includes two plates supposedly showing all 18. The images are again too small to discern distinctions, and without specific numbering of the nine in each plate, I do not know which is intended to illustrate which stroke.

Exhibit C – These images in the Ben Marsh book are meant to illustrate the 18 different strokes for fabric folds. While too small to be truly helpful, they ARE replicas of the images in my big Huapa book, for which I was able to get help with translation of calligraphic labels on each.

  1. The Way of the Brush by Fritz van Briessen. (See below) This book includes a similar list of 18 strokes, cross-references the strokes with Marsh’s numbering, AND refers to a similar list by yet another (Japanese) scholar, Prof. Sei-ichi Taki. That fellow based his list on illustrations done by his father, a Japanese artist named Taki Ken or Taki Katei (1830-1901) who published in a book called Gazan. (You know I am looking for that item!)


  1. An online search turned up a list of seven such brush strokes (with line drawing illustrations) allegedly extracted from a longer list, and the writer identified the original creator of such a list as a Ming dynasty art critic and historian called Wang Keyu (1587-1645). Again, I’m on the hunt for more on that fellow.
  1. A large tome devoted to figure painting acquired from an art auction. This book came with an ISBN which shows up on Abe Books as Huapu New Mustard Seed Garden (Chinese Ed. 1999) published by Anhui Fine Arts Publishing House. This book has the same images as the Marsh book, distributed four to a page with Chinese characters labeling each one. It could well be that this volume is a more recent incarnation of the Chinese title Marsh named in his preface. The figures were a bit larger than those in the Marsh plates, but distinctive qualities to the outlines were still not hugely obvious in more than a few.


As luck would have it a fellow painter in my Friday morning art group (Jani Li) took interest in my new book and Chinese painting puzzle. She translated the top character in each of the illustrations, and with that I was able to reconcile more of the images in all my sources!

When master painter John Nip dropped into our art group a week later, he too spied the book and offered commentary: it is an excellent resource on figure painting, one of three big volumes with the other two addressing landscape and bird/flower painting. He owns an earlier version than mine, and was pleased to see the updated additions of more illustrations. And if I’m not mistaken, he used Chinese terms to refer to the book not unlike the title Marsh mentioned. Given its contents, I’d say I have what constitutes a major resource for figure painting.

While I did find a few instructional videos on Youtube that addressed figure painting (such as this one.) they do not seem to get into the niceties of the 18 different stroke types.

Sorting the forest, one tree at a time

Armed with these resources I tried some cross-referencing of images and lists. A few of them—reduced strokes, date pit stroke, bamboo strokes, and nail head strokes—had some obvious distinctions, but others did not. I decided to work through the list as best I could.

1. I eased into this project with the stroke having the most obvious distinguishing character—the abbreviated or reduced stroke, or what Marsh calls lines with fewer strokes. He gave its Chinese name as chien pi miao and wrote:

a free style in which for example one ziz-zag stroke may serve for all the wrinkles of a sleeve, ordinarily represented by several separate strokes. A blunt brush is used, and it travels like a ricocheting bullet or pellet from a bow. This is the typical style of Ma Yuan and Liang K’ai. He referenced his Plate VII.

I easily found the representation in Nenagh’s A & B sheets and Jani had also interpreted the first character at the top of the calligraphy in what I numbered as 8 in the Huapa Big Book.


Fabric Fold # 1 – Reduced or Abbreviated stroke

As noted, that image is the same as one in Marsh’s Plate V11 (lower left corner). I thus had two complete figures to study and try to replicate.

Finding a blunt brush in my stash was not easy. I’ve acquired a variety of soft brushes (sheep and wolf), horsehair brushes, combinations, and even made one from my own hair. My best candidate for ‘blunt’ was a flat watercolor brush. I gave that a go. I also tried my ‘scruffy brush’.

I quickly learned I couldn’t be working too small or my efforts to zig-zag/ricochet were too cramped. Working larger gave me the freedom to move the brush rapidly. The brush had to be kept dry, and the trail pre-planned to get more pleasing results. The fine details of faces and heads were still best done with a pointy detail brush. I liked the minimalist detailing of robes; the zig-zagging gave an interesting look to the fabric folds in the elbows.   Here’s my results.


The fellow on the left is painted after the second  image in Exhibit A

2. Here’s the image for what Jani identified as Drywood stroke. (She was ‘reading’ the first ideogram at the top of the calligraphy in the image and told me the remainder talked about its execution.)


Fabric Fold # 2 – Drywood, brushwood, or kindling stroke

This stroke is #13 in Van Briessen’s book and he names it in Chinese as Ku Ch’ai Miao or Ch’ai pi Miao, or lines like pieces of brushwood or kindling. His instruction: A stiff, large-pointed brush is used in a slanting position. The lines are coarse and stiff as wood. A very impressionistic style.

He refers to Marsh’s Plate V11. Nenagh’s B handout called it a firewood line and proscribed it used on robes of old men.

The image shown in both the Huapa Book  and Plate V11 of the Marsh book is an old man curled up in his robe on the ground. It is very reminiscent of two paintings by a fellow called She Ke (680-720) of one of the deity figures; both are in the Tokyo Museum and images are in the public domain, so I’ll include them here.  She Ke used pale washes to help accentuate the contrasting fine lines in faces with the rougher, reduced lines in the robes. I love these compositions!



3.  My third selection was another stroke that is readily discernible in paintings, the nailhead start on a  rattail stroke. Van Briessen names it ting t’ou shu wei miao, lines like rat tails with beginnings like nail heads; long and tapering. He says: the brush is put down firmly to produce a strong dot, then trailed off in a tapering line to a fine point.

Plate V11 and the Huapa book image is a young woman, but Nenagh’s A & B both offer male figures to study.


Fabric Fold # 3 Nail head start to Rat Tail stroke

The nail head stroke used for a stamen in plum blossom is done with a very fine brush, so I’m thinking I can get this one. I will have to concentrate on following the initial stabbing motion for the dot with a longer stroke than for those plum stamens. Here’s my study sheet, trying to replicate the figures from Exhibits A and B, plus another detail image based on a resource found online.  (Despite several attempts to replicate the woman threading a needle, my results were disastrous–for another time?)


While hunting for the She Ke images of an old man sleeping with a tiger, I found two similar compositions in a Pauline Cherret book. Another art group member also loves to paint expressive figures so we had fun taking on the tiger men. Hers was larger and more expressive than mine.  Here’s my two; I can’t truthfully say what fabric fold strokes are used in his clothing!



So, only 15 more fabric fold strokes to sort out…and lots of fun along the way, no doubt.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, fabric folds, painting figures | 2 Comments

Controlled untidiness: painting sunflowers

“Sunny ways.”

The coordinator of our Friday morning art group is fond of quoting our young Prime Minister, but I must admit she did restrain herself in announcing her recent sunflower painting demo. If ever there were a more fitting occasion to use the phrase, this would have been it. Then she went ahead and surprised us further by painting a sunflower composition in a very uncharacteristic ‘freestyle’ manner.


Stock photos of fields of golden sunflowers are easy to find on the internet

Delightful Lotus favors the traditional CBP bird-and-flower comps and frequently executes some splendid paintings, complete with ribbons and incomparable silk borders.


Delightful Lotus shared this spectacular example of her painting skills. Note the exquisite borders done with fancy paper and ribbons.

She took the usual great care in preparing for her sunflower demo with samples of flowers, stalks and leaves, and sat down to show us lots of tricks with the colors and brushwork. Soon the art room was abuzz with painters having fun.

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The sunflower as subject

After the iris, perhaps the sunflower is the flower most popularized by Vincent Van Gogh. His large vases of sunflowers came to mind when I read Lotus’ notification for the demo. Van Gogh planned and painted several large canvases showing exuberant blooms in vases in anticipation of decorating a studio he intended to share with Paul Gaugin.



Van Gogh had earlier studied arrangements of sunflowers tossed on the ground. His interest in the sunflower as a painting subject allegedly resulted from the invention of some new yellow pigments in the late 1880s. His sunflower paintings may well have all been experiments with the new pigments. What better subject when you’ve got new tubes of yellow?


Van Gogh’s early studies of sunflowers had them on the ground,not in vases.

Sunflowers were not a common subject for Chinese brush painters of centuries past; only recently have a few renowned painters taken them on. I was hard-pressed to find any examples in my library.

My resources:

My only instructional book that addresses the sunflower with step-by-step instructions is a Collins Learn to Paint Chinese by Jane Evans. She describes the flower as ‘controlled untidiness’. I did find several compositions in our art group’s library and my albums by Chou Shao-An. The very loose, freestyle composition Lotus shared with us came from a book by former doctor-turned-artist Lian Quan Zen. It seems to be a favorite subject of his for workshops. If you Google his name plus ‘sunflower images’, numerous examples come up. I discovered another blogger posted about her experience in such a workshop.

You can also see other examples of his sunflowers in his blended ‘watercolor-Chinese brush painting’ style at his own website here. He seems to like portraying side views of large sunflower discs with lots of bracts and leaves providing character.

Sunflower parts:

The common name for this plant derives quite literally from its Greek name, Helianthus, and the distinctive behavior the sunflower displays (always facing the sun) is aptly called heliotropism.

As a member of the aster (Asteracea) family, the sunflower has what is called a composite flower head or inflorescence. This means the part we consider a ‘flower’ is actually made up of two individual flower types. The larger showy petals surrounding the large disc-like head are called ray flowers and those that are jammed together across the surface of the pie-plate shape (and eventually turn into the familiar sunflower seeds sold roasted and salted in packets) are called disc flowers. The showy ray floral petals also have a smaller, shorter version extending at their bases, which are referred to as bracts.


For painting purposes, the complete anatomy of the disc flower is not hugely important; knowing they consist of a tube-like corolla with hairy bits surrounding it, can help you understand the methods for rendering them with paint. Sometimes in their life cycle the disc florets can appear quite firm and shiny, at others they are dusty with pollen release and present in various colors—bright red, brown, gold, or even mineral green.

Sunflower strategy:

There are basically three parts to consider for a sunflower painting—flowers, stalks and leaves. The flowers can look complicated, but they display in such a variety of ways that there’s a lot of latitude in presenting ray petals, sepals, and seedy centres (disc flowers). Lotus showed us flowers head on and in profile, as well as in bud. Here’s another of her sunflower compositions, complete with bug on that centre-front leaf. She combined profiles of buds with the two more advanced ‘flowers’.


As with most flowers in CBP the best order for painting is this: centre first, then petals and bracts, sepals, stalk and finally leaves. An entire painting can be done with a large orchid brush; a smaller detail brush could be used for smaller details such as leaf veins. The detail brush would also be useful if you were to do an outline style of petals and leaves, where each petal and leaf is defined by black ink once your painting has dried.

For the centre:

Lotus showed us one method for painting a center, and had a handout that showed another. Her way was to dab in a textured area with shades of umber, brown, and burnt sienna, leaving some light areas.  I tried that method first, taking inspiration from a simple composition by Leslie Tseng-Tseng Yu in her book Chinese Painting in Four Seasons.


The second way was to load a brush with a greeny-gold color and then use a sidestroke of the brush, curling in an arc, finishing with a similar mirrored stroke, and then darkening the centre area.

For the petals:

These are defined in a typical petal stroke—point, press, and twist while pulling the brush across the paper in a desired path. You can make the petal ends pointy or rounded, as you wish. You can tip the brush loaded with yellow in color—orange, red, brown, or green.

While you want a harmonious overall look to the arrangement of petals, they do not have to appear too uniform.   Go around the center (or half of the elliptical shape in profile) once with ray petals, and then fill in with slightly smaller bracts of similar color. You do want to plant the petals into the colored centre area, not leave them hanging mid-air. A bud could also be created in this manner..

If you wish to paint a sunflower in outline style, complete them ‘boneless’ first and add the inky outlines when the petals have dried. The outlines should loosely follow the petal edges; better they be done quickly and rounded, rather than slowly as then they would look stilted and awkward. Remember Jane Evans’ description: controlled untidiness.

For the stalks:

The stalks need to be sturdy looking as they can support considerable weight once the flower heads have developed seeds.   The stalks need to look rounded like pipes, standing tall and fairly straight or slightly arced. You load a brush with light brownish-green and pull a sidestroke from the head downwards. You can plan to leave a space (or two) for a leaf to show its shape forward, as opposed to having them all in side profiles. My first stalks appeared too watery to hold up much weight.


I was pleased with the centre and petals of my first sunflower, but will need to work on the greenery.

For the leaves:

Sunflower leaves are basically heart-shaped. They emerge at intervals from along the stock, located at opposite sides to the stem. You do want to be sure and place them at the end of curved stems that grow up and around and down from the stocks. They are made with two strokes placed either side of a watermark for the leaf centre line. If you mix up several pools of green beforehand you can quickly paint leaves in several shades, those in front darker, those in the background lighter. Bigger, drier leaves would grow near the bottom of the stalk. And some leaves might be shown in profile. When damp, you run vein lines in darker green or black.



The little leaf stems should emerge from the stalk in an arc that starts heading UP the talk and then curves out and down. Sunflower leaves are shaped like elongated hearts.

Compositional concerns:

Sunflowers are often grown for their height at the back of the garden or along a fence. When reducing the visual to ‘fit’ on paper you typically reduce the proportional size of the stalk. Likewise the sunflower leaves will have to be scaled down for purposes of painting. Typical ‘guests’ to paint with the ‘host’ sunflowers would be insects (dragonflies, butterflies, bees, spiders, or lady bugs) or birds (crows, magpies, sparrows).

And lucky us, from a long ago class by our group’s much-loved founder, is this helpful sunflower painting inscription:


We’ll probably all be in the right mood to paint bamboo if we try the calligraphy!



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

Building better waterfalls: stroke therapy

While I was messing around researching rocks and streams, aiming to capture the spirits of two favorite waterfalls, I tripped over a pleasant surprise—I did indeed have a fairly recent photo of my old childhood creek.


And as soon as the creek came to light, I made another surprise find, a set of books on painting the Four Gentlemen with lots of detail, good illustrations, and discussions in English!

Now there are many CBP instructional books with excellent illustrations, there are some with English translations, and the occasional gem of insight into technique shows up in just about any book on the subject. To get all three in one place, at a reasonable price, and replete with applications of the brushwork in painting subjects other than bamboo, orchid, mum and plum is indeed a bonus.

My find came about as a result of searching for more guidance on landscape painting. Many a westerner, and oriental painters who move to America or Europe to pursue their art, have published general art instruction books, or maybe books on animal or bird-and-flower painting. Few take on the specialized area of landscape painting. In my hunt I found two helpful books by artist I-Hsiung Ju.


And when I researched his work further, I was delighted to find he had published a four-volume set on painting the Four Gentlemen. Given how fundamental these subjects are to the whole art form, I jumped at the chance to acquire more insights. I assumed (rightfully so, it now appears) that he would treat the four subjects as thoroughly as he had landscape painting. He did not disappoint.


My new best buys

Right when my waterfalls were slopping out of control and refusing to splash with purpose and direction Professor Ju’s four-volume set arrived in my mailbox. As luck would have it I flipped through each volume as I entered its details into my database.

A section at the end of his Orchid book caught my eye. He had inserted five simple monochrome illustrations of applications for the orchid leaf stroke in other CBP subjects. Jumping off the page were graceful, controlled arching orchid leaf strokes in willow branches, rooster tails, reeds and grasses, fabric folds AND waterfall marks!

They were all subjects I loved, subjects I’d practiced, and subjects I still turned to for confirmation of my abilities. (Okay, so I also put a horse in as many comps as I can. But wait, couldn’t the orchid leaf stroke be used in some styles of horse tails?)

Self-directed learning has a downside in that you may know you’re missing something, but you may not be able to determine what the missing thing is, or what the best remedy could be. Mentors and teachers in structured environments (school) provide that great ‘traffic cop’ role of halting reckless speed, pointing calmly and firmly to the dreaded ‘do more’ practice table, or re-directing you to a path you didn’t know existed. I am always amazed at the timely appearance of some CBP concept or challenge that helps me get my derailed trains back on track when they’ve run amok. I was certain Professor Ju had some wisdom to impart.

In that last section of his Orchid book which he titled ‘creative lessons’, Professor Ju relayed a lesson from the revered Chinese philosopher Confucius: by turning only one corner of a board you will thus be turning all corners of the board simultaneously.

So I sat down to make notes from his orchid leaf lessons and then try to recreate his five visual studies with orchid leaf strokes applied.

One corner turned

Notes on most meaningful insights in his Orchid book (These are all things to come back to again when I return to painting orchid for the spring orchid show.)

  1. Like many other artists who address the four gentlemen in an instructional book, Professor Ju offers many tips about the ‘proper’ way to do things. He also explains that ‘proper’ does NOT mean ‘conventional’ or ‘traditional’ but rather ‘correct’, as in the ‘correct way to do things in order to achieve a desired goal’.
  2. He wrote the orchid book as the second in his series, following bamboo, with chrysanthemum being the third, and plum the fourth. Again, this is the natural sequence for learning correct (proper) brush strokes. His description for orchid leaves is based on an understanding of ‘writing’ bamboo leaves. And his chrysanthemum petals are an extension of the orchid leaf stroke.
  3. He furthers the insights into orchid leaves (and later orchid petals) with wine goblet and bowl shapes. Great visuals support his descriptions.
  4. He also uses fish shapes to show how one achieves proper spaces and relationships between the leaves of an orchid.
  5. He presents ‘mirror’ images of three-leaf sets to show a quick way to check that proper form has been achieved with the formation. The mirror image set next to the original results in what he calls a smooth ‘flowing tide’ visual. (A sine curve is what comes to my mind.)
  6. He encourages the grouping of orchid leaves in threes, and this becomes the premise extended into the five ‘creative applications’ to grasses/reeds, rooster tails, willow branches, fabric folds, and waterfalls.

In one afternoon I was able to work through three of Professor Ju’s creative exercises based on the orchid leaf.  First up are clumps of grass, with the pattern for an orchid’s first three leaves clearly employed in the groupings.


This study sheet emerged after about a dozen tries.

Next I played with willow branches for several pages.


Some of these lines are not as fine as they could be, but I’m liking how the three strokes build into fuller branches.



Placing the third stroke so that it cuts the ‘eye of the phoenix’ as it should in the first three strokes for a wild orchid cluster does indeed yield interesting and realistic willow branches.  I keep on filling sheets….

And then I move on to waterfall marks.


Placing three strokes in groups is helping with the ‘look’ but their direction and shape still need work.  Do more, do more…..


I tried some strokes around a rock as per Professor Ju’s example. Must work on the individual strokes. Building in groups of three is starting to become more intuitive for me.

Perhaps it is time to try another waterfall?


Another family favorite ‘natural’ water park is Rushing River, located in north-western Ontario.  The composition will need to be simplified for painting, but areas to be portrayed with three-stroke building are very clear, especially in the foreground.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting orchid, painting roosters, painting waterfalls | 8 Comments

In my dreams, painting rocks and streams

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

Painting a waterfall is deceptively complex.

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

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

Ah, if only my brush could dance that way!

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

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

Fully inspired, back to the falls

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

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


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

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

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

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

Reflection on the slippery rocks

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

Plan B for the waterfalls

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

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

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

img_5378 TreeBeardFalls

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


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



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

Waterfalls: a landscape painting stalwart


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


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

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

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

Water equals wealth

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

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

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

Waterfalls equal marrow and blood

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

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

waterfall books

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

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

Among the gems of wisdom sprinkled through my instructional materials:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


I also looked for demonstration videos and found two:

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

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

Start at the source

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

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

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


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


Note the mossy rocks that surround this waterfall.

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


Without water! Water everywhere,

our Ancient Forest would be bare.

Storms pushed from Pacific sky,

crash upon the mountain high.

Rain and snow meet, and dally,

then settle in the Robson Valley.

Winter snows get up and run,

under the warming springtime sun.

Water races down the forest slope,

searching for the Pacific with hope,

quenching a thirsty forest on its way,

and keeping the threat of fires at bay.

Precious water, please never fail.

–Your friend, the Ancient Forest Trail

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

China’s own

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

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

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

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


My waterfall studies:

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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







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

Aquatic arsenal—painting water plants

The devil is in the details.

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

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


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

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

Three workhorse aquatic plants

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

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

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

Coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum) Study

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

More such descriptions abound; here’s one:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This is meant to be a coontail plant

AquaPlant 4

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

Duckweed (Lemna minor) Study

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

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

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

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

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


Eelgrass Study

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

For the latter I found a photo and description here.

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

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

My eelgrass study:

AquaPlant 2

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

AquaPlant 1

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


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

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

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

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




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

Beyond the bridge, a mountain slope

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Scan 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


The unusual Chocolate Hills on an island in the Philippines


Bonnie AND brazen to me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mountain slope studies:

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


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

Trial # 1

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

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


Trial #2

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


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


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


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


Trial # 3

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



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

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

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



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







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