McBride, Monet and Me: Bridges

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

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

Monet’s marvelous bridge work

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


monetJbridge 1

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

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

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

I understand.

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

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

The Mustard Seed Garden Manual weighs in, bridge symbolism

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

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

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

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

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

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

My bridge studies:

First, I sketched several simple bridges from the MSGM.


and some more:


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



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


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


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

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

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

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

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

My next effort, showing the lower half:


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

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



Posted in bridges, Chinese Brush Painting | 1 Comment

When water will not flow, paint green heron

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beak studies and the GBH

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


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


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

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

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

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

Green Heron to the rescue

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

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


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

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

Here is Mr. Green about to step on a turtle


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


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


What I learned:

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

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

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

Painting with numbers: shrimp

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

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

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

Qi Baishi Deciphered

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

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

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

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

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

My resources:

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

shrimp books

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

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

Sorting out the Shrimp

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

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

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

Learning the count

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

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

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

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

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

More like the waltz than a rhumba

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

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



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


And finally worked up to painting full bodies.


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


Color your shoals

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

Shrimp brushwork

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

Composing shrimp shoals or schools

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

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



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

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

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

Spring dance—painting iris

Understanding floral structures can be key to painting dynamic floral compositions in any medium. When you “know” how a flower looks, what fundamental shapes the buds, petals, leaves, stems, and sepals take, your creations will appear more realistic. Of course in CBP, where the aim is to capture the spirit of a subject, studying all the individual parts to a flower becomes even more important. You need to know what characteristic makes an individual flower species unique, and how to convey that on a flat surface.

With Iris this challenge is greater because your basic flower shape is a three-dimensional triangle. With other flowers that are roundish in shape (roses, peonies, and mums for example), we quickly grasp how to turn circles into ovals and ellipses, how to rotate those shapes as we compose flowers nodding their heads in different direction, and how to change proportions effectively. And then there’s the iris. Traditional CPB artists have called them the ‘butterfly flower’ because of their floppy outer petals that seem to dance in the breeze.

The Iris in Art

Who has not marveled at Van Gogh’s (1853-1890) Alcott garden irises, or his giant pitcher of irises painted in May 1890 only months before he shot himself. One critic described this still life as ‘painted with feverish intensity’.


Then there’s the magnificent pair of six-paneled golden screens by Japanese painter Ogata Korin (1658-1716) loaded with deep blue ‘kakitsubata’ or rabbit-eared marsh irises. The composition, rendered in only three colors—green, blue and gold—is an outstanding study for art-lovers and artists alike.


The panels are housed in Japan’s Nezu Museum where they are occasionally put on display in the large tea garden in spring when the iris is in bloom. Much admired for the bold calligraphic brushwork, the panels were unusual even for their time; contemporary Japanese artists were painting more elaborate and detailed floral works. Korin used a powdered azurite called gunjo to achieve the deep indigo-like blue coloring. One panel shows nothing but resplendent irises in their entirety, while the other shows only their tops. The two panels side by side occupy a full wall of the museum. Understandably, the panels are deemed national art treasures.

My research also led to this fine example of irises painted in oils by American John Lafarge which is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Notice how the iris on the left tips slightly away, while the one on the right leans forward.  That nuance helps in portraying the iris’ distinctive shape.


Irises in the garden

When I turned to my CBP library for guidance in painting the iris, my nearby gardening bookshelves proved just as helpful. Ironically the covers of two gardening books featured the very two artworks I addressed above, so I pulled them out along with the painting resources.


Gardeners love the Iris for it huge array of colors and varieties; the most popular seems to be the German bearded iris, so-named for the fuzzy ridge appearing along the upper surface of the three downward-pointing petals. Siberian irises that sport proportionately smaller flowers and have different growing needs, run a close second.

Irises typically have two sets of triangular petals, all emerging from a central vortex. Here’s a page from my sketchbook where I worked on visualizing the structure of an iris.



Three showy ones curve up, outward and down, and are aptly called ‘falls’. Three more head upward and curve inwards at their tips, like praying hands, and are called ‘standards’. Then there are sometimes three much tinier ones hidden inside the upward hands. These inner petals can be more visible in iris species where the falls are narrow and almost vertical, such as in the indigenous ‘blue flag’ (iris versicolor) many of us admire in the Canadian wild.


The blue iris with distinctive yellow marking at the base of each fall commonly sold in florist shops is a Dutch iris. It grows from a bulb and consistently produces tall straight stems useful when arranging flowers. Those such as the bearded varieties that grow from rhizomes typically sprawl in the manner of Van Gogh’s subjects.


The Dutch iris is very similar in size and color to  the wild ‘blue flag’

My first garden favorite was the Wabash iris, which I heard referenced in my childhood as the ‘graveyard iris’. Apparently it was a common choice for gravesites in early Ontario. When I looked up the reference for this post, I discovered another pure white specimen (iris albicans) held that distinction in Europe and Africa, especially among Muslim communities.

 The American Iris Society breaks the ‘bearded iris’ into six categories—miniature and standard dwarves, intermediate, miniature tall, border and tall–which bloom in succession starting with the smallest. Those dwarves are wonderful choices for rock gardens and borders as they top out around six-eight inches high. With care in selection one can have irises blooming in the garden for months. (An artist needs to know that the bud at the outermost tip blooms first, and that buds would only appear simultaneously emerging from the plant stem below the open bloom. The ‘beard’ is often yellow or white, in contrast with the colored petals.)

Edges of the falls can be ruffled or not, the surfaces striped, splattered or tonally gradated, and their colors contrast or blend with the color of the standards. Understanding how to turn a triad of petals toward you, away, at a slight angle to either the right of left, the up or down–that’s where things get complicated! How tempting it is to only show iris in profile with one fall to the left, another to the right, and two parenthetical-looking standards in the middle pointing up on the page. And how boring that composition would be, how flat, how non-representative of the amazing essence that is iris.

Iris symbolism:

In Chinese culture the association of irises with butterflies goes beyond mere appearance; the flowers also symbolize fated lovers from an old folktale similar to our Romeo and Juliet legend.

This site also expands on the association of iris with butterflies and reveals other western iris associations such as in the fleur-de-lis and so-called ‘Mary’ gardens.  The iris certainly has inspired imaginations in many countries.

Those cultures which selected the iris—either the pure white or the white with purple falls called Wabash—as graveyard inhabitants may have been influenced by ancient Greek beliefs. The Greek goddess Iris was seen as a messenger of the gods, sometimes described as the greeter of spirits (particularly female) crossing to the ‘other side’ after death. She was also associated with rainbows, believed by some to be ‘bridges’ between the natural and spiritual world.

Painting resources:

I found an abundance of CBP guides to painting iris among my books; the most helpful seemed to be in Vol. 1 of Flowers in Four Seasons by Johnson Su-Sing Chow. Other instructional books I have address a frillier version of iris and some show colored varieties. I also found several Youtube videos with demos that informed my brushwork, two by artists whose work I admire.

In the first, Vancouver artist Danny Han-Lin Chen shows the brushwork for a blue bearded iris.  Do remember these video demos are often edited so that we miss seeing the brush-loading technique.  For irises one usually uses a large soft bush loaded with clear water dipped in an appropriate color.  You can also load with two colors.

Virginia Lloyd-Davies paints purple irises beside a rock and adds a bird in two Youtube submissions. Do watch her amazing dancing brush as she renders the complete composition.  Here’s part one.

And here’s the second, shorter part two.

And you can scroll down on this page of her blog site to see another demo in blue.

Those demos are well worth studying for brushwork techniques particularly. Notice how the water and paint blend on the paper to convey the tonal values of the petals.  Watch for the direction and placement of the brush as Virginia shapes her irises.

My iris studies:

I painted iris over several days at home and at art group meetings. I love the great variety of irises in the garden, but tend to be partial to blues and purples. I was quite pleased with the results of using a large soft brush loaded with water dipped in purple-blue mixes.

As shown in several of my other CBP books, it’s easy to add petal marking with a fine detail brush (or the tip of an orchid brush) in a slightly darker color while the petals are damp. Yellow and white markings down the centre of falls was best done over a white space left for that purpose; you can do that with simple strokes of pure colors wet over wet, and then blended with a clean brush. The leaf blades are rendered in the manner of narcissus leaves. Here are my two first full compositions.




Now that I’ve got a start on understanding the shape of an iris in three dimensions, some skill with the water plus color brush loads, and some degree of mastery over the long grass strokes, I’m ready to play with more colors.  Let’s see that brush learn to dance!






Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, flowers, iris | Leave a comment

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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