Bamboo Breakthrough 3: boosts from Ju and something new (bling!)

Paint sessions playing with bamboo continue; the insights seem endless. These are indeed happy days at the art table as my brush surprisingly produces bamboo leaves, clusters and stalks almost on command. Getting them all together in the desired manner still has some challenges.

The reasons for my ongoing fun are many: I continued to explore Professor Ju’s leaf formations (swallow, flying bird and landing bird), I acquired two new brushes at an art show sponsored by local artist/instructor Andy Lou, and I purchased some inks with metallic powder suspended in them. Most of all, I practiced, practiced, practiced.


Ju’s last three leaf formations

In my last post on bamboo I reported on my studies of the numerous  leaf formations presented by I-Hsiung Ju in his wonderful CBP instructional book on bamboo. Having learned how to use a deer horn stem structure to support leaves, then how to place leaves in repeat clusters of set formations, and most importantly, having investigated how real bamboo plants grow, I’ve made great strides with bamboo painting. Fellow artist Ken Lee says I am ‘doing calligraphy’. He means that I’ve reached a threshold where the strokes have become second nature, and my brushwork is not hindered by ‘thinking moments’.

I left off exploring Ju’s categories of leaf formations with three out of his eight yet to try. Before getting into their niceties, I reviewed the last session’s material. My bamboo leaf repertoire so far:

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And now to look at Ju’s remaining leaf formations.


Fittingly enough, this first leaf formation named for a bird, is ‘a bird’s eye view of the Between’ according to Ju. Think of looking down at a four-petalled flower, he says. The Swallow formation is used on a short deer-horn, and always in front of the trunk, or close to the trunk. Consider first how two leaves pointing in opposite directions resemble the wings of a bird:


The Swallow formation usually shows five leaves, painted in order: leaf 1 is the bird’s head and appears relatively small and thin; leaf 2 and 3 are slightly larger, and are painted in a similar manner to the goldfish tail, going down, pointing at slight angles to one another; leaf 4 (sometimes omitted, when a cluster is too thick for the space) and leaf 5 are larger leaves pointing outward on slight stems. These last leaves give the bird ‘loft’ and suggest the flight of the bird.


The swallow done on a deer horn going up, then on one going down:

swallowsup  swallowdown

Then a swallow on a sideways deer horn structure:


The swallow done in repeat clusters:



Tips for using the swallow:

1.Give your clusters air and sunlight, i.e. leave white space around them.

2. Do not make the last two leaves (4 and 5) pointing upward too strongly or your bird appears frightened.

3. The swallow appears the same, whether it is on an upward, downward, or sideways deer-horn.

4. Swallows can fly in slightly altered directions.

5. It does not matter which leaves are long and which are short, as long as they are varied

6. Sometimes leaf 4 is omitted

7. Leaf 5 is a prime candidate for the ‘extended tip’ look.


Leaf 5 is a prime candidate for ‘extending’ with a fine line to suggest a dried tip. This technique can look ‘just right’ in some places but at first mine all looked stilted or downright clumsy.  (Must do more!)

While practicing these extended tips I recalled another favorite instructional CBP book (Chinese Painting in Four Seasons by Leslie Tseng-tseng Yu) wherein the artist showed how to use these extended tips to portray wind-tossed bamboo.  I took a few minutes to try and replicate her study page:


Thanks to Ju I now recognize all of these formations as repeats of the ‘goldfish tail’. Thanks to him I know where the three leaves must emerge from the branch and can focus on individual strokes.  It’s tricky to visualize each one and then literally pull it off!  Thank you master painters Ju and Yu! I think I’m getting it!

Landing bird:

This formation is very similar to Swallow, appears on a short deer-horn, and is usually found near the trunk as well. The difference between a ‘landing bird’ and Swallow, is that leaves 4 and 5 appear almost horizontal. Think of your Swallow about to light on a branch; the bird’s legs are extended to reach the branch and its wings push against the air as though it is ‘braking’.


Frightened bird:

Yet another variation of Swallow, this formation is made with a few subtleties: leaf 1 is small and points upward (the bird is startled and looks up quickly to see what danger is afoot). It appears to me that the order for painting in leaves on this formation is reversed from Swallow and landing bird; after establishing the bird’s presence with leaf 1 (the head) you paint wings to either side at slight downward angles, and then two quick leaves 4 and 5. Ju shows the last pair of leaves as either short or long.


Trying to get my inner eye to register differences among these three bird leaf formations, I aimed to paint all three together.  I thought I had two plain swallows on the first branch (on the left) but on second look I realized the higher one had ‘wings’ placed horizontally, not slightly drooped.


This was a good exercise; it reinforced for me what Ju intended as distinctions among his ‘birds’.  The plain swallow has wings (leaf 4 and leaf 5) at slightly lowered angles, landing bird has those leaves almost horizontal, and frightened bird pops his head up above his wings. (You also paint his  wings before the two body strokes.)

Bamboo Bling:

A hockey tournament in Vancouver for number two grandson gave me the opportunity to check out two art shops on my ‘must return’ list. In one I picked up bottles of black ink embedded with silver powder as well as gold, but put the silver back. I’ve had some inspirational red lotus with black leaves edged in gold in my ‘current’ file for sometime and the gold metallic ink thus held greater appeal.

Then a sheet of chartreuse wrapping paper with tiny silver horses caught my eye across the store (I’d seen a pink version of the paper earlier, and although I love horses, could not fathom pink borders with any of my horse compositions!) Instantly I connected a silver frame, wee silver horses running wild in chartreuse borders, and a large black horse with silver-black ink highlighting mane, tail, and all those wonderful horsey muscles….I took both bottles.

The silver-black ink required some experimenting and what better subject than bamboo leaves in the moonlight. (Recently at a Christmas art show I had spied two compositions of white bamboo on black paper with black frames by local artist/instructor Bard Elford. Stunning pieces! Also hugely challenging, as white paint is not as manageable as ink; it globs and brushes don’t hold much.)  I quickly found that the silver gloss appeared over the surface of each leaf and each leaf seemed to be ‘outlined’ in black.  The ink did not dilute to a lighter tone as easily as my regular ink, but the overall effect was promising.


I tied the silver metallic ink  on some bamboo leaf formations I was considering for a large scale bamboo composition in moonlight. Add a black or silver frame,  white matting…maybe even double mat with black?

Bamboo Comps coming soon:

I’ve had numerous bamboo compositions kicking around in my right brain (home of creative thinking) for weeks now. One is a simple one with a moon and cobalt blue sky, another is a swath of red bamboo with two black fish swimming below, and the third is a figure painting of two old men drinking wine under a moon in a bamboo grove. Yes, a whole grove of bamboo with tall canes, new shoots, and lots of leaves, is now on my horizon. Ju’s lessons have given me the courage to ‘think big’ and ‘think bamboo’.

Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, deer horn, painting bamboo | 2 Comments

True messenger of dreams: the goldfish

In the introduction to a great instructional book titled Drawing Goldfish and Golden Carp Ho Kung-Shang waxes poetically as he describes the featured artist’s skill:

Lin Wu-kui’s goldfish give us dreams, thoughts and hopes. If in life we find fewer difficulties, but more flowing rivers; if in life we find less pain, but more leaping joy; if in life we find fewer farewells, but more touches; if in life we find less jealousy, but more love; if in life we find less hatred, but more concern, then we are those goldfish.”

Indeed, if one could only be less burdened by worldly cares as a result of gazing at a Chinese brush composition featuring a few goldfish lazily hovering among sea grasses. Let’s have such paintings in every home across the country!


Madonna rules the murky depths of the large koi pond featured in Vancouver’s Sun Yat Sen Garden

We westerners have not developed quite the same fascination for goldfish as have our oriental counterparts. One or two specimens in a bowl while our kids are pre-teen are the likeliest encounter; and then we hardly take the time to learn much about their idiosyncrasies, if at all. A few avid gardeners may experiment with koi ponds, but usually a neighborhood heron drops by for lunch and the experiments cease.

Goldfish are indigenous to China and are believed to have been a mutant carp dating back several thousand years BCE. Their popularity as a Chinese brush painting (CBP) subject is understandable: not only are they abundant in murky Asian rivers, they are also small, colorful, and fascinating to observe. A few goldfish in a bowl have resided in many a Chinese home for centuries, and they have amassed considerable symbolism and legends to boot.

What means these fishy jewels?

My big book on motifs and deeper meanings to all things in Asian countries (authored by C.A.S. Williams) states they are an emblem of wealth or abundance, because of a similarity in pronunciation between words for ‘fish’ and ‘super-fluidity’. Owing to its reproductive prowess, the goldfish also stands for regeneration. Because of its seeming comfort or tranquility in even the smallest dish of water, it also symbolizes harmony and connubial bliss.

Another source tells me a goldfish pair is commonly painted as a wedding gift, carrying with it wishes for both marital happiness and many progeny. Williams goes on to say a goldfish can be a symbol used to avert evil, and because it moves so freely in its element it signifies freedom from all restraints. He goes on to explain the appeal of such an emancipated creature to those of the Buddhist faith. That seems like a heavy load for such a little creature.

Goldfish Legends

Oddly enough I didn’t find goldfish legends from ancient China in my CBP books or even those dedicated to animal history and symbolism. It was in a Barron’s reference book called Goldfish and Ornamental Carp that I found a chapter on the history of goldfish in China, and it included several legends.

One legend has it that after a prolonged severe drought in the province of Shen-Si, during the reign of Emperor Peng-Wang the starving people entreated the gods to provide relief. After an acceptable duration of prayer, the gods took pity and drenched the countryside in rain. The goldfish appeared with the water as a gift from the gods.

Another legend has goldfish originating in the heavens, where they cavorted among the clouds. Some of them who were careless slipped through the cloudy layers and fell to earth, where they have lived to this day.

Yet another cites the depths of the ocean as the original home to goldfish. Violent storms stirred up the waters and tossed goldfish into a sacred lake at Tsche-Tschian; fishermen returning to the lake after the storm captured a few in their nets and took them home to keep in bowls as reminders of difficult times on the water.

And as is often the case, one legend involves a beautiful young lady (even more stunning than the dawn’s first light) in love with a fellow who spurned her advances. She cried profusely and as her tears touched the ground they turned into pearls that bounced into the water and turned into goldfish.

The authors searched for historical references in China where goldfish breeding secrets were passed down orally within families for decades, and found mention in song lyrics as far back as the 6th century. The treasured little creatures first appeared in North America in the early 20th century and have been in and out of favor over the years, sometimes supplanted by tropical fish among hobbyists. Artists have shown a sustained interest, probably ever since those first pearly tears hit the ground so long ago. (Yes, that’s the story I prefer.)

My Resources

In addition to a few odd goldfish compositions in some of my more general instruction books, and ample notes from workshops by Nenagh Molson, I have the book featuring Lin Wu-kui’s beautiful work: Drawing Goldfish and Golden Carp. The first few sections cover off basic fish anatomy, then a few chapters introduce ten different varieties of goldfish, and finally many pages offer some compositions. The book also addresses painting of carp (koi) and catfish, and provides several kinds of water plants to augment one’s paintings.



My growing CBP library includes these goldfish painting resources: Wu-kui’s art is in the book on the left, my newest (all Chinese) book  is in the middle, and a reference book with good anatomical information is on the right.

For an absolute beginner, unfamiliar with fishy parts, two books that include introductory techniques for rendering a goldfish are Jane Dwight’s Chinese Brush Painting Bible, and a large format Chinese Painting book in the Walter Foster series. Both methods employ minimal strokes to portray recognizable fish.


These two general instruction books both have simple yet effective instructions for painting goldfish.

Pearlescent paints have a definite place in your studio if you fall in love with goldfish painting. I fell in love with the paints for dragonfly wings, and a ‘deal’ on the pearly paints means I have a variety of colors already to use should I get smitten with these messengers of dreams. I also learned how to wipe a thin white or pale green wash over a fish body to convey some of that pearly look.

Basic Fish Bodies

Eyes, mouth, fins and tail are the dominant features to a fish. The body shape tends to be relatively familiar to most painters–the basic pumpkin seed shape placed horizontally.



Tails and eyes are dominant features in goldfish; the ribbon-tail or veil-tail species has a tail that is longer than its body length. Some master brush painters have perfected elegant ribbon strokes to portray that tail.

After a recent workshop on goldfish painting I went online to seek inspiration for a goldfish composition. I found more than I bargained for in a wonderful book on painting goldfish that featured two black carp swimming out from the shadow of some red bamboo. (Of course I ordered it!) All kinds of anatomical illustrations can also be found, such as this one:


My online research also discovered a Henry Li lesson on the bubble-eye goldfish; his trailer has some good ideas in it. He tells us how he tracked down a painter who had trained with a master renowned for goldfish painting, in order to gain insights into the technique for beautiful ribbon tails. (see detail image below.)  The secret seems to be in using an orchid brush with a twisting action.


He also does a demo on Youtube of a more basic goldfish here.

Order for painting

As with most animals, painting eyes first works best for some of us, followed by head, body, tails, fins, mouth and final tweaking. Other painters like to get the body and tail down before adding the eyes. I’m an ‘eyes-first’ painter. Ever since I learned the secret of proportion and spacing to get a cat’s eyes looking right, I’ve leaned to paint eyes first in other creatures. Their spacing is also key to proportions of all body parts in a good-looking horse.

With this sequencing of body parts I wanted to tackle Wu-kui’s ten little fish, and then move on to trying a few of the compositions Nenagh showed us in her workshops (2011 and 2016). But first, as always, a quick little study to review shapes, proportions, brush strokes, etc. refreshes the brain and eyes about the subject. Besides, completing a painting always brings some reward—a bag, a card, a painting, maybe even a masterpiece! The more complex bubble-eyed and veiled or ribbon tail fish certainly held appeal.

Following the Walter Foster exercise (Helen Tse and Rebecca Yue, illustrators.)

1. Start with a pale sketch—some use pencil, others use charred rice paper or charcoal pencils, I sometimes use very pale indigo. Experienced artists will visualize their entire composition, planning the main features (goldfish) and ‘guest’ elements (duckweed, willow, bamboo, etc.)

2. Using a small stiff brush dipped in medium ink outline the mouth, eyes and body of your fish. Goldfish are plump little creatures, especially when limited to containers with only short swimming distances and no predators.


3.  Use a large soft-hair brush loaded with pale crimson and yellow (orange?) dipped in darker orange to place four sidestrokes emanating from a central point at the end of the fish body. You can curve these strokes to suggest swimming movement.

4. Add fins in much the same manner (pale color, curved sidestrokes.


5. Mix a wash of light blue and white to wash over the body and mouth. (I’d wait until the parts had dried somewhat.)

6. Add head and body spots with a darker orange using a large soft brush. Touch up darker lines in fin and tail with the smaller brush if needed.

Instructions for completing the scene—water, weeds, willow—are all given as well.

Following the Jane Dwight exercise:

1. Load a small firm brush with dark orange, and holding it upright paint four short firm strokes to depict the head/face of the goldfish (shortest strokes on the sides). Add a short stroke across the front of the head to depict the broad mouth.


2. Load the brush with pale orange and paint two longer, larger strokes for the body. You can curve these to show different swimming postures. J.D. provides four. Stroke in four short strokes—two up front and two near the back of the fish body, for fins.


3. Add a three-pronged tail using the side of the brush loaded with the pale orange.

4. Depict the eyes at the sides of the head, using a dab of blue and ink lines.

5. When the tail and fins are damp to the touch, use the tip of a detail brush dipped in red or darkest orange to suggest lines emanating from the body down the length of the tail section or fin. Place a few dots on the body.


The presence of water and swimming movements are suggested with different body nuances. Usually you paint several fish together, interacting with one another and their environment.  As with birds, paint larger groups of  fish with smaller groupings within them.

In one of Nenagh’s ‘stash’ books on goldfish anatomy (all in Chinese) were some of the most intriguing inspirations. The chapter heading pages each had Chinese brush paintings in different styles: one showed several very round orange fish with only a grey circle on the page (perhaps meant to be the circular bottom of a glass fish bowl as you look directly down into it?), and another showed orange-grey fish painted using a single circular stroke as the starting point for the entire body. Both paintings were startling for their original thinking. Clever painter, that unknown illustrator!


The single circle body stroke used to portray these fish intrigued me. I had to try it!


My first effort to figure out that single stroke fish wasn’t too successful, but they got better! (see below).


I ended my session playing with those ‘single stroke’ fishes. I could see hours of daydreaming ahead, planning out ways to depict feathery tails and fins, watery depths, and shimmering scales.






Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, composition, goldfish | Leave a comment

Bamboo Breakthrough 2: learning leaf formations

I can’t believe this is me; I am excited about painting bamboo!

Oh, I  have been interested in bamboo painting, I have tried painting bamboo many times, I have even painted my way through wads of newsprint with only bamboo leaves as subject. But now I can load a brush and actually place stalks, stems, and leaves in a pleasing, respectable manner.

Several hours of study and practice with a helpful little instructional book from I-Hsiung Ju was the key to my breakthrough.

His guidance to understanding where and how the leaves should go, based on the dependable framework of a deer horn (see my last post) helped me finally grasp how all the elements work together. He’s taken most of the guesswork out of composing with bamboo, so I can now focus on technique. And yes, there are tons of things to remember as you place every little leaf stroke….


My recent bamboo studies prompted several afternoon walks in search of the real thing.

Armed with insights from his book on bamboo I went hunting for full compositions to practice. And was I ever surprised—with his lessons behind me, my eye was much more discerning. I could actually see how much really bad bamboo painting clutters the Internet! Best of all, I could pick out the good stuff.  Here’s a site as an example.

Leaf Lessons

The concept of learning one leaf formation and then repeating it throughout a painting was not new to me. Several of my other books on bamboo painting provide numerous leaf clusters for just that purpose. One of my favorites is Chinese Watercolor Painting the Four Seasons by Leslie Tseng-tseng Yu. I have a copy of her book in monochrome as well as in color. Her illustrations are very helpful, and now that I understand more about using a deer horn branch structure to lead to those leaf formations, my attempts to replicate her lessons are much more successful.

Here’s my recent studies addressing Ju’s ‘formations’ with some insights into where they are best used. I painted these on a fibrous paper called Dragon Cloud; it takes ink differently than my usual Moon Palace practice paper, offering more ‘drag’ to a brush.

1. New moon. This simple leaf is either very young or very old. You place a single thin leaf near the tip of the deer horn, hanging downwards, often pointing to the left. It is located near the top of a bamboo plant, or the end of an exterior branch. Think of the tiny slip of the moon when it is ‘new’ and it’s clear where this leaf formation got its name.

A single brushstroke ‘formation’ occurring near the tip of a branch, pointing to the right and usually appearing more horizontal than the new moon, but similarly thinner than other leaves on the bamboo plant, is called boat. Ju says the new moon and a boat can be placed on old and broken horns to suggest other leaves have been ripped off in a storm or have fallen because of the late season. I noticed these occur on certain types of bamboo; some clumps I’ve spied in my neighborhood sport very lush growth, with pointed growth tips.



2. Fishtail is the name given to a leaf formation involving only two leaves, having one on either side of a segment. The leaves do NOT start at a common point nor are they of the same length. The fish tail is usually shown as full frontal view, meaning we see it as a “vee”. Ju also introduced double fish tails early in his illustrations and in fact he used them in showing the progression from deer horn to leaves (which I depicted in my last blog post). It is possible to paint complex-looking leaf clusters using only the single and double fishtail formations!

fishtail  dblefishtail

3. Goldfish tail is composed of three leaves on the same segment; one extends from the deer horn framework out from the middle of the formation and then you place a leaf on the left and one on the right, starting from staggered points down the horn. They are slightly separated and do NOT overlap. The middle leaf should be slightly longer than the side leaves.

The formation does resemble a goldfish tail in terms of overall shape, except that the three leaves do NOT share a common starting point. I thought it clever to paint a goldfish composition with bamboo leaves in this formation hanging over the water, but then realized the fish tails pointed in the opposite direction to all the leaf tips; my intended mimicry was lost.



4. Between  This next leaf formation involves four leaves on a segment. You can place these leaves going up to the right or left (usually when the plant is in sunshine or for new growth) or hanging down, or slightly to one side. Bamboo leaves hanging down suggest they are in rain/snow or the plant is older and dried out. These leaves are best painted in sequence starting closer to the segment tip and painting leaves of varying length: right, left, right, left: you should strive for longer leaves nearer the tip. Repeated ‘betweens’ can make an effective little composition. And if you’ve dreamed of painting bamboo leaves steadily with good rhythm, this formation is an ‘enabler’!



5.  Division. Ju’s next leaf formation is actually just a different ‘view’ of the last one, the Between. You have to imagine you are viewing the four-leaf Between from the side. And this is where bamboo leaf painting can get a bit tricky if you’ve never truly LOOKED at bamboo. Again, Ju shows how to repeat the leaf formation called Division and end up with a neat little painting! He also shows where the division grows on a bamboo plant, off the tip of a side shoot emerging from a bamboo node.


The last three major leaf formations in Ju’s arsenal were all named for birds—the swallow, a landing bird and a frightened bird. I decided to leave those for another day, and dig into what Ju had to say about using repeat patterns of the first few leaf formations. In a later chapter of his bamboo book he discusses principles of bamboo composition and shows clusters of leaf formations.

Repeat Clusters

The new moon and boat leaves occur at tips, and naturally appear alone.


In this illustration in The Scholarly Bamboo by June Greene, a new moon leaf is added at the top of the branch to balance the arrangement.

If you are portraying a large clump with several growth tips then perhaps you’d show several new moons in a painting. Ju relays that masters of old determined (and he says this is supported by observation) there are only FIVE ways to make clusters of leaves. These include repeating fish tail, double fish tail, between, division, and swallow. Because I’ve yet to practice and discuss the bird formations, I’ve only got four studies to practice so far. And bless Dr. Ju; he provided several illustrations for each such clustering!

1. The cluster of repeated fish tail is for the tip of hanging branches growing over a wall or a rock.


repeated single fishtails.

2. The cluster of repeated double fish tail is for a branch of young bamboo growing upward or horizontally.  I tried them in different directions

repdblefishtail  repdblefishtail2


3. The cluster of repeated ‘betweens’ is for old leaves hanging loosely at the top of the bamboo plant


On reflection, this particular pattern of repeat ‘betweens’ has motifs too similar in size and shape; the individual elements should be varied for greater interest.

4. The cluster of repeated ‘divisions’ is for heavy leaves at the top of a bending bamboo plant.  I stacked a few ‘divisions’ in my first practice piece (scroll back to view).

Field Trip

While studying these leaf formations, I couldn’t resist getting outdoors and checking for real life evidence of Ju’s assertions. Bamboo is a popular garden choice in my climate zone (although some gardeners live to regret it as bamboo roots typically reach VERY deep—up to four feet down—and can be very invasive.) I quickly discovered several specimens in my neighborhood.

A large planting of black bamboo has fascinated me for years as I passed it almost daily. The new growth tips would shoot up suddenly in the clump and appeared as though someone was ‘staking’ the clump. Once the gardener nipped the shoots to try and manage her front yard clump, I realized the pointy ‘sticks’ were the new growth shoots rising above the old growth. There were no ‘new moons’ up there.

Three blocks away I found a lush, un-managed clump. Close examination revealed leaf formations of the fishtail, double fishtail, and between varieties.

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There were no single new moons near the tips, nor at the bottom where old growth could be expected. We’ve had more than the average fall storm activity so surely the plant could be expected to show some leaf loss. But then again, our summer has been wetter than usual, and the bamboo reflected that with an abundance of leaves.

Remembering that bamboo comes in MANY varieties, I continued on my jaunts; a few days later I found two locations for what seems to be ‘golden bamboo’. The stalks were obvious from a distance, and the leaves much smaller than in the huge lush clumps previously examined. Closer examination revealed mostly single leaf formations. A chat with the gardener led to my returning home with a few stalks pruned from close to the top of the clump.

My first observation was that a leaf ‘leaning left’ could easily be viewed as ‘leaning right’ if you viewed it from the other side, or turned it around in your hand! Here are some ‘shadow studies’ I improvised in my workroom with a bright light and white table. I was in search of that elusive ‘new moon’.

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I also recalled taking pictures of bamboo examples Nenagh had brought to a September workshop. She noted that one variety was the basis for some of the outline styles of portraying bamboo, with white veins. You can see that  leaves seem to emerge from their stems at common points in the one on the left; those on the right emerge alternately.


Other bamboo varieties she brought in were fresh and green, but did not have single new moon leaves near the tips.  My pruned stalks acquired from a neighbor later in the season had drier, smaller leaves, and they seemed to be what remained after fall storms.  Most of those remained as ‘singles’ but pointed in random directions, few hanging in the pleasing form of a new moon.


Nenagh also showed us a rarity in the bamboo grove—flowers! She mentioned an old saying that once bamboo flowers it dies. I had to check that one out:  This site explains there is some truth to the saying, but also that much is yet to be fully understood.

I’m still working on understanding principles for painting leaves; the flowers will have to wait.  Bird formations here I come!





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

Better plant forms is… animal science?

I’ve read the directions numerous times, I’ve heard master painters talk about it, and finally I’m getting more insight into what a deer horn has to do with plant formations. When first shown how to branch bamboo and define plum trees, I heard the demonstrating artist say ‘paint a deer horn’. And I thought I understood what was supposed to be happening.

I was wrong.

What I thought I knew, was but the tip of an iceberg.

Recently I acquired a set of books addressing the Four Gentlemen, all by I-Hsiung Ju, a master painter who lived most of his life in the United States.  He explains in his very first book some of the ancient wisdom behind ‘paint a deer horn’ and I’ve been poring over the tidbits with great interest.

Yes, you are defining a branch, a fork in the road so to speak when you ‘paint a deer horn’. But just how you do it, which stroke is first, what direction you point the main stem and the off-shoots, how you add leaves—all these things were carefully studied by the ancient master painters. And the wisdom is edifying.

As luck would have it, I live in a city with a “deer problem” and a few years ago woke up to the discovery of a real deer horn abandoned in my back yard.  After being royally scolded at art group for not preserving the crow that fried itself (and took out power to a large area of town) atop a neighborhood hydro pole, I kept this ‘gift’ for further study.  Here are two views:

It could be that I was simply ready for a ‘learning moment’. I’ve been painting for several years and in that time have revisited the basics—bamboo, orchid, mum and plum—from time to time. Each time I’ve garnered something new from the workshop or practice session, usually about the brushwork or water control.

When I started skimming the pages of my Ju books I discovered he explained more about how to actually develop a full bamboo plant, one small branch at a time, one leaf cluster after another, ALL with purpose and reason for being where they were placed, and how they looked. There was a science to all the individual strokes and leaves. It truly is all about understanding the horn of a  deer.

And of course the branching method pertained to ALL plant formations; his book on the mum had more specific applications for flowers and trees.

Building up bamboo

So what is this thing called a deer horn and why is it so magical?

Ju says the important thing about the stroke is that the artist must feel the movement. “The performance is more important than the picture”, he writes.

He describes the basic stroke:

“(It)…begins with a pause and gradually fades away. Hold the brush upright, let the tip touch the paper, press gently (your hand is moving like a swing), gradually, gradually, slowly lift the brush up, up, up until it is away from the paper. Each line starts with a pause and ends with a point. Remember for shorter strokes, a longer pause.”

Each horn of deer has three strokes, which can be arranged in different ways. He shows four arrangements for practice. All of them have one longer stroke up the middle with one to the left and another to the right.

These offshoots MUST be staggered (you do NOT take them off the main stem from a single point—called FISHBONE—or take them off the same side—called FEATHER; and you do NOT make the offshoots the same length.)


It does not matter whether you do the lower one first and the higher one next, or in the reverse order; the important thing is to alternate sides and vary the lengths.


Leaves will come later, logically placed on the framework your initial horn-of-deer sets out.

Here is a practice piece to SHOW the relationship of leaves to a deer horn branch. (Ignore the poor leaf shapes, but the angles and proportions are good.)

In this practice piece you can see that the leaf form added to each branch of the horn is actually the same form.  Later in his book Ju names this leaf formation as a double goldfish tail, so-called because you place two sets of leaves near the end of the branch with each having a leaf starting on either side of the branch.   The technique reminds me of the ‘repeat motif’ design concept I’ve used in other crafts such as mosaics and quilting. (It also was helpful that I recently attended a workshop on painting goldfish and tail shapes were fresh in my mind!)  A key thing is to make the leaves of different proportions.

Here is a second visual painted after a Ju illustration for bamboo in the rain.  We want the branches and leaves to look weighted down by rain.

I spent a few hours trying to plant leaves on my deer horns, and soon realized the acquired knowledge had taken much of the guesswork out of painting bamboo. Whereas before I would pause after each leaf to try and figure out where to plant another, Ju’s insights made the decision-making MUCH simpler.  With only the ‘double goldfish tail’ as a leaf formation–Ju  gives us several more to add to the repertoire–I am suddenly painting bamboo leaves more confidently.  I KNOW where they belong!

I tried another ‘bamboo in the rain’ study; the leaf clusters looked too far apart with a big gap between them so I tucked another branch behind them in a softer tone:


My leaves are looking better in this study than they did in the previous one.


Build-a-tree made easy

Building up a tree or bamboo branch simply deploys repeat placements of ‘deer horns’ as shown below.  For the tree on the left, follow the groupings of deer horns made by strokes 1-2-3, 4-5-6, and 7-8-9.  Then 10, 11, 12, and 13 are added to ‘balance the look’.

The same goes for the tree outlined on the right.


Here is a composition I recently finished that needed some sort of object on the right to balance the painting. The inspirational composition of men playing Mah Jong had a  banana plant in the corner.  I wanted something smaller, and I wanted to apply my new knowledge of tree branching, so I tried a leafless no-name tree,using my newfound deer horn knowledge.


Ju goes on to explain appropriate ‘views’ that result from correct use of deer horn structures.

In the four images below branches named #1 all stretch TOWARD the viewer, and are weighted by leaves on their tips and side shoots. Branches #3 are pointing sideways, showing the full length of the branch with the side-view to our face. Branches #2 splits (bisects) the angle formed by branches #1 and #3.



To create branches that appear ‘below’ our line of sight, i.e. we are ostensibly looking down on them, Ju says simply widen the angles, as shown in the study below.


Before moving on to more complex leaf formations (and Ju does provide some great insights into building up bamboo compositions deploying a few simple leaf combinations) he recommends practice of several basic leaf arrangements based on the horn-of-deer structures examined thus far. It reminded me of playing with Lego building blocks.

I had to resist the urge to go surging forward, and take time to truly make these visuals stick in my mind. I knew the studies I had stumbled on were the equivalent of piano practice scales, and I’d best just get down to the business of practice, practice, practice.

This process is the reverse of learning to identify plants in the garden or in the wild. There you learn the shapes to look for, you go look for plant shapes, and then compare them in your mind’s eye to the remembered shape. Here, as a creator you learn to put the shapes where they belong, so that they look like the shapes you have in your mind’s eye. At long last I have some greater understanding of where, how and why I place the marks to get the pleasing look I’m aiming for: bamboo that looks as it should. Surely my command of the individual leaves will improve now that I can place them so much more readily. Less thinking means more painting, right?










Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, deer horn, painting bamboo, painting trees | 2 Comments

Not folding on the folds, six more fabric strokes

Despite bringing out a magnifying glass and examining each for distinctive features, I’m still not convinced the whole repertoire of 18 different brush strokes was ever widely used in oriental painting. (I used the word ‘oriental’ there, because my sources include at least one Japanese scholar/painter codifying traditional strokes used in Chinese brush painting; I don’t know if there’s some significance to that.) I can see evidence of many slim, undulating, almost parallel lines in the clothing of Wu Daozi’s people; they surely are the ‘strokes like cloud or water lines’ or maybe the ‘angleworms’.


The undulating lines for clothing in Wu Daozi’s figures are deftly applied for effect.

He definitely perfected a distinctive style for depicting clothing; mind you, we seem to be relying on copies made of his work for evidence, as the original wall murals were lost. There’s even one delightful legend of an artist who discovered a Wu Daozi cave mural, copied the image for his own understanding, and then trashed the original in a nearby river to prevent any other artist learning the secrets! (See for legends such as this one.)

I can see minimalist line work in Qi Baishi’s robes and they look like ‘reduced stroke’ or maybe the rough-hewn, dry wood or kindling stroke.


Qi Baishi used minimal lines in his figures

I’ve spent hours examining the figure paintings of Cheng Shifa; his children and animals are animated and humorous. The common folk depicted by Huong Zhou herding donkeys or tending to chickens also come to mind; their clothing details do involve thick and thin brush strokes, but I don’t detect a strong resemblance to any of the fabled 18. Then there’s the whole sub-sub genre within figure painting often called ‘beautiful women’. Their clothing would correctly be depicted in the lines called ‘like orchid strokes’, yet paintings of that ilk seem to be rendered with the same thick-and-thin outlining as any others.

Trusting that ‘all will be revealed in due course,’ or at least some insights gained, I soldier on with my sleuthing of the fabric fold techniques.

Translation wonders and woes

My unlocking of the mysteries of fabric fold brush strokes was made possible with the serendipitous assistance of an art group buddy, Jani Li. (I can’t begin to count the blessings of being in not one but two weekly art groups dedicated to the same interest in Chinese brush painting; there always seems to be someone around with exactly the expertise I need.)

Now, Jani did disclose what the top character of each of my 18 illustrations ‘said’ in Chinese without knowing the descriptive words contained in my several reference lists. And in all but one case she came up with identical/similar terms for the strokes. As noted, the concepts of ‘brushwood’ in one list is easily matched with ‘dry wood stroke’ or ‘kindling stroke’ in others. But others could have been less obvious.

At issue is that Chinese is a picture-based language; the symbols do not convey single sounds as do the letters in our Arabic alphabet, the building blocks to the written English language. It was therefore a real boon that Jani’s ‘translations’ meshed so closely to almost the entire list of brush strokes to be used for fabric folds.

As Ben Marsh wrote in his preface to his wonderful book:

The flexibility of the Chinese language makes necessary a word of caution against too literal a translation. In practically every case the Romanization is followed by an approximately literal rendering of the characters, which is likely to be more picturesque than definitive in English. Not only do the meanings of words shift in varying contexts and binomial combinations—the words cannot even be classified as established parts of speech. The complexity has been indicated, or at least suggested in some instances, but uncharted ramifications should be assumed for practically all.

The six that take me halfway home (continuing after the first three addressed in my last post)

4.  To build on my repertoire, I continued with what appeared to be a similar stroke to the last one (nail head start with rat tail ending) and had a similar name: upright nail head or just nail head stroke. My exhibit B showed the stroke in a complete little figure of an old man, and said it should be used for beggars, hermits and other such characters.  The strokes do result in an odd-looking individual.



Exhibit A did not show a full figure, and the strokes do not look quite as weird


Matching this stroke to anything in the Van Briessen line-up or the Huapa book was not easy. By the process of elimination, I concluded the corresponding Huapa listing could be ‘lines like driven stakes’.  OR perhaps this was the mysterious variation on fold lines # 19 that Van Briessen alluded to but did not demonstrate?

Here’s the image of ‘lines like driven stakes’ from the Huapa (and thus also in Marsh’s Plate VII).


Fabric Fold # 4 b Lines like Driven Stakes

Ben Marsh provides the Chinese name: chuch t’ou ting miao or chuch t’ou miao. He writes: a blunt brush is brought down firmly with a vigorous dot, and the stroke is carried to a point. The brush must go quickly like a fast horse.

The description is much the same as for ‘nail head start ending in rat tail’. Here’s my first attempt at replicating the composition.  (My strokes do not have much ‘drive’; perhaps I was thinking too much about defining the individuals and not enough about the nature of the fabric strokes.)


Only the underarm stroke for the older man has the characteristic start for ‘driven stake’.

5.  I chose the stroke called date stone or date seed next because I discovered I had several full little figures to use as studies. The lines in the woman’s clothing in the Huapa book appeared quite ordinary, but images in Exhibits A and B were both distinctive, so too was a small figure found in I-Hsieung Ju’s orchid book.


These are the illustrations for date seed and olive stone in Exhibit A; the difference is in the length of the thin trail between seeds

Marsh’s book gave the Chinese name as: tsao ho miao and he wrote: practically a series of connected tien which are fine at the ends and thick in the middle; made with the fine point of a large brush. Also called Kuan Yin miao.



Fabric Fold # 5 Date Seed or Date Stone (Huapa)

While trying to replicate the Ju figure I discovered it had a small goatee beard and was therefore a man, not the female I had originally thought I was looking at. Robed figures can be deceptive!   Here’s my replication of Ju’s figure done with date seed stroke:



My study of the date seed stroke based on the Huapa book is on the right; I even tried the floor definition as per the example.

6. Lines like a series of olive stones or kan lan miao appeared next in the Marsh book (Plate VII again) and he wrote: similar to the preceding (date stones) but the heavy parts are proportionately longer. A large stiff-pointed brush is used with a zig-zag motion. The brush is brought up promptly at the end of each stroke. I isolated the image from the Huapa book.


Fabric Fold # 6 Olive seed

Exhibit A/B noted this one should be used for ghost or dreams.

While doing this study I realized a fine point was helpful, and so was a wet brush. I was able to develop a rhythm as I worked over my study figure. I also made sure with these figure studies to ‘rough sketch’ the figure using pale indigo first, then I could concentrate on the kind of stroke I was applying over the pale lines. (See below) You can be more confident with the outline stroke when you know exactly where you’re headed with the brush tip. Trying to form the right body shape AND form the right stroke simultaneously doesn’t allow for the focus and confidence of delivery you want.

img_5499      img_5500

7. Broken reeds or weeds is how the next stroke is interpreted; the Chinese term is che lu miao. Marsh wrote: long, stiff, not very fine, with sudden changes of direction. A pointed brush is used in a zig-zag pattern. The pattern is called a p’ieh na, because the angles resemble those made by the strokes slanting downwards to the left (p’ieh) and to the right (na) in writing. Plate VII is again the reference.


Fabric Fold # 7 Broken Weeds or Reeds

I read and re-read this instruction after I’d done the study, and realized I hadn’t thought enough about the rapid changes in direction. More study is needed on this one AND I have to think of stalks of grass bent at intervals as I do the lines…


8. Lines like iron wires was my next stroke with the Chinese name of t’ich hsein miao. Marsh described them: even in thickness throughout their length, very hard and stiff, with sharp angles. A vertical brush is used, and the strokes are long. The effect resembles chisel cuts in stone. Plate VII.


Fabric Fold # 8 Steel or Iron Wires

I liked that I had full figures for examples here, but again, my first efforts were not revealing too much distinctiveness from other strokes. Here’s my study of ‘iron wires’.


9. Lines like lute strings became my last choice for the first half of these codified fabric fold strokes. Translated as ch’in hsien miao. Marsh wrote further that the strokes resemble lute strings dropped on a table; long thin sinuous lines. Plate VI was referenced. His description: the point of a vertical brush is used and the brush is brought slowly and carefully down to the paper, then the stroke is made evenly and smoothly, the heart and hand functioning as one unit.


Fabric Fold #9 Lute string



Reaching the halfway mark in my line studies for fabric folds I had to ponder yet again why, why oh why did the ancient masters consider certain variations so important to an overall composition?

I’d learned they tried to match kinds of lines in rocks to the style of a landscape (and sometimes the size—i.e. large paintings warranted one kind, small paintings another). Having grown up in the Rocky Mountains I’ve seen a lot of rocks. I was more inclined to believe the various strokes defining rocks were done to reflect the kinds of rock, i.e. sedimentary, igneous, etc. And it is unnatural to have a huge variety of rocks co-existing in one setting. But clothing is man-made and older ‘robes’ would likely be made of natural fibres—cotton, silk, wool, linen—all of which would drape beautifully. Well, maybe the beggar/hermit/pauper would have worn sackcloth or burlap and that has what dressmakers call a ‘rough hand’. That would bulk up in crotches, elbows, and underarms; only when old and ratty would burlap fold softly around body parts.

Then I read elsewhere in Van Briessen’s book that all the names and distinctions were the purview of the art critic or historian, that painters needed only to know how to execute the strokes and use them when they wanted to for effect. Artists need not clutter up their heads with the fancy names and mundane details. Ha! That will be my story, as well.

Not one to abandon a horse in midstream, I’ve still got nine more brush strokes to sort out! Confounding the project is that my growing familiarity with my several lists indicates not all lists are the same!

I made notes on the differences among my several lists, and also recorded several findings regarding the execution of the strokes studied so far. I considered that maybe if I chose ONE figure in a robe, and then painted the same figure nine times in light indigo ink all in a row (or maybe a single setting such as a party or street scene), and THEN tried to render the nine robes each using a different kind of stroke, then and only then might my eyes start to truly SEE what the kind of fabric fold stroke could do to the ‘look’ of a figure. That did seem like an awful lot of work.

One true blessing to the fabric folds study thus far was that I was gaining confidence in painting freehand figures.  So my foray into fabric folds has not been entirely ‘spilled ink’.  Nine more to go!


Despite not gaining control over replicating particular strokes, I’m grinding out the compositions–six of this one in one sitting!






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

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