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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


Bravo Makota!

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













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In a class of its own: the Red Panda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Red Panda books

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

 Strategy for painting:

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

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


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

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


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


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



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Eleventh hour, eleventh animal: the dog

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

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

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

First lesson, spell the name right

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Painting the Peke

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

Studying Kwo’s art I derived the following strategy:

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

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

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

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

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


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


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









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This little piggy went painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painting pig

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

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


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

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

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


Pig noses bestow good luck

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

Butchartt Tacca

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

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

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

Here is Pietro Tacca's original bronze piglet.

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

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

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


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The power of Yong: an eight-stroke engine

The Chinese character for “everlasting”, “forever” or “eternal” is an amazingly complex character. It embodies eight brush strokes, which also happen to be the eight different kinds of brushstrokes used in calligraphy. And thus if one practices this character, one is in essence practicing the eight strokes used in CBP as well.


Here’s an explanation for those who like to go to the source.

This Wikipedia entry on Yong includes an animated execution of the symbol. And here is an image that shows and names all eight strokes:


They are painted in the order numbered below. I have also noted where some of them are used in CBP and have indicated the path of the brush tip with red.

  1. Dian—the dot. Now this is not just any old dabbing on paper, ‘the dot’ is made in a particular manner. Touch your brush to the paper, move up towards the top of your paper, move round a bit, and then back. Do all this in a minimal space. Dots—which you mostly paint in as moss dots, stamen specks or eyes of small creatures—thus have movement or life to them. The pollen dots of wild orchid are an entirely different matter; traditionalists have a patterned arrangement of little tick-like movements in mind when they paint those.  (The path of the brush tip is indicated by the red line; solid black shows how the stroke should look.)


  1. Heng—the horizontal stroke. Despite the name, you’re not trying for a perfectly level stroke here. After your starting ‘looped back swing’ to the left you head right on a slight upward angle, and then finish with a loop back around to the right. An ancient calligrapher also named this stroke ‘jade table’. The stroke is what I’ve come to know as ‘bone’ stroke, and with some adjustments in the end bits, becomes the node stroke for bamboo.HengStrokes_0001
  2. Shu—the vertical stroke. This one does have two variations (a rounded ‘dew drop’ end, achieved with the usual back-swing movement, and a pointy ending appropriately called ‘needlepoint’.) You start with brush tip to paper, make a loop to the right and proceed toward the bottom of your paper, then finish with the desired end. Vertical strokes get used in many ways; the little nail-head stamens of plum and other blossoms are the first to come to my mind.                                              ShuStrokes_0004
  3. Gou—the hook. This stroke is really just a modified Shu-stroke. Yu start the same as painting Shu, but with a point hook that goes up to the left. For now, I don’t recall an explicit application in CBP but I’m sure there are some.                                                                GouStrokes_0005
  4. Tiao or ti—the rising stroke. This stroke begins with the usual little back loop to the left, and then heads up in an angle to the right as though heading for two-o’clock on a timepiece; you keep it short and lift off to end with a point. Bamboo leaves come to mind, i.e. those that point upward as in sunshine not rain.                                         TiaoStrokes_0002
  5. Wan—the descending stroke. This stroke starts with a distinctive backstroke and then heads down to the left to end in a point, roughly the seven o’clock position.  (My book makes no distinction between Wan and Pi, discussed below.)
  6. Pi—slanting left. This stroke makes a loop toward the right before heading down in a curving slant to the left. As part of Yong pi starts outside and connects to the downward stroking Shu.  PiStrokes_0007
  7. Na—slanting right. This stroke comes at the end of creating Yong; it starts with a little loop toward the left before heading down towards the right (roughly five o’clock). The brush moves steady in the middle but then you press down slightly to flatten it for a wider ending. Lift the brush to leave a pointy end.  NaStrokes_0003
  8. Zhe—turning stroke. Some calligraphers will describe this as a separate stroke, yet it really is just a combination of heng and shu. You start like a ‘jade table’ but then turn the brush to continue downward and end with a dewdrop.                                                           ZheStrokes_0006

I was introduced to Yong as a warm-up exercise for painting bamboo. The eight strokes get you into the rhythm for painting bamboo leaves in different directions, as well as doing several bone strokes (those that begin left in order to go right and end in the same manner, with a slight reverse move) that are part of bamboo stalks, leaves and nodes.

What a magical character, that Yong. That it also represents ‘eternity’ is rather fitting; some of us feel like we struggle with bamboo forever!

Fundamental strokes and their use:

We westerners typically come to CBP after playing in other media such as oil paints, acrylics or watercolor. We don’t get the traditional Chinese pre-painting regimen of ’20 years of calligraphy’ followed by ’20 years of the four gentlemen’ before we attempt developing our skills with our preferred subjects and eventually our own personal style. So, when I hear that painting this one calligraphic character can advance one’s familiarity with all eight strokes essential to CBP, you’ll know I’m on it!

Hurrah for Yong!


My library contains two books with a lot of related content.


  1. Chinese Brushwork in Calligraphy and Painting, its history, aesthetics and Techniques by Kwo Da-Wei
  2. My First Book of Chinese Calligraphy by He Zhihong and Guillaume Olive

I must confess that the first book I discovered several years ago and foolishly put it aside; it appeared too theoretical, all about calligraphy; I wanted to paint real pictures not take on another language…(silly me). Recently I re-discovered it and with my newfound appreciation for Yong found the book contained a lot of very helpful stuff. Chapter 14, titled ‘the principal brushstrokes and their application in Painting and Calligraphy’ is simply loaded with helpful details and illustrations. I guess timing was of the essence.

The second book is clearly geared for children and/or youth. However, in the days before the Internet, we freelance writers shared one big secret—the juvenile section in any Library was your go-to place for ‘quick studies’ of any subject. When you needed to quickly get a handle on a new field of study before heading off to an interview you wanted titles like ‘All you need to know about X’. This book is just that kind of treasure. It explains and details basic calligraphic strokes. And guess what, my friend Yong is right on the cover! There’s also an instructional CD in the back jacket.

I can’t possibly rehash in one post all the great information gleaned from my recent foray into the study of calligraphy and the brushwork in CBP. Kwo Da-Wei provides an in-depth look at the relationships and I recommend his book for any CBP enthusiast.

Here is an excerpt from Kwo’s book that shows the major strokes used in painting.  They include 1. Centre brush 2. Side brush 3. Turning brush 4. Rolling brush and 5. folding brush.  One can easily see that ‘folding brush’ is used for bending orchid leaves, and ‘turning brush’ for wisteria or morning glory vines.


Other chapters in Kwo’s book delve into such things as moisture, pressure, speed, angles, washes, layers, and so on. He illustrates his observations abundantly. There is much in here for the western-born Chinese brush painter who’s not had her 20-year apprenticeship in calligraphy. The book I once put aside is now often consulted, and trying to paint Yong has become my warm-up exercise.


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Riding high, painting Water Buffalo

Chinese brush painters do love contrasts—thick and thin lines, smooth and rough textures, gentle and strong creatures. And when they can cram all their favorite ‘yin and yang’ principles into a single composition, so much the better.

No other convention does it so simply as putting a small boy on the back of a huge water buffalo. One 20th century painter (Li Keran 1907-1989) loved painting them so much he became known as the ‘buffalo painter’.

Mentored by the likes of Huang Binong, Xu Beihong and Qi Baishi, he developed a distinctive landscape style and nurtured his figure painting significantly. His little ‘cowboys’ sitting atop a buffalo are executed with a minimal of lines and simple skin-tone washes, yet they betray considerable individuality.

Keran did for the water buffalo what Xu Beihong did for horse, Huang Binong for landscape, and Qi Baishi for shrimp. His studio became known as “master cow hall”. Once you see a few of his paintings (such as on this site) you quickly recognize others. A few albums dedicated to his water buffalo are in circulation, and several paintings frequently are anthologized.  Writer Josef Hejzlar not only included several Keran water buffalo scenes in the book shown below, he selected one  for the cover jacket as well.

Hezlar book

Identity complex:

After collecting several water buffalo paintings, and considering when/how I’d paint the ox (second animal in the Chinese zodiac) I recognized a need for clarity. Was the water buffalo an Asian ox? Were they two different species? Were they even related? My findings confirmed: two beasts, only one Chinese symbol, Niú which looks like this:


Apparently the symbol is rather generic and can mean any number of bovine-like animals—the cow as we know it in the western hemisphere, the yak, the ox, and the water buffalo.   From Wikipedia:

The Chinese language term used for “ox” is rather non-specific. It can refer to a male, castrated or not, or to a female, young or old, of various species of the bovine family which have been domesticated for use as draft animals, with their strength being harnessed for various purposes, especially carting loads and various types of farm work, such as plowing. Niú also can be construed as singular or plural.

Symbolism and mythology:

Domesticated over 5,000 years ago, the water buffalo is used throughout China to plow the wet rice fields. And when his work is done, he’s led into a nearby stream for a bath. Typically small children are tasked with caring for the animal and hence there is some realism to the boy-with-buffalo compositions. (I do love it when translators mistakenly use the English form ‘cowboy’ for those young herders!)

In Chinese legend the ox was the second animal to arrive when the Buddha invited all the animals of creation to come to him. Aware of his own slow speed the ox set out ahead of the designated day; clever rat too considered how he might arrive first and hopped on the back of ox. As ox lumbered into the gathering place, rat nimbly jumped out front to arrive first.

The ox/water buffalo thus came to symbolize strength, benevolence, patience, submissiveness and steady toil.  In ancient times the creature was also used as a costly sacrifice in rituals connected with agricultural fertility.

Curiously, the ox figures in a major metaphorical explanation of Zen Buddhism, aptly called the “Ten ox-herding principles”.  Each of ten steps en route to self-enlightenment is likened to a single step or phase of hunting for, spying, observing, coaxing and cajoling one’s noble beast to return home to the barn.

Oxen are respected and venerated throughout Asia. Their untamed animal nature means that they are considered dangerous when undisciplined but powerfully useful when tamed.  Consequently they have also come to represent the attributes of sage and contemplative learning.

Lao Tzu, the alleged father of  Taoism, is often depicted in Chinese art riding an ox.  The image symbolizes his being at one with his own true nature.  Here’s a widely circulated example:

 LaoTzuOnGreen Buffalo

There’s also a delightful ancient tale of how the heavenly ox came to earth, illustrated in an old cave painting:


According to an ancient myth the original oxen lived in Heaven as stars. The Emperor of Heaven, taking pity on the starving people of the Earth and wishing to help them, sent the oxen with the message that if they worked hard they would starve no more, and that they could be sure to have a meal at least every three days. The ox got the message mixed-up and instead told the people that the Emperor of Heaven promised them that if they worked hard they would be sure to eat at least three times every day. This put the Emperor of Heaven in a bit of a predicament.  To punish the ox for getting the message wrong, and not to appear as a liar, he went along with the three meals a day but banished the ox to earth for all time as a draft animal used in heavy farm work.

(And the best we can come up with in western culture is ‘shooting the messenger”!)


Once I had sorted out large draft animals and confirmed water buffalo as the topic of choice, I sought CBP guides.

  1. A growing collection of Li Keran paintings, some found online, others in anthologies. (Yes, I had originally filed them for their delightful small male figures and my love of figure painting.)
  2. Jane Dwight’s Bible of Chinese Brush Painting.  As usual this reference book offers a quick study of both the ox and the water buffalo on separate pages, but no cute little ‘cowboys’ to provide contrast.
  3. An obscure book on loan from an art friend had what I originally took to be water buffalo with small herders, but my informed self now recognized the creatures as cows and calves. The figures of small boys were transferable.
  4. My online search led to Henry Li’s full lesson on water buffalo, which he promotes on Youtube here.
  5. And then I also found this delightful Raggedy Bird production showing three animals partially submerged.

That’s another bonus in painting this particular animal—you can hide part of his body under water and not have to tackle the stubby legs or awkward hooves. It does require you have some skill in imagining water lines.

Form and Shape:

From Henry Li’s promo and my obscure little book I learned the underlying shapes to the face and body of a water buffalo. The insights are all about squares and rectangles. You use mostly sidestrokes with a soft medium brush to convey the solid body form, and fine lines for details such as the horn. The eyes, nose, and topknot of hair are all in darker ink.  The tail is short with a tassel end.  Legs are short and wide,  and end in dark cleft hooves.

Here’s my study of the buffalo head; note the box shaped snout end.


Here’s the profile of the body; look for the parts divided into threes and note he’s about twice as long as he is tall.


Enticed again by the fun in painting small figures I went on to try emulating a Keran composition. I discovered several showing boys on animals and tried a few:

OxWBstudy_0002 OxWBstudy_0003 OxWBstudy_0001

And then I tried a larger composition showing a boy on an animal under trees with red leaves blowing in the wind.  Keran’s inspiration for  numerous such compositions was an old poem. I kind of wish I could get his inscriptions translated, for surely the poems are just as wild and enticing as the paintings.  Here’s my boy on a beast with the tree branches ready for the leaves to be added.


I played with my Biff brush on scrap paper and then dropped in red leaves.


I’ve yet to paint a buffalo in water or at work in the rice fields, and there’s also the convention of a flute-playing boy riding high on the back of a beast.  So many options…


Shortly after posting this entry I discovered a treasure in a local bookstore–a model water buffalo that appears to be anatomically and proportionately accurate!  When you’re not too familiar with an animal, such models certainly help in realistic sketching.

WaterBuffModel1 WaterBuffModel2


Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting figures, painting water buffalo | 1 Comment

Fan-dancing with the tiger

While leafing through my resource materials analyzing classic cat poses (see last post) I tripped over one showing tigers painted on fans.


Artist Xia Shanhe included these inspirational compositions in a book dedicated to painting tiger.

Just last month I had explored fan painting after receiving gift papers from another artist.  I painted an eagle on one, but still had another paint-ready fan with a gold surface.


Other members of our art group who also received fan paper from Cindy were yet discussing what they might do with their treasures. One was planning orchid, another thought lotus leaves with a kingfisher, and the third remained undecided. Tiger is not a common subject for fan painting.

When I shared my findings, Lotus was quick to notice the one with a tiger profile on the lower left contemplating the tip of his own curvy tail (which entered the fan shape from above right) was painted on a gold background. Ostensibly his body twisted up and around such that the tail hung down in his near vision. Lotus reminded me that my remaining unpainted fan was gold. “Oh, you MUST paint him on your gold fan” she urged.


Convergence of inspirations

I looked at the composition more closely and pondered the possibility of trying it. By the time I got home from art group, I was considering the connection between tiger head on the left, and the tail on the right. The facial expression was one of puzzlement mixed with annoyance. It was definitely a fixed feline stare. But the body stance was not quite right, I figured.

Cats usually extend their tail in such as way as to ‘balance’ their body. Their heavily muscled arms and legs are like coiled springs, tightly wound up most of the time, and the tail thus serves like the balance pole used by a tightrope walker—it gets “pushed” as an equalizing force to offset a push in another part of the body. Hence the tail usually extends in the manner of a sine curve, with the tip ever so slightly raised. Only when a cat is at rest, usually sitting on a ledge or ground, does the tail relax and the tip then curls toward its body, or gets flicked gently back and forth.

I hunted for photographs of tigers in semi profile with a body contorted in this manner, and with the tail raised and swinging towards the nose of the cat. All tigers I examined held their tails extended as balancing rods, with tips pointing up; none were curled down and none were held out in visual range.


This is the only image–a brush painting–I could find of a tiger with his tail curled in his line of vision. Alas, I do not know the artist’s name.

I then took pencil to paper, traced the part of tiger in my inspirational fan, and then tried sketching the full cat body to connect both head and tail.


A sketch of the fan tiger as painted looks a bit odd


I found I needed to put paws in front to “see” the tiger posed as in the painting.

I found the twisting body could work, if the cat’s front paws were out front and more of the hind and rear left leg defined. The artist had indeed had a clever idea, not necessarily realistically portrayed.

I used up several sheets of tracing paper, trying various tail placements with eye direction in the head on the left. When I thought I had a workable sketch, I planned the stripe patterns more thoroughly and thought through my tiger fan painting.


Painting Strategy:

  1. I worked out the full body of a tiger posed such that he was twisted around staring at the tip of his tail; I super-imposed the fan shape over the sketch to cut off the middle of his body, leaving head on the left and tail entering the right side of the fan from the top.
  2. I cut out the main shapes and lightly traced the outlines on to my gold fan with a soft charcoal pencil.
  3. Not knowing how ink would behave on the gold paper (TOB suggested use a very dry brush to start, because you can always add moisture but not take back) I decided to ink in the tail first. It was a section unto itself and allowed some wiggle room in terms of width, curve, and length. I started with light ink and a detail brush, moving up to darker ink.
  4. I proceeded to the tiger front end, starting with a light ink outline, enhancing the stripes with dark ink, and finally adding color washes with a large orchid brush.
  5. I painted the eyes green and used a very fine brush to do the whiskers. Then I worked on the colored fur some more, adjusting stripes and body creases where I could.

First step was to define the tiger in light ink



I then started to darken the stripes with black ink


After a short break to catch my breath and ponder results, I added colors


I decided to place my chop in the lower right corner, not parallel to the fan edge as some artists do in fan shapes. Perhaps if there was accompanying calligraphy then the alternate placement would better suit the composition.

Inasmuch as the fan-shaped paper influenced the direction for my study of tiger body painting (okay, it ‘took over’ the project) the project did advance my understanding of body stripes and facial markings.  That was intended to be blog post part 2 on tiger, and so it shall be.  Unless of course another ‘happy accident’ should intervene!






Posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting tiger, paper trials | 2 Comments