Expressing the Chi With Chinese Brush Painting
Grace and Beauty
Chinese brush paintings are meant to be an expression of the essence of the subject – not a mere ‘photographic’ likeness.
Unlike Western Impressionists, the Chinese brush painter makes no corrections or changes to the painting as they go along. Brush strokes are meant to be confident yet free-flowing and, although formed by following traditional techniques, they are meant to represent a spontaneous expression of the subject as seen by the artist.
Finding the Chi
Finding the “Chi” (the movement of the life force) in a subject and expressing it in the painting requires becoming one with the subject. Quietly meditating on the subject of the painting and seeing the beauty inherent in it is a practise employed by master painters.
One of the best ways of achieving this is to start the learning process by painting the Four Gentlemen.
Four Gentlemen or Four Noble Ones
The Four Gentlemen in Chinese Art
The ‘Four Gentlemen’ are represented by four beautiful plants depicting the unfolding of the four seasons: orchid (spring), bamboo (summer), chrysanthemum (autumn), and plum blossom (winter). When painted in one group they are known as the Four Gentlemen of Chinese brush painting and have been used since the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Painting this group involves all the basic brush techniques. The apprentice brush painter (of which I am one) is usually taught to paint one of these plants until a degree of mastery is gained. Then she will move on to the next of the ‘Four Gentlemen’.
When a novice begins the learning process of Chinese brush painting she follows the ‘teacher’ or ‘master’ precisely. The novice learns to mix the ink, apply the ink to the brush correctly, to use the correct brush strokes in the correct order, and to develop a style of freedom of movement that is both confident and artistic. A Chinese brush painter never paints over what is already painted. There are no touch-ups or alterations. The painter is meant to depict the nature of the subject not a photographic likeness or exact replica of a model.
Bamboo – An Example Using Only Black Ink
The bamboo is strong, upright, and dependable. He may bend with the wind, the storm and the rain, but he never breaks. He is a true gentleman of courage and endurance. (The Book of Bamboo by I-Hsiung Jun (1989).
The way one mixes the black ink with water to have three or four different shades of black, is only one of the prime considerations. The ink must not be too thick and dry or too thin and ‘runny’. The first brush strokes involve depicting the stalk of the bamboo. Lighter shades of black ink are used for background stalks and darker shades of black are used for prominent stalks. The length of the stalk is painted in one continuous movement breaking slightly at the nodes of the stalk. The way the artist holds the brush and the confidence (not force) of the stroke will produce the essence of the bamboo.
The branches and the leaves of the bamboo require carefully learned techniques of placement of the branches and leaves and the correct layout of the leaves in groups of three leaves, five leaves, and overlapping leaves.
Grapes – An Example Using a Combination of Colors
Mixing different colored ink to achieve shades and nuances is equally important. But applying these different colors and shades to the brush in the right order, is an art in and of itself. For example, when painting the grapevine leaves (which should be very dark) you have to paint them in a manner that is best shown by the bottom leaf in the painting to the right. It takes much practise using two shades of black and green. Remember that Chinese brush painting has a certain style that is part of the technique and it is important to incorporate this style while learning the techniques.
When painting the grapes, you mix shades of red and green ink. Then fill the brush from the tip to two thirds of your brush with green ink, then apply the red on top of the green but from tip to about one quarter of the brush. Then holding the brush in the correct manner and applying it to paper with a curving motion, you should be able to achieve (with practise) a cluster of grapes that is mostly green but with shadings of red. This is to indicate the ripening of the fruit. Very carefully you leave unpainted a small portion of the grape near the middle. This indicates light shining from a certain direction. You complete the grapes by placing one small “dot” near the bottom of the grape. This technique is breathtaking when achieved with confident ease.
Roses, Chinese Brush Painting
All those of us who have an appreciation for Oriental ‘impressionistic’ art and a strong desire to learn how to express the chi, patiently strive to master ancient Chinese brush painting techniques in order to represent a part of nature in a symbolic way. We continue this challenging discipline because as we experience the mastering of principles, while learning to express the inner beauty of the subject, it brings a confident harmony and balance into our lives.