Chinese painting

Characteristics of the Technique

The technique of traditional Chinese painting is divided into two major styles: meticulous (gongbi) and freehand (xieyi). Meticulous style requires great care and grace; the strict composition has fine elaboration. The effect is highly decorative. Freehand style generalizes shapes and displays rich brushwork and ink technique. It is easier for beginners, hence this book introduces the techniques of freehand painting, covering brush techniques and the use of ink and colour.

Brush techniques

Lines play a decisive role in the formation of images in traditional Chinese painting, and the variations in lines are, in the main, determined by the method of using the brush. Consequently, in learning the basic techniques of traditional Chinese painting, you should first grasp the basic techniques of using the brush. For instance, you need to pay attention to how you hold the brush, to start a stroke, continue it and come to an end, how you move your brush quickly or slowly, lightly or heavily, and how you vary lifting or pressing your brush. In general, the brush can be divided into three parts: tip, belly and root. Their properties and functions differ from one another. Sometimes you paint with the tip of the brush, as light as gossamer on the paper. Sometime^ you press the root of the brush heavily on the paper. Sometimes you use the belly of the brush to bring out charms full of vitality. There are also times you use several parts of the brush in one stroke. This depends entirely on how flexibly you use your brush to present an object. If you succeed, your lines will be vivid and forceful, and you will bring out the spiritual characteristics of the object you're portraying.

The use of the brush in freehand painting allows for a full range of variations.
You should paint flexibly and freely. Do not mechanically copy strokes, or your painting will be stagnant and insignificant. How can you make your painting unconstrained? To begin with, you should observe carefully physical and spiritual changes in objects and the state of mind you intend to present, then you have a clear conception of what you wish to paint. When you paint in this way, your painting will be vivid, interesting and lifelike.

There is a saying in Chinese about having a picture of bamboo in your mind. It means that before an artist paints, he must carefully observe the growth and shape of the bamboo and have them clearly in mind. Then in painting the bamboo will be finished at one go and depicted vividly.

In freehand painting you should pay attention to how you hold the brush. Do not move your fingers only. It is important to coordinate them with your wrist, elbow and shoulder. You should practise until you are able to paint with your wrist suspended. Thus you may paint with ease the longest line, the roundest circle, and bamboo poles or willow twigs several feet long.

The use of ink

Ink occupies an exceedingly important position in traditional Chinese painting, whether it is figure painting, landscape painting or flower-and-bird painting, pure line drawing, ink-and-wash, light colouring or heavy colouring. Black is the main colour of traditional Chinese painting, and black has five shades (see p. 10). Th.e use of ink involves four processes: outlining showing the shades and texture of rocks and mountains by light ink stroke, applying dots and colouring. In the use of ink you should stress that "colour does not impair ink" and "colour does not destroy the shape." Images are primary. Brushwork and ink depict the images, and colours only enrich them. You should also understand the relationship between water and ink. What gives ink-and-wash paintings their unique flavour is that they make use of darkness or lightness, density or dilution to present the light and colour possessed by various objects, especially the particular effect formed between water, ink and unprocessed xuan paper. Even a painting executed a long, long time ago still looks refreshing and full of vitality today. Hence, in learning traditional Chinese painting, you should grasp the use of water and ink. If water and ink are well used, a painting is already halfway done. If they are not well used, it will not be a traditional Chinese painting.

In using ink, you must pay attention to the following points: 1) When grinding an ink stick on an ink slab, grind slowly rather than quickly, thickly rather than thinly. 2) Before painting, always wash the brush and ink slab, so as to prevent impurities or sediment in the ink. 3) Old ink, namely, ink ground the previous day, cannot be used to paint, especially for flower-and-bird painting in the meticulous style. Such ink easily oozes or becomes light when it comes into contact with water. This defect becomes more serious when painting on silk. Old ink sometimes can be used for landscape painting, but the painting will not be sufficiently bright and pure. Sometimes you may blend old and new ink for use.

The use of color

The use of colour in traditional Chinese painting stresses the intrinsic colour of the object, varying the shades on the basis of the intrinsic colours. Very early in ancient China the principle was set forth: "Colours should be presented in accordance with the requirements of different categories of objects." Colour in Chinese painting is mostly used after finishing the basic modelling with brushwork and ink. It involves variations of brightness of the intrinsic colours, mutual contrast and harmonious relations between various intrinsic colours, coordination of brush-work and ink technique and consideration of colours' textural functions on paper and silk. Traditional Chinese painting does not depict the complexities of light and colour, but, all the same, it achieves truthful effect with exceedingly artistic appeal.

The method of colouring in traditional Chinese painting, stressing mainly the intrinsic colours, does not aim at naturalistic imitation. It proceeds from content and is subordinate to the requirements of the theme. It can exaggerate to the fullest extent and boldly change the intrinsic colours of the object, bringing out the theme prominently and expressing the artist's ideas and feelings to achieve ideal artistic effect and producing direct, pure, and bright aesthetic appeal.

We shall illustrate specific methods of colouring in the plates, so shall not explain further here. But beginners should be reminded to pay attention to one point: When you paint on raw xuan paper, you must pay attention to dryness and moist-ness, thickness and thinness of the ink. Generally, when the painting is moist, the colour looks heavier, and after the painting dries, the colour is lighter. Hence, when you paint, the colours should be slightly heavy. Then they will be appropriate after the painting has dried.