I started this painting of Lotus and Kingfisher on thin, raw xuan paper from HMay Art (HM 004). It’s a good paper, but like all papers, it takes getting used to (note: this paper comes in white and an off-white antique look. I used the white.).
Step 1: Black Ink Mixed with Water
For the leaves, I chose a large brush from HMay Art that holds a lot of ink and water. The paper was runnier than I expected and the black lotus leaves on the right lost their crisp edges as the ink spread. To prevent the flower petals from running, I used pure black, which was a bit harsh to my eye. Grey would have been better. I was tempted to throw the painting away and start again, but I decided to push it a bit further.
Step 2: Coloring the Flowers
For the flowers I used a combination of yellow, orange and red (Marie's Watercolors). Coloring the flowers shifted the attention from the leaves to the flowers, but those blurry leaf edges still annoyed me. You can watch me paint lotus flowers here.
Step 3: Adding Background Elements
To give depth to the composition, I added green grasses and splashes of color in the background. I painted them lightly so they wouldn't compete with the foreground leaves. Unfortunately, my delicate strokes were totally overpowered by the black leaves and merely looked wimpy.
Step 4: When in doubt, add Outline!
Adding veins and strong black to the edges of the lotus leaves gave them more focus – which of course made the grasses look even wimpier. A little grey outlining on the grasses, however, gave them more weight, while still keeping them in the background.
Step 5: Taking a Risk
At this point, I decided to throw all caution to the winds and add a bird, always scary when you hope it will be the crowning glory of the painting but could turn out awful and ruin the whole thing. The kingfisher's belly color combines with the flower tones and leads the eye upwards, giving more mass to this flower and emphasizing its importance compared to the second, smaller flower.
Step 6: Success! Risk Pays off!
Success! Adding the kingfisher firmly stole the focus of attention from the leaves, but the bird’s turning head draws the eye back to the leaves, keeping the viewer – I hope! – happily roaming round in the scene and discovering more details.
The painting measures 14"x27" (35 cm x 68 cm).
The moral of the story: Never give up! The worst that can happen is you end up throwing away a small piece of paper! In the meantime, you are training your eye and your critical faculties to see possibilities, and you are splashing in the ink, which is always fun! Good luck and happy painting on your lotus!
I welcome comments and questions, so don't be shy!
How did that crane get there? How does a landscape develop? Where do the ideas come from? Have you wondered sometimes just where the image came from? In some centuries, artists were encouraged to 'follow the masters' and not invent their own compositions. Some contemporary Chinese painters start off with a clear plan in mind; others - like myself - allow the story to unfold stroke by stroke.
In most cases, the landscape starts off with trees and rocks, establishing the foreground. Here, I have suggested either a path or a stream with the rocks; I am leaving my options open because I have no composition in mind yet.
With a bouncy brush (Inkston #0503) I am letting my strokes dance on the paper - the rocks are hard and forceful, the trees are vigorous and intertwining. This is the most fun part! I don't have to think too much because I still have plenty of options. One tree has outline leaves, one has green leaves which will get veins added later, and above all arches a sprightly willow.
Aha! The crane has popped in! The way the rocks arrowed down to a V made a natural place for a focal point. I could have continued the path or stream to lead the eye back into the painting, but given the size of the rock on the right that option seemed a bit cramped - options are starting to narrow! Putting the crane there looking towards the front gives another layer of depth to the composition.
Time to color: I'm using Marie's indigo and yellow tubes, and brown and orange chips from Blue Heron Arts. The colors are a little pale at the moment and I will strengthen them when I put a wash on the back of the paper. This is a thin, raw xuan, with a high percentage of Wingceltis bark which allows for a good flow of color, while still maintaining crisp outlines (Inkston Perfect 70 xuan).
Here is a trailer for my new video on how to paint grapes. You can purchase the video here:
You can read more on tips to paint grapes in my blog post here. Please let me know in the comments section if you have questions and I will address them in this post. There is no question too dumb to ask!
Here are the basics:
The Chinese brush style of painting that I demonstrate is called 'spontaneous' or 'splashing ink'. It is also known as 'paint the idea'. When we paint birds, we are not looking to produce a photorealistic bird, but more the idea of 'birdy-ness'. So we may exaggerate the beaks and eyes to bring out character. Frequently the birds are making a commentary on the rest of the painting so the birds need to have an aliveness that we can read into. Click on "Read More" to watch a video and see how to paint them.
Lotus flowers can be painted in many different ways in Chinese brush painting style. In this video I am demonstrating the outline and color technique. Some artists color their flowers meticulously; because this is a quick demonstration I am using more of a 'splashing ink' style. I used dark grey ink for a gestural outline and carmine, blue and yellow for the colors. The brush is a 'Happy Dot', which has a great point and springiness. You could also add stamens in black, red or yellow when the painting dries.
Here is a different style of lotus flower, using white on top of red while the paint is still wet to create the petals. If you wait until the flower is dry, you can add a wash to the back of the paper and the white petals will show up clearly.
Below you will see how the flowers pop out when I add outline in red , then turn the painting over, spray the back with water and apply a soft greenish-yellow to give a background color. Yes! This is the same painting!
I encourage you to try many different styles. You can see more of my lotus paintings here. You can also watch more of my 'how-to' lotus videos on YouTube here. Good luck, and happy painting!
May Pan of HMay Art Supply in China has posted a wonderful documentary article on me and my work. You can see it here and one on the lovely Egyptian artist Tereza Mitry here. Tereza allowed me to post a critique of one of her paintings here.
Hmay Art Supply is a xuan paper manufacturer from Jing county Xuancheng city Anhui province - the birthplace of xuan paper. They produce top grade xuan paper (shuen paper, rice paper) and provide superior quality paper crafts and other art items for Japanese calligraphy, Chinese brush calligraphy & Chinese sumi-e painting, etc. I highly recommend their products.
In the spontaneous style of Chinese brush painting, which is the one I have trained in for the past 40 years, there is no pre-sketching or tracing. The brush dances on the paper, seemingly having a life of its own. While I may have an idea ahead of time of what I want to paint, I never know exactly how it is going to come out. If it is a bird, I start with the eye, the beak and the head. That inspires me to paint the body, but in which direction? Facing front? Facing the side? Will we just see the beautiful back feathers and the wings and tail? If there is a pair of birds, will one be speaking and the other one listening? Surely I will want to establish a relationship between them. How do they fit into the overall composition? I imagine different scenarios, different possibilities without touching the paper, because there will be no changing the strokes once they have been made.
In this video I had decided to paint a kingfisher, but had not decided on the colors or the pose, just trusting that it would come together as the brush spoke to the paper. I captured the dance very intimately with my smart phone, getting closer to the action than a camcorder usually does. I hope you enjoy being in the thick of it!
The summer before he died, I visited my teacher Master Painter I-Hsiung Ju at his home in Princeton, NJ. In this video he is demonstrating pine trees for Charlene Fuhrman-Schulz and Sandy Schatz, long-time students and good friends of the Ju family. The audio is the sound of birds outside my studio.
Tips for painting your own pine trees:
You can purchase Prof Ju's books and teaching videos at ihsiungju.addr.com
Why not try painting some pine trees now? With courage and a good brush, you can do it!
Painting birds in spontaneous style can be quite a challenge. My advice? Study the anatomy of birds carefully and then practice the bird in "bits": I've done sheets and sheets of beaks and eyes, practiced wing patterns, studied feet and how to place them. See this blog post for more bird poses.
A good reference book for artists is Laws Guide to Drawing Birds. It will answer many of your questions and give you plenty of models. Looking at photos of birds can actually be confusing since that snapshot moment in time may not show you clearly what's going on. My teacher I-Hsiung Ju has several bird videos available here. He shows you how to paint them in Chinese brush style.
And when you've done all that practice? Take heart! It takes courage, but bit by bit you will triumph!
Do you have questions? Let me know! I'm happy to help.
I painted the goldfinches first, then this big, noisy blackbird had to get into the picture! I find gestural, spontaneous painting is often like this: I start off minding my P's and Q's and then something rowdy jumps out of the brush.
In the next painting, it was the other way round: Old Loudmouth made his appearance first and I tried to match his energy with a flying bird in the upper right quadrant. That bird didn't work, so the splashing ink became autumn leaves. Perhaps you can still see a beak and eye peering out up there. Or perhaps some wings and a tail...
You can see more of my bird practice sheets here. Got questions? Let me know!