How did I get here?
When a painting is finished, the elements should lock together like a well-crafted story. You feel the inevitability of the composition but the steps to reach the conclusion are no longer evident. I paint in what is called "Splashing Ink" or "Spontaneous Style", which means that it is more the dance of the brush that leads me on. However, I do still follow a process, so I will be putting in the broad outlines before adding the details. As my teacher Professor I-Hsiung Ju would remind me: put the roof on the house before adding the drapes and furniture! So let's break down this painting's process, step by step:
Since I had no composition in mind, letting this long, bouncy brush (from HMay Art) spring from rock to rock seemed like fun. My paper is a thin, raw xuan so my brush needed to be on the dry side. I loaded it with grey then added ground black ink to the tip of the brush.
Tip: It's always a good idea to keep a scrap of practice paper next to your ink so you can check the color and the amount of moisture on your brush before touching your painting.
Some of the strokes look almost abstract. How about some foreground to help the image to emerge? As soon as I add foreground elements, the waterfall will recede and I will have more sense of depth.
Since the waterfall has a diagonal motion, it's good to have the foreground moving on the opposite diagonal, creating a V shape.
Tip: Avoid having anything begin or end right in the corner!
Oh look, it's a viewing platform! In that case, I need people. True confession: the child on the right ended up too short, so I added another rock this side of the figure to cover up my mistake, thereby adding another layer of depth. The rock's a bit heavy, but you probably wouldn't have guessed my sneaky save!
Tip: Switch to a smaller brush for figures (I used my Happy Dot brush from OAS). If you're not sure what size to paint the figures, try them out on a separate piece of paper and place it under your painting to see if it looks right. Keep trying until it looks good. If I had followed my own advice, I might not have needed to stick in the rock!
If you add color lightly, you can always change the hue or the intensity. I added some light trees in the lower left to push the waterfall back a bit. I'll add a bit more detail to these pines later.
I've added white to the observers' clothes, so that when I add the background misty wash, the figures will stand out more. I've extended the landscape off into the distance, being careful to keep my greys light. If I added black to the mountains I would need to darken everything from that point forward.
Next I need to create the mist, and for this I will take the painting off the easel.
This is the painting on a black blanket. I created the background wash by spraying the painting with water and adding color on the backside of the paper. This allows a softer effect for the mist. I used indigo and black ink with a lot of water for this.
Tip: take into account, when you are mixing your color, that it will dry much lighter, especially when added to the back of the paper. Of course, if it is too light after it dries, you can do another wash.
The trees and mountains in distance all looked the same shade of grey, so I darkened a few of the trees on the left which makes them look closer and adds more gradation to the depth.
Sometimes you don't want your brush to come to a point. I decided my pines in the foreground needed more detail, so I added an impression of needles by splaying my Happy Dot brush (OAS) and dipping the tips in pure black. This way I don't have to paint every single needle.
The pine trees are now bushier and more elaborate, which works for trees in the foreground.
Tip: As trees are further away, add less detail.
Admiring the Waterfall: completed painting. It measures 27"x 18" (69 cm x 45 cm).
Did you enjoy seeing how it developed? Did the breakdown step by step make it easier to understand? Do you have questions? If you painted it, it would turn out differently, and that's the delight of Chinese brush painting - because the composition is a living, breathing thing, your personality, thoughts and emotions will imbue the painting with your magic. Why not give it a try? You can follow along with these photos as you paint. Have fun splashing in the ink!
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.