The heroine of my novel is a Chinese brush painter. She existed in the novel before I began to learn Chinese brush painting. After I learned something about it, I edited the scenes in which she paints, but not much. I had the basics right from studying the history of Chinese art.
A Chinese brush painting is a painting made with a Chinese brush. And a lot of practice. And respect for tradition. Its brush stokes come from ancient Chinese calligraphy. (Calligraphy is still considered the highest form of art. The June 5, 2010 New York Times reported that a calligraphy scroll by Huang Tingjian dating from about 1095 CE recently sold in Beijing at auction for $64 million.) Nature is the inspiration, simplicity and energy are valued. (Check out www.museum.stanford.edu for a current exhibition, February 17-July 4, 2010, Tracing the Past, Drawing the Future: Master Ink Painters in 20th Century China.)
The Chinese brush is made from animal hair such as wolf, deer, or goat, shaped in layers, and tapered to a point. Different hair and layering deliver the ink and color differently.
There are a great many books on the “how to” of Chinese brush painting but I found I could not learn the brush strokes from books. No matter how clear it was to the artist who struggled to write and illustrate the process, it just wasn’t clear without a teacher.
I have an excellent teacher. She is a superb artist, a kind and encouraging teacher who “dances” the brush to make a painting and wants us all to feel energy in the creation of a work as well as impart a vitality to the painted object.
Occasionally, that happens. After a whole lot of throw away attempts, something will dance onto the paper for me. However, I have, at times, rather quirky views of traditional subjects. Chrysanthemums, symbols of autumn, for instance, drive me crazy.
Chrysanthemum from The Mustard Seed Garden
Here is a traditional example from the Chinese classic The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press, 1992). Originally published in 1679-1701 by three brother-painters in Nanking, it presents the rules and ideals for painting. I’ve tried for several years to get a decent, traditional chrysanthemum. In class a few weeks ago, I threw away about 20 attempts. I’d had it. I put away the illustrations we were trying to duplicate, screamed silently, and did this flower.
It seemed to me the essence and energy of chrysanthemums. I added a quick rock, and later at home added the yellow wash and mounted it on heavier rice paper. Now I really like it. It was a moment of energy flowing onto the paper.
I repeat, I really like it. My teacher wasn’t so sure. It wasn’t traditional. But hey, it was a “dance.”
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Next up: Chinese brush painting of a really odd cat with attitude.