The plum trees are blooming in San Diego and that means my Chinese brush painting teacher insists that the discipline involved in painting these fragile, delicate petals and sturdy branches is absolutely essential if we are to progress.
The tiny white or pink flowers bloom amid harsh winter snow in China and symbolize, for starters, fortitude and offer a hope of returning life. In fact, every thing about the plum tree from root to branch to petal symbolizes something. Blossoms represent Yang or Heaven, the wood represents Yin or Earth, and every part of the flower is referenced to cosmology.
Plum blossoms are the national flower of China and represent the season of winter in traditional Chinese brush painting.
They are fragrant. Beautiful.
And painting them gives me the heebie-jeebies.
Why? Because in support of the complex symbol array, painting them comes with multiple rules and thirty-six faults which result from a failure to execute the rules correctly. The rules are listed in the 17th-century classic The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting: “The hand should move like lightening,” “roots should never be gross or broken,” “blossoms should not all be whole,” “stamens number seven and are strong like the whiskers of the tiger.”
But here’s the reality of trying to paint them. Every stroke is an opportunity to screw up. The flowers are delicate and in outline form are painted with a small brush which has very few hairs at the point which makes it difficult to paint lively circles. The seven stamens are supposed to taper quickly off the paper from the center of the flower. Ink or color should show a variety of tones.
Fortunately, I have a very patient and kind teacher who demonstrates the techniques, explains clearly, and honors the plum blossoms for traditional reasons as well as because they burst into tiny units of color in her old, gnarled tree and make us happy.