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Rules of Painting

"See the great in the small”
“See the small in the perspective of the great”

“Among those who study painting, some strive for an elaborate effect and others prefer the simple.  Neither complexity in itself nor simplicity is enough.
Some aim to be deft, others to be laboriously careful.  Neither dexterity nor conscientiousness is enough.

Some set great value on method, while others pride themselves on dispensing with method.  To be without method is deplorable, but to depend entirely on method is worse.

You must learn first to observe the rules faithfully; afterwards, modify them according to your intelligence and capacity.  The end of all method is to seem to have no method.”

- Lu Ch'ai(Wang Kai), Master of Ch'ing Tsai T'ang, XVII-century

…If you aim to dispense with method, learn method
…If you aim at facility, work hard
....If you aim for simplicity, master complexity

- Lu Ch'ai(Wang Kai), Master of Ch'ing Tsai T'ang, XVII-century

The Six Qualities of Painting
  • To display brushstroke power with good brushwork control
  • To posses sturdy simplicity with refinement of true talent
  • To possess delicacy of skill with vigor of execution.
  • To exhibit originality, even to the point of eccentricity, without violating the li(the principles or essence) of things.
  • In rendering space by leaving the silk or paper untouched, to be able nevertheless to convey nuances of tone.
  • On the flatness of the picture plane, to achieve depth and space.
- "Lu Ch'ang",
quoted from an early XI-century work of biographies of painters of the Five Dynasties and Northern Sung Periods.

The Twelve Things to Avoid in Painting

  • To avoid is a crowded, ill arranged composition (composition)
  • Far and near not clearly distinguished (composition)
  • Mountains without Ch’i, the pulse of life
  • Referring not only to the need for pictorial vitality created by composition with a quality of spirit, particularly since mountains were symbols of life. Of the Yang(of Heaven and the Spirit)
  • Water with no indication of its source
  • The element regarded as a source of life and associated with the Yin.
  • Scenes lacking any places made inaccessible by nature(natural and logical)
  • Where man has ventured, paths are a sign of his presence and should naturally lead somewhere.
  • Paths with no indication of beginning and end
  • Stones and rocks with one face
  • The rock has 3 faces, referring to the third dimension and technical skill in rendering it .
  • Trees with less than four main branches
  • The tree has four main branches and is represented as having solidity, roundness, and unity
  • Figures unnaturally distorted
  • Emphasize fitness based on naturalness, contributing to the harmony of the parts and the whole of a painting.  Figures not only should be undistorted but should be shown in action, their position and mood in tune with the rest of the painting and thus with the order of nature.
  • Buildings and pavilions inappropriately placed
  • Houses, pavilions, bridges, waterwheels, or boats, never overshadow other elements in the picture but contribute to its main theme, usually some aspect of nature rather than of human activity.
  • Atmospheric effects of mist and clearness neglected
  • Color applied without method
  • Mountains and water are not only the main structural elements in a landscape painting, but serve as symbols of the Yin and Yang.  They are structural ideas, hence the significance of the term ShanShui (mountain water) for landscape pictures.

- "Shih Erh Chi",
quoted from a XIII-century work by Jao Tzu-jan.

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Starting around 4000 B.C. traditional Chinese painting has developed continuously over a period of more than six thousand years.  Its growth has inevitably reflected the changes of time and social conditions.  In its early stage of development, Chinese painting was closely related to the other crafts, from pottery to the decorations used on the bronzes, carved jade and lacqerware.

Following the introduction of Buddhism to China from India during the 1st century A.D. and the consequent carving of grottoes and building of temples, the art of painting religious murals gradually gained in prominence.

  The range of subject matters dealt with in figure painting was extended far beyond religious themes during the Song dynasty(960-1127),.  Paintings of historical character and stories of everyday life became extremely popular.  Techniques were also further refined.

Landscape painting had already established itself as an independent form of expression by the 4th century.  Then gradually developed into the two separate styles of “blue-and-green landscapes” and “ink-and-wash landscape”.  The blue-and-green landscape used bright blue, green and red pigments derived from minerals to create a richly decorative style.  The ink-and wash landscape relied on vivid brushwork and varying degrees of intensity of ink to express the artist's conception of nature, and his own emotions and individuality.

Flower-and-bird painting  was separated from decorative art to form an independent genre around the 9th century.  A great many artists painted in this genre during the Song dynasty and their subject matter included a rich variety of flowers, fruits, insects and fish.  Many of the scholar painters working with ink and brush used a great economy of line.  They  produced paintings of such things as plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo, chrysanthemums, pines and cypresses, using their subject matter to reflect their own ideals and character.

Modern painters have often mixed several colors on one brush or mixed their colors with black inks.  As a result, they have obtained more natural and richly varied colors.  Such techniques have been widely adopted and further developed in the contemporary period.

Artistic Character and Techniques

One of the important factors contributing to the evolution of the distinctive style of traditional Chinese painting has been the close relationship between the materials used and their influence on artistic forms and techniques.

  • Chinese Brush
First, there is the Chinese brush.  Though similar to the brush used for watercolor painting in the West, it has a finer tip suitable for dealing with a wide range of subjects and for producing the variations in line required by different styles. Since the materials used for calligraphy and painting are essentially the same, developments in calligraphic styles and techniques can also be used in painting.
  • Brush Techniques and Strokes

The ancients used the expression yu pi yu mo(to  have brush, to have ink).  These show the significance of the meaning for the two terms pi(brush) and mo(ink).

The brush techniques so much emphasized in Chinese painting include not only line drawing but also the stylized expressions of shade and texture (cunfa) and the dotting methods(dianfa) used mainly to differentiate trees and plants and also for simple embellishment.

The brush strokes give the painting rhythm and beauty and depict the subject's outward and inner qualities.  At the same time, they reveal the individuality and style of the painter himself.

Type of Painting Brushes:

  • Hsieh chao pi: Crab claw brush, large and small sizes
  • Hua jan pi: brush for painting flowers
  • Lan yu chu pi: brush for painting orchids and bamboo

Brushes used for writing:

  • T’u hao pi: rabbit's hair brush
  • Hu ying pi: Hunan sheep's hair brush

  • Chinese Ink
Second, there is the ink.  Ink has been used in calligraphy and painting for over two thousand years.  When the ink cake is ground on the painter's stone slab with fresh water, ink of various consistencies can be prepared depending on the amount of water used.  Thick ink is very deep and glossy when applied to paper or silk.  Thin ink appears lively and translucent.  As a result, in ink-and-wash paintings it is possible to use ink alone to create a rhythmic balance between brightness and darkness, and density and lightness, and to create an impression of the subject's texture, weight and coloring.
  • Paper and Silk

Third, there is paper or silk. Chinese painting may be done either on Chinese paper or silk. 

Chinese Paper

The original paper(around 100 AD.)was made from many different materials including pulp, old fishing nets and bark.  Modern paper is often machine made.  It is classed in degrees of weight and amount of size used.  The paper is very absorbent and the amount of size in it will dictate the quantity of ink used for strokes on the paper. Different paper produce different results; some are rough and absorb ink quickly like a sponge, others have a smooth surface which resists ink.  Chinese paper is usually known as rice paper in English.

Chinese Silk

Before painting on silk, the silk should be treated with alum and glue before use.  This method  makes silk less absorbent than paper. Brushstroke is best shown on paper. Because of this reason and the paper's variety of texture and finish, paper quickly became favored by artists and calligraphers.

  • Chinese Color

Fourth, there are the colors.  There are differences in the use of color between Chinese painting and modern western painting.  Chinese painting aim is not to express the various shades of color of the subject in relation to a fixed source of light, but to express the characteristics of the different subjects.

For example, the adding of traces of brown or green to rocks, trees, leaves, grass and moss in a painting is used to reinforce the feeling of a particular season or state of the weather.

  • Composition and Space

Fifth, there are composition and space.  Since the creative requirements of Chinese painting do not demand strict adherence to reality or to a particular angle of view or source of light, the painter has complete freedom in terms of artistic conception, structural composition and method of expression.  To give prominence to the main subject, it is quite permissible to omit the background entirely and simply leave it blank.  At the same time, since the sizes and shapes of the spaces in the painting are different, the very absence of content can itself create rhythm and variety.  Sometimes the variety and balance created in this way is further enriched by the addition of inscriptions in the empty space.

Chinese landscape painters’ aim is to depict the familiar mountains and rivers of China from the perspective of nature as a whole and on the basis of their understanding of the laws of nature.  In artistic conception and structural composition, most landscape paintings create the impression that the scene is viewed from high in the air, as if seen through the eyes of a bird.

With flower-and-bird paintings, sometimes a single flower hangs as if suspended in space, or the flowers and plants of different seasons appear together.  Explained by one of the Ming painters, Wang Fu(1362-1416), as “likeness through unlikeness” and Qi Baishi(1863-1957) as “subtlety of a good painting lies in its being alike and yet unlike the subject”  Chinese painters attach great importance to reality, science, space and time and yet manage to disregard them at the same time.  The laws of these things must come second to the requirements of artistic creation and should not become shackles that bind artistic expression.

  • Seal and Calligraphy
One of the distinctive characteristics of Chinese painting is the use of inscriptions in poetry of calligraphy and of special seals as part of the painting itself.  This was a major contribution made by scholar painters.  Its significance lies in its ability to express the theme and artistic conception of the painting more clearly and deeply while, at the same time, giving great insight into the artist's individuality, emotions and views on art and life.   In ink-and-wash paintings, the bright red seal adds a final touch of beauty.  When preparing the inscription and seal, therefore, the Chinese painter, in addition to considering their content, has always given great thought to the placement, length and dimensions of the inscription and the position of the seal on the painting.

The simplest inscription consists of the artist's name and the date.  Sometimes the inscription could include the occasion for the painting and the name of the person for whom the painting was done.  It could be about the subject and style of the painting. Quite often the artist might include a piece of poetry or a literary allusion. These are all followed by the artist's own seal.

The seals can be carved in stone.  It can contain a name, poetical saying, a design or symbol which has a connection with the painting.  The seals are pressed into a pot or tin of cinnebar paste, a scarlet red color, and are impressed onto the painting.  The paste contains mercuric oxide, ground silk and oils. It required a careful stamp as it is rather permanent.  When using red seal on a monochrome painting, it is said to be "adding the eye to the dragon".


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