How to Look at Chinese Paintings

Famous Artist: Xu Beihong
Horse painting by famous Chinese artist: Xu Beihong - showing simplicity, great method and brush strokes power/control.  Notice the space design leaving the paper partly untouched.

Knowing some of Chinese painting rules, quoted from old Masters, that formed the thoughts behind the development of Chinese brush painting, helps you enjoy the artworks even more. These old Masters rules have set the foundation for much of what followed over the next generations of Contemporary Chinese brush artists in China.

I also include below a list of what are considered good qualities of paintings and things that old Masters suggested Chinese artists avoid in their painting. After reading these, please view some of the paintings in our Archive of Famous Painting of China and our online Chinese Brush artists’ artworks - notice where these aspects were applied in them.

Rules of Painting

"See the great in the small” and “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

Chinese brush painting - Chicken
"Grapevine and Hen" (1959) by artist Jiang Hanting demonstrates composition that is well-arranged and not too crowded.


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