Something you need to know before starting to learn Chinese painting

What is Chinese painting?

Chinese painting is one of the oldest continuous artistic traditions in the world

Painting in the traditional style is known today in Chinese as guóhuà (simplified Chinese: 国画; traditional Chinese: 國畫),meaning “national” or “native painting”, as opposed to Western styles of art which became popular in China in the 20th century. Traditional painting involves essentially the same techniques as calligraphy and is done with a brush dipped in black ink or coloured pigments; oils are not used. As with calligraphy, the most popular materials on which paintings are made are paper and silk. The finished work can be mounted on scrolls, such as hanging scrolls or handscrolls. Its theme is usually about mountains, rivers, flowers and birds. Traditional painting uses essentially the same techniques and tools as calligraphy, including the brush, ink, paper and inks lab. People call them “four treasures of the study”.

What are the two main techniques of Chinese painting?

Gongbi 工筆 Xieyi 寫意

Gongbi (工筆), meaning “meticulous”, uses highly detailed brushstrokes that delimit details very precisely. It is often highly coloured and usually depicts figural or narrative subjects. It is often practised by artists working for the royal court or in independent workshops. Gongbi (工筆) is a technique to learn for all beginners. Students usually start to draw flowers, plum, orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum, peony, lotus and birds.

Another style is also referred to as “xieyi” (寫意) or freehand style. Ink and wash painting, in Chinese shuǐ-mò (水墨, “water and ink”) also loosely termed water colour or brush painting, and also known as “literati painting”. This style is also called as freehand style. Students usually practice the meticulous brush and the boneless flower and bird painting by modeling the ancient classic paintings. The students should have good grasp of two techniques, “gongbi” and “xieyi”.

What is the Feature of Landscape Painting?

Beginning in the Tang Dynasty

Beginning in the Tang Dynasty, many paintings were landscapes, often shanshui (山水, “mountain water”) paintings. In these landscapes, monochromatic and sparse (a style that is collectively called shuimohua), the purpose was not to reproduce the appearance of nature exactly (realism) but rather to grasp an emotion or atmosphere, as if catching the “rhythm” of nature.

Landscape painting was regarded as the highest form of Chinese painting, and generally still is. The time from the Five Dynasties period to the Northern Song period (907–1127) is known as the “Great age of Chinese landscape”. Some artists
painted pictures of towering mountains, using strong black lines, ink wash, and sharp, dotted brushstrokes to suggest rough stone. Some other artists painted the rolling hills and rivers of their native countryside in peaceful scenes done with softer, rubbed brushwork. These two kinds of scenes and techniques became the classical styles of Chinese landscape painting.

The painting practice is traditionally first learned by rote, in which the master shows the “right way” to draw items. The students must copy these items strictly and continuously until the movements become instinctive.

How to evaluate the Chinese paintings?

The “Six principles of Chinese painting”

The “Six principles of Chinese painting” were established in 5th century China, our ancient Chinese use six elements to consider, judge and define a painting” (繪畫六法, Pinyin: Huìhuà Liùfǎ).

气韵生动
“Spirit Resonance”, or vitality, refers to the flow of energy that encompasses theme, work, and artist.

骨法用笔
“Bone Method”, or the way of using the brush, refers not only to texture and brush stroke, but to the close link between handwriting and personality. In the old day, the art of calligraphy was inseparable from painting.

应物象形
“Correspondence to the Object”, or the depicting of form, to include shape and line.

随类赋彩
“Suitability to Type”, or the application of color, including layers, value, and tone.

构图的设计方法
“Division and Planning”, or placing and arrangement, corresponding to composition, space, and depth.

写生和临摹
“Transmission by Copying”, or the copying of models is not from life only but also from the works of antiquity.

Taoist influences on Chinese Landscape painting


The Chinese landscape painting are believed to be affected by the traditional Chinese beliefs.

The Taoist loves the nature; The artists present their attitudes and thoughts on their paintings.

Taoist persist on going back to human’s origin, to be ignorant. Taoists believe that if one discard wise, the robbery will stop. If people abandon expensive jewelry, thieves will not exist. From Han Dynasty, 2300 years ago, the practice of Taoism was associated with alchemical and medicine made. In order to better pursuit Taoism belief, Taoist need to go on pilgrim into specific mountains to connect themselves with the spirits and immortals that lived in those mountains. In the third and fourth century, the practice of escaping society and going back to nature mediating in the countryside is further enhanced by a group called Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove who would like to escape from the civil unrest. The wise men fleet the world and wonder in the countryside and enjoy the tranquil landscape and forgot to return. The Taoism ideology of forgetfulness, self-cultivation, harmonizing with nature world, and purifying soul by entering the isolated mountains to mediate and seek medicine herbs create the scene of landscape painting.

During Han Dynasty, the mountains appeared in the design of the artworks shows the prevalence role of mountain in Han society. The emperor would climb on to the mountain to sacrifice and religion practice because mountains are thought to have connection between earth and heaven and can link human with spirits and immortals. And sometimes, mountains are depicted as mystical mountains” (shenshan), where sages and legendary animals settled. Hence, landscape painting is used as an object for Taoism practice which provide visualize form for religious ritual. During Six Dynasty period, the landscape painting experienced a stylistic change which myth and poem depiction were introduced into the painting. The audience are able to read narrative description and text accompanied by visualized images.

Buddhist influences on Chinese Landscape painting

The Buddhist follows the principle of emptiness.

In Buddhism practice, the mountain also has an important role in religious practice. From iconographical point of view, a Buddha’s image is essence in helping a believer to practice meditation. For instance, Buddha’s reflection image, or shadow, is assimilated the image of a mountain, Lushan. This assimilation is also recorded in a poem by poet from Six Dynasty period who pointed out that the beauty and nominosity of the mountain can elevate the spiritual connection between human being and the spirits. Thus, the landscape painting come into display Buddha’s image in people’s everyday ritual practice. Hui-yuan described in his poem that “Lushan seems to mirror the divine appearance” which unifies the two images—the true image and the reflection of Buddha. Moreover, spiritual elevation can be achieved by contemplating in front of landscape painting which depict the same mountain and path those old sages have been to. The painting contains both the spiritual force (ling) and the truth (li) of Buddha and also the objects that no longer physically presence. Hui-Yuan’s famous image is closely relation with its landscape scene indicating the trend of transformation from Buddha image to landscape painting as a religious practice.

Why female characters are almost excluded from traditional Chinese painting?

Chinese painting is under the influence of Confucianism.

It is under the influence of Confucianism. Dong Zhongshu, an influential Confucian scholar in the Han dynasty, proposed the three-bond theory saying that: “the ruler is Yang and the subject is Yin, father is Yang and son is Yin…The husband is Yang, and the wife is Yin,” which places females in a subordinate position to that of males. Under the three-bond theory, women are depicted as housewives who need to obey to their husbands and fathers in literature. Similarly, in the portrait paintings, female characters are also depicted as exemplary women to elevate the rule of males. During the Tang dynasty, artists slowly began to appreciate the beauty of a woman’s body (shinu). Artist Zhang Xuan produced painting named palace women listening to music that captured women’s elegance and pretty faces. However, women were still being depicted as submissive and ideal within male system.

Artists who paint landscape as an artwork focus mainly on the natural beauty rather on the accuracy and realistic representation of the object. Map on the other hand should be depicted in a precise manner which more focus on the distance and important geographic features. That is why we cannot see more cartography developing in the early China maps.

Calligraphy and painting class in China
There are many calligraphy and painting classes in China and open to international students. Any individual adults or group students may search more to prepare your travel study. The pandemic may not good to the expats to start your travel immediately. At least you may learn more online first.

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