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Painting the Four Gentlemen - An Introduction to Chinese Brush Painting

Posted on Fri 12 Oct 2012

The Four Gentlemen

I have chosen The Four Gentlemen as the subject for my first article because they are regarded as the foundation for all students. They consist of plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum, and represent the four seasons as well as having their own symbolic meanings.

The Four Gentlemen

The plum blossom, representing winter, is also symbolic of endurance as it often flowers when the snow is still on the ground. The flowers, which may be pink or white, appear before the leaves and this is how they are depicted in paintings.

The symbol of spring is the orchid, which also signifies virtue and simple beauty. It is the delicate wild orchids that are referred to as they tend to grow in inaccessible areas such as crevices in rocks overlooking rivers or streams, and you could easily walk past without noticing them.

The bamboo is the symbol of summer but also of strength, both physical and mental, as it will bend and sway in the severest of gales but does not break. Its hollow trunk means humility. Bamboo, together with plum blossom and pine are also known as the ‘Three Friends in Winter’, as pine and bamboo are evergreen and the plum blooms in the cold.

The chrysanthemum, which represents autumn, is thought of as a loner, preferring autumn, which is less crowded with flowers than the profusion in spring

Plum blossom and bamboo

I have combined bamboo and plum blossom, making the latter the more dominant. First paint the bamboo trunks and branches followed by the leaves and joints in pale indigo. Allow it to dry completely before painting the branches and plum blossom

Branches and plum blossom

Begin with the trunk and branches of the plum blossom, using dark ink, leaving spaces for the flowers on the younger branches. To paint the flowers, load your brush with a pale ink before rolling the tip into a darker red. I have used rose and rouge but any blue-red is suitable. Be sure to dab off any excess liquid on a paper towel before you start. Paint groups of flowers, showing them in a variety of perspectives and include some buds. Remember to make one group of flowers more dominant to follow the ‘host’ and ‘guest’ rule. Finally paint in sepals and stamens in ink after the flowers and buds are dry to avoid any bleeding


In the chrysanthemum composition I have used autumn colours for the flower and shades of ink for the leaves. It is important to vary the shades from pale grey to black to make your painting more interesting Having planned your composition, begin by painting the flowers, then the main stems, leaving spaces for overlapping leaves. The leaves are painted next. In the illustration there are darker leaves with paler ones in the background. To achieve the two tone effect, roll your brush first in a lighter ink (making sure to dab off any excess), followed by dark ink on the tip of the brush. Finally add details such as veins and stamens when the paint is only slightly damp

The Orchid

The orchid is generally painted in tones of ink but the flowers could be painted in a delicate colour if preferred. To achieve a variety of tones, add varying amounts of water to your ground ink. I have painted several flowers to a stem but there is also a variety that has one flower to each stem. Beginners will probably find it easier to paint the stalk first, before adding the flowers, which grow alternately Begin by painting the leaves in dark ink, tapering them off to a fine point. The arrangement generally includes two leaves crossed over, known as the ‘phoenix eye’. Another leaf may be painted crossing the ‘eye’. The flowers are now arranged among the leaves. A space could be left for a flower to cross over the stalk. Finally, when the flowers are almost dry, paint in the stamens. These are an important part of the composition as they represent the eyes of a beautiful woman!

The full article by Maggie can be found in the November 2012 issue of The Artist and includes instructions on brush techniques, materials and more.

In part 2 of the introduction to Chinese brush painting (to be published in the December issue - out on November 9) Maggie paints a tree peony, poppies and iris

You can read more about Chinese brush painting in
'The Art of Chinese Brush Painting' by Maggie Cross.

Maggie Cross has put together a Chinese brush painting starter kit consisting of ten sheets of grass paper, a sheet of Xuan paper, two brushes, a bottle of ink and her book A Beginner’s Guide to Chinese Painting price £15 plus £3 p&p
Alternatively, she can supply a starter kit that contains an ink stick and inkstone rather than a bottle of ink, for £20 plus £3 p&p

To order, contact Maggie via her website: or email Maggie directly: Please indicate whether you require liquid ink or an inkstick and inkstone
Painting the Four Gentlemen - An Introduction to Chinese Brush Painting


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  • This is something I can identify with! I wouldn´t have ever think some school projects would introduce an excercise like this to their students, but then I would never see how it can also be done compared to my own way of colouring. Too bad I´m not such a merry type for intensive rich colours, but should definatelly give it a try, seeing the brilliance it brings. Impressionists would approve. ...Maybe with the exceptance of the black paint in there, but it´s my soft spot hit that counts now my favorite artists Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frida Kahlo, Roberto Matta Gabino amaya cacho and Pablo Picasso.
    Thank you in advance!

    Posted by Victoria apel on Wed 20 Sep 02:54:33