The essence of traditional Chinese brush painting is its simplicity.

The composition is always understated in that the painter only provides the main essentials of the picture, leaving the viewer to imagine the rest in the large areas of space which are so much a part of the oriental concept. For example, since it is obvious that flowers grow in soil or grass, there is no need for the painter to show it in the picture.

Flowers and trees are depicted in a limbo, giving the impression that what is actually seen is only a small part of a vast natural panorama. This impression is deliberately accentuated by the Chinese tradition of mounting the paintings with very narrow sides and nowadays, where pictures are framed instead of made into hanging scrolls, by making sure that the frame is as inconspicuous as possible.

To the Western eye, the framed picture often looks unbalanced, since it is customary to have a large amount of space above the painting, representing heaven and a smaller space below the subject matter, which represents earth. Non-oriental eyes also have to get used to the idea that white space is used to convey both water and sky, as well as the fields which would normally be the background for flower and bird paintings.  

Probably the best-known subjects in Chinese painting are bamboo, landscapes, calligraphy and horses. Most of these paintings are composed entirely in shades of black, which the Chinese regard as the most important of all the colours. It is quite surprising how many colours and tones can be conveyed by the ‘Seven Shades of Black’.

To see how effective this can be, a simple composition to try would be chrysanthemums, with the flowers painted in the outline technique. For this method of painting, the brush is used as a drawing instrument, although of course, it is still not possible to change any line once it is put on the paper. Because the brush acts rather like a calligraphy pen, it does produce lines of variable thickness, so it is important to paint the flower petals in a structured way so as to make maximum use of the brush tip.

Ink should be made first by rubbing the black ink stick in water on the ink stone.

Chinese brush painting banner

How to paint Chinese-style flowers

Each petal is made up of two strokes:

  • The first stroke (1) includes the petal’s rounded end.
  • The second stroke (2) goes up to meet it.
  • The flower is built up by painting numerous petals from the centre outwards.

Holding the brush vertically and painting from the centre of the flower outwards, each petal is made up of two strokes (see above). The first stroke, rather like an umbrella handle, includes the petal’s rounded end. The second stroke goes up to meet it. The brush should be loaded on the tip only with black taken directly from the ink stone.

The flower is built up by painting numerous petals from the centre outwards.

If all the petals are of equal size, the flower appears to be facing to the front, whereas painting some petals shorter will give the impression of the flowers being turned to the side. Half a flower head next to a full one will give the impression that one is behind the other. It is usual and improves the composition artistically, to keep the flowers grouped closely together.

Flower turned to the side. Flower looking upwards. Half a flower behind

How to paint Chinese-style leaves

The leaves have three lobes and are painted using the solid stroke method.

First make some grey ink by taking some black paint from the ink stone and mixing it with water on a plate or palette. This time the whole brush should be loaded by rolling it in the paint, scraping off the surplus and repeating these two actions until all the bristles are saturated, but the brush point is maintained. It should now be quite wet.

Paint the central leaf lobe first in the direction shown, which is always from its growing point, and for this composition will be from the top downwards.

Tilt the brush so that the point touches the surface of the rice paper first, then press and pull and finally let the brush leave the surface. The two lobes are then added, one on each side.

As with the flowers, the leaves should be grouped closely together.

Grouping the leaves and adding central leaves

How to paint Chinese-style stems

For the stems a pushing stroke should be made from the stem base up towards the flowers. Leaves can then be joined and MI DOTS added to break up the monotony.

Chinese brush flower compostitions

There is a prescribed order for painting most flower compositions, which is flowers first, then the leaves and finally the stems.

For the stems, the bristles should be loaded halfway along their length with a shade of grey which differs from that used for the flower heads and the leaves. Using a pushing stroke, move the brush up from the stem base towards the flowers, ensuring that the stems also are close together at the base, but not in a horizontal line, or parallel to each other.

This simple composition is ideal for a small greetings card

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Leaves can then be joined on to the stems and finally small dots, called MI DOTS, are added to the stems, breaking the monotony of a straight brush stroke, to indicate where leaves have dropped off or where the stem has a small nodule. 

Traditional Chinese paintings convey an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. Even birds and animals are depicted poised, as though in quiet mood.  Small chicks make an ideal foil to the chrysanthemum composition.

How to paint chicken using Chinese brush painting techniques

Tradition demands that birds also are painted in a set order; eyes, heads and beak first so that the bird can then eat, then the rest of the body. The chicks can be painted in either yellow or black and are composed of solid strokes with additional black lines and dots.

  • First load a not too wet brush with grey and paint the head with one circular stroke, leaving a gap for the eye, then add the body stroke and the wings.
  • With black ink straight from the ink stone on the top of the bristles, or using a smaller finer brush, add the eye, the beak, the bottom of the body and the feet.

The yellow chick has been painted using two strokes for the head and the body, with a brush loaded with yellow and orange on the tip. The legs and wings are orange, but the eyes, beak and feet are painted black as on the grey chick.

For the complete composition, with flowers and chicks together, make some small changes in the flowers, giving them a yellow centre space to make the flower look whiter.

Add green and brown to grey for the leaves, so that the picture is more colourful, although, if you wish, it could still be painted all in shades of black.

Other small birds, such as sparrows, can be painted in a similar way and used to enhance the hydrangea and chrysanthemum compositions. Perched on a branch, they give instant life to flower and blossom compositions.

How to paint a Chinese Dragon

The most famous of all creatures in Chinese mythology is the dragon. It comes in many forms and features as a design motif on a variety of artifacts from early bone carvings, coins, temples, swords, screens, embroideries and paintings to modern ceramics.

To the Chinese it is a divine genius of strength and goodness. There are three different important species, living in the sky, the oceans and the mountains, of which the most powerful is the species which is said to inhabit the sky.

The dragon can be painted in any colour, although red dragons are very popular, since red is the Chinese celebratory colour.  The composition uses both solid strokes and outlines.

Since this is a symbolic creature, it is important to maintain the accepted traditions. Only the imperial dragons, featured so often on royal robes and ceramics, are allowed to have five toes.  All other dragons have four.

The dragon is the most famous of all creatures in Chinese mythology

  • Begin by painting the eye of the dragon in black outline with a fine brush.
  • Then, using a thicker, well-loaded brush in the colour of your choice, paint the top of the head and the bottom jaw, in the directions as shown.
  • The back and the tail are painted in one long, continuous stroke, tapering off at the end.
  • Now add the legs and feet. These strokes should not be too dark, otherwise the scales, which have to be added, will not be evident.
  • Add the large scales, horns and antlers in a darker colour.

Top tip

It is advisable to achieve this stronger tone by adding a small amount of black to the basic colour.

  • The scales are painted with what are called ‘horse’s teeth’ strokes. Put the brush down lightly on the paper to the maximum width of the scale and pull it off in the direction of the point.
  • The antlers are painted like small stems.  
  • The horns are small leaf strokes.

  • Let the main body of the dragon dry, then add the small scales, claws, teeth and nostrils with a fine brush, using black.
  • When changing from using a fairly wet brush to using the tip only, make sure that all the surplus liquid is gently squeezed off first, otherwise it will drip down the brush, making the black fine ink stroke into a blurred, wet, grey stroke.
  • The round, red object which always accompanies the dragon, can be described as either, ‘the Moon’, ‘the Sun’, ‘the symbol of rolling thunder’, ‘the egg of nature’, ‘the pearl of potentiality’ or ‘the night-shining pearl’.
  • To paint the pearl, put the tip of the larger, wet brush down and let it make the round pearl. Then add the ‘flames’ around it with upwards flicks of the fine brush or tip of the larger one.

It is most fitting to conclude with this painting of the dragon, because, not only is it one of the symbols of the Chinese Zodiac, also representing ‘the East’ and ‘Spring’, but it is the emblem of vigilance and safety.

The word for dragon, ‘lung’ or ‘long’, is contained in the Chinese characters of the author’s red seal on the completed dragon painting.

The completed dragon painting

Learn more about the art of Chinese Brush painting with Pauline Cherrett.

Paint the Four Gentlemen of Chinese art with Maggie Cross.

This article was originally published in the November 1990 issue of Leisure Painter

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