In this article, to celebrate Chinese New Year 2023, the year of the rabbit, Seok Yam Chew demonstrates her process of painting a rabbit using Chinese brush painting techniques.
Please note that Chinese and Japanese watercolour paints do not come with names of the various colours, but Seok used colours similar to those listed above.
Seok purchases her art materials from a company in Singapore who also ship internationally - find out more here straitsartco.com.sg
Kuretake Gansai Tambi Japanese watercolours can be purchased in the UK from Jackson's Art Supplies
Where the Rabbit Plays, Chinese ink and watercolour on rice paper
'I am by no means a Chinese brush painting expert and I take lessons from a wonderful teacher here in Singapore. I am also looking to develop my own style which will include the qualities of Chinese painting without emulating the traditional subjects or styles thereof. It’s a work still in progress,' says Seok.
Discover the basics of Chinese brush painting
In January 2022 Seok showed how to paint a tiger using Chinese brush painting techniques, touching on the basics of what Chinese painting entails. You may wish to familiarise yourself with this before starting this new project.
Burning Bright, Chinese ink and watercolour on rice paper
Painting on rice paper
Rice paper, which is the predominant substrate currently used in Chinese painting, is extremely unwieldy.
The paper tends to crumple easily during storage or during the painting process itself. While the finished painting can be mounted with a backing and regain a smooth finish, the finished painting prior to mounting, if crumpled, is unsightly.
To mitigate the problem, I usually spray the crumpled rice paper with water and smooth it out as best I can. The rice paper must be treated with care while wet, for it tears easily.
In Figure 1, see below, you can see an example of moistened paper (this is not the paper I finally decided to use for my rabbit painting) laid out over a piece of felt painting mat.
The felt painting mat is traditionally used to support the paper during the painting process. You can see the moistened paper is semi-transparent. At this stage, you can smooth out any creases.
After smoothing, once the paper dries, the creases will disappear. The felt painting mat is used to absorb any paint or ink which may have gone through the paper, thus protecting the table below. You can see the ink stains on the felt painting mat accumulated through multiple use.
The ink stains, though unsightly, are not an issue. However, it always pays to be careful to ensure that there are no dried pieces of ink which may have dropped from your palette onto the felt painting mat, as the ink pieces may reactivate once they come into contact with water and may soil the clean rice paper.'
Japanese-made rice paper tends to be more consistent in its quality. However, the width of the paper always tends to be fairly narrow and I have not succeeded in finding Japanese-made paper with a width wider than 61.5cm.
Chinese or Japanese-made paper could work well for the project below as the painting is fairly small at 69.5cm x 35cm. For paintings which require more width, I would use the larger-sized Chinese-made papers.
Demonstration: Where the Rabbit Plays
As I did not have any rabbits in my own collection of photographs, I took some artistic liberties and used a rather blurry photograph of a Cape Hare, which I had taken while on vacation in Kenya a number of years ago. I also used a photograph of some poppies from a friend’s garden in France to compose the backdrop (see images below).
Reference photos: Cape Hare and Poppies
As the photograph of the Cape Hare was rather blurry, I went online to view some clearer photos of Cape Hares taken by other photographers to fill in the details for its eyes and feet. However, my final painting is based on my own photograph to ensure that there are no intellectual property issues.
For this project I chose to use a Chinese-made rice paper which had some dried tea leaves embedded into the paper. I felt this added an organic feel to the painting.
I obtained the paper from Straits Art Company Private Limited (“Straits”) (https://straitsartco.com.sg), an arts supply company in Singapore which sells a very comprehensive range of high quality art supplies.
They ship internationally and enquiries for specific items not listed on their website can be dealt with by contacting them through their contact page. They are extremely knowledgeable and give excellent advice and recommendations.
The paper I used for this painting does not have a name in English, but it is described as a handmade tea leaves and flower paper and can be purchased by mail order from Straits. It’s an excellent paper that holds colour beautifully and can be used for dry brush effect as well as for wet on wet brushwork. Its only limitation is that it only comes with a narrow width (35cm).
In cases where larger pieces of paper with more width are required, in addition to Straits, I also sometimes use Chinese-made paper from Inkston (https://www.inkston.com).
I started by hydrating the Japanese-made watercolours in the box and the dried ink in my palette by spraying water over them. The watercolours take a few minutes to rehydrate.
Do note that Japanese and Chinese-made watercolours cannot be replaced by watercolours used in traditional western-style watercolour paintings. They are opaque and have different qualities from western watercolours.
Based on my experience, I have not succeeded in purchasing replacement pans or tubes for depleted colours. Japanese and Chinese-made watercolours tend to come in complete sets (in tubes or pans). For some reason, individual pans or tubes aren’t sold and one has to purchase an entirely new set once some of the colours are used up.
One possible solution is to purchase pigments and binder and grind and mix them yourself. I purchased my Phoenix watercolour box and also pigments and binder from Straits (see the link above).
Stage one: the drawing
While my watercolours were hydrating, I used a charcoal vine to draw a rough outline of the rabbit and the poppies on rice paper.
Note that any mistakes made in the drawing should be erased either by brushing your fingers lightly over the error to obliterate it or using a kneaded eraser. Do not use a plastic eraser as these erasers tend to drag the charcoal over the paper and leave indelible smudges.
I use charcoal rather than graphite pencil as the charcoal tends to blend seamlessly with the paint and ink, creating a lovely effect. The outlines will thus disappear with the painting or can be brushed off after painting.
Stage two: spraying
Once the drawing was complete, I sprayed a little water over parts of the rabbit to enable the paint to spread.
Each type of rice paper is different. On some types of rice paper, paint can spread very liberally without wetting the paper. On others, spraying some water helps to achieve the desired effect. It is crucial therefore, if one is trying a new variety of paper, to test a small piece of the paper first to understand its qualities.
Stage three: adding colour
I used colours that are the approximate equivalent of burnt sienna and cobalt blue for the body of the rabbit.
After having mixed and picked up the colours with my brush, in order to give my painting its inky quality which is characteristic of Chinese paintings, I picked up some Chinese ink with the tip of my brush and applied the combination of the watercolours and the Chinese ink to the rabbit (see below).
I was careful not to paint all the way to the outline of the rabbit as the colour would spread after application.
I used a fairly concentrated application of paint and ink as the colours dry a few shades lighter. I also placed a paper towel over the painted area immediately after application to dry the edges of the paint application so that the paint would not spread uncontrollably (see, below).
Again, how much lighter the colour will appear after drying and how much the paint will spread will depend on the paint and paper used and the amount of water on the brush. It is therefore important to familiarize oneself with all these variables before starting a painting.
Stage four: the poppy flowers
I sprayed some water on the poppies, then mixed the approximate equivalent of alizarin crimson and cadmium red light with a tiny bit of Chinese ink.
Using a larger square brush which I’d purchased at a hardware store, I started applying the red onto the poppies. I tried to complete each poppy with a single stroke of the brush, twisting and turning the brush to create the desired shape (see below).
Stage five: adding the stems, pods and grass
I then mixed the approximate equivalent of viridian and leaf green, combined the colours with a little Chinese ink and started on the poppy pods, stems and grass, varying the proportions of the paint and ink to achieve the desired tonal values (see below).
The watermarks which can be seen around the edges of the poppies and the rabbit will dry up and become invisible. To create variation, I ensured that each of the poppies was painted with a different intensity of colours.
Stage six: adding details
I began working on the eye using some red mixed with yellow. Then, using black ink, I then started to define the ears, nose, legs, feet and pebbles on the ground, using a variation of wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques.
I then started adding white gouache to the eye area and pupil, head, underjaw and tail.
For the underjaw and head, I ensured that the gouache blended with the damp body colour of the rabbit.
I also added some additional tones to the poppies to give the petals shape and definition. As the aim of Chinese painting is to simplify forms and capture the essence of the subject, I was not aiming for a 3D effect.
Stage seven: Final stages
Having added all the major details, I stopped work on the painting and hung it up to dry.
As I did not have a sufficiently long clipboard to hold the painting, I hung it from the top of my sideboard, using a book to hold the top of the painting.
I was quite confident at this stage that the painting could be satisfactorily finished, so I affixed my seal to the bottom left hand corner of the painting to create a counterpoint to the red poppies.
Seok explains the process of making and using a seal in her tiger demonstration
Stage eight: finishing touches
I waited a couple of days so that the painting would be completely dry, then added the final touches.
I added a ladybird onto one of the poppy stems, added the whiskers and enlarged the pupil of the eye.
I also added a few fine hairs to the chest to suggest the texture of the rabbit’s coat.
The finished painting
Where the Rabbit Plays, Chinese ink and watercolour on rice paper
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