'Chinese brush painting is one of the most ancient forms of art still practised extensively today, rooted in distinct cultural and philosophical tenets,' says Seok Yam Chew. 'However, with the opening up of China to the west, and with the art form being practised for decades by the Chinese diaspora throughout the world, there has been a subtle yet undeniable fusion of western ideas and techniques with those of traditional Chinese brush painting'.
Materials required for Chinese brush painting:
The defining characteristic of Chinese brush painting is the use of ink in the creation of images.
Traditionally, Chinese ink comes in solid ink sticks, or ink stones, which are ground up and mixed with water to create liquid ink. These days, ready-to-use liquid Chinese ink can be purchased at most art stores.
In Chinese painting, the colour black is always applied using ink rather than watercolour.
Applying the inks
One of the most difficult aspects of Chinese brush paintings is the immutability of the washes once they are laid down. One has to think long and hard before laying down any wash or brushstroke as there is no opportunity for correction. The ink cannot be washed off the paper once it is applied.
Additionally, a skilled and experienced Chinese brush artist is admired for his ability to manipulate the ink to produce various gradations of tones in a single brushstroke.
Rice paper or silk
Chinese brushwork is traditionally applied on silk. In the contemporary context, rice paper is predominantly used because it is more easily available and economical.
There is a vast array of rice papers from which to select, depending on one’s preference. The papers most popularly used are those made in China or Japan.
The qualities of rice paper
Rice paper differs from watercolor paper in one significant aspect – ink or paint applied onto dry rice paper can spread in the same way that watercolor paints spread on wet watercolor paper. The degree of spread will depend on the paper used.
An understanding of the interaction of ink or paint with a particular type of paper is therefore highly crucial, as this enables the artist to anticipate, manipulate and control the spread.
When painting, the paper is laid on top of a white felt pad, preferably larger than the size of paper. This prevents the ink from seeping through the paper and damaging the table beneath. Also, as the felt does not absorb the ink the paper will not adhere to it.
White felt is ideal since it will not distort the colour being applied to the paper, therefore making it easier to gauge the image and washes whilst painting.
A felt pad can be purchased from any art shop selling Chinese art materials.
The painting is held in place by placing a flat pebble on each corner of the rice paper (I use pebbles purchased from the garden shop, about 2 inches in diameter).
Chinese watercolor paint
Chinese watercolor paints in pre-mixed pans are readily available in most stores.
My personal preference is for Japanese-made watercolor pans, which have a higher quality and purity of pigment.
I also use color pigment chips which come in bottles. These must be ground into fine powder in a mortar and pestle and then mixed with gum arabic and water.
The advantage of using color chips is that one can better control the purity of color and also control the viscosity of the paint. The higher the gum arabic content, the less the paint will spread on the rice paper when applied. Also, one can mix colours to the exact required hue.
Chinese paint brushes
Chinese paint brushes are made of animal hair, usually wolf or goat hair or a mixture of both.
They come in different sizes and shapes, are softer than traditional western watercolour brushes and are much more absorbent.
The brushes can be cleaned by swishing them in a container of water, much like watercolour brushes, and, at the end of each session, they should be cleaned with soap and hung to dry.
Chinese paint brushes do not spring back into shape once they are applied to paper or washed in water. One must therefore manipulate the brush to created the requisite sharpness if desired. They can, however, be manipulated and splayed to create a dry brush effect in much the same way that one manipulates and splays a western watercolor brush.
Chinese paint brushes are usually hung to dry on a wooden frame when not in use.
Pretty much anything can be used as a painting palette for Chinese brush painting.
Traditionally, Chinese painters use ceramic receptables. However, I personally prefer my larger, rectangular plastic palette designed for acrylic painting.
Demonstration: Chinese New Year 2022 - the year of the tiger
Burning Bright, Chinese ink and watercolour on rice paper
As the publication of this article is intended to coincide with Chinese New Year, I chose as my subject a tiger, since 2022 inaugurates the year of the tiger.
Chinese painters traditionally do not seek to capture the realistic image of the subject but rather the essence or the inner spirit of the subject.
I used this photograph of a tiger at Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India as my reference.