Different styles of Chinese brush painting

The art of Chinese brush painting varies in both style and execution. There are two main areas – freestyle (xieyi, literally ‘writing ideas’) and meticulous (gongbi). The first is deceptively simple; the latter is more realistic and detailed.

This article will focus on freestyle painting. The medium used is different to Western watercolours, and gives a softer result. The format of the painting can be suitable for a frame, or it is mounted as a scroll with silk borders.

Traditional subjects for Chinese brush painting

Various subjects can be painted using this method. Traditionally subjects fall into categories such as flowers and birds, fruit and vegetables, animals, landscapes and figures. With a few strokes of a Chinese brush, your subject will come to life while the viewer is invited to complete the image in his or her mind. The subject portrayed will often have symbolic meaning, and may be prepared for a special occasion. It is also a response by the artist to a particular time or situation. It will not usually be a faithful rendition, but more an impression, capturing a mood or a moment in time, together with the spirit or qi (chi) of the subject. This painting form goes back over 2000 years. Some of the first paintings were murals on the walls of tombs, recording the life and possessions of the deceased.

Chinese brush painting banner

Plum, ink and watercolour, (28x20cm)
The gnarled trunk is portrayed in ink, with the more fragile flowers in watercolour.

A little history of Chinese brush painting

Gradually other subjects were added and, at one time, even the style and content of painting (meticulous style) was prescribed by Emperor Huizong (1082-1135). Naturally, there was a reaction against this and later scholar courtiers concentrated on freestyle representation.

Most famous artists were either at court or part of the Imperial family. It was just as much part of the accepted occupation of learned and powerful people as their official duties. Anyone who painted for a living or by commission was considered of less importance than a merchant, for example. Of course, the 20th century changed many of these concepts.

Materials used for Chinese brush painting

The materials used for Chinese brush painting are called The Four Treasures – brush, paper, ink stone and ink stick.

Scholars, who had the leisure time to practise calligraphy and painting, collected beautiful items for their ‘scholar’s desk’, including brush rests and hangers, water droppers, water pots and bowls.

The essentials of the Scholar’s Desk

From left to right: Traditional tube paints (watercolour), painting felt, square ink stone with lid, ink stick, brushes (wolf and sheep), grass paper (for practice) and Xuan paper.

Chinese brushes

Artists’ brushes evolved from those used by officials to make notes on bamboo strips (original Chinese books and records).

All brushes use animal hair of differing flexibility, assembled and glued into a bamboo handle, with or without a horn ferrule. Most are designed to be suspended upside down for drying, thus protecting the head.

New brushes are stiffened to protect the fibres from insects. Once this has been removed by soaking in lukewarm water, care should be taken to store the dried brushes in a brush roll, or suspend them from a hanger.

Good brushes are made from natural fibres and are either all the same, or a mix of two or three different hair types. In the north of China, sheep (goat) brushes are commonly available, while the wolf brush is more popular in the south. I find that a mixed-fibre brush has the benefits of both soft and firm hairs.

Sheep, squirrel and rabbit brushes are used for soft strokes to portray animals, flowers or fruit while wolf, badger and horse are common for landscape work. More exotic fibres include mountain horse or cat and chicken feather.

Artists often have a favourite brush for certain subjects. There are a variety of sizes available and it is best to use one larger than you would normally use for watercolour painting.


Graceful Orchid, ink and watercolour, (22x32cm)
This subject is traditionally painted in ink. The design could be suitable for a fan.

Papers for Chinese brush painting

Paper is preferred for freestyle painting, being more absorbent and cheaper than silk.

It needs to be absorbent, and is therefore described as unsized (no added alum) or semi-sized (treated with alum).

The paper is made by hand or machine. Xuan paper is manufactured all over China, having originated in Anhui.

Other papers are available in sheets or continuous rolls, containing bamboo, mulberry bark or linen. Although these seem extremely absorbent (once a stroke is made it cannot be erased), the freedom of the marks on the paper is exciting.

Bamboo, ink, (40x30cm)
Again, this is typically painted in shades of ink. The culm (stem) is painted with a hake brush. The centre of the brush contains light ink and the edges of the brush are dipped into dark ink. By stopping and starting the stroke, the shape of the culm can be achieved.

Inks for Chinese brush painting

Ink comes in stick or liquid form. An ink stick is made from soot (wood or oil) mixed with glues and oils, moulded and dried. These can be highly decorated, and the older the ink stick the better the ink quality.

Good quality ink produces smooth and even tones when diluted, so you should be able to achieve several shades and colours of ink if it is ground properly.

Liquid ink is cheaper and can save time, but it does not compare with that which is freshly ground, when looking for tone control.

Ink stone and other materials

The ink stone completes The Four Treasures. These are made from carved stone or slate, and again the quality is important when looking for finely ground ink. A rough stone will not produce good ink regardless of the stick quality (and vice versa).

Although Western watercolour can be used, it is preferable to use Chinese or Japanese paints which are produced for this style of painting – they contain more glue and bond into the paper in a more permanent way.

The colours include both those from vegetables and minerals (transparent and opaque). Some may be poisonous so do not lick your brush!

The colours are limited when compared to Western paints, but each blends with and supports its neighbours. They are available in different forms – granules or chips, powders (expensive), Japanese pans for Chinese brush painting, and tubes (inexpensive).

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Seals form an integral part of the painting.

Carved in stone, they are printed using cinnabar paste.

Artists can sign their paintings with their name seal, and also include a mood seal that captures the essence, either the mood of the subject or that of the artist when they painted it.

Chrysanthemum, watercolour, (33x24cm)
This shows a multi-head variety, but there are many variations in Chinese brush painting.

The Four Gentlemen

Four specific plants are known as The Four Gentlemen in Chinese brush painting. These plants are said to contain the attributes of the Confucianist junzi (gentlemen) of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and each represent a different season: orchid (spring), bamboo (summer), chrysanthemum (autumn) and plum (winter).

  • Orchid - The orchid shows both strength in the leaves and delicacy in the flowers, bending and swaying in the breeze. This should be portrayed by your brushstrokes.
  • Bamboo - Contrary to expectation, bamboo is one of the most difficult subjects to paint correctly, and needs a lot of practice. It symbolises a tough root system, which clings to rocks even in the face of wind and rain.
  • Chrysanthemum - Chrysanthemums represent retirement and scholarly pursuits. Often shown with a teapot or cups, you should achieve the feeling of relaxation in the painting.
  • Plum - And finally, plum produces new growth after the winter, hinting at new beginnings.
Other subjects

By sketching, observing and simplifying, you can paint almost anything with Chinese brush painting techniques. Although such subjects as a lotus are traditional and full of meaning (purity in particular, with each part of the lotus being used for food or medicine) you could easily use something like courgette leaves from the vegetable garden to give a similar feeling, focusing on large leaves that become more interesting as they get old and ragged.

Heron, ink and watercolour, (32x19cm)

This proud bird is painted in ink with small touches of watercolour for the eyes, beak and legs.

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How to paint a simple orchid using Chinese brush painting techniques

Using purely shades of ink to illustrate this flower is a favourite pastime of mine.

Ink marks should be varied, including light and dark, large and small, dense and sparse, thin and thick, and wet and dry.

Include two or three of these contrasting elements to help add plenty of liveliness to your work.

Stage one

  • After grinding your ink, load a firm brush (brown or mixed fibres) with dark ink.
  • Paint your leaves from the base to the tip, ensuring that you lift the brush from the paper at the end of each, to achieve a pointed shape.
  • Break the line of the leaf, rather than overlap the strokes.

Stage two

  • Paint the centre of the blossom in two strokes, and add three ‘propeller’ strokes in lighter ink.
  • Continue the outer line of the largest centre stroke down to form the stem, towards the base of the leaves.
  • Ensure that you do not ‘bolt’ everything together, but allow space and movement to occur.

How to paint a buffalo using Chinese brush painting techniques

  • Start with the eyes, ears, horns and nose; you will then have the charcter of the animal.

Top tip

It helps to have the creature looking in a specific direction (hence, in the example below, it is gazing at the flighty butterfly).

  • Vary the strokes used for the body. Aim to suggest the muscles just under the skin, with the coarse hairs that protect the animal. These are uneven and occur where the animal is susceptible to injury. Note the different tones of ink.
  • Load your brush with light to medium ink, occasionally adding dark ink, and with the side of the brush, place strokes next to each other until you have the shape of the body. In particular, be aware of the spine, shoulders and haunches.
  • Finally add the tail.
  • With this composition, showing the legs is unnecessary, just a hoof will do.

Top tip

In order to emphasise the difference in size and weight between them, ensure that the insect is painted lighly.

Pauline Cherrett

Pauline has written eight books, edited Chinese publications and produced various articles on Chinese brush painting. A founder member of the Chinese Brush Painters Society (www.cbps.org.uk), she gives talks and demonstrations, and teaches at Knuston Hall, Irchester (www.knustonhall.org.uk) and Harrow Way, Andover. Find out more from www.sidewinderstudio.co.uk

Try more Chinese Brush Painting ideas from Jean Long.

Paint the Four Gentlemen of Chinese art with Maggie Cross.

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