Chinese Painting

Brushwork has been and still remains an essential characteristic of the Chinese painting culture. Brushwork and ink are considered to be the foundation of the Chinese paintings, even where color has been used. Aficionados of Chinese art noticed for the first time the nature of the line when they observed a painting. In the character of the brushwork, the artists are able to capture the raison de etre of painting, the spirit resonance.

Chinese Calligraphy and Writing

For the Chinese, writing and painting have been developing hand in hand in terms of tools and techniques. Some forms of flexible brush, which is capable of creating rhythmically diminishing and swelling lines, seem to have been developed during the Neolithic era (4500-2200 BCE) where it was applied in decoration of pottery vessels with sweeping linear patterns. During the Han dynasty – the period between 206 BC and 220 BC, both writing and paintings on bamboo strips that were laced together to form a book-like show expertise and expressiveness with the amazingly resilient Chinese brush and ink. The Chinese writing is made of block shaped symbols which represent ideas; they are referred to as ideograms (these symbols are also known as characters). The characters that developed from the basic images of the actual objects they represent (pictograms) were modified to represent abstract concepts. Calligraphers later regularized and codified these symbols modifying each one of them to fit into an imaginary square shape. In addition, the calligraphers draw each of the strokes of a character in a given order mainly from left to right and from top to bottom. The information coded in this form is essential for the readers who are trying to decode cursive writing styles where some of the strokes are joined. The calligraphy, art of beautiful writing, has been developing rapidly resulting in various forms of writing. The regular writings are developed from short strokes which could be written with ease using brush and ink. As the excitement writing took hold, the writers invented advanced styles which included the running and cursive writings. The advanced writing styles involved joining of some or all characters that were written separately in the formal styles (Sullivan).

In writing, the Chinese sought to balance the relationship and size of one stroke with another as well as the relation of characters. Developing harmony between the sparseness and density, left and right, top and bottom become the second nature of the practiced writer. This training in the formal relation and application of the ink and flexible brush led to the transformation of the art of calligraphy to the art of painting.

Calligraphy Tools

The Chinese referred to the tools that were used in painting and writing as the Four Treasures-brushes, paper, ink stone, and ink stick. Each of these tools is special to the development of the techniques of writing and painting. The Chinese brushes are developed specifically to allow them to come to a sharp points that make fine lines while they can be used for wider strokes. The brushes are capable of holding enough amount of ink that makes it possible to make the number of long continuous lines or many short strokes. To design a brush tip, several forms of animal hairs were used including wolf, rabbit, and the whiskers of mice. The brush makers have to start with the long central core made of stiffer hair and then fix around it a layer of shorter hairs, these are in turn bundled by an outer layer of longer hair. The long outer hairs were designed to provide a sharp point, while the bundles of shorter hairs surrounding the core were meant to act like a well that held ink. The brush tip is fixed into a hollow bamboo tube or to some elaborated handles of jade.

Over the years, varieties of brushes were made based on these fundamental designs. The size of the brush, quality as well as the textures of the hairs vary according to the nature of strokes the painters want to produce. They vary from the tiny, moderately stiff wolf hair brush for outlining to the vast flexible brushes that are meant for outsized calligraphic scrolls. The long tapering brushes are the best for swirling movements. The short stumpy brushes are used to produce blunt lines that have understated impression desired by scholar painters. Brushes of soft goat or rabbit hair are preferred for washes and for steady lines in architecture.

The other important material among the Four Treasures is the paper. Paper was invented by the Chinese during the Western Han dynasty. The Chinese were enthusiastic record keepers hence needed some light, thin, and inexpensive materials on which to record. Early writers carved their recordings on stone, wrote them on bamboo strips or silk materials, and even cast them on bronze; however, all these materials were expensive and bulk for exploding literary and documentary output by Chinese. During the Tang dynasty, the painters began the application of paper occasionally; paper was not used extensively for painting until the period between 1279 and 1368 (Yuan dynasty). After this era, scholars who painted for the pleasure preferred paper, where they viewed paper as a natural part of their work as literary society accomplished in painting. The painter first designed papers from rags and later used varieties of vegetable based fibers including grass, tree bark, grain husk, and hemp.  The papers that were used for brushwork were either sized or not sized. Designers sized their papers by coating one side using alum so as to partially seal pores in the paper, this coating gave the paper a smoother and less absorbent texture. The sized paper was desired for dry brush, fine line art, or contrasting ink. The papers that were not sized, on the other hand, were preferred for the wet ink painting of the expressive painting style (Münsterberg).

Other than the papers and brushes, the painters needed ink. The Chinese painters made ink from a mixture of soot and glue that was formed into hard sticks. The grounded soot produced the color, and the glue was meant to hold the sticks together while acting as an adhesive substance that bounds the ink to the silk or paper. The pine soot produced the optimal ink, though other forms of soot and animal glues were used as well. Ink makers have tried varieties of materials such as jade dust, pig’s gall, powdered pearls, and ox horn marrow. During the period between 960 and 1279 (Song dynasty), an ink makers observed that when they mixed oil-lamp soot with pine, it resulted into an exceptionally glossy, deep, black ink. At some point of time, scholars attempted to come up with their own ink. Most of the ink designers guarded their recipes egotistically passing them on specific apprentices. Therefore, the ingredients for making some inks have been lost totally. For the application of the ink stick, the painter crushed it with water on a smooth grained stone.

The ink stone was termed as one of the Four Treasures of the painting scholars. The quality of the grains of the stones was of great importance, the stones were also treasured for their beauty and color. The stones were cut to obtain flat surface for easy grinding and designed to have a depression that held the ground ink and water. Fascinated with the aspects of painting, the scholars studied the qualities of different ink stones and inks; this was in terms of the ratio of water and ink used for best qualities of paint (Mair).

Development of Landscape Painting in China

Thinking of Chinese painting, one has to think of hanging scrolls as well as hand scrolls. The wall paintings were ancient forms of painting that are currently preserved in temple building, caves, and tombs. Zong Bing, one of the first supporters of the landscape painting, wrote about the pleasure of having landscape painting on the wall of a house. He said that the painting could make him imagine being in an untrammeled world. Hanging silk scrolls provided wall decoration that could be removed or changed. The hand scrolls were primarily preferred for written documents. They became the mediums for illustrations of supernatural spirits or of paragons of virtue as well as panoramic landscapes.  Smaller formats for painting developed as a practice of designing small paintings for gifts. The album silk leaves and oval shaped Chinese fans were popular during Song dynasty, they were later followed by the paper fans and album leaves of the Japanese origin during the Yan dynasty. Even when the color was important for the Chinese painting, the brushwork was of great importance. During the times of the strong and sensual Tang dynasty, Chinese painters explored almost all means that were available to them to develop images that described their environment. The features painting were explored as well as animals in their natural settings. Ancient painting works referred to art form as “making boundaries.” In painting, outline was a fundamental feature, the artists explored linear brushwork to provide movement, fullness, and vitality to the figures. Gu Kaizi is one of the famous artists who developed different line styles and the floating silk-thread lines to impact the aspect of muscle mass and vitality on his painting. Wang Wei became the pioneer painter to use ink only to illustrate a landscape scene. The painters who came after Wang credited him with the use of textural strokes to give geologic credence to the outlined rock and mountain forms. Wang’s landscape painting defined the texture of Rocky Mountains while the pale color highlighted dark and light regions. With time, more scholars seized upon this feature as the standard for classifying scholars from the professional painters until at the beginning of the 16th century.

The heritage of Tang painting carried on in the court styles of the other dynasties perpetuating meticulous style of outlines. Simultaneously, the new landscape painting using ink became a dominant style. In keeping with the religious, cultural, and philosophical basis in Taoism and Confucianism, the Chinese painter sought to express his vision through landscape. The Taoists saw in nature the ultimate harmony and mystery of subsistence. The landscape became the very first genre through which painters explored the techniques of brush painting. The brush strokes were the painters’ means to attain their ends.

Zhuang Jiongsheng (1627-1679)  (Sullivan)

The landscape painting development over the centuries initiated the exploration of the techniques used in dense concentrations to come up with a viable mountain of eroded rocks, running streams, clinging vegetation, and forest trees. The painters used brushstrokes to recreate on a surface of the majesty of nature. Through this, they developed the variety of texture strokes that included long hemp fiber strokes. The painter held the brush at varying angles to the surface and moved the wrist differently to produce each of the strokes. For example, from the painting above, fine lines were produced using a tip of the brush that was held vertically; the severed band strokes are done using a slightly oblique brush;  the ends and the turns are produced using the brush that is held with its side against the surface. The rhythmic movement of the wrist and the arm creates the vitality of the painting. In the landscape Chinese painting, the artists moved from a decoratively realistic and colorful form to one that is restrained and theoretical. Even though they continued to use color in faded washes of blue-green, the painters conceived the painting in black and white. According to the Chinese color theory, black contained all the colors, and thus theorist believed that it was possible for people to conceive all colors in various tones of black ink.

The invasions in the North by the Tartars in the 12th century caused the Song dynasty to retreat to the South and established their new court as Hangzhou in 1127. During the reign of Emperor Hui Zong, the Imperial Painting Academy was headed to the direction of a closer view of the nature in terms of landscape. The intent was to get grips of the vital life spirit of the landscape understanding the true forms of the subjects in the painting in terms of texture and their movement in space (Ebrey).


The Chinese painters produced their works in colors in a meticulous gongbi style outlining the forms and using washes of color that were smoothed out using water in multiple layers. Some painters experimented with the looser mogu also known as “boneless style,” where they illustrated an object with a single or several strokes of transparent color. This left the edges of an object free of outlines which enhanced the sense of life. The academic ink painting style reflected softer landscapes of the southern areas which were endowed with low hills, broad rivers, and misty atmosphere.

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