The Making and Essence of Chinese Paintings

Originating as artwork for decorative and ornamental purposes, Chinese painting techniques evolved into a classic art form that embodies China’s traditional culture and wisdom. (Image courtesy of Zhang Cuiying)
Originating as artwork for decorative and ornamental purposes, Chinese painting techniques evolved into a classic art form that embodies China’s traditional culture and wisdom. (Image courtesy of Zhang Cuiying)

Chinese painting is one of the oldest continuous artistic traditions in the world. Originating as artwork for decorative and ornamental purposes, Chinese painting techniques evolved into a classic art form that embodies China’s traditional culture and wisdom.

The influence of Chinese painting draws inspiration from not only the surrounding natural world, but also reflects the inner spiritual world of the artist.

Tools of Chinese painting

Traditional painting involves stroke techniques similar to Chinese calligraphy, and is performed with a brush dipped in black or colored ink. As with calligraphy, brush, paper, and ink are basic materials via which the paintings are created.

The Chinese brush

Similar to the brush used for watercolor painting in the West, the Chinese brush has a finer tip, suitable for dealing with a wide range of subjects, and for producing the variations in lines required for different styles.

Brush techniques emphasized in Chinese painting include line drawing and the stylized expressions of shade and texture (cunfa). Dotting methods (dianfa) are also used mainly to differentiate trees and plants, and for simple embellishment.

The brush strokes in Chinese art give the painting definition and beauty, and depict the subject’s outward and inner qualities. They also reveal the individuality and style of the artist himself.

Chinese ink

Chinese ink has been used in painting and calligraphy for over 2,000 years. An ink-cake is ground on the painter’s stone slab with fresh water; ink of various consistencies can be prepared depending on the amount of water used.

Thick ink is very deep and glossy when applied to paper or silk. Thin ink appears lively and translucent. As a result, in ink-and-wash paintings, it is possible to use ink alone to create a rhythmic balance between brightness and darkness, lightness and density, and to create an impression of the subject’s texture, weight, and coloring.

Chinese rice paper

Chinese rice paper is classified into different degrees of weight and size used. The paper is highly absorbent, and the weight degree  dictates the quantity of ink used for strokes on the paper. Different paper produces different results; some are rough and absorb the ink quickly, similar to a sponge, while others have a smooth surface that repels the ink.

Chinese ink colors

Colored inks are created by mixing water with ground mineral pigments. In Chinese painting, color is not used to show the effect of light on the subject, but to convey information about the subject. In Chinese landscape painting (shan shui), colors represent the five elements that make up the universe and the directions of the compass.

chinese painting

In Chinese painting, color is not used to show the effect of light on the subject, but to convey information about the subject. (Image courtesy of Zhang Cuiying)

Inner essence of the subject

Guided by traditional wisdom, Chinese paintings value the inner essence of a subject more than its accuracy in a physical sense. This is best explained by the words of the famous painter Qi Baishi (c.1863-1957) as “subtlety of a good painting lies in its being alike and yet unlike the subject.” A great painter should be able to “see the great in the small” and “see the small in the perspective of the great.”

One characteristic of Chinese painting is personifying scenes or subjects to identify with the ethics and human values revealed in traditional culture. For example, mountains and water are not only main structural elements in landscape paintings, but serve as natural symbols of the underlying spiritual principles of yin and yang.

Mountain peaks are often used in Chinese paintings to express age and longevity. Bamboo (hollow inside) suggests humbleness and integrity. The early blooming of flowers suggests loneliness and pride, while the withering of flowers is escape. The tiger expresses dignity and authority, and the crane is a symbol of long life.

Such analogies are oftentimes further emphasized in the poems that painters compose and inscribe on their paintings. In this way, the artist is able to further express the profound, ethical, and underlying principles inherent in his work, and to produce an effect upon his audience that is soul stirring and long lasting.

In order to achieve this, Chinese painters attach great importance to structural composition and space to create rhythm and variety. Sometimes the variety and balance created in this way is further enriched by the addition of inscriptions in the empty space.

Personalities of painters

Chinese culture emphasizes the connection between the quality of the paintings and the inner world of the individuals who produce such art. Only when an artist is able to achieve a high level of morality can his paintings achieve a high degree of artistic value. In Chinese history, all great artists lived by and cultivated high moral standards, and in this sense, their artistic works mirror the personalities of their creators.

chinese painting

Chinese culture emphasizes the connection between the quality of the paintings and the inner world of the individuals who produce such art. Only when an artist is able to achieve a high level of morality can his paintings achieve a high degree of artistic value. (Image courtesy of Zhang Cuiying)

The six principles of Chinese painting

Spirit resonance — or vitality, which translates as the energy transmitted from the artist into the work.

Bone method — or the way of using a  brush. This refers not only to texture and brush stroke, but to the close links between paintings and personality.

Correspondence to the object — or the depicting of form, which includes shape and lines.

Suitability of type — or the application of color, including layers, value, and tone.

Division and planning — or placing and arrangement corresponding to composition, space, and depth.

Transmission by copying — or the copying of models, not only from life, but also the works of antiquity.

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