"Peacocks and Peony" represent Fortune and Longevity. Painting by the author, Jack Liang
The primary factors of composition are: a) "host" vs. "guest"--a painting must have a principle subject or focus around which other subject matter is arranged. b) The arrangement of reality and imagination--the actual combined with some imagination lends intrigue to a painting. C) detail vs. simplicity--areas with lots of detail, balanced with simplified strokes, make the painting more pleasant to examine. A painter who does not go through his careful selection process might as well take a snapshot instead of creating a painting. The composition in the essence and structure of a painting.
Use of Ink: "Water" and "ink" are two unique features of Chinese brush painting. That is why a direct translation of brush painting is "water-ink" painting. The western sketch, although also in black and white, is much different from the Chinese brush painting. The former uses black and white to express darkness and brightness of the lighting effect, while the latter uses ink to represent different colors. This is the practice of "five colors of ink. An artist uses black, white, dry, wet, thick and thin ink to express the color and substance of objects. For example, an artist will use thick ink to draw closer flower petals, while using thin ink to depict more distinct petals. Dark and thick ink does not describe value of darkness, but rather represents strength and vividness of color. For instance, in painting shrimp, an artist uses the unique features of rice paper and ink to suggest the translucent quality of the shrimp shell. The skill of a painter´s use of single color ink is reflected in the colorful effect produced.
Use of Brush: This is the key to an artist´s strength and skill, revealed in the descriptive character of each stroke. Phrases such as, "brush force through the paper", "a single stroke describes skin, hair, and bone", "where the stroke goes, the feeling follows" and "feeling goes where the stroke does not reach" are some descriptions about the use of the brush.
An artist can use stroke styles that are thick, thin, square, round, long, short, hard and soft, as well as dense and sparse, to express emotion and provoke this feeling in the viewer as well. In landscape painting, for example, there are over 30 different stroke styles, including rain-drop, ax-cut, knot-untying, zigzag and ox hair styles. In portrait painting, there are over 18 styles, including wire string, floating cloud, running water, Tsao´s dress, nail´s head and mouse tail. These terms were created by previous artists to help newcomers in their step-by-step practice.There is no need to memorize these terms to appreciate Chinese paintings. Instead, notice your own emotional response first, and then study theory and style.
Coloring: In the early history of Chinese painting, artists put much emphasis on color. Hou Hsih of the South-North Dynasty (402-589 A.D.), in his book, Six Methods of Painting, advises painters to "assign proper colors for various objects." In Western painting, color is based on scientific optical theory. However, Chinese painting uses color to express emotion, projecting, for instance, warmth and aggressiveness in contrast to cold, calm and sadness. Some guidelines are that, "red and yellow depict falling leaves; red and green, flowers blooming; blue and purple illustrate the horror of death; pink and yellow adds glory." Sho Kuo and Si Kuo, the father and son team of the Soon Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), published a book on color, stating "the color of water in spring is green, in summer is deep green, in autumn is blue and in winter is black; the color of the sky in spring is light blue, in summer is deep blue, in autumn is white and in winter is dark gray. After the Ming Dynasty (1386-1644 A.D.), Chinese painters began mixing ink with colors to vary their tones. This is because the colors tend to fade in ancient paintings. However the ink tones almost never fade. In addition many calligraphers, who used ink, began doing paintings and it was noticed that ink provided a smoother consistency to the colors. In mixing with color, a painter follows the guidelines that "colors should not interfere with ink; ink should not hinder color; color includes ink; ink is part of color." The uniqueness of the use of color in Chinese painting, therefore, is in avoiding strong color contrast and in harmonizing color with ink.