It seems everyone is extremely busy in today´s society, often forgetting to relax and enjoy life. In these circumstances, it is interesting to note that the Chinese character for "busy" means "losing one´s mind". In fact many people are beginning to realize that calming activities, which center the mind and counteract the stress of daily life, are necessary for our well being. In this regard, the study of literature, music, dance, painting, etc., can bring joy as well as relaxation and enrichment.

Landscape PaintingQing Cheng mountain in the Sichuan province inspired this beautiful landscape by the author.


The appreciation of Chinese Painting provides such rewards. One may begin, perhaps, by attending an exhibition, collecting a few paintings or even by beginning to experience painting itself. There are many intriguing aspects to examine in Chinese Painting--the painting technique, the poetry, the calligraphy, the seal, the painter´s central image and theme as well as his or her mounting skills.

By simply distinguishing between paintings you like and those you dislike, you are recognizing the first step of painting appreciation. The next level involves understanding why a painting is good and which aspects are most pleasing to the eye. In order to analyze each painting, it is helpful to be aware of the following areas: composition, use of ink, use of the brush, coloring, mood, poetry, inscription, seal, and mounting.

Composition: The viewer first of all notices the composition or layout of a painting. A successful painter often spends a great deal of time and thought composing an attractive layout. The artists needs to decide what to use and what to leave out and how to make the arrangement, based on what he or she sees everyday. Thus the saying, "there are ten angles from which to look at a tree, but only a corner in the painting; there are hundreds of lofty and precipitous mountain peaks, but only one view in the painting; there are thousands of bamboo, but only one gets into the painting. A painter must present his or her own particular perspective and vision.

Peacock and Flowers"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.

Mood: In evaluating the painting, use of brush, ink and color are developed skills, while "mood" is the expression of the artist´s feelings. This is the artist´s ultimate purpose. Different viewers, however, may sense different moods from the same painting. Just as in understanding Zen, viewers achieve different levels of comprehension and philosophy. Without mood, a painting is without soul. For example, a painting with flowers and birds attempts to depict the movement of the bird, the bloom of the flower with fragrance and the vibration of a bee´s wing. An illustration in a science book may present the same features, but only provides the outside appearance, not the liveliness and sense of presence. Therefore, in Chinese painting theory an artist should show purity in painting the snow, brightness in the moon, fragrance in the flower, sound in the waterfall and spirit in people. Before beginning, the painter should have a vision in mind. In other words, "the mind has the plan and the hand follows." Once started, the brush and ink require full attention. Without the mood, brush and ink do not have anything to attach to; without brush and ink, the mood cannot be expressed. These are inseparable elements.

Warrior PaintingBrush painting of traditional warrior by the author.

Poetry: It is an old Chinese saying that "a painting lends itself to a poem and a poem depicts a painting." Since the brush was invented, calligraphy and painting use the same and hence, are closely tied. Wang Wei, the renowned poet, calligrapher, and painter of the Tang Dynasty (619-907 A.D.), painting had become a symbol of taste and gracefulness. The famous Wang Shen and Su Tonpo were among those enthusiastic about pairing painting with poetry and calligraphy. The integration of the poetry and painting is a unique feature in Chinese painting. The artist adds poetry to emphasize the essence of the painting or to compliment the painting´s expression of feeling. We can say that the painting is the basis of the poetry and the poetry enhances the painting. Painting and poetry go hand-in-hand to express the artist´s state of mind. In short, one should appreciate the poem as an integral part of the painting.

Inscription: Artists before the Tang Dynasty did not sign their paintings, the practice only becoming fashionable in the North Soon Dynasty. As discussed before, artists after the Tang and Soon Dynasties excelled in both painting and calligraphy and hence developed a very tasteful art of inscription. Signing the painting involved inscribing both the date and the signature. There arose a practice, however, of writing on paintings to characterize and introduce the artist. In addition, some artists wrote down the circumstances of the painting or their thoughts about it. Among the emperors, Soon Wei Tzun loved to write on his own and his subordinates paintings. Emperors Kong-Shi and Ching Run of the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.) also liked to write on paintings, sometimes even four or five different inscriptions. Some viewers feel this practice can be overdone, harming the spirit of the paintings. In summary, Chinese paintings has evolved from the simple wordless image in the Six Dynasties to include and integrate poetry and calligraphy, sometimes layered with multiple inscriptions.

Seal (chop engraving): In the Chin (221-207 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C.-219 A.D.) Dynasties, people used a seal as evidence of certification. There were various official government and private seals, but these were not generally used on paintings. It was not until Wang Mien of Yuan Dynasty (1277-1367 A.D.) who used soft stone to carve a seal, that men of letters started using seals. The making of the seal from lettering to engraving, was all done by artists, and hence became a creative part of the painting. The shape and style of lettering of these seals varied widely with the hand of the artist. The red seal added a special accent on the black and white paintings and has become an important and unique element of Chinese painting. This sort of seal identified the artist by last name, first name, alias, and his or her family shrine name or study room name. There are other types of seal. One is an informal seal which includes famous sayings or perhaps the artist thoughts or intentions. Another category of seal of seal gives viewers information about the history of the painting and how it was passed through generations. The proper use of seals can enhance the beauty of the painting. However, some famous paintings are full of emperor´s seals form various dynasties and overshadow the painting itself. Only collectors and those who study painting history view them as pecious paintings.


Mounting: The technique of mounting was more sophisticated in the South-North Dynasty (420-589 A.D.). General Tools, a classic guidebook on the subject, states that "the elegance of mounting started from Fan Yeh." It is also noted in Tang´s Six Books, a history of the Tang Dynasty, that the imperial "Literature Hall had five mounting specialists, and the Support Division had ten mounting specialists," indicating the establishment of royal mounting specialists was officially considered as an important step of mounting in the Tang Dynasty. In the Soon Dynasty, the mounting technique had evolved from board mounting to the hand-scroll and vertical scroll. In the Ming Dynasty, mounting skills were exquisite and mounting artisans were highly paid. During the era of Chin Run and Chia Ching of the Ching Dynasty, the mounting artisans in Su County were famed for their excellent work and earned the name of "Su Mount." In the middle of the Ching Dynasty, most of the talented mounting artisans moved to Beijing, the capital, and created the term of "Capital Mount." There are three major styles in the art of mounting: booklet, hand-scroll and vertical scroll. Within the booklet style, there are a variety of forms: the butterfly form, left and right sides connected and folded; the drapery form, opening up and down; the plaited form, many miniatures paintings folded into pamphlets. The hand-scroll mounting method is also very elaborate and involves many parts in its construction. The same is true of the vertical scroll method. The mounting process is very complicated and requires much skill and training. The scroll should be flat and tight with perfect inlay when opened and smooth and without plait when rolled. The backing materials used include fine silk, satin, and brocade. The scroll ends can be made of expensive materials such as ivory, porcelain, jade, gold, silver and sandalwood.

In summary: One can really appreciate and enjoy Chinese Painting by understanding these and other unique features. The article only touches upon some fundamental elements involved in the art, but hopefully it provides a first step for people who would like to know more about Chinese Painting. For those interested in exploring the subject further, there are many books written by experts in specific fields.

Jack Liang was raised from an artist family. His father and his uncles were well known as Liang´s Trio Artists in the Orient. His water color and ink paintings have been exhibited in Taiwan, China, Philippines, Japan and the US. He is a former president of the Los Angeles Chinese Artists association in 1989, advisor of both the Chinese Arts Society of Southern California and the Chinese Calligraphy and Painting Association. He is currently a member of the California Art Club and advisor to the Chinese Artists Society of USA.

©2001 Qi Journal