One of the three uberskills of the Chinese scholar, along with calligraphy and poetry, it is radically different from Western styles. There are two traditions of Chinese painting, the artisan school and the scholar school. They often overlap, but the scholar school is much more prestigious.

Chinese painting took off in the Tang Dynasty, the emperors of that era were quite generous with patronization of artists. The Song Dynasty was the golden era of Chinese painting, landscapes in particular. There were four categories.

  1. Landscapes
  2. People and objects
  3. Birds and flowers
  4. Grass and insects
The distinguishing factor of Chinese painting in comparison with Western art is a total lack of perspective, or rather, the absence of a single disappearing point. Medieval European art also lacked perspective, however, it was rigid and blocky. Chinese painting lacks form, it is often flowing, free, wandering. When viewing Chinese art, you can still tell distances and size, however, it is much more subtle, giving the viewer a sense of immersion inside the painting.

In addition, Chinese art is done with different materials. Instead of oil, we have simply ink on silk or thin paper. Colors are used occasionally, mostly blue or green. Black is the main color. Instead of recreating a scene in detail, the artist seeks to capture the spirit, via the brush. The brushstrokes, like in calligraphy, is a way of expression. The way an artist wields the brush is the true art of Chinese painting.

Nature was a source of inspiration for the Chinese artist, they flock to cities such as Suzhou and Hangzhou and places like the Three Gorges and the Yellow Mountains to seek their true feelings and spirits. It was not the view of nature but more the essence of nature that mattered.

One can easily develop a taste for Chinese art, the aesthetic of it is quite different from Western art and it is very pleasing to the eye and soul. Recently, various Chinese pseudo-artists attempted to create a unique style of contemporary art by mixing traditional Chinese art and the new-fangled avant garde styles, it has so far been a complete failure, seen by the Chinese as totally ridiculous.

Used in Chinese Brush Painting are the Four Treasures of the Abode of Culture; the ink, the inkstone, the brushes, and the rice paper (or silk). Preparing to paint is considered part of the painting process; one grinds the ink (a solid stick) and mixes it with water on the inkstone, meditating on the texture and aroma of the ink and on the painting that is to come.

Students learn by copying the masters, even literally tracing the works of their teachers. Originality and creativity are not expected (or even welcomed) in the beginner.

Nature is indeed a source of inspiration for the Chinese artist, and the beginner is taught four basic forms: bamboo ("the upright gentleman"), plum or cherry blossoms, the wild orchid, and the chrysanthemum. Negative space, the "blank" areas with no paint in them, are very important to the composition; white space affects the balance of the painting, and can be used to imply mist, snow, the reflection of sun on water, etc.

It is only after years of training with black ink (and the shades of gray created by diluting it with water) that the novice is allowed to paint in color.

Thanks to my teacher, Anne Friend Clark; also The How and Why of Chinese Painting, 1974, by Diana Kan

(see also Sumi-e)

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