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Demonstration by Maggie Cross

Back to History - Visit her at www.maggie-cross.co.uk


Chinese Brush Painting, 12 October 2018
Maggie's father was in the Medical Corps in India, China and Hong Kong, where she had her early education in a Chinese school. There she learnt to speak Cantonese and to write Chinese characters. Painting and calligraphy are both art forms and use the same materials, tools and techniques. She regularly returns to China to update her knowledge.

Ritual and symbolism are fundamental.
First there are The Four Treasures:
Inkstone - a slate or jade equivalent of the western palette
Ink stick - a block made of soot and glue. This produces a traditional black ink whose characteristics depend on the type of wood burned (pine is the most common). You can depart a bit from tradition by buying the paint, particularly colours, in block, chip, powder or tube form (she does not recommend tubes - they harden)
Brush - of various animal hairs. Different sources of hair (like sheep, goat, "wolf", squirrel or fox) behave differently but all brushes come to a fine point
Paper - silk or plant fibres, always thin and absorbent and often with very visible fibres and added constituents (e.g. gold flecks?)
The brush is held with two fingers on top, two underneath and steadied by the thumb.

Using a chinchilla-hair brush, Maggie showed how to make different marks by varying the pressure and rotating the hand during each stroke - from fine lines and wide lines to knobby branches and two or three-stroke leaves or fishes.

If you want a better understanding you will have to start with one of her books, a course or a video (see her website).

Chinese painting is usually sparse. What you leave out is important. It is felt best to paint from memory, so only the bits you found important actually survive.
For her first painting, on a piece of gold-flecked xuan paper, she had chosen to paint peonies. Symbolism already: peonies symbolize riches and royalty.

She would use three slightly different reds: rose, peony and rouge - but here came the clever bit. The brush hairs must have been about 40cm long. She was able to load all three colours onto the brush at the same time (the lightest one near the ferrule, the darkest near the tip and one in between). This meant that the colour subtly changes as you adjust the pressure and use up the paint.
Leaving white between marks is important, too. White is not just effective in itself but it stops the paint from one stroke blending, unwanted, with another. You need practise to get the water content and speed right for each stroke.

Now a bird. Maggie had painted a main stem along the bottom but advised painting the bird before putting in the stem it was standing on. For her sparrow she used dark brown and burnt sienna. She started with the head and beak and then completed it with two strokes for the body and two for the tail. After painting the legs she completed the branches and stems.
Then she wanted some leaves and a butterfly. A very blue/grey green did for both. As always, one stroke per leaf (in traditional shapes), perhaps three for the butterfly wings.

Finally Maggie went around adding finishing touches: extra twigs, flower stamens, veins in the leaves, feathers and her signature and chops (the square stamps that identify the artist and/or owner. She admitted to cheating a little by using white acrylic for the stamens

That got us to the coffee break. She wanted to do two more paintings in the last 40 minutes: a leopard and an owl.

Both were done at great speed. Chinese painting seems to me to be inherently very quick and to have quite an element of chance. This can lead you to produce very large numbers of paintings, only a few of which are of exhibition quality. The rest make excellent wrapping paper!
Like the sparrow, the leopard started with details of the face, in black. She had changed from the initial xuon paper to a much coarser mulberry based one.

Unusually she also chose to use a wide hake brush to do the basic fur. Strokes were still fairly carefully placed so as to line up with the features, using slightly different mixes of burnt sienna, golden yellow and brown.

While the fur was still wet she picked up some fairly watery black to dab in for the spots.

I wondered about the placing of the various strokes but Maggie said that chi is more important than accurate copying of reality.
Finishing the leopard involved a little dirty vermilion for the nose, white acrylic for the whiskers, a mix of gamboge and indigo for the token hint at tree leaves, yellow in the eyes and more fine black lines to define paws etc.

For the owl, she changed paper again: to "Four Gentlemen". The Four Gentlemen refer to four plants: plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum. The paper is grey and less absorbent than most.

She had prepared it by putting a plate near one corner and spraying the whole sheet lightly with dirty water, mostly around the plate. The resulting full moon is the only phase the Chinese paint: tradition again. Because of the nature of the paper there was a visible pattern within it.

As ever, she started with the owl's eyes and beak. For the feathers and wings she used a mixed-hair brush (goat and coarser badger) loaded with various proportions of brown and black. Yellow went into eyes, beak and claws.
Finally Maggie provided a pine branch for the owl to perch on. The pine is a symbol of longevity.

Again, this took very few strokes, exploiting the way that the marks get paler, even dry-brush, as the paint is used up. She ended up with stylised indigo pine needles and the same paint to outlined the claws.

So ended a most interesting evening. Several of us were inspired enough to buy some brushes etc. from the table, so we could give it a try

Thank you, Maggie.

By the way, I noted a few general comments half a dozen of which you will find below
General Comments

You could use watercolour paper for Chinese painting. It's better if it is slightly moistened (sprayed on the back) but is more expensive and not as good as the real thing (better quality comes from Hong Kong than from mainland China)
She would normally paint with the paper flat - vertical is necessary only for demonstration
She makes greens based on either opaque mineral green or mixtures of gamboge and indigo
New brushes need soaking before use, to remove the preservative starch
Colours (not black) dry paler, like watercolours.
Let objects go off the sides of the paper: "make them alive, not stuck in a vase"

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