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Demonstration by Jean Turton

Chinese Brush Painting, 13 March 2009

Jean Turton has been dedicated to Chinese painting for maybe a couple of decades.

Learning mostly from Westerners who have lived and painted in China she also travels there herself.
Chinese painting kit
Jean's painting materials
The Chinese have been painting with brushes for thousands of years: initially making them from hairs tied to sticks or simply by shredding the ends of the sticks themselves.

Traditions have developed over the centuries so that the whole attitude to painting is different from ours in the West. There is no attempt to copy a scene although features must be recognisable. Instead one tries to follow the Dao philosophy of getting the Chi (energy-flow) of an idea to flow smoothly from the object through the artist and his brush to the viewer.
The "Four treasures of the scholar's desk" are Ink Stone, Ink Stick, Brush and Surface
The Ink Stone is a carefully crafted piece of stone: part very smooth and flat (for grinding the ink) and part formed into a well for the ink to pool into. Like everything else, the Ink Stone is itself a work of art: in Jean's case taking the shape of a lotus leaf.

Black Ink Sticks, Chinese painting's most important colour, are made from soot (generally of oil or pine) and glue. This is ground down on the Ink stone with a lttle water - a good quality stick making up to seven shades of grey, depending on the amount of water. Sticks are hand decorated and some may even have medicinal herbs added, the idea being that any leftover ink may be drunk by the artist to give even more benefit than charcoal biscuits!
Spring detail
Detail of the "Spring" demonstration painting, showing the black touches added after the petals.
Jean used watercolour, not an ink stick, for the 5 red petals in each flower of the "Spring" demo.

It would be a great mistake to drink the ink from the poisonous cinnabar sticks which are used for traditional red-bamboo paintings and for the red "chops" you see on Chinese art. Jean, I thought, may be avoiding the "health and safety" nannies since she buys most of her materials in China (including Hong Kong), although her lovely big pans of watercolour are Japanese.

Sam Dauncey note: Cinnabar was, I thought, red mercury sulphide, HgS, although Jean called it mercury oxide.
"Spring", demonstration painting #1
The third "treasure of the scholar's desk", a Chinese brush will always come to a fine point, achieved by surrounding shorter fibres by longer ones. The largest brush can still draw the finest detail but smaller ones may be chosen for smaller strokes, to reduce the amount of ink loaded or for ease of handling (when writing, for example).

Most popular for the "boneless" (loose, as opposed to "meticulous") painting style being demonstrated by Jean today is sheep or goat's hair. "Wolf" (actually weasel) is slightly stronger and there are several other sources of fibre: horse, badger and even hen-feathers.

The same brushes are used for painting as for writing, held somewhat like a chopstick or a dart, leaving a space in the palm that might hold an egg, the arm not resting on the table. Western brushes are totally unsuitable and the ones sold in Chinese painting kits (made for tourists) are little better.
Jean Turton at work
Jean at work
The fourth "scholar's treasure", the surface, is normally very thin, unsized paper, although very fine silk is also sometimes used.

Xuan, hand made from bamboo fibres, is like very thin blotting paper. Other papers, only slightly less absorbent, include "grass paper" (also bamboo) and "bark" (mulberry bark). Some papers may:
include gold flecks (as in the autumn picture below) or
include coarse fibres
be pre-printed with patterns (it looks like painting-by-numbers but is actually used more as a watermark integrated into the painting)
A startling illustration of the weakness of the wet paper was the way Jean cut the pieces she wanted from a larger sheet: passing the tip of a wet brush lightly where she wanted to cut and just lifting the unwanted paper away to one side.

You work on the flat and weights are needed to hold the corners down (even these were mini works of art).

Start with the most important feature. This was the flowers in the "Summer" painting, done by loading the brush with white, then picking up purple, pink and blue with the tip (always the darkest last), putting the point on the surface and pushing down.

The black wood was apparently scribbled in and the leaves and birds each took only a few strokes.
Summer detail
Detail of the "Summer" demonstration painting
"Summer", demonstration painting #2
Autumn", demonstration painting #3
Autumn (with characters, signature and "chop"

This painting, on gold-flecked paper, started with the petals, using a brush loaded first with pale pink and then dipped into dark red before being applied to the surface.

The leaves were each basically five strokes of green followed by the addition of black detail. Then came the stems. Everything has a curve from ground to flower and so you need to know where you are going before you set off. Unobtrusive dots of colour are also popular, to give texture to the work.

A painting traditionally has three parts:
the painting itself, which would not normally cover more than about 40% of the surface
the calligraphy, a relevant comment complementing the painting (here a scribble because Jean's writing is not good)
the artist's "chop" or seal. Other seals or mottos may also be added: to balance the work or even to establish its ownesrship if it changes hands.
"Winter", demonstration painting #4Winter

Much tradition seems to apply to bamboo paintings

For the stems a hake (flat brush) was used. This was loaded first with a pale grey and the tips were then touched into black. The stems were painted from bottom to top with a slight break at each node. More ink was loaded for the second stem for added interest.

Reverting to a normal brush the nodes were emphasised and the leaves were put in. The convention is that there are 5 types of group in which leaves grow, consisting of from one to five individual leaves (strokes).

Finally, a finer brush was used to make the thinnest shoots.

Did I hear the saying correctly -
" Brush absent, spirit fair", expressing the idea that the eye enjoys making subconscious connections between adjacent or aligned marks.

All in all a most fascinating and instructive evening. Even those of us who stick to our old Western ways of painting will see and enjoy Chinese art with a fresh and better-informed eye.

Sam Dauncey

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