An artist’s tools determine their artwork’s methods, style, and appearance. Using round, soft, pointed, animal hair brushes with ink on silk affected the methods of Chinese artists just as using long-handled flat brushes and the bright new opaque paints in tubes affected the work of Impressionists. With thousands of years of painting traditions artists in China had minutely tuned their brushwork. Artists developed nuanced differences in brush techniques which were individually cultivated.
Categories of texture strokes and line strokes were developed. These included strong simple strokes like the iron-wire brush stroke or, texture strokes like the Ts’ao’s Robe stroke for simulating fabric effects or, the trembling brush stroke for subtle water ripples or, the bamboo leaf stroke for rendering varieties of bamboo leaves or, the boat-prow stroke for forceful geometric effects. Example 1, “Ancient Tree by Flowing River” by Ma Ho Chih from the Sung dynasty of the 11th century illustrates the lotus stroke. The gently upturned pointed strokes which imitate the veins in a lotus flower are used here to describe the gentle upward movements of the tree forms.
Example 1. Ma Ho Chih’s use of the Lotus stroke in his tree form,
I have applied the idea of personally cultivated strokes and, many other texture strokes to my own work. Similarly, I applied many traditional Chinese compositional ideas to my work. Let me illustrate. In 1342 an established compositional form grouped trees in units of three with subdivisions as seen here in T’ang Ti’s “Returning Fishermen” (example 2). The triad form had obvious balancing advantages as you see here in my example 3 and T’ang Ti’s example. We both place forward and distant tree trunks as a part of the composition to create a feeling of near and far, another Chinese principle. I layered my foliated masses and flowers using a soft 3” watercolor wash brush along with various drop-and-drag strokes.
Looking closely at the flora you may see how my brush work created directional textures overlaying the triad of tree trunks. Note, my example 3 also borrows its composition from Rubens’ and Pontermo’s paintings of the “Deposition”.
Example 2. T’ang Ti’s ink on silk painting from 1342,
Example 3. My spring trees in bloom, oil on Dibond, 24×24,
Chinese traditions also specified varieties of subjects coupled to emotional themes. European traditions did the same such as, recommending particular, geographically appropriate places to paint a landscape with prescribed features. Both cultures recommended themes like waterfalls, mountain vistas, and specific narratives. Both cultures told artists exactly where to find subject locations. We still do this today. Witness the way we compose wedding photos and, how we choose from a limited menu of locations (gardens, temples, beaches). Innovation occurs within the traditional menu even for those who have deluded themselves into thinking they have thrown the menu away. We still gather in front of booths at the international art fairs where the artworks have much in common in their intents and purposes.
A traditional Chinese subject handled with a delicate understanding of balance and counterpoint is that of painting fish. Chu Tung Dh’ing posed two fish in counterpoint to create a moment of fleeting unity in 1291 (see example 4). Continuing the tradition of counterpoint composition with fluid fish I painted examples 5 and 6. Example five uses a perpendicular counterpoint while example 6 uses a more fluid angled counterpoint. In both my examples I let my brush and squeegee create repeating parallel patterns to suggest the movement of water. My strokes were modeled after the ancient Chinese trembling brush stroke. The soft waffled edge of an old 6” squeegee became a useful tool and helped determine my surface textures.
Example 4. Chou Tung dh’ing’s detail of fish from a scroll “the Pleasure of Fishes” of 1291.
Example 5. Perpendicular Koi, oil on brushed gold enameled aluminum, 24×36,
Example 6. Angled Counterpoint with Koi, oil on brushed gold aluminum, 24×36,