Traditional Chinese brush painting is a single-stroke painting technique that uses hand-ground inks on rice paper or painting silk. Its complex system of strokes and techniques have been cultivated for thousands of years and are certain to be around for a thousand more.
Materials and Origins
Brush painting is essentially a form of watercolor painting. Carbonized wood chunks are ground on stone to produce black and gray tones and traditional, mineral-based dry pigments are used for color. Dry pigments are mixed with water and painting glue (a binder) and applied with animal hair brushes on bamboo stalks. Artists use various forms of rice paper as well as traditional painting silk to complete their paintings. Methods for preparing paint and paper have been strictly adhered to for centuries.
The oldest extant brush painting brush is from the Warring States period, 820-220 BC. It is almost identical to the brushes made and used by modern brush painters, even down to the method of gluing the animal hair into the bamboo shaft with a non-water-soluble material. Ancient brush makers developed a precise tool the design stuck for thousands of years–simply because it works.
Recent archaeology (as of 2008) has revealed painted pottery in some of China’s oldest prehistoric sites. It appears likely that patterns painted on pieces of earthenware used early brush painting techniques and supplies–and they are over 10,000 years old!
Formal rules for brush painting have been penned in various treatsies by different masters, including many from the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD). The study of brush painting aesthetics can be traced to Confuscious (600 BC) and earlier, as some of the oldest commentary on technique and some of the earliest paintings survive from the Warrings States Period and Han Dynasty.
Unlike other painting mediums, even Western watercolor techniques, Chinese brush painting is considered a “single stroke” method. Each brush stroke lays down water and pigment only once. An artist loads their brush with liquid and paint and delivers the stroke, usually in one direction, in one instant moment. It is also often referred to as “ink and wash” or “wash painting,” because it makes use of transparent layers.
Because of the nature of rice paper and silk and how they react to the water and pigment, you can’t go back and forth over a mistake to correct it. Each stroke must be precise, carefully contemplated, and delivered with fearless accuracy.
While layers of wash can be built up, it’s not the same as other methods of painting where paint is essentially moved around on the painting surface. Most Western watercolor techniques use sized paper, which is carefully prepared to prevent water from seeping in. Rice paper and silk are highly absorbent, and good brush painting requires a mastery of WATER and PRESSURE not of paint.
Most paintings are worked “quickly.” While oil, acrylic, and other types of watercolor take much longer to layer, build, and dry–brush painting exists within a single moment. Work too slowly and the painting becomes insincere. This does not mean brush paintings are “rushed” or “careless.” In fact, it means an artist has to be completely, wholly consumed in the act of painting, in order to balance speed and delicacy, detail and looseness.
Concept and Purpose
At its core, brush painting is about capturing the qi (chi), or spirit of a subject. It’s not about duplicating what a tree looks like, it’s about capturing the essence of what it IS like.
Sometimes criticized for its lack of realism, the purpose of brush painting runs far deeper than straightforward depiction. It is deeply woven into cultivation of the self, understanding nature, and sensing the energy in all things.
Chinese brush painting requires deep focus, serenity, tranquility, and modesty. To be humble is the most beautiful thing–and it will also keep the perpetual student learning and growing. Each painting should be a complete expression and an improvement over previous paintings. The master only knows he or she is a master when others begin to imitate their work–and even then a true master continues to learn.
Painting and Chinese calligraphy are also deeply tied to the various religious and spiritual practices both native to, and imported into, China’s vast reaches. Traditional brush painting was taught to Taoist monks as a way of cultivating Tao, inner peace, harmony, and understanding the entire universe. Confuscious said that people who study brush painting cultivate a sense of beauty, honor, uprightness, and awareness of all things.
Traditional brush painting techniques have also been used in deep Taoist mystical practice–to create vibrant talismans, protective wards, and to connect this world to the world of spirits; it becomes an active bridge between levels of existence.
Brush painting is also much more than “just another painting medium.” It is alive, immediate, instantaneous. Both mystical and mundane. Complex and simple.
A well done stroke should contain bone, tendon, flesh, blood, and spirit; it should be alive and crackling with energy. Place enough strokes on the page, and you have a living entity.
Traditional brush paintings are signed with a yin zhang, or “chop” (imagine a carved stone stamp). Pigmented paste is applied to the chop and then the artist affixes his or her name onto a finished piece. Mood chops are also often added, to mark the artist’s mood (literally) at the time of painting, or to add extra symbolic depth to the piece.
At different points in Chinese history, yin zhang were also used by the owners of various brush paintings. If one were owned a piece of artwork, one could stamp their own name onto the scroll, to show ownership and association. This is why many of our oldest existing examples of brush paintings are stamped with dozens of interesting red yin zhang.
Japanese Sumi-e (Sumi) painting developed from early Chinese brush painting techniques and has been consistently practiced and cultivated for centuries. You will find many similarities between the two, however matters of aesthetics, subject, symbolism and approach are often different. Korean brush painting, or Sumukhwa, is also born from similar ancestry, as is Vietnames Tranh Thuy Mac painting.