Hanging scrolls and handscrolls were not the only formats used by Chinese painters. Fans and small album leaves were popular also and were frequently painted as gifts.
Qiu Ying was a professional painter who became friends with a circle of scholar-painters and subsequently modified his own style and taste to more closely conform to theirs. Still the skill from his early training cannot be hidden. The painting is executed with great care in the gongbi or "meticulous style." Mountains, figures, rocks, and trees are carefully delineated and the outlines filled with color, both transparent washes and opaque mineral pigments. Washes are painstakingly blended by repeated applications of pale color followed by plain water to get rid of sharp edges.
The picture depicts a scene from a popular drama, The Western Chamber (Xi Xiang), in which secret lovers, a young scholar and the Prime Minister’s daughter, are forced to separate so that she can comply with an arranged marriage and he can become a scholar-official at the capital. They stand, bending towards each other beneath a bare weeping willow tree. Their respective servants wait discreetly to the sides: the woman's lady-in-waiting, her sedan chair and attendant to the right; the man's horse and groom to the left. Overhead a flock of geese heads south. Bare weeping willows and migrating geese were well known symbols for the sadness of autumn and partings.
All the elements in the picture are carefully depicted in a clear, coherent, easily readable composition, revealing the skill of a trained, professional artist. The tale is told, not suggested. Painted in the middle of the Ming dynasty, the painting captures a mood of orderly existence punctuated by small personal tragedies. It reflects a moment of poignancy and sorrow in a stable world.
In the detail of the man's horse and servant we can see Qiu Ying's superb drawing technique. The thin, crisp tapering iron-wire and nail-head rat-tail lines are painted with staccato rhythm as heavier pressure is applied at the start and then quickly lifted. These strokes are most clearly seen in the folds in the servant’s clothing.
The detail also illustrates the use of a variety of opaque colors and color washes. The opaque mineral colors include cinnabar red, azurite blue, and shell white. In contrast, light, transparent color washes (which often come from vegetable pigments as well as some colored earths) are used for tinting the distant hills, some of the baggage, and the face and arms of the groom. Indigo is a common blue wash and burnt sienna a reddish brown one. Can you find the opaque colors and the washes in the painting? The ground of the painting is a gold-flecked paper which provides a warm glow to the whole.