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An Introduction to Chinese Brushpainting Techniques

How to Hold a Brush

Hold the brush midway up the handle. Place the handle on the inside of the index finger, supporting it on the opposite side with the tip of your thumb. The tips of the index and middle fingers rest on the top of the handle: the ring and pinkie fingers are placed behind. Leave an open space in the palm of the hand, allowing for a full range of movement. None of the fingers should touch the inside palm. To achieve a full range of brushstrokes, hold the brush in a gentle and relaxed manner. Your touch should be gentle enough that a tomato could be held in the cup of the hand without bruising its skin.

The Upright Brush

The Upright Brush: Hold the brush upright and perpendicular to the paper. Apply varied speed and pressure to create a range from thin, delicate lines to wide, powerful strokes. For long, sweeping strokes, hold the brush higher up the handle. For detail work and shorter strokes, hold the brush closer to the brush hairs.

The Oblique Brush

The Oblique Brush: Hold the brush at an angle in relation to the paper. In this method, the broadest strokes can be made with the greatest number of bristles touching the paper.

The Ink Stick and Ink Stone

A small amount of water is placed in the inkstone reservoir (the inkstone is commonly made of water-resistant rock such as slate).The inkstick is gently ground with the water in a circular motion to create a deep black liquid.

Brush and Ink Stone

The tip of a moist brush is dipped into the ink. As the ink is absorbed into the brush, the moisture that is already in the brush dilutes the ink and creates lighter gradations of ink further away from the tip. To use a side-ink technique, a brush is loaded with a light wash of ink.The brush is held in an oblique position (see image 2) and the sides of the brush are dipped with ink. This technique is used to paint subjects such as the lotus flower.

Brushstroke Examples for an Upright Brush

The following examples were painted with an upright brush. a) fast speed, light pressure; b) medium speed, medium pressure; c) slow speed, heavy pressure; d) combination of light and heavy pressure; e) “flying white” ( fei bai): fast speed, little moisture.

Brushstroke Examples - Oblique Brush

Notice how, by using different ink techniques, gradations of ink can be created within a single brushstroke. f ) Load the tip of the brush with ink and create a brushstroke by holding the brush in an oblique position (see image 3);  g) Load the brush with a light wash of ink and dip opposite sides of the brush with dark ink. This is an example of a side-ink technique.

When executed with masterful technique, a single ink brushstroke is capable of conveying vitality, delicacy, and contemplation—the essence of Chinese philosophy and spirit. It is this “life force” or qi (pronounced chee) that the artist aspires to capture and express through brushpainting. Unlike European-trained artists, those trained in traditional Chinese brushpainting techniques do not try to create a realistic rendering of the external appearance of a subject, but instead seek to capture its inner spirit. Only after intently observing the subject matter in its natural state does the painter return to the studio to paint. The essence of the subject is retained in the artist’s imagination, and it is this image that is painted in a moment of spontaneous inspiration.

Traditional Chinese artists use a special black ink (mo) that is said to contain “infinite gradations of color.” This ink is made from a mixture of burnt pine soot and glue that is molded into an inkstick.

How do brushpainting masters create such an array of vibrant brushstrokes and ink washes? They begin by intently studying the techniques, elements, and principles of traditional brush and ink painting (bi mo hua). Experience for yourself the art of brush-and-ink painting. Begin by learning how to hold the brush (see images above). Once you feel comfortable, experiment by applying varying degrees of pressure, speed, and moisture. Finally, create your own brushpainting masterpiece.

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