We lived in the Philippines when I took up Chinese brush painting. My teacher, Professor Chen Bing Sun, considered art the noblest of callings, and he expected no less dedication from his students.
Back to the Basics
Chinese brush painting begins with a grinding stone, a stick of dry compacted ink, and brushes made of bamboo and rabbit hair or wolf hair. No ready-made ink for the Chinese brush painter. She makes her own. Dipping her brush in water, she splashes it on her stone and then grinds her ink stick around and around on the stone until she has made ink that’s black as a crow’s back and thick as its spittle.
This preliminary step is a kind of meditation. Like sharpening your pencils or scanning your facebook page, ink grinding is a gentle prelude to the main task.
The next step is learning to hold the brush properly—not at an angle as we do in the West, but straight up and down to control the thickness of the stroke. The same posture is used when writing Chinese characters—a posture that, by the way, encourages keeping your back straight.
The rice paper used for Chinese brush painting is thinner and more porous than paper used for watercolor in the West. It comes in a roll, so when a painting or sketch is finished, you need only paint a line across it with water and rip that portion away from the rest of the roll.
Plants and Animals
My painting class met twice a week. The first few weeks we painted plum blossoms, outlining each petal for the detailed style or painting petals without edges for the free style. The stamens were a different stroke, dark and thin and trailing off to nothing at just the right point.
Next we moved on to bamboo and orchids, after which we studied chrysanthemums, peonies, lotus and pine trees interspersed with fish, birds, shrimp, crabs, chickens and horses. Every subject used different brush strokes and techniques.
Skill vs. Creativity
But when, we wondered, could we paint tigers and landscapes and people? When could we be creative?
Some of Professor Chen’s students are still painting. (See the website of Jamaliah Marais. ) I stopped after 8 or 9 years. But the experience gave me another window into the Chinese mind and thus a better understanding of my Chinese husband. It also helped in writing my novel, Tiger Tail Soup, which is set in China and features a Chinese narrator.
Next week’s blog post is about modern art and the Ai Weiwei Exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.