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3/9/2019 8:56:00 AM

Chinese Paintings: Beyond line, shape and color

Starting around 4000 B.C. traditional Chinese painting has developed continuously over a period of more than six thousand years.  

What is traditional Chinese painting? 

Traditional Chinese painting (or Shui Mo painting) is the type of painting in which the artists use ink and water-based colour on paper or silk to create traditional tableaus, most often belong to two categories: landscape (mountains, lake, moon, forest,...) or flowers-and-birds (plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo, chrysanthemums, pines and cypresses trees).

According to, landscape painting had already established itself as an independent form of expression by the 4th century.  Then gradually developed into the two separate styles of “blue-and-green landscapes” and “ink-and-wash landscape”.  

Meanwhile, flower-and-bird painting  was separated from decorative art to form an independent genre around the 9th century.  

Illustrative photo:

Tools and Technique 

In order to create a standard traditional Chinese painting, a painter needs to have these following items: Chinese brush, Chinese ink, Rice paper (or silk). has the description of them in details

Chinese brush

Though similar to the brush used for watercolor painting in the West, it has a finer tip suitable for dealing with a wide range of subjects and for producing the variations in line required by different styles. Since the materials used for calligraphy and painting are essentially the same, developments in calligraphic styles and techniques can also be used in painting.

The brush techniques so much emphasized in Chinese painting include not only line drawing but also the stylized expressions of shade and texture (cunfa) and the dotting methods(dianfa) used mainly to differentiate trees and plants and also for simple embellishment.

The brush strokes give the painting rhythm and beauty and depict the subject's outward and inner qualities.  At the same time, they reveal the individuality and style of the painter himself. 

The vehicle through which an artist communicates is ultimately the brushwork. Are his or her strokes bold and sure, or are they nuanced and restrained? Did he or she use many strokes of different kinds, or just a few, brilliantly placed?

Chinese Ink

Second, there is the ink.  Ink has been used in calligraphy and painting for over two thousand years.  When the ink cake is ground on the painter's stone slab with fresh water, ink of various consistencies can be prepared depending on the amount of water used.  Thick ink is very deep and glossy when applied to paper or silk.  Thin ink appears lively and translucent.  As a result, in ink-and-wash paintings it is possible to use ink alone to create a rhythmic balance between brightness and darkness, and density and lightness, and to create an impression of the subject's texture, weight and coloring.

Modern painters have often mixed several colors on one brush or mixed their colors with black inks.  As a result, they have obtained more natural and richly varied colors.  Such techniques have been widely adopted and further developed in the contemporary period.

Paper and Silk

Third, there is paper or silk. Chinese painting may be done either on Chinese paper or silk.  

Chinese Paper 

The original paper(around 100 AD.)was made from many different materials including pulp, old fishing nets and bark.  Modern paper is often machine made.  It is classed in degrees of weight and amount of size used.  The paper is very absorbent and the amount of size in it will dictate the quantity of ink used for strokes on the paper. Different paper produce different results; some are rough and absorb ink quickly like a sponge, others have a smooth surface which resists ink.  Chinese paper is usually known as rice paper in English.

Chinese Silk 

Before painting on silk, the silk should be treated with alum and glue before use.  This method  makes silk less absorbent than paper. Brushstroke is best shown on paper. Because of this reason and the paper's variety of texture and finish, paper quickly became favored by artists and calligraphers.


One of the distinctive characteristics of Chinese painting is the use of inscriptions in poetry of calligraphy and of special seals as part of the painting itself.  This was a major contribution made by scholar painters.  Its significance lies in its ability to express the theme and artistic conception of the painting more clearly and deeply while, at the same time, giving great insight into the artist's individuality, emotions and views on art and life.   In ink-and-wash paintings, the bright red seal adds a final touch of beauty.  When preparing the inscription and seal, therefore, the Chinese painter, in addition to considering their content, has always given great thought to the placement, length and dimensions of the inscription and the position of the seal on the painting.

Illustrative photo:

The simplest inscription consists of the artist's name and the date.  Sometimes the inscription could include the occasion for the painting and the name of the person for whom the painting was done.  It could be about the subject and style of the painting. Quite often the artist might include a piece of poetry or a literary allusion. These are all followed by the artist's own seal.

The seals can be carved in stone.  It can contain a name, poetical saying, a design or symbol which has a connection with the painting.  The seals are pressed into a pot or tin of cinnebar paste, a scarlet red color, and are impressed onto the painting.  The paste contains mercuric oxide, ground silk and oils.  

Beyond technique

In an article titled Collecting Guide: 7 things to know about Chinese traditional painting, Specialist Elizabeth Hammer emphasizes the “personal creativity” element in Chinese painting.

“Chinese paintings come in a variety of styles. Some are monochrome, and others are very brightly coloured. Some are made in the literati style, meaning that they tend to use expressionistic brushwork and were painted as an expression of personal creativity. Others are made in gong-bi, or ‘meticulous’, style, utilising very precise details to appear much more decorative. 

According to Hammer, "the most prized Chinese traditional paintings are those that reveal the artist’s personality and character. It is believed that an evil person cannot make a fine work of art. To really understand an artist’s works, it helps to learn his or her biography, and about the times in which the artist lived. ‘There are so many layers of complexity and interest in a good Chinese painting,’ Hammer says. ‘The more you know, the more you experience, the more you can bring to your understanding of it.’/.

  ( VNF )
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