Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Chinese Brush Painting Class

Painting by Duke Gardens instructor Alice Zhao.

This column by Sarah P. Duke Gardens volunteer Nan Len originally appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on Jan. 16.

Gardens, Chinese Art and You

These days, we gardeners have little to do but send in our seed orders. To pass the time, we take classes, read, and plan. For a while, we garden in memories and dreams. In a curious way, we are like the Chinese nature artists who painted their works from memory.

In the middle of winter, a Chinese brush painter could paint a cheerful picture of a bird in a fruit tree just to brighten up a dreary day. In the middle of winter, I buy seeds for plants that will attract the butterflies that I remember from last year. Admittedly, I am stretching the point, but there is a lot about Chinese nature painting that strikes a chord with gardeners.

The history of Chinese painting goes back to the 6th century BCE. Even to an untrained eye there is something distinctive about a Chinese brush painting. Such a rich tradition cannot be described quickly, but a few significant aspects of this style include the symbolism of the images, the technique of painting and the use of brush and ink.

Chinese painting can be divided into four broad categories of subjects: figures, landscapes, flowers and birds, and bamboo and rocks. Landscapes are the traditional subject of brush paintings, often including mountains, streams, and forests. In a painting, an entire landscape will be represented but not in the Western style of single perspective. Rather, the artist uses a shifting perspective to take the viewer from the bank of a stream to the top

of a mountain in one painting.

A student of brush painting will practice painting the “four gentlemen or seasons” – the plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum – as each of these images includes traditional brush stroke techniques. These plants have also come represent certain human virtues.

Plum blossoms are cold-resistant flowers that bloom in late winter and represent hope, endurance and renewal. Orchids bloom in the spring and are a symbol of grace. The bamboo depicts summer and reflects strength, upright integrity and flexibility. Chrysanthemums resolutely bloom late into autumn, keeping their bright colors despite the cold.

Remarkably, brush paintings are done without a sketch, model or corrections. Once a stroke is put on paper, it is not changed. The artist creates an image by remembering the subject and then conveying the essence of it, although not necessarily a strict representation of its physical form. Control of the brushstrokes and the ink allow an artist to create an image with thick and thin lines in dark to light shades. Some of the paintings are done only with black ink while others have pale to vibrant colors.

Both calligraphy and brush painting are regarded as art forms. The material used for calligraphy and painting – brush, ink, inkstone and paper – have been refined over the centuries and are called the “four treasures of the study.”

Over time, the scholar-artists who practiced brush painting combined it with calligraphy and poetry. This is why you often see writing in Chinese art; the image and the poetry – sometimes a quoted piece, sometimes the artist’s own composition – complement each other.

As you sit with a cup of tea or coffee thinking about your garden, you are like the Chinese brush painter remembering something long observed. Like the painter, you have an image in your mind that captures the essence of your garden.

If you are interested in reading about and looking at Chinese brush paintings, the Metropolitan Museum of Art webpage is a good place to start (

If you would like to try your hand at brush painting, consider signing up for the Chinese brush painting class at Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Tuesday, Feb. 2, from 1 to 4 p.m. The instructor is Alice Zhao, a visiting artist from Hubei Province in China. Call (919) 668-1707 or e-mail for more information. (Update: just one spot left!)

Painting by Zhao student Alice Le Duc
Director of Adult Education at Duke Gardens

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