An Introduction

Chinese Calligraphy and Painting

In Chinese calligraphy and painting every brushstroke is a force of energy from the artist to the paper, so their Qi’ or spirit is in each one. For this reason Chinese painters paint directly onto the paper without any preliminary sketching. The beauty is in the movement of the brush and the individuality of each stroke, which cannot be repeated.

In China, calligraphy is recognised as the highest form of art, followed by poetry, music and painting. Calligraphy has developed over four thousand years through four main styles, zhuan (seal), lishu (official), kaishu (standard),and xing I cao shu (walking/running) scripts. There have been many famous calligraphers whose individual strokes within these styles are copied when practicing calligraphy.

Chinese painters do not reproduce a scene or subject, guilin wonderlandthey paint from their mind and heart. The hermit monk, Shi Tao, who wandered the mountains, drew his inspiration for painting mountains from all the images stored in his memory.

The enjoyment of a Chinese painting comes not only from the visual experience but from the understanding of all the elements that make up the painting, the subject and it’s symbolism, the space created by the composition, the brush strokes, ink, calligraphy and seal. Originally all painting was in ink only and colour introduced merely to enhance the ink strokes.

The symbolism of the subject is as important as the composition and techniques used. Examples are the magpie, a bird which represents bringing joy and happiness, and the lotus a symbol of purity rising from a muddy lake (corruption) often used to illustrate political situations.

The space created by the lines is the balance between all the elements within the composition. The ink line; dark, light, wet, dry, the start and the finish is the most expressive force, the calligraphy harmonises with the painting in line, position and text, the seal may be the name of the artist, studio, owner of the work or express some sentiment such as ‘see my spirit in the brushstrokes’.

Techniques used may be the free brush strokes of Xieyi or the meticulous Gongbi, which is where the ink outline is drawn onto the paper and colour added in thin layers of wash (usually nine to fourteen) until the desired intensity is reached.

Chinese painting uses different materials to those of western art; The ‘Four Treasures’ of Chinese painting are the brush, ink, paper and ink stone.
Brushes comprise different types of hair, thickness, tip length and stiffness. Ink is the soot of pine or plant oil, which is then mixed with glue and fashioned into a decorative bar. Paper is called xuan and is made from sandalwood bark although often, incorrectly, called ‘rice paper’. There are other papers made from grass, mulberry bark and bamboo as well as silk. The ink stone is a special type of stone on which the ink stick is ground with water to produce liquid ink. The time taken to do this is used to meditate and focus the mind for painting.

Understanding some of these details may help towards a fuller appreciation of Chinese calligraphy and painting so it becomes a truly poetical and spiritual experience.

Suggested further reading:

  • Chinese Calligraphy by Chiang Yee
  • Chinese Brushwork in Calligraphy and Painting by Kwo Da Wei
  • Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, Barnhart, Cahill et al
  • A Short History of Chinese Art by Michael Sullivan
  • Chinese Calligraphy by Qu Lei Lei.
Calligraphy at Lanting Pavilion,Shaoxing.
Peonies after Rain