The two main techniques in traditional Chinese painting are gongbi and xieyi, also known as Meticulous painting and Freehand painting. Gongbi is a careful realist technique in Chinese painting. The gongbi technique uses highly detailed brushstrokes that delimits details very precisely and without independent or expressive variation. It is often highly colored and usually depicts figural or narrative subjects. Compared with the gongbi technique, the xieyi painting is not simply to reproduce the appearance of the subject, but to capture its soul. Painters usually use raw paper to draw freehand brush painting. Raw paper is easy to be stained so that unexpected effect caused by ink often appear on the painting. Chinese Freehand Brush Painting appeared late and literati played an active role in its development. According to its content, Chinese Freehand Brush Painting can be divided into freehand figure painting, freehand landscape painting and freehand bird-and-flower painting; while according to the manifestation, it can be divided into Great Freehand Style and Slight Freehand Style. The latter tends to use ink and wash to describe objects, and the former is more apt to use the method to perform the painter's feelings.

Excessively Free Cursive Style of Calligraphy by Zhangxu and Zhangxu's Portrait

In all ages, shape has always been the core of Chinese painting and it has experienced a long term of development. At the end of the fifth century, the art critic Xie He proposed the so-called Six Principles as the essential criteria for judging the quality of Chinese painting, and the aesthetic values and concerns he enunciated in his essay exerted a profound influence on later generations. The first and most important of these principles, called "spiritual resonance and lifelike motion" (气韵神动), or a sense of inner liveliness, subsequently became the most constant and fundamental feature of all great Chinese works of the brush. Later the principles extended to the field of Chinese freehand brushwork painting, and gradually the concept of modeling imagery through thoughts was formed.The image of imagery is not naturally real, but is an expression of interest. It shows the extension of feeling and emotion on papers and the blend between painter’s soul and the universe.

The technique of using brush in freehand painting was derived from calligraphy, and the viewpoint that painting and calligraphy are homologous had already been formed in the Tang dynasty. To express the painters’ thoughts and feelings, the painting cannot stay away from metaphysics and zen view. The imagery created need to contain the artistic conception of poetry and reflect an elegant character. How to meet these requirements? It requires using standard techniques to paint lines with calligraphic characteristics and organizing them into a structure rich of imagery.

Introduction and Representative Work

  • Liang Kai of Song Dynasty
  • Chen Chun of Ming Dynasty
  • Xu Wei of Ming Dynasty
  • Zhu Da of Qing Dynasty

Liang Kai was a native of Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. He served as a painter-in-attendance at the Imperial Painting Academy. He declined a “golden ribbon” honor bestowed by the court and left the academy, earning him the nickname of “Madman Liang” . He was adept at painting Buddhist and Daoist figures, landscapes, flowers and birds, and versatile in both broad- and narrow-stroke techniques. He was a pioneer of the reduced-strokes style of figure and flower-and-bird painting, his legacy had a huge influence later in the formation of the freehand brush painting.

Chen Chun (陈淳) : courtesy name Dao Fu(道复), style name Bai Yang Shan Ren (白阳山人); renowned both as poet and as painter, native of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. He has a carefree painting style that places great premium on the fun of brush and ink. Like Xu Wei, he was a representative ink and wash painter of flowers in the mid-Ming Dynasty.

Xu Wei was a Ming Chinese painter, poet and dramatist famed for his artistic expressiveness. His painting style influenced and inspired countless subsequent painters. Xu Wei can be considered as the founder of modern painting in China. His influence continues to exert itself. Despite his posthumous recognition, Xu was manifestly mentally ill and unsuccessful in life, ending his life in poverty after the murder of his third wife and several attempts at suicide.

Zhu Da朱耷(1626-1705), also known as Bada Shanren八大山人, was descendant of the precious imperial family and was brought up in a literary family. He often painted odd subjects in his paintings to express his cynical feelings and sadness on the fall of the Ming Dynasty. He was able to use ink to express virtually everything in the nature. It seemed that in his eye, birds, flowers and mountains were all black and white. He refused to use colors. To him, color was a kind of disturbance to his paintings. The strong symbolization of his paintings indicated his extreme feelings, including his curses and avoidance to the reality and condolence to the Ming Dynasty.

Shitao is one of the most famous individualist painters of the early Qing dynasty. The art he created was revolutionary in its transgressions of the rigidly codified techniques and styles that dictated what was considered beautiful. Imitation was valued over innovation, and although Shitao was clearly influenced by his predecessors, his art breaks with theirs in several new and fascinating ways. His formal innovations in depiction include drawing attention to the act of painting itself through the use of washes and bold, impressionistic brushstrokes, as well as an interest in subjective perspective and the use of white space to suggest distance.

Wu started painting rather late during his thirties and he was fully able to express his diverse skills and talent. His bold and vigorous brushstrokes never crossed the line of becoming too grotesque, thus although powerful they still showed control, gentleness and refinement. Wu liked to use sharp contrast between light and dark and was a forerunner in the use a red color introduced from the west called "Western Red" or "Yang Hong".

Chang Dai-chien was one of the best-known Chinese artists of the twentieth century. He is also regarded by many art experts as one of the most gifted artists of the twentieth century. A meeting between Chang and Picasso in 1956 was viewed as a summit meeting between the preeminent masters of Eastern and Western art. Picasso showed Chang some drawings done in "Chinese" style, but Chang remarked that they were not executed with the right tools and gave Picasso a set of Chinese brushes. Picasso then noticed Spanish brushes have more length and girth.

Li Kuchan was a patriot, a wit deeply influenced by zen Buddhism and an artist proficient in Chinese martial arts and Beijing Opera. These experiences made his paintings full of connotation and vitality. Li Kuchan absorbed techniques from many artists like Shi Tao, Zhu Da, Wu Changshuo, Qi Baishi and so on. He created his own style in bird-and-flower freehand painting. His paintings are natural, powerful, and with a tremendous momentum.

  • Shitao of Qing Dynasty
  • Wu Changshuo of Qing Dynasty
  • Zhang Daqian of Modern Times
  • Li Kuchan in Modern Times
  • 1. Bamboos in the Snow by Xu Xi

    This work “Bamboos in the Snow” paints a corner of a bamboo forest after snow. To bring out the whiteness of the accumulated snow, the painter paints a clear, even and transparent sky in light ink around the bamboo. Although the painter wasn’t meticulous in all the details, he didn’t follow the tradition of rough brush and thick ink, and cursive twigs and leaves. It is arguably the oldest surviving masterpiece of bamboo painting. And it is clear that the style of this work is different from that of Huang Quan.

    2. Spring Comes Earlier to a Southern Branch by Wang Mian

    Wang Mian was a master plum painter. His “Treatise on Plum Painting” gives ten tips on plum painting. First among them is to apply the brush only when inspired. This painting is a masterpiece created when the artist was inspired. It depicts a section of a plum tree entering the painting at lower right and rising in a powerful arc, branching out in the upper part. The branches done in dark ink and the white-powdered flowers form a pattern of alternating black and white, dots and lines that brings out the vibrancy of the plum tree blooming against the bitter cold. The inscription in small characters and the seals in the circular space at right toward the upper part are a necessary addition to the composition, rescuing it from the instability deliberately created before.

  • 3.Plum and Bamboo by Shitao

    This a work combining verse, calligraphy and painting. The scroll is divided into three sections, with a verse inscription of 240 ideographs at top, plum blossoms in the middle and bamboo at bottom, in progressively darker ink tones. The entire picture surface is made cohesive by one plum branch that extends upwards and one that reaches toward the right. The trunk of the plum tree is molded by irregular chunks of ink wash, recalling new shoots burgeoning on thousand-year-old roots that refuse to die. This is an expression of the strong aspiration of Shi Tao, descendant of a lost dynasty, for happiness and dignity. Versatility in literary writing and calligraphy gave the literati painters ample creative liberty and license, and paved the way for the advent of the long era of scholar painting with the quartet of verse, calligraphy, painting and seal-carving as its hallmark.

    4. The Rongxi Studio by Ni Zan

    This work was done by Ni Zan in 1372, at the age of 71. The colophon states that the painting was first given to Ni’s friend, Bo-xuan (檗轩), who kept it for two years and then gave it to his physician-friend Zhong-ren (仲仁), who asked the artist to inscribe a poem. Rongxi Studio was the residence of the physician, so the painting was done before the inscription was later added. The brushwork is especially bland and refined, with tonal variations in the trees most carefully built up. An upright brush with point-centered energy has been employed more often than a slanted brush, and broken hemp-fiber strokes are more frequent than washes in the modeling of the rocks.

  • 5. Fisherman by Xu Daoning

    Another example of a great Northern Song dynasty landscape painting is Fisherman by the great master Xu Daoning. Unlike the hanging scroll by Li Cheng, Xu Daoning’s work is in a handscroll format. Traditionally, the handscroll would be unrolled from right to left by the viewer seated at a table, which allows for close examination of the painting while it is unrolled. Besides providing tactile interaction with the viewer, the format also permits the viewer to go both forward and backward in the painting, to preview or review what has been seen thus far. In Fisherman, Xu’s virtuosity with ink washes and directness of line articulate one of the most impressive expressions in Chinese painting of the overwhelming vastness of nature.

  • 6. Bamboo and Stone by Zhengxie

    Most bamboos in Zheng Xie’s paintings are slim ones; it certainly has something to do with his unique style and his views of life. Zheng believed that silm bamboos symbolized modest, disciplined, honest and upright officials whom he admired; and he practiced these virtues himself. This work is a typical Zheng structure. The densely “painted” characters are shaped in a narrow and long square at one side of the picture. The thin and clear “written” bamboo and stone are the focal point. The painter didn’t worry that the relatively large size of the stone behind would negatively impact the presentation of bamboo in the front. In a picture whose basic elements are vertical lines, the crossing, short and titled lines of bamboo leaves attract the eye.

    7. Lady with a Round Silk Fan by Minzhen

    This is one of the most meticulously painted works of the artist. It was done when he was 25. The plum tree, whose drunk makes three turns, extends from left to right and takes up almost half of the painting space. The frail beauty leaning against it, her body also forming an S curve, seems to become one with the tree, lending a feminine charm to the entire painting. The lady’s dress is sketched with lines that are full of kinetic energy, in contrast to the gnarly, wrinkled plum tree and the solid mass of the lake rocks. The soft slickness of the silk is clearly brought out. The translucent fan, its knotted handle and the fair complexion of the lady are all textured to perfection. This is a signature work of the artist in his formative years.

  • 8.The Second Patriarch in Contemplation by Shi Ke

    This work is attributed to Shi Ke in the period of Five Dynasties. He studied under Zhang Nanben , who was a master at painting fire, and was good at figure painting . Although he did not care what other people think and pursued his own free style with ease, Shi Ke’s painting style, where faces are painted in details while clothes are drawn with simple strokes became the standard for subsequent figure painting in China. The second Zen patriarch in contemplation is the work that best represents Shi Ke’s paintings expressed using only lines and shades.


Six principles of Chinese Painting

Part of the Master Wuyong Scroll of "Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains"Click the Picture for More Information

The "Six principles of Chinese painting" were established by Xie He, a writer, art historian and critic in 5th century China. He is most famous for his "Six points to consider when judging a painting" (绘画六法), taken from the preface to his book "The Record of the Classification of Old Painters" (古画品录). Keep in mind that this was written circa 550 AD and refers to "old" and "ancient" practices. The six elements that define a painting are: 1. "Spirit Resonance", or vitality, and refers to the flow of energy that encompasses theme, work, and artist. Xie He said that without Spirit Resonance, there was no need to look further. 2. "Bone Method", or the way of using the brush. This refers not only to texture and brush stroke, but to the close link between handwriting and personality. In his day, the art of calligraphy was inseparable from painting. 3. "Correspondence to the Object", or the depicting of form, which would include shape and line. 4. "Suitability to Type", or the application of color, including layers, value and tone. 5. "Division and Planning", or placing and arrangement, corresponding to composition, space and depth. 6. "Transmission by Copying", or the copying of models, not only from life but also the works of antiquity.

The Relationship between Poem and Painting

Of Wang Wei (701–761), the renowned poet-painter of the Tang dynasty (618–907), it was said that "there are paintings in his poems and poems in his paintings," one of the earliest statements conceptually linking the verbal art of poetry and the visual arts of painting and calligraphy as parallel and interrelated modes of expression. It was not until the late Northern Song dynasty (960–1127), however, that the rising class of literati painters came to believe that a universal principle inextricably united painting, calligraphy, and poetry, and began to define the relationship between poetry and painting by saying that "poems are formless paintings, while paintings are poetry with form." After this time, a great literati painter was expected to present all Three Perfections in a single work.

The Relationship between Seal and Painting

Because the ink and wash painting prevails in Yuan dynaty, and it only has two colors, black and white, that seems a little bit toneless. Then the red seal emerge because of demand. The red seal not just the mark of ownership, it has become the essential constituent part of painting, playing a role of enlivening the painting. Seal can be painter's, or appreciator's, or collector's.

山居秋暝 An Autumn Evening in the Mountains
王维 Wang Wei

空山新雨后, 天气晚来秋。
After rain the empty mountain, Stands autumnal in the evening,

明月松间照, 清泉石上流。
Moonlight in its groves of pine, Stones of crystal in its brooks.

竹喧归浣女, 莲动下渔舟。
Bamboos whisper of washer-girls bound home, Lotus-leaves yield before a fisher-boat

随意春芳歇, 王孙自可留。
And what does it matter that springtime has gone, While you are here, O Prince of Friends?

The poetic freehand style painting was made by Wangwei. The painting describes two lines of his own poem "An Autumn Evening in the Mountains". The painting is the representative work to show the relationship between poem, seal and calligraphy.

The Relationship between Calligraphy and Painting

Long before the Chinese invented paper in the first century B.C.E., they devised the round brush, which is used for both writing and painting. The unique versatility of the Chinese brush lies in its tapered tip, which is composed of a careful grouping of chosen animal hairs. Through this resilient tip flow the ever-changing linear qualities of the twin arts of the brush: calligraphy and painting. Since painting and calligraphy share many of the same materials and techniques, the relationship between the two art forms has always been a close one in China. In addition to using common materials, calligraphy and painting have long been thought of as springing from the same creative source and requiring the same technical skills in execution.