As discussed in a previous blog post, Chinese Dragon Origins, the crocodile, and therefore, the Dragon have the power to control the weather. This means that Chinese Dragons move through the air, not by beating wings (which they do not have) but freely as if swimming, their incredibly flexible bodies twisting and turning without effort.
Their long bodies undulate, swirl and loop through the air while their legs can be seen to flail in all directions, almost as if disconnected from their bodies. Tip: This can make it easier to paint them. Their claws are hyperactive and wide open as if ready to take prey, or to grasp a huge pearl…
There is some interpretation of a Dragon’s characteristics but here follows the essence of a Dragon, which may be drawn on, when creating your own. Below is an example of a Song Dynasty Dragon using the characteristics detailed below:
There are nine characteristics detailed here, some of which come from Zodiac animals. There could be more, or less, depending on which tradition you follow or how detailed you wish to make your painting. I have added examples of Dragon characteristics as I have come across them. They could have the:
There are a variety of interpretations to explain the number of claws that a Dragon might have. I have pulled together a few here. Again, if you know more then please let me know.
Chinese Dragons have five claws on each foot while Indonesian or Korean dragons have four, and Japanese dragons have three. To explain this phenomenon, Chinese legend states that all Imperial dragons originated in China, and the further away from China a Dragon went the fewer claws it had. Dragons only exist in China, Korea, Indonesia, and Japan because if they travelled further they would have no claws to continue. The Japanese legend has a story similar to the Chinese one, namely that dragons originated in Japan, and the further they travelled the more claws they grew and as a result, if they went too far they would have too many claws to continue to walk properly.
Official interpretation within China was that five claw Dragons are reserved for emperors (five is the holy number i.e. there are five elements). Four claw Dragons are reserved for kings, princes and certain high rank officials. Three claw Dragons are used by the merchant class. Since Korea and other nations only held the title of king (with respect to the emperor in China), they are only allowed to use four claw Dragons. Improper use of claw number is considered a sign of rebellion, and could be punished heavily such as through the execution of a whole clan.
Another interpretation according to several sources, including historical official documents, is that ordinary Chinese dragons had four toes, but the Imperial Dragon had five. It was a capital offence for anyone, other than the emperor, his blood relatives, and the very few officials who were granted such an extraordinary privilege by the emperor – to use the five-clawed dragon motif.
Korean sources seem to oppose this theory, as the Imperial dragon in Gyeongbok Palace has seven claws, implying its superiority over the inferior Chinese Dragon. Of course, this Dragon image is hidden in the rafters of the palace and is not entirely in view, even to those who know it is there, suggesting that while the ancient Koreans viewed it as superior, they also knew that it would be offensive to the Imperial Chinese Court.
The Han style Dragon is also 3 clawed, which may explain how the 3 clawed dragon came to Japan during the Tang or pre-Tang period.
Please note: The Calligraphy for Dragon, along with the other Zodiac Animals is available on the link here.
We have recently been challenged to look once more at Chinese Dragons. This has presented the opportunity to gather all the information I have acquired on Dragons and try to put it together in some semblance of order and accuracy. Over the years there has been a lot of contradictory information as the mythology around the Chinese Dragon has been passed down through the ages. This is, therefore, going to be part of an iterative process as I add more images in due course.
In which case, should there be something you do not agree with, please let me know by Commenting as I am more than happy to revisit the source of some of this information. If you have a better source, please share. In the meantime I trust that this sequence of 5 blog posts is useful to you.
Please note: The Calligraphy for Dragon, along with the other Zodiac Animals is available on the link here.
The origin of the Chinese Dragon is uncertain, but many scholars agree that it originated from totems of different tribes in China. Some have suggested that it comes from a stylized depiction of existing animals, such as snakes, fish, or crocodiles. For example, the Banpo site of the Yangshao culture in Shaanxi Province featured an elongated, snake-like fish motif. Archaeologists believe the “long fish” to have evolved into images of the Chinese Dragon.
The association with fish is reflected in the legend of a carp that saw the top of a mountain and decided he was going to reach it. He swam upstream, climbing rapids and waterfalls letting nothing get in the way of his determination. When he reached the top there was the mythical “Dragon Gate” and when he jumped over he became a Dragon. Several waterfalls and cataracts in China are believed to be the location of the Dragon Gate. It is worth noting that Dragon Gate Taoism is currently the largest existing Taoism branch in the world according to Wikipedia.
Fundamentally, this legend is used as an allegory for the drive and effort needed to overcome obstacles and achieve success.
An alternative view, advocated by He Xin, is that the early Dragon depicted a species of ancient, giant saltwater crocodile, the precursor to today’s Crocodylus porosus, the largest living reptile. The crocodile is known to be able to accurately sense changes in air pressure, and, therefore, to sense coming rain. This may have been the origin of one of the Dragon’s mythical attributes to control the weather, especially the rain. In addition, there is evidence of crocodile worship in ancient Babylonian, Indian, and Mayan civilizations. The association with the crocodile is also supported by the ancient view that large crocodiles were a variety of Dragon. For example, in the Story of Zhou Chu, about the life of a Jin Dynasty General, he is said to have killed a “Dragon” that infested the waters of his home village, which appears to have been a crocodile.
Some support for the crocodile hypothesis may come from the fact that the Marsh dragon “jiao long” in ancient Chinese legend is known as the ‘Water Dragon’. Its habitats are mostly ponds, valley lakes or deep under the rivers and streams (not sea) which are far away from residents.
The coiled snake or Dragon form played an important role in early Chinese culture. Legendary figures like Nüwa (女媧), the mother goddess of Chinese mythology (credited with creating humanity), and the sister and wife of Fuxi (伏羲), the emperor-god, are depicted as having snake bodies. Some scholars report that the first legendary Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang Di (黃帝 – The Yellow Emperor) used a snake for his coat of arms. Every time he conquered another tribe, he incorporated his defeated enemy’s emblem into his own. This may explain why the Dragon appears to have the features of various animals.
There is no apparent connection to the western Dragon. In fact, if anything they are opposites where Western Dragons are generally seen as evil.
For a superb example of this reference Smaug from The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien which has been stunningly re-imagined by Peter Jackson for the big screen.
What a fabulous evening we have just had! Before Christmas the CBP Challengers group set ourselves the challenge of Seals and we have just seen some of the best Chinese paintings of an unconventional subject that we could imagine. Well done to everyone who contributed and thank you.
Unfortunately I cannot share all of the wonderful work but we have been given permission to share some of the paintings…
First up are a couple of paintings by Reg. Both are a play on words which fits the Chinese tradition so well:
Next are a couple of paintings from Claire. The first painting is of a baby seal and concentrates on the texture of the seals’ skin. It also explores the head looking straight at the viewer (which is by far the hardest composition) although the eyes are looking at something off the painting:
Claire’s second painting explores more of the flopping movement of a seal/sealion when they move on the beach. Particular note was paid to the flippers:
Kim was the brains behind the challenge as she proposed Seals/ Sea-lions/ Walruses. She painted some wonderful seals but the piece I wanted to include was this fabulous one of a group of Walruses:
My painting was inspired by the excellent paintings of the 10th century Chan painter, Shi Ke who lived during the 5 dynasties period. His work was featured in the stunning ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700 – 1900‘ exhibition which took place a few years ago at the V&A Museum in London. In Shi Ke’s paintings, chiefly of Buddhist and Daoist subjects, he set out in the Chan manner to shock the viewer through distortion and roughness of execution. I hoped to capture the essence of that with the following painting:
I was going to formally entitle this piece ‘Harmony’ after the original which has the title ‘Two Chan Patriarchs harmonising their minds’. However, Claire reminded me that it would be probably be more in keeping with the Chan mindset to not put a title on the painting. I purposely painted this painting on grass paper in keeping with the age and tradition of the original work. You may also notice the addition of a moon with a very misty Rat Dragon cloud in the sky denoting coming toward the end of the Year of the Rat…
It is worth noting that the book of the Masterpieces exhibition where we got to see Shi Ke’s work is available online through this search.
Some of you may recognise that I have done something similar in the past. You would, of course, be correct as I have been inspired by the works of Shi Ke many times. For those who are interested in this fascinating artist please also see my other blog post entitled: Be bold
We trust that something here may cheer you up and inspire you while we are stuck in lockdown.
As Claire has stated in her most recent blog post, we have carried out a lot of very interesting Chinese Brush Painting Challenges throughout 2020. The last few before Christmas seemed to come in like machine gun fire which meant for not a lot of thinking time – sometimes not a bad thing!
Below is a quick amalgamation of the last few challenges to give ideas should you get stuck for some inspiration. Please post back if you are inspired and if you take any of these in a different direction…
Challenge 8: Bird and Boat
As usual there were many variations on this theme. For this Challenge I was reminded of time on the South West Coastal path near Wembury. I was inspired by a beautiful spot on the coast looking to ‘Shag Stone’ where the Cormorants and Shags gather to fish in the sea…
I have to say that this Challenge ended up being an unexpected pleasure with so much variation from everyone. I went back to my research of past paintings to put together something classic. I brought together a Pine Tree for Longevity together with other Longevity symbols such as the Tai Hu rock and the Ganoderma Fungi. This I painted on grass paper to get the soft shades of grey:
Challenge 11: Mist & Challenge 12: Festive Trees and Rats
I think it is safe to say that Mist is probably the biggest Challenge subject for any painter so it was an excellent subject to have a go at as any chance to practice mist is not wasted for the Landscape painter. I decided to combine my research with our last subject of the year to give a misty Landscape with festive trees. In our Challenge 11 call I had discussed stylised cloud and mist so thought it was best to give a new example on a traditional theme. The title of this piece is literally Misty Pine Mountain however the character I chose for Misty literally means Indistinct:
I hope you have enjoyed these Challenge pieces. As I said earlier should you be inspired by any of these please feel free to Comment back at any time.
Here’s thanking everyone who took part in any of the Challenges and wishing all of us a Happy 2021 and excellent painting opportunities.
During 2020 it became more and more obvious that we were not going to be able to run workshops for our Leicestershire Chinese Brush Painters (LCBP) group. After a deal of thought Paul devised a Google Meet challenge for the group on a fortnightly basis to keep us linked together and provide a focus for our painting practice.
I thought it may be of interest to look at the results of one of these challenges. Anyone in the group can suggest the topic for the next challenge and subjects have been wide-ranging. At first glance, not all have been popular but, my word, have they produced some excellent work and different takes on subjects. We have all used different and varied stimuli, including Google images and Pinterest, as well as our own reference books, photographs and local observation. I must admit the topic of ‘Umbrellas’ was not immediately attractive to me but I decided to try and find an example I could work from. I eventually found a few from Chinese folk art sources (see below) and tried to paint them in a different style. I painted the above picture in haste and on a very rainy, miserable day!! I think my energies are evident…
Below is the example of Chinese Folk Art I used for my first painting above:
When the actual Google Meet session took place I was amazed at how differently the individuals in the group had interpreted the topic. There were paintings of collections of decorative umbrellas as seen from below, there were figures of elegant women and rotund monks carrying umbrellas/parasols and there were even bats, whose structure of their wings echoed the structure of the spokes of an umbrella!
Another member of the group extended this topic into the next one and produced a field of pumpkin tops looking very much like umbrellas! Sue decided to paint a wealth of different umbrellas which were all for sale:
I became so engrossed with this subject and the potential for use of shapes, colours and patterns that I recently painted another more detailed version shown here:
We have found the sharing of our work and research has urged us on to painting out of our comfort zones and it really has challenged us.
Thus, we found yet again that a topic which did not initially inspire some of us, turned out to be one of the most stimulating. This was not the only subject which has led us to greater things.
Please feel free to use any of these examples to copy or extend and we hope you will experience the same thirst for further exploration of this topic as we did.
In preparation for a new challenge I thought I would post up the Chinese Calligraphy for a few different sea mammals that we were considering painting…
We started our thinking with consideration of painting a seal. However, this has taken a little finding as ‘seal’ in Chinese has quite a different meaning i.e. a chop for ‘sealing’, or completing a painting.
I think I have now found it but if you know a short-hand version or something more specific please do let us know by replying to this post.
A lot of sea mammals start their name with a very literal ‘sea’:
From what I have discovered, a generic seal is regarded quite literally as a sea leopard (or panther):
The next variant surely must be the sea lion, which again is literally what it says:
Above is the simplified Calligraphy. If you would prefer the traditional Calligraphy this is shown below. You will notice that sea (or ocean) is the same whether traditional or simplified:
Finally, some people were interested in painting a walrus. This fits in beautifully with this sequence as it is literally a sea elephant in Chinese:
I trust you have fun painting your sea mammals. Please do post any inspirations as we would love to see them.
It has been quite a while since we have updated the Blog. This hasn’t meant that we’ve not been painting. Far from it! It’s simply meant that we’ve been trying to spend less time on the computer and more time in the studio…
Challenges 6 & 7 have both been about working on Contemporary paintings and in particular have looked at the work of Wu Guanzhong who is a highly recognised contemporary artist in China. Challenge 6 was to take something of his and recreate it. Challenge 7 was then to move this on and paint something that we found in our area in his style.
One of the best pieces from the challenge is Claire’s plunge Waterfall. This embodies Wu’s style while also reflecting Claire’s own. Her painting is shown below:
This isn’t to say that there wasn’t some other wonderful work produced. There certainly was! If you have been inspired by Wu Guanzhong and wish to post up some of your responses to this challenge please let us know.
Some while back, I did a presentation at Knuston Hall about the origins of the Lingnan school of painting. I was asked recently about the artists so I thought I should post up some of the names with some of their paintings so that, should you be inspired, you can carry out further research on these artists yourself.
First of all, Lingnan literally means ‘South of the Nanling Mountains’. The Lingnan region covers the modern provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hainan as modern Northern Vietnam.
We start with Yun Shouping 1633 – 1690, often known as the Grandfather of Lingnan.
Next we have the ‘Two Ju’s’, starting with Ju Chao 1811 – 1865
Together with Ju Lian 1828 – 1904, his cousin, they are renowned as forerunners of the Lingnan School of painting.
The main founder of the Lingnan School is Gao Jianfu 1879 – 1951.
Along with Gao Jianfu is Gao Qifeng 1889 – 1933
Finally, completing the ‘Three Masters of Lingnan’ is Chen Shuren 1884 – 1948, literally making up the ‘Two Gao’s and one Chen’.
There are, obviously, a large Canon of Lingnan painters but I hope you enjoy exploring the founders of this School.
We recently completed our fifth Chinese Brush Painting challenge. The main subject of the challenge was a Still Life. The extra element was fruit this time. As usual, the idea of the challenge was to interpret that title in any way that we saw fit.
The idea with this one was very simple (which is always good) which was simply that we had not painted a challenge still life thus far…
As usual there were some wonderful paintings on all sorts of subjects from harvests to bowls of fruit and this one lent itself to lots of paintings produced!
With this challenge I did not produce a sketch as I had an idea I have been wanting to paint for some time. Qi Baishi is probably one of the most recognised artists for his still life pictures (especially as some of them are not entirely still…) and there are a number of paintings which are fascinating studies in Chinese Calligraphy. One in particular is a bowl of cherries on a bamboo stand. This painting can be seen in part 2 of Qi Baishi’s life story which is linked on this blog post.
I chose to emulate this painting with the strong strokes of the bamboo stand as the central feature. Each of the strokes must be completed in one stroke in order to get the energy and immediacy required. Additionally, the strokes must start strong and solid with ink and either end up dry at the end, or show the ink run out and the water in the heel of the brush, take over. The Autumnal twist was that instead of a bowl of cherries it would be a bowl of acorns, which, of course, had attracted a particular guest…
The Calligraphy is my now familiar date and signature with the addition of Opportunity in the top right corner.
If you would like to see the above painting in more detail, please visit my Portfolio.
It was great to see this time that Claire went her own way and rather than working from a Qi Baishi she composed a fabulous painting as you will see below:
There are 3 elements to the Calligraphy which work really well together. The first is the notable poem in the top right, “When the Autumn wind blows, and the new wine is produced, it is time to look at my flowers”. The next is Claire’s name on the vase, which incidentally was made by her. Finally note the date which is Autumn 2020 on the left hand side of the vase.
We really would to include challenge work other than our own. If you have produced a painting for this one and would be happy to share do please let us know and we will post it up here with any comments you wish to add…
We hope this inspires you to paint some wonderful pictures. If you feel so drawn, again, please let me know and I will post up images here even if they are a departure from the original inspiration. You can always comment in your own words below. Just click on Leave a comment.
We recently completed our fourth Chinese Brush Painting challenge. The main subject of the challenge was a Waterfall. However, as has become a habit, an extra element, people, were added. Of course, as usual, the idea of the challenge was to interpret that title in any way that students saw fit.
Reg had found a wonderful Northern Song Dynasty painting by Qu Ding (active ca1023 – ca1056) on the Met Museum website called Summer Mountains and this was the original inspiration for the challenge:
There were some excellent paintings of Waterfalls produced, however, it is fair to say that most people had only completed one final painting for the challenge, this time.
Claire decided to use the idea of a Waterfall to start her off rather than use the above painting. This meant that the idea ended up going in a different direction to the Song Dynasty start. After plenty of research Claire found a contemporary Chinese artists work that she has been looking at for some time now, Wu Guanzhong. This meant that the final composition was much more contemporary in nature:
I do love a Song Dynasty landscape so decided to have a go at a section of Qu Ding’s original. I should have just stuck with the original but wanted to add my own twist which has increased the time taken to get to the final result…
I started with a rough sketch to plan out the composition and then, carefully started on the outline of the Waterfall. The secret is to make sure that the brush is wetted to make a fine point and then dried out as much as possible. Most especially the heel of the brush:
The man walking and the Stubborn Ox are my additions as the next Chinese Year will be the Year of the Ox.
There are 2 parts to the Calligraphy, one is the date, the other is my signature. The seal is of my original Landscape seal, Tranquillity. The Calligraphy is a little hidden in the Northern Song literati style.
If you would like to see the above painting in more detail, please visit my Landscape Portfolio.
We would love to include some of the other challenge work so if you have produced a painting for this one and would be happy to share do please let us know and we will post it up here…
I hope this inspires you to paint some wonderful pictures. If you feel so drawn, again, please let me know and I will post up images here. You can always comment in your own words below. Just click on Leave a comment.
Part 1 and Part 2 of this article are featured in the blog posts linked.
Chen Shizeng (1876-1923) played an important part in Qi Baishi’s life, not only because he inspired Qi to pursue his own style, but also because he introduced his works to the international art community. In 1922, Chen was invited to show his paintings at a Sino-Japanese exhibition held in Japan. He took Qi’s paintings along with him. Qi, who never thought that foreigners would take an interest in his paintings, did not think much of the exhibition. Yet unexpectedly, his paintings received a warm response from the Japanese. The several paintings that were displayed were all sold out. Some French people who went to the exhibition were also attracted to his works. They chose two of his paintings and brought them back to Paris for another exhibition. Again his works won the praise of Europeans.
The exhibition in Japan could surely be said to be the most crucial turning point in Qi’s painting career. Qi became famous overnight. After the exhibition, it grew easier and easier for him to sell his paintings. It became almost a must for foreigners who visited Beijing to buy his works, and the arty people in the city also considered it a fashion to own one or two of his pieces.
After he had achieved fame, he still worked diligently. Continuing to develop his technique and style throughout the 1930s and 40s, a time of political turmoil and upheaval in China, he was elevated to the status of a national icon in 1953 when the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China conferred on him the accolade of “People’s Artist.”
The allure of his paintings
So, why do Qi Baishi’s paintings enjoy such popularity and high appraisal? “I think it is mainly because of his creativity,” said He Huai-shuo, a famous painter and art critic. “His paintings, which vividly communicate an earthly charm, brought new life to the ordinarily lofty Chinese style of painting.”
Qi liked to depict prawns, frogs, cows, chickens, brooms, farm tools, insects, rats, vegetables – subjects which traditional Chinese painters either ignored or disdained to paint. In spite of the ordinary nature of his subjects, his paintings succeeded in being extraordinarily beguiling and captivating. Be it tadpoles or wildflowers, his subjects have a fresh immediacy that never fails to rivet the attention of the viewer. Almost all the touching images he portrayed in his paintings were inspired by his early life in the countryside. Although he came from a poverty-stricken farming family and encountered many people who looked down upon him because of his humble origin, he was never ashamed of his background. He cherished the poverty and toil he went through and turned his childhood experiences into subjects that enriched his paintings.
Qi said that he would not paint anything without having first come to know his subject. In order to improve his technique of painting prawns and insects, he once raised some at home and closely observed their movements. It was said that the locusts he painted in his early years were so lifelike that when the pictures were thrown to the ground, chickens would rush forward to peck them. Even though he could produce extremely realistic looking paintings, realism was not what he pursued. He said that the beauty of a painting lies between likeness and unlikeness: “Too much likeness verges on shallowness, while too much unlikeness makes a painting look unconvincing.”
Qi Baishi died in 1957, at the mature age of ninety-five. In addition to his paintings, he also left behind a large number of seal carvings. His rise from carpenter to internationally acclaimed painter became a legend among the Chinese people. He achieved a success and fame that few of his contemporaries could match. He Huai-shuo, the modern Taiwanese critic and artist, said that Qi Baishi could be counted as the only Chinese master painter in the twentieth century whose paintings appealed to both refined and popular tastes. His talent shone through the scenes he depicted – not grandiose or pompous, but all uncommonly, wonderfully tempting.
I hope you enjoyed this biography of Qi Baishi and will take a look at his work anew. Please do post back with any paintings inspired by his work as we genuinely do enjoy what people come up with from a specific starting point.