What really happened . . .
My last Chinese painting class had the assignment of peony, but that lasted about 20 minutes. A student requested Teacher demonstrate a dragon, and had brought in a painting by a famous artist as a sample. This turned into an incredible class demonstration!
Chinese Dragons 龍
Chinese dragons are different than western dragons. In fact, they really are not dragons by western standards. The pronunciation for dragon in Chinese is “lóng” – like “long” with a long “o” and a rather French “n” sound, like in “fin” – sort of nasal, by what I recall hearing. Wikipedia sums it up:
The Chinese dragon or Oriental dragon is a mythical creature in East Asian culture with a Chinese origin. It is visualized these days as a long, scaled, snake-like creature with four legs and five claws on each (though it did not always have five claws). In contrast to the European dragon which stands on four legs and which is usually portrayed as evil, the Chinese dragon has long been a potent symbol of auspicious power in Chinese folklore and art. The Chinese dragon is traditionally also the embodiment of the concept of yang (male) and associated with the weather as the bringer of rain and water in an agriculturally water-driven nation. Its female counterpart is the Fenghuang (usually translated as a phoenix).
The original painting, from a calendar of twelve monthly dragon pin-ups, is to the right. Copying a painting is a traditional method for learning techniques.
When a painting is done with both ink and color, the ink is laid down first. This ink creates the foundation for the painting, the color is added last. Different papers have different qualities, some being unsized, others not. Sized papers resist bleeding. Our dragon was painted on unsized paper, so Teacher’s brush was very dry. Even when diluted ink was used, the brush was blotted on paper towels to pull out excess moisture. When the colors were applied, they were diluted as well, but the brush was blotted, and the wash applied in quick, short strokes.
Beginning the Painting
The initial part of the painting was a rough outline in charcoal, lightly applied to the paper. Proportions were determined, and placement. Then the major outlines of the painting were started – the “bones” of the painting. These lines were both thick and thin, and applied with relatively dark ink. Even though the face was the starting point, the eyes were not completed until the painting was nearly done.
Take a look at how Teacher holds his brush. This is very different than how we hold our brush in the west. Also look at how his left hand is placed on the paper. Those of you who have done calligraphy, or spent countless hours in the classroom in your childhood during penmanship, remember this position.
Teacher uses his brush vertically, using only the tip, as well as sideways. All of this can be done with a large brush tapering to a fine point. This point can be shaped by wiping it along the edge of the dish, twirling it in the process of removing extra ink, as well as with the fingers. Narrow lines are done with the brush tip, but broader areas of ink are done with the length of the brush.
Using only one brush, Teacher completes the overall lines and shades of the painting before color is added. A sense of depth depends on all these elements working together.
Teacher completes one section before moving on to the next. First the head is outlined, then claws, and twisting body. Below the head, the rest of the dragon develops, body, tail, claws. Paper is left white so clouds, mist, and flame may be represented by light washes and color.
When the dragon is done, the eyes are added, very carefully. Ruin the eyes, ruin the painting!
After the dragon is completed, inking continues. The background is completed, final touches are added here and there. Once Teacher is happy with his painting, he begins to add color to the painting. He also has switched to a large, western watercolor brush!
One of the biggest challenges in watercolor is remembering that color becomes lighter as it dries. Unsized Chinese paper can become waterlogged and tear very easily. For the best results, the artist has to think ahead. Knowing about how light a color will dry comes with experience. Even so, as the painting develops, the need for darker color will be found. Patience! Let the paper dry, and then add more.
Teacher mixes an ochre, then moves into a cool blue.
Red is added.
Three hours later, teacher has completed his painting.