Painting Day, 03-13-2010

A Bit of Frustration

The other day I pulled out watercolors and paper – you saw the results in my last post.  Yesterday I spent most of the day painting. Suffice it to say that the watercolors were a total disaster – my impatience, as always, got in the way. Or, from another perspective, when it comes to watercolors, the paper is not absorbent like xuan, and as a result, I cannot be as spontaneous and as controlled with the brush at the same time. For me, I think my best results in watercolor come when I am far less impetuous, and thinking more graphically. Happy splattering never occurs for me with sized paper! So, after feeling frustrated (but still in a painting mood) I pulled out my large table of rice paper (12 x 18 inches) and a bottle of Japaneses sumi ink.

Moving from watercolor – wait, patience, think – I messed up a few sheets of the rice paper. My ink was not loaded into the brush, just solid black. My brush choice was poor. My attitude was pretty crappy after a disastrous watercolor experience, and it showed. Still, that energy also started to mellow out – I love the feel of ink and paint on absorbent paper! Finally, a few kinks worked out, I set about to using just the ink itself, and sometimes coupled it with the washes I’d made using my Pelikan pan paints.

Three Out of Four Gentlemen Show Up

To warm up, I used a large, soft brush and a finer, coarse hard brush. I did the plum. The large brush was loaded with a lot of light grey wash, and then the tips were slightly covered in dark black ink.

The next painting was the orchid. For this one I took out a large hard brush and loaded it with ink. This was for the leaves. I then used a medium choryu brush (soft on the outside with hard hair in the center) for the orchid flowers. I used the small hard brush for the orchid centers.

For the bamboo, I took the large, soft brush, again loaded with ink. I used it filled in different ways to get the four stalks. On one of the bamboo, I went in with just a solid wash, and came back later with a darker wash, doing thin strips down the left side. The joints in the bamboo stalks was done with the small, hard brush; I used this same brush for the bamboo leaves.

Palm Trees in Sumi-e

When I looked back over the logs for this blog, I realized with a bit of horror how much time has passed since I received a request for palm trees painted with sumi. I apologize for that, but unfortunately my life got too busy for such endeavors. So, here, at least are some palm trees.

I am not an expert in palm trees, so any mistakes here are my own as far as determining what kind of palm is what. Given that, let’s proceed.

The first thing I always notice about a palm tree is the trunk. Some are smooth, some rough. Coconut palm trees seem to be tall and smooth, with leafier, more graceful fronds. Date palms have thicker trunks with an obvious roughness where palm fronds have fallen off. The fronds tend to be stiffer and less flexible than those of the coconut palm. What they do have in common, though, is the way in which the serrated areas of the frond meet at the center. This gives a clear line in the middle which seems to have a space between it and the serrated areas. If you look at pictures of palm trees, you will see what I mean. To paint them means leaving that gap there, or using a very fine line to connect to it, and then using a steady sweep of the brush, much like you would do with an orchid leave. Pushing down on the brush – smooshing it – creates the wrong impression of the frond. However, you can turn the brush and create bent areas – palm fronds are pretty messy. A hard, dry brush is really good for expressing the ragged edges of some of the serrated “leaves” in the frond.

This is a palm frond, done first to consider how to do the structure of the frond itself. I used some of the colors from my pan paints as well, mixing it with different dilutions of ink.

This next one is from a picture of a coconut palm. The trunk was done with my choryu brush, loaded with a light and medium ink, and tipped in black. I laid the brush sideways, and did a quick stroke for the entire trunk. I then came in with the small, hard brush for the texture found at the base of the trunk and into the trunk itself. I used the choryu brush for the center lines of the fronds and for some of the paler frond leaves. I used my large, hard brush for the darker dry brush fronds. Before dipping it into the ink, I spread out the bristles, and then dipped only the ends into the ink, keeping the brush perpendicular to the ink. I painted the frond leaves the same way, using a quick flick while doing the best to avoid any pause on the paper. As the brush lost its load of ink, this became easier.

The next palm is a date palm. Its trunk is considerably coarser than that of the coconut palm, and its fronds are stiffer and messier. They were all over the ground around the palm tree in the photo I used as a reference. To paint the trunk I used dabs of medium ink, and then began using various loading combinations of light / medium / dark. I ended with the hard brush and undiluted dark ink. For the fronds, I used much the same approach as I did with the coconut palm, but worked to make sure I caught the more upright and clustered qualities of the fronds, as well as the shorter leaves along the frond itself.

Maple Trees with Chinese Paints

With all my washes from the watercolor painting excursion exhausted, but still in a mood to paint, I found a picture of some maple trees in Vermont, brilliant in their autumn foliage. I used the bottled sumi ink for the trunks, and then used yellow, orange, and red from my box of Marie’s Chinese colors. You can see how opaque they are in comparison to the Pelikan paints. I diluted the colors in some areas, mixed them together, smooshed them around. Other areas will show you the individual colors as dabs. Different layers from red-to-yellow can be found, as well as orange or yellow or red on top of everything else.

Altogether, I had a fun day painting. The best paintings are those done in sumi-e. I really like the palm trees and the frond, more so than the orchid, bamboo, or plum. The texture of the plum trunk was enjoyable to do, but the blossoms are too blotchy – you can see where the paint plopped down and spread. I must admit, too, that I find pictures I have done with Marie’s paints never satisfy me – the colors are too garish. I do know, though, that Teacher does lovely stuff with them, and when I work hard at it, I can produce paintings which appeal to me.

My own approach to sumi-e and Chinese painting is certainly influenced by being trained in Western art. I find my best connection is with sumi ink, brush, and paper, and feel it is closest to my own personality. Still, the mastery of watercolor is one of those lifetime goals, and for me, my best results are when I employ patience and thought, which is very different than immediate results of sumi painting.

The Four Treasures: Brush, iii

As you know by now, the Asian brush is differently constructed than the Western brush, and its usage has its own traditions.  Calligraphy and painting are considered to be the same, if you base it on language; it is my understanding that “writing” and “painting” have the same verb in Japanese.  And, as in Western cultures, a refined hand in writing was believed to reveal the character of the writer.

Calligraphy Brushes on Either Side of a Paint Brush

Calligraphy Brushes on Either Side of a Paint Brush

Calligraphy Brush vs. Paint Brush

Calligraphy can be done with a regular brush, but perhaps not as easily.  This picture to the left will show you two calligraphy brushes, which are on either side of one of my favorite paint brushes.  The noticeable difference is the length of the bristles – the calligraphy brushes are have much longer ones than the paint brush.  Still, you could use the center brush for calligraphy, but there is more movement to be had when using the calligraphy brushes. If you recall the video in the previous post of Koji Kokinuma, the brush he uses has long bristles – he makes beautiful thin to thick, flying whites, and graceful curves. Close observation shows he changes the brush position as he moves along, twirling the brush in his hand, besides angling his wrist or tilting the brush from the perpendicular.

Hard Bristle Brush

Hard Bristle Brush

The brush to right, with the dark bristles, is a “hard” brush. This means the hairs are less absorbent, and thus, less ink is held in the bristles. This kind of brush must be refilled more frequently than a soft haired or mixed hair brush, but one of its great qualities is a vibrancy it gives to the lines – sharp, direct, with flying whites as the ink is used up. Dark bristles indicate a hard brush.

The next brush, with the white hairs on the outside, and darker hairs on the inside, is considered to be a mixed hair brush. This kind of brush has lighter, white hair for increased ink capacity, as well as a fuller, rounder body when the brush is pressed into the paper. The harder center allows for a sharper point. This kind of brush can range from a razor thin line to a plump one with very little pressure difference. Angling such a brush can give a very rounded shape to the stroke. If the bristles were all white, then the absorbency and softness of the white hairs would be a dominant feature.

Mixed Hair Brush

Mixed Hair Brush

Setting Up for Calligraphy or Painting

I am right-handed, so this is how I set up my desk for painting or calligraphy. As I am learning hiragana, I am more interested in memorizing the kana than being artistic, but the fact that kana developed in a culture where the brush, not the pen or quill, was the writing implement, the structure of the kana is derived from brush strokes. Anyone who tries this will understand what I mean – a chiseled Roman capital will not happen with a calligraphy brush!

Set-Up

Set-Up

When it comes to practicing kanji, the form and structure of the character is designed to fit into a square. As you can see, the mosen, which is the felt upon which one paints or writes, has squares with diagonals. Sometimes the squares can be set up like a 9-patch quilt, with 3 x 3 grid. The purpose of these squares is to allow the calligrapher to center the characters within the squares, creating a balance and structure which allows the beauty of each to be seen. Notebooks from Asian countries often have vertical lines to keep characters neat, just as we have horizontal lines in our notebooks. Messiness has its place, but illegibility is not desirable.

Practice calligraphy paper is very thin. This allows the lines to be seen through the paper. This paper is also very absorbent, so before writing, excess ink is removed on the edge of the suzuri, and sometimes even blotted on towelling. If you look at the towels in the photo, you will see a lot of ink stains, from blotting the ink stick after rubbing, and from blotting the brush tip as well. I use the same towels over and over again, and find that cheap, terry dish towels are fantastic. The more I wash and bleach them, the more I like them.

This next image is from the book Chinese Calligraphy, by Qu Lei Lei.  Here you can see the 3 x 3 grid for the character, as well as one like the one I use.  You will also see how beautiful the character is, nicely balanced within the square.  My own attempt is rather short and squat, and lacks the quality of Qu Lei Lei’s example.  If you are a serious calligraphy student, Chinese Calligraphy is especially nice because the details of dots and lines is far more than what many books will teach.  They may look easy, but they are not!  And, it takes practice – my work needs a lot of help!

Chinese Calligraphy by Qu Lei Lei

"Chinese Calligraphy" by Qu Lei Lei

See what I mean? Homely as it is, it does show how the mosen is used with the paper to help center and balance the calligraphic character, and help create the vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines. The absorbency of the paper I am using also presents a challenge because bleeding of the ink is very common! When you can do this without the mosen, you will have accomplished quite a bit.

Using the Calligraphy Grid

Using the Calligraphy Grid

And finally, here is my practice hiragana. In the upper left, you can see how nicely the grid helped center the kana. On the lower right, you can get a good sense of the absorbency of the paper – thick black lines for some kana, to thin, sharp lines as I used up ink.

Hiragana Practice

Hiragana Practice

I used both calligraphy brushes shown above, preferring the mixed hair brush for the smaller practice. I also used some very fine brushes which had maybe only 10 bristles in them. I liked the softer, longer bristled brushes, as I thought the movement of line was more readily accomplished, with smooth transitions from thin and thick and back for the kana, but if I wanted a rugged effect, a hard brush could be quite the right tool for the job.

Brushes are incredible inventions, for all their seeming simplicity. At a future date, I will write more about the manufacture of Asian brushes!

The Four Treasures: Brush, ii

Quite some time ago, I wrote about brushes used in Asia.  As I am beginning Saturday morning Japanese language classes, I am in conflict with time and distance in being able to attend my Chinese painting class.  I’ll just have to figure that out later.  However, the fact that I am learning hiragana, my preferred practice method is the traditional brush since I enjoy it so much.  It is also said that the strokes used in Asian calligraphy are those used in Asian painting.  Given that, I thought it would be worthwhile to review elements of holding the brush.

Holding the Brush Is Not the Same as Holding a Pen

When I was in school, penmanship was an important part of the daily curriculum.  I practiced my penmanship from first grade through the eighth.  My third grade teacher shamed me by saying “Any one who draws as well as you do should have good penmanship.”  Ooops!  In eighth grade I won a penmanship award.  Over the years, I’ve collected a few manuals on the Palmer Method of penmanship, which is the basis of much of what I was taught in school.  Today, penmanship has been replaced by other methods of handwriting – you might find this article amusing if you remember your penmanship classes.

Enough digressions.  The fact is that Western culture teaches the student to hold the pen at a slant.  These scans from an old Palmer Method manual show what I mean. Additionally, the writing surface is also at a slight angle, tilting gently toward the writer’s lap. Paper is also angled, so that an uphill slope is created for writing left to right.

Illustrations from various books, published in the US, Japan, China and elsewhere demonstrate how to hold the brush. Rather than the slanted wrist resting on the table, the brush is held perpendicular to the writing surface, which is not at all slanted. The forearm is held rather straight, yet relaxed. The brush may be held close to the bristles, or anywhere along the handle, all the way to the top. The paper is also straight, with the idea being writing is vertical, and there is no need for the paper to be slanted.

Ms. Kuroda Holding a Brush

Ms. Kuroda Holding a Brush

Holding the Brush

Hand Position

To the right, you can see how to hold the brush. This illustration is from a Japanese book on sumi-e painting, and unfortunately the only thing I know about the author is that her name is Kuroda san.

According to H.E. Davey, author of Brush Mediation: A Japanese Way to MInd & Body Harmony,

Grip the Brush Gently and Focus Your Ki through the Brush Tip

Physically speaking, shodo [Japanese calligraphy] begins with the student’s grip on the brush. Unless a suitable technique of gripping is mastered, no advancement is possible . . . First, your elbow should not stick up or out to an excessive degree. This would only create an unsettling of the arm’s weight a s well as produce tension in the muscle of the arm and shoulder. This tension can cause your flow of ki to clog in the shoulders and not be effectively transmitted through the brush into the painting. This point is important, and various Japanese calligraphy authorities have made note of its significance.

At the same time, do not let your elbow sag or droop . . . when your elbow sags heavily toward the ground, it also tends to rub against the body and produces a cramped feeling that is expressed in your in your artwork. You should feel that your elbow is floating in a settled position a few inches from your body. (pgs. 76-77)

Sitting with the Brush

In my opinion, one of the very best books on sumi-e is Sumi-e Self Taught, by Kohei Aida. No longer in print, you might be able to find it through an online used book service; if you are interested, it was published in 1968, by Japan Publications, Inc., of Tokyo, Japan. The text is in English, which is very helpful. The best part of the book is that he shows the artist how to load the brush, how angle and roll it on the ink-water dish’s edge, and many subtleties not illustrated in most English-language sumi books.

Aida san shows how to sit in a western manner (upright at a table) while holding the brush.  H.E. Davey’s book, Brush Meditation, also has several photos on posture and sitting.

Going back to my blurb on knitting, posture, and pain, I suggest that you concentrate on sitting upright and focus on bringing your shoulder blades back toward the spine.  Don’t arch your back, but focus on a gentle backward movement of the shoulder blades, and a focus on a plumb-line approach to your spine.  If you are sloppy like me, this will be unfamiliar, and uncomfortable because you may not do this naturally, and your muscles will not be happy.  However, with time, it gets easier – I’m actually remembering to do it, and occasionally find I’m still upright later on . . .

In this position, you can move your arm as well as your wrist.  Tighter movements will be done with the hand closer to the bristles, while holding the hand at the top of the brush gives a wonderful looseness in the stroke.  In calligraphy, I expect these same results will apply.  If you look at my post about painting the dragon you will also see that the brush can be held at different angles – sideways, for example.  Aida san’s book demonstrates the same.

Aida san Demonstrates Brush Movement

Aida san Demonstrates Brush Movement

Movement of the Brush

This illustration to the left, from Aida san’s book, shows how the brush may be tilted to achieve a brush stroke while painting.  The hand and wrist may also be tilted to create curves, pressure may be applied at the end of the stroke, and gliding motions similar to an airplane landing and taking off can make thin-to-thick line, and vice versa. Ending a stroke with increasing pressure will also create a certain effect.

The Charles E. Tuttle Company has published wonderful art books about Japan.  One book which has been in print since 1960 is Japanese Painting as Taught by Ukai Uchiyama, Kay Morrissey Thompson.  The reason I mention this is because the next picture is for the artist sitting on the floor, in the traditional manner, to paint.  At the same time you can see that the brush is being held very near the top of the handle.  Looking at Uchiyama san’s work, you will notice a very loose, wild style which is, nonetheless, very controlled and lively.  Mastery of the brush allows for this, and perhaps sitting on the floor adds to the process.

Ukai Uchiyama Painting

Ukai Uchiyama Painting

Uchiyama Holding Brush

Uchiyama Holding Brush

This detail of the photograph shows you how Uchiyama san holds his brush – just the same as Aida san, simply closer to the top of the handle. Practicing this yourself will help you understand the quality of stroke and control obtained by holding the brush at different levels along the handle. Certainly the closer your hand is to the bristles, the more minute control you have. Shoulder and arm movement are more restricted when in this position. Freedom and spontanenaeity increase with distance. However, without a knowledge of how to use the brush, this can be a study in frustration! So, focus yourself, breathe slowly and deeply. Imagine your energy flowing out of the brush tip – your ki – and with practice, your brush may dance with your soul.

Artist in Action

Once more, I believe videos can clearly demonstrate something which is difficult to explain with words. This video will show you how to hold a Chinese (or Japanese, or Korean, or whatever!) brush for calligraphy.

The following video is of the young Japanese artist / calligrapher, Koji Kakinuma.  In particular, watch how he changes from thin to thick lines, as well as how he tilts the brush at different angles; you will observe this by observing the brush tip.  When the brush is perpendicular to the paper, the tip must be considered to be the center of the line.  Tilting the brush, increasing and decreasing pressure – sometimes all combined – vary the appearance of the stroke. Notice, too, that the bristles in the brush are longer in length than a painting brush.  Soft, hard, and mixed-hair brushes may be used, each having its own qualities.

Finally, here is a video about the difference between calligraphy brushes and painting brushes.