“In learning to write, one begins with simple characters made up of a few strokes and proceeds to complicated characters with several strokes. In the same way, in learning to paint flowers, one begins with those with few petals and proceeds to those with many petals, from small leaves to large, and from single stems to bunches. Each division of subject matter is classified here so that beginners may learn them thoroughly, not only beholding them with their eyes but retaining the impressions in their minds.” (p. 323, Sze, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, 1963 The Bollingen Foundation).
There is a long tradition in painting the orchid in Asian art, and, according to The Mustard Seed, the painting of the leaves is of primary importance as the entire painting of the orchid is dependent on the execution of the leaves.
Strokes to be learned are the “nail end” stroke, the “rat’s tail” stroke, and the “belly of the mantis.”
Compositional elements include “eye of the phoenix” and “breaking the eye of the elephant.” Additionally, there is a need to understand the growth pattern of the orchid so that one may express in a stroke or two the way in which leaves wrap around the base of the orchid, as well as how the leaves form a sheath for the roots.
Leaves should cross, overlap, bend, and raise, yet “never repeat in a monotonous manner” (p. 325). Correct portrayal of orchid leaves, to show distinction between varieties, is extremely important.
Most of us will easily paint leaves left to right, but of equal importance is being able to paint them as dexterously right to left. Observation of how a plant grows upward, downward, how leaves twist and turn is all vital to successful painting. Reality and the artistic aesthetic may conflict, but the spirit of the plant is the essential component.
To paint these leaves, load your brush with light, medium, and then tip with dark ink. Hold your brush upright, and then pretend you are a leaf blowing in the wind. Your arm flows with the breeze, up and down, sideways right and left. The leaf then is painted – narrow, fat, rising up to the sky, and down to touch the earth.
To me, that is perhaps the most difficult element of a painting – the spirit, or chi. And yet, when I finally begin to connect with a plant, and a painting, the painting comes alive before my eyes. I can feel the leaves as they move in the wind. I can smell the fragrance of the flower. More, I can feel the energy of the entire plant, and my imagination moves beyond my senses and merges with more than the plant, more than the world, more than my mind’s eye – there is an altogether other world where everything merges and becomes more real than reality.