The Four Gentlemen: 国画兰花 (Orchid)

According to the Google Chinese translator, 国画兰花 means “orchid painting.”  If I plug in the characters, sure enough, that is what I get!  There are a lot of really beautiful orchid paintings, both Japanese and Chinese, and some from other parts of the world.

The Four Gentlemen

In learning to paint in sumi, the student first becomes acquainted and accomplished in painting the orchid, bamboo, plum, and chrysanthemum. Practicing each, the student learns critical brush strokes, and while one may become adept at the strokes, mastery is where the artist steps in.

Painting the orchid allows the student the opportunity to practice long movements with the brush. This requires moving with the arm, rather than the wrist, which is very strange to us in the west. Those of us who learned to write script hour after hour in school learned to control our movements. Big, sweeping arm movements were not encouraged.

In addition to learning to control large movements, the student also works with varying shades of ink, from light to dark, to create a dynamic painting. The leaves require darker ink, and the flowers require lighter. In addition to lighter ink, the flowers require smaller, controlled movement. Finally, “dotting the heart” – the black ink at the center of each flower – requires the patience for the ink to dry. Applied too soon, the elegant shape becomes a blurry spot in what might otherwise be a perfect flower.

Besides being an elemental step to learning sumi, the orchid represents spring, as well as the virtues of noble behavior and modesty. In Japanese, the “Four Gentlemen” are called “shi-kunshi. Each plant has a corresponding season and virtue. In contemplating paintings of these subjects – the orchid, bamboo, plum, and chrysanthemum – one also steps into the symbolism of each.

Painting the Orchid

Of the “Four Gentlemen,” the orchid is the most easily learned. The long flowing leaves are delightful to paint. The flowers are as well – a great deal of satisfaction is found in mastering the curves of the strokes. Most difficult is “dotting the heart.”

That said, the mastery of the orchid, or any of the Gentlemen, is a lifetime experience. The expression and shape and composition of such simple subjects becomes increasingly more interesting, and more challenging.

The Video: Painting the Wild Orchid in Sumi-e

Here is a video showing some of my orchid paintings in color, as well as a demonstration in sumi. I have not annotated this video, but am leaving it for you to observe. Let me know what you think!

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