Chinese Painting Class: Tiger Painting, i

Tigers in Chinese Culture

This is the Year of the Tiger.  Tigers are representative of generosity, power, energy, royalty, illumination, unpredictability, and protection.  There are, apparently, five types of tigers, all with different meanings and powers to keep the cosmic forces balanced.

  • White Tiger: ruler of the Fall season and governor of the Metal elementals
  • Black Tiger: ruler of the Winter season and governor of the Water elementals
  • Blue Tiger: ruler of the Spring season and governor of the Earth elementals
  • Red Tiger: ruler of the Summer season and governor of the Fire elementals
  • Yellow Tiger: the supreme ruler of all these tigers and symbolic of the Sun

People born in these years are Tigers:  1902, 1914, 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022.

A Bit About Tigers

In and of themselves, tigers are beautiful animals whose very existence is threatened worldwide.  Here is a brief bit of information from the Wikipedia article about tigers:

The tiger (Panthera tigris) is a member of the Felidae family; the largest of the four “big cats” in the genus Panthera. Native to much of eastern and southern Asia, the tiger is an apex predator and an obligate carnivore. Reaching up to 3.3 metres (11 ft) in total length and weighing up to 300 kilograms (660 pounds), the larger tiger subspecies are comparable in size to the biggest extinct felids. Aside from their great bulk and power, their most recognisable feature is a pattern of dark vertical stripes that overlays near-white to reddish-orange fur, with lighter underparts. The most numerous tiger subspecies is the Bengal tiger while the largest subspecies is the Siberian tiger.

Highly adaptable, tigers range from the Siberian taiga, to open grasslands, to tropicalmangrove swamps. They are territorial and generally solitary animals, often requiring large contiguous areas of habitat that support their prey demands. This, coupled with the fact that they are endemic to some of the more densely populated places on earth, has caused significant conflicts with humans. Of the nine subspecies of modern tiger, three are extinct and the remaining six are classified as endangered, some critically so. The primary direct causes are habitat destruction and fragmentation, and hunting. Their historical range once stretched from Mesopotamia and the Caucasus through most of South and East Asia. Today it has been radically reduced. While all surviving species are under formal protection, poaching, habitat destruction and inbreeding depression continue to threaten the species.

Tigers are among the most recognisable and popular of the world’s charismatic megafauna. They have featured prominently in ancient mythology and folklore, and continue to be depicted in modern films and literature. Tigers appear on many flags and coats of arms, as mascots for sporting teams, and as the national animal of several Asian nations, including India.

Painting Class – Back At Last!

It was so nice to get back to class after so many months away!  Most of the core class was there – Connie, Fong, Paulina, Ann Marie, Jan, Paula, Philip, Cathy – and Teacher himself, Harris.  The fact that is was pouring rain shows the dedication of all these painters.  Teacher drives up from south of Los Angeles, and Paula comes in about 30 miles.  The rest of us sort of radiate out 10-15 miles.  Driving in, though, was far easier than driving out – buckets of rain to the point the roads were flooded and it was nearly impossible to see at times.

Teacher with Painting and Sketch in Charcoal and Ink

Foundations of the Painting

Dry Brush Fur on Tail

Teacher does a general outline of the subject with charcoal.  He lays in the shapes and sets up the overall composition of the painting.  Then he begins to use ink to outline the subject – in this case, of course, the tiger.  In the picture you will see the picture which we are copying, and Teacher’s work.

Before any color is added to the painting, liquid ink is used to define outlines and fur. Teacher told us to use a large brush for the lines, and a finer one as well. The brushes were very dry, which gives the effect of the fur, as well as keeps the ink from bleeding into the paper, which is an unsized Chinese paper. It may look easy, but for those of us used to watercolor or acrylics, the entire process of dry brush is difficult because the dry brush in Chinese painting is really, really dry! It seems to be far dryer than what I would use in watercolor, but the absorbancy of the paper makes my “dry” brush seem sopping wet!.

Dry Brush Ink - Brush is Flattened to Create Furn

To indicate fur, Teacher flattens the brush between his finger tips, at the same time removing any extra water from the brush. He holds the brush perpendicular to the paper, or at an angle, depending on what he wants to do. This detail of the tiger’s tail shows you the effect this produces for fur.  You will also see that different shades of ink have been used to create dimension.  Finally, after about an hour, the foundational inking of the painting is completed.

Tiger - Inking Completed

Coloring the Tiger

In our Chinese painting class, we use Marie’s Chinese Colors. These are inexpensive paints, and often we can buy them as we need them in class because our group keeps them in supply. These paints are opaque, and when dry, do not bleed when wet. The colors we usually get are in boxes of 12, with names like burnt sienna, indigo, carmine, and so on. They are rather thick, but work very well in creating thin, transparent washes as well as opaque spots for details, such as leaves.

From what I have seen in many of my classes with Teacher, color is an addition to a painting, not the main focus. Ink provides the “bones” of the painting; color is like a condiment – something added for piquancy. This proves to be true for this tiger. The colors used were burnt sienna, carmine, and indigo. Straight ink was used for the tiger’s black and the bamboo leaves, and pure white was done at the very end to enhance the whiteness of the whiskers and fur.

Another element of painting on the unsized paper is that the colors become lighter as they dry.  In the very beginning, Teacher painted the nose of the tiger with burnt sienna.  This picture shows the paint very wet, and certainly the first thought you might have is that the picture is ruined, the paint is waaaaay too dark!  But, as it dries, it lightens up, and is very balanced in the final painting.

Tiger - Drier Paint on Nose, and Carmine for Pink of Nose
Wet Nose!

You can also see that the burnt sienna is a good contrast for the carmine used for the tiger’s nose, as well as the fact that as the sienna dries, it becomes lighter, and quite nice. I think that teacher may have mixed a small amount of carmine with the sienna, but I did not make note of that.

The final painting was completed with ink bamboo leaves.  Pure ink was used for the very dark leaves, and diluted ink for the greyer ones.  A thin wash of indigo was used to outline the tiger, to make him “pop” out of the paper.  Whiskers were added after everything else was done, using a very fine brush and pure white paint.  These had to be done when the paper was dry, otherwise the whiskers would bleed into the background, or onto the tiger himself.  White was also used to create the effect of fur on the tiger’s body, and, again, to help create a stronger image.

Teacher Adding White to the Tiger

Finally, the tiger is finished, and set aside to dry.  At this point, we students have the opportunity for critique of the previous month’s work.  Teacher does calligraphy if we want – after all, what is is a Chinese painting without a poem?  He also shows us how to correct our paintings, by demonstrating where they might be weak.  He will paint over our pictures (with out permission), and sometimes just a subtle wash will show us how to improve.  He also will show us how to do something we might be struggling with, such as flower petals and how to load a brush with colors.

Completed Tiger - Click to Enlarge

Altogether, it is a great experience to watch a gifted painter in the process of creating a painting.  Taking notes and photos certainly helps to recall what was done in class.  I plan to do this tiger, partly because I think he is a very handsome tiger and I like the composition, but also to practice different elements in painting.  I will post pictures of my progress, as well as evidence of my practice strokes and work on paper before I even begin this painting!

And now, here is the final painting of the tiger.  Click on the photo and you will be able to see it in greater detail. Depending on your browser, you will see the picture enlarged, and then if you hover over it, a magnifying glass should appear to bring it to its original size. If this works for you, you will be able to look at the different areas of the tiger in fine detail.



2 thoughts on “Chinese Painting Class: Tiger Painting, i

  1. Absolutely inspiring. I am just starting with Sumi-e and this was really helpful. I appreciate the time you took to create this post and your generousity. Thank you. I can’t wait to see your work.

  2. Thanks, Linda. Harris, our Teacher, is a very talented artist, both in the traditional Chinese style (from which the Japanese sumi-e is derived) and Western art. He combines the two in Chinese painting because he works conscientiously with elements such as depth and dimension while still maintaining the rather flat Asian approach to perspective. If you look at the tiger, you will see (if the photos are good enough) that toward the tiger’s tail, along the back, the sienna becomes lighter, as do the shades of ink. Some areas might be a little darker, giving a sense of the tiger’s roundness and muscles, and how his fur is rippling over his muscles. I’m hoping that I’ll actually be able to produce something half as good!

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