Enlightenment through Chinese painting for this expat

By Ryan Thorpe Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/28 18:53:39

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

My teacher took me up to his studio and handed me a brush. I held it like a pen. No. That was wrong; I needed to hold it vertically, perpendicular to the paper. I spent a few moments trying to hold the brush correctly. My hand started to hurt. This was my introduction to traditional Chinese painting.

We spent our first lesson working on brush strokes. He wanted me to practice with ink, seeing how the black and water worked together to create shades, and the shades of black created depth. I was cautious, making small dabs with my brush, but he urged me on.

"Be brave," he said as he moved his brush across the page, creating a large arc of paint. Painting starts with being brave. I made a mental note of that.

We practiced rolling the brush as we made our arcs of paint with the vague goal of creating a tree's branches. The branches could go anywhere. They're wild. Branches flow in great arcs. I needed to be more brave. I needed to arc.

Rolling the brush creates micro streaks of white in the black lines, imperfections that are essential to Chinese painting that my teacher told me are called "flying white." This flying white needed to be in my strokes. Solid lines are bad. My painting didn't need to exist. It needed to fly.

We practiced this several times on rice paper, a special medium that lets the ink bleed into it. Sometimes you dry out the brush and coat your brush in paint for thick, straight lines, but often times, he encouraged me to saturate my brush with water when painting distant mountains or tree branches.

Something random and chaotic about letting the colors bleed a little on the rice paper made it look more natural and less manufactured. As we continued to paint, I found myself constantly checking how much water was on my brush. I wanted my painting to bleed a bit, not gush.

After several attempts on branches, twirling my brush to maximize my flying white, I got a chance to start my tree branches. I have to try several times before he gives me a "feichanghao" and I know that my work is good. I paint too slow. I want it to look good, but I am not sure what good is yet. 

After a few branches, we paint a few in gray to make them look farther away. After the branches, we paint flowers that are faintly red. We mix the red with the black ink before applying it, though. We don't want it to look too red. Nature is dirty and so are most of her colors.

After the flowers, we paint distant leaves a faint gray to cover up some the back. He tells me to stop worrying. To just get going, but I feel myself fighting. I want it to be right, and it takes twenty minutes of leafing my background for me to realize that there is no perfect background leaf. There're only a few leaves or many. 

As we finish up, I look around at his professional paintings that dot the wall, and I think about how difficult it is to layer that paint and notice just how wild some of the edges of the figures are.

He must have stood there patiently repainting these until the figures bled their way into life.

After we finish the branches, he declares "feichanghao" again, but I know he's just being kind. He wants me to be proud of my first work, but I only feel uncertainty. It takes a certain set of eyes to really see it as a tree. Instead, it is the feeling of a tree. It's essence. It's edge. But he tells me that it's great and that next time we will learn to paint rocks and grass. Those, he says, will be harder.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.



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