Language Of Painting In Ancient China

The painters of Ancient China, swiftly brushing ink and watercolors on silk, were not content merely to imitate nature. They set themselves a more elusive and challenging goal: to capture the spirit as well as the form of their subjects. According to the influential Fifth Century art critic, Hsieh Ho, a painter needed to fulfill six canons to be a truly great artist. His rules, which are elaborated upon in the following pages, called for a high degree of skill in composition, color rendition and especially brushwork-a technique closely related to the picture-language of Chinese writing. But most important of all, Hsieh Ho demanded an infusion of the artist’s own spirit to give the painting ch’i-the vitality of life itself.


Calligraphy, proclaiming “Hsieh Ho’s Six Canons of Painting,” reflects the linear grace of Chinese art.

Animate Chinese gentlemen

Dynamic Lines animate two Chinese gentlemen portrayed on a Third Century ceramic tile. Curving lines of varying widths impart a feeling of movement as the men engage in conversation.

Deft Brushwork

To Chinese artists, line-rather than the light and shadow of much Western art-was the basic structural element of all painting, as it was of calligraphy. A high premium was placed on the skilled manipulation of the brush, which was made of a bone or wood handle fitted with unusually soft, flexible bristles. In the calligraphy above, done with such a brush, one of Hsieh Ho’s primary canons of art is expressed in the four Chinese ideograms “Structure-Method Use-Brush.” Indeed, the mastering of brushwork was considered so necessary in giving life to a painting that one art critic described the brush as an extension of “the arm, the belly and the mind”; another called brushwork an artist’s “heart-print.”

Like calligraphers, Chinese painters practiced for years to develop the muscular control necessary to execute swift, delicate strokes. Every artist tried to perfect his brushwork until it bore an imprint as personal as his handwriting. When a painter had mastered this technique, his strokes were said to resemble a dance-full of energy, movement and iife. As one master put it, brushstrokes should be “like a flock of birds darting out of the forest, or like a frightened snake disappearing in the grass, or like the cracks in a shattered wall.”

Calligraphy's influence.


calligraphy's influence

Calligraphy’s influence on painting is seen in the facile brushstrokes that depict the face of one of the men on the tile. The main lines of the painting were done with the same kind of quick, fluid motions as the calligraphic symbols shown at the right, and both have the desired quality of “life.”

Accurate Likenesses

faithfully rendered forms. faithfully rendered forms

Faithfully rendered forms make this record of a court party, painted a thousand years ago, bubble with life. Its carefully drawn women with their delicate, flowered robes are both convincing and graceful. The painter’s masterful eye for detail is indicated by his treatment of the puglike dog lying under the table.

graceful women

The purpose of the painter was, in the words of an artist of the Fourth Century, “to portray the spirit through the form.” The ability to draw good likenesses was gradually learned over the centuries. By the Ninth Century, when works like the court scene below were being painted, artists more than satisfied the stipulation of Hsieh Ho’s canon, which is symbolized at left by the characters “Fidelity Type Depict-Form.”

This canon, however, became the focus of a continuing debate among Chinese artists and critics. Which was more important: exact representation or free expression? Virtually all artists agreed that the subject of a painting should have recognizable form, but many felt that the spirit of the subject was even more important. One Ninth Century critic, striking at the root of the problem, declared that an artist who could capture life necessarily had to be adept at representation-but that a good representationalist could not always capture life.

Versatile Colors

Through the T’ang Dynasty color played a major role in Chinese painting, and in the Buddhist art of that period it achieved a brightness and variety it would never approach again. In the canon above (“According-Object Apply-Color”), Hsieh Ho insisted that the colors of a painting match the hues of nature. While most artists followed this dictum, others went beyond it, particularly in religious art. In the Buddhist painting at left, for example, color was used symbolically to represent the forces of nature. Thus green, red, yellow, white and black stood for wood, fire, earth, metal and water respectively. In another Buddhist work, color performed more purely decorative purposes, creating a dazzling mosaic of the primary colors of red, blue and yellow, and the softer secondary colors of violet, green and orange.

After the 10th Century, however, an increasing interest in landscape painting led to a decline in strong colors; they were not suited to nature’s real hues, and artists also felt that they obscured fine brushwork. In place of brilliant pigments, painters began to use delicate ink washes, giving the linear outlines of forms more prominence. Ultimately, many artists gave up color altogether, believing that the contrast between black and white portrayed more effectively the opposites of nature.

A sacred work

A sacred work  represents the Kuan-yin, a Buddhist deity, surrounded by other divine figures and mystical symbols. At the bottom are portrayed the patrons who commissioned the work.

A brilliant panaroma

A brilliant panoroma in contrasting colors depicts the temptation and assault of Buddha by the devil Mara. Stones and arrows cast at him by monstrous spirits miraculously turn to flowers.

Illusion of depth

an illusion of depth

An illusion of depth was achieved in this copy of an Eighth Century landscape painting by arranging rocks into a series of overlapping shopes. The sketch at top still recommended the technique almost 1,000 years later.

felling of height A feeling of height

A feeling of height was conveyed in the same landscape by juxtaposing a mountain and two smaller foothills. Instructions in the use of this compositional device appear above with another sketch from the handbook.

Well-planned space

Over the centuries, Chinese painters worked assiduously to perfect the craft of composition, which Hsieh Ho described as “Division-Planning Placing-Arranging”. In addition to rules laid down for arriving at the proper balance of elements in a picture, special attention was paid to achieving a sense of three-dimensional space. Perspective, in the Western sense, of a view that appeared to be seen through a window, did not lend itself to the Chinese hand-held scroll, which was unrolled and viewed in sections, not as a whole. The Chinese developed other devices for expressing distances; two major ones, as illustrated in an early Chinese scroll, are shown at left, accompanied by schematic explanations taken from a 17th Century handbook of painting. A third set of illustrations, on this page, demonstrates how the two devices could be used to work together.

As landscape scrolls were unrolled, variations of these compositional devices came into play. Viewers were not confined to a single, fixed viewpoint, but were treated to a constantly shifting sense of depth, height and subject matter, as their eyes roamed across the landscape. The painting became almost like a modern motion picture as it added to space the new dimension of time.

a combination of height and depth a combination of height and depth.

Combining height and depth, both of the techniques shown on the opposite page are used here to give the effect of a sprawling landscape that draws the viewer’s eye past the foreground cliffs to distant, towering peaks.

Venerated traditions

A sense of the past permeated art, and copying great artists of earlier times was considered an important and honorable endeavor. In the characters above Hsieh Ho urged artists to master this skill as a means of “transmitting the past.” Copying not only showed reverence for what had gone before; it also had the practical function of putting valuable paintings into wider circulation, while training the hand and eye of the young artist. Since it was believed that the ancient masters had found an ideal way of expressing form for every type of object, the artist, by copying these established forms, became free to concentrate on giving “life” to his painting.

In copying, the Chinese did not limit themselves to reproducing slavish replicas. Indeed, they believed that exact duplication lost the essential ingredient of spontaneity. To bring reproductions alive in a new way, they frequently attempted free variations on traditional themes. For example, the 16th Century landscape scroll below and the 15th Century one at right are both copies of the same Eighth Century original, but each copyist has injected his own creative touches. The long scroll in particular has new mountains, a longer river and a greater variety of trees and rocks. Most important, the artist has delineated them in his own style.

matching details.

Matching details, taken from the two landscape scrolls on these pages, fit together like pieces of a picture puzzle. Though both works were copied from the same original, they clearly show brushwork styles of different artists in the modeling of the rocks.

A renowned landscape

A renowned landscape by the Eighth Century master Wang Wei, famed for its subtle handling of space, is shown in this copy by a later artist. It was probably traced from the original work, entitled “Clearing After Snowfall on the Mountains Along the River.”

extensive additions

Extensive additions to the Wang Wei landscape appear in a copy made freehand some 600 years later. The work has been extended into a sweeping view of the river, and the spacing of elements and the rendering of rocks are noticeably the artist’s own.

Lifelike spirit

To the Chinese, the one attribute that distinguished great art was the mysterious quality of “vitality,” defined by Hsieh Ho, in the characters above, as “Breath-Resonance Life-Motion.” Unlike craftsmanship, which could be learned by mastering the lessons in the five preceding canons of art, the ability to impart life to a painting could not be taught. It was considered a gift from Heaven itself-a gift that put its possessor in harmony with the world, enabling him to perceive and re-create the inherent spirit of his subject.

The Eighth Century painter Wang Wei-a master who possessed this gift-described pictures that had succeeded in capturing life on a still, flat surface: “The wind rises from the green forest, and the foaming water rushes in the stream. Alas! Such painting cannot be achieved by physical movements of the fingers and hand, but only by the spirit entering into them. This is the nature of painting.”

Rearing Steed.

A rearing steed fights its tether in this lifelike copy of an Eighth Century masterpiece.

contemplative scholar

A contemplative scholar lives on in this copy of a spirited portrait of the Eighth Century. The original is attributed to Wang Wei, who of all Chinese painters was thought best able to impart the quality of vitality.

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