Google “Chinese painting” and “how to” and you will meet dozens of online courses and books designed to teach you in a few simple steps how to paint Chinese paintings. Now, ignore these formulaic descriptions on how you too can create landscapes of places which probably hold no meaning for you, and instead look toward the art historical and philosophy books. American artists and art enthusiasts can and should look at Chinese art for inspiration and a comprehensive approach to visual expression, but make no mistake; any attempt for a Westerner to create a replica can at best be only that: a cheap, inauthentic imitation, certainly not within the category of art. The Chinese technique and aesthetic philosophy offers a left brained sense of structure while still allowing for a right brained intuitive play of visuals and can serve as a reference point and a source of inspiration. This essay will consist of some ideas on what Chinese painting is about and I hope it will inspire you to begin experimenting visually if you are so compelled yet are afraid to begin. I will discuss general art historical perspectives on Chinese painting and give you an overview of the subjects painted and the approaches you may take. This essay is also highly reflective on the philosophical influences that have permeated through to the Chinese way of painting-the basic points that will hopefully spark interest in the interested and will lead you to acquire more sustenance through further study. I will conclude with my own thoughts on how to best learn from the Chinese example and let it seep into your own work.
Chinese painting is at least old as all other forms of global painting. That is, its origins can be traced back to the Neolithic period. Cave paintings from this era were similar in subject matter and style to those found in Europe at the time. Similarly, painting was used to decorate ritual vessels, and it is from these tiny pictures that calligraphy sprung. Painting, ritual, calligraphy...all were originally linked and this still remains for the serious painter. Pictures were symbolic, didactic, atmospheric and had one overarching purpose: to bring heaven down to earth. The artist/shaman was the conduit between these two energies. The Shamanic influence remains and the philosophical additions did not obscure past revelations and traditions. This is how Chinese painting become such an incredibly rich discipline. The desire to create the most effective and qi infused painting became was then the goal as it still is today, Subject matter held symbolic meaning and the range of subjects grew, but always most important: qi. The qi of the painter, the qi of the painting...so painting itself is a ritual act of creation. Jing Hao of the Five Dynasties wrote the six keys to skill in his work, Records of the Method of the Brush. As he wrote it, The first is qi. The second is charm. The third is mind. The fourth is view. Fifth is line. And sixth is ink.
Again: The first is qi.
Qi is a word most are familiar with but cannot easily define. Qi is energy but it is not just energy, it is a life force, an indescribable. It is potentially everything and potentially the space that is nothing. It is something the artist must develop in within their person, and then aim to transfer something of this essence into their work, thereby creating something more than just materials and composition. Painters were practitioners of qi gong: exercises termed such now, but referring to a broad series of sets of exercises-breathing, movement, meditation-prescribed to create and best utilize qi. There is no need to doubt that painters used these exercises since qi gong, whether termed such or not, was practiced in China for thousands of years by the vast majority. Today qi gong is still highly used and practiced. But for the artist, the focus of the qi was to enhance to work. And the practice of, well, practice, would make one a better artist, because art in China was not solely for production purposes, but it was a performance and part of a cultivated life.
The early symbolism that developed from vessel and cave painting led to standards and traditions that have become almost as rigid as Chinese calligraphy. Painting ritually was an act of communication; a prayer. And proper communication was understood to have been key. There is no writing without painting; no language without brushwork. It is rare to see a painting devoid of calligraphy. Often inscribed with poetry, which adds to the expression, the least one might see is the artists signature. In China, one would be premature to attempt painting without having first mastered calligraphy, or at the very least, one would try their hand at brushwork before delving into a visual expression. This preparation is much like the practice of drawing that exists as a preparation for painting and more complete forms of art in the West. The link between the ability to read and the skill of the painter were undeniable.
The more literate the artists, the more intelligent the artists work, as the artist had much more time to practice and inspiration to practice from. The more cultivated the person, the more qi that can extend from heart to hand to brush to paper. The symbolism that expressed itself visually through ink and brush, writing and painting, was a code that developed but was not highly experimented with. The structure that the symbolism provided added meaning to the artists work, while the subtleties of the artist's style made the painting what was hopefully a praised expression of a timeless idea. Choice of subject was a choice, but what makes one artist superior in talent that another is the way in which the idea is expressed.
Chinese painting developed over time to move from large scale cave paintings to fresco to paintings on rice paper or silk, although many other painted mediums and materials existed that simply are not as studied today because they were destroyed or not collected, such as decorative household screen or the dainty oval fan. The Han dynasty at about 2000 B. C. is the traditional beginning of the tradition of Chinese brush painting, although other sources go back to 4000 B. C. and these of course are just our most informed estimates. The subject matter and approaches differed depending on the trends of the time, and the range was expounded upon as culture developed. The old reliable subject matters of landscape, figure, and flower and bird painting house all items of the traditional subjects and symbolisms. While the discipline grew, it still did not experiment heavily. There is an underlying idea of what painting is, what life is, what is best expressed through painting, and limits on how much one extended from tradition.
Figure painting has existed since at least the Neolithic era. Art historians recognize figure painting to have reached its height during the Tang dynasty. Figure painting was not limited to religious or historical portraiture, but also very common beginning to be popularized in this time were paintings of everyday court life and women. These slice of life paintings offer much to our understanding of life in China, and stories depicted through art also inform us on ideals of morality and physical beauty. Figure painting at its most experimental was perhaps during the eleventh century when Zen painters adopted a more free flowing style that valued loose expressive gestural line and prized was spontanaity. One does not immediately think of portraiture when one thinks of Chinese painting, but its tradition and presence demand some word be aimed in its direction.