Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Traditional Chinese Ink Wash Landscape Painting (Shuǐmò 水墨)

"As beginning meditators, we may want to leave the city and go off to the countryside to help close those windows that trouble our spirit. There we can become one with the quiet forest, and rediscover and restore ourselves, without being swept away by the chaos of the “outside world.” The fresh and silent woods help us remain in awareness, and when our awareness is well-rooted and we can maintain it without faltering, we may wish to return to the city and remain there, less troubled. But sometimes we cannot leave the city, and we have to find the refreshing and peaceful elements that can heal us right in the midst of our busy lives. We may wish to visit a good friend who can comfort us, or go for a walk in a park and enjoy the trees and the cool breeze. Whether we are in the city, the countryside, or the wilderness, we need to sustain ourselves by choosing our surroundings carefully and nourishing our awareness in each moment." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step (2010), p15.
"The wise find pleasure in water; the virtuous find pleasure in hills. The wise are active; the virtuous are tranquil. The wise are joyful; the virtuous are long-lived." - Confucius (6th-5th Century BC), Analects, Chapter XXI.
"...taking a walk in the woods is not equivalent to watching a nature film if one is interested in accruing the greatest psychological benefit for either oneself or another. Nevertheless, not everyone has this opportunity. Shut-ins, people with busy lives, and others living in certain urban areas may not have the luxury of having an arboretum nearby." - Why Is Nature Beneficial? - The Role of Connectedness to Nature, Environment and Behavior (Sep 2009), Vol 41: 5, p607-643.
"...participants who were exposed to nature images experienced an increase in subjective vitality..." - Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature, Journal of Environmental Psychology 30 (2010), p163.
"..a Chinese landscape painting represents what the artist "sees" when he or she tours around a place or many places. The painting is a composition of what is stored in the artist's head. There are usually many focuses in such a painting."  - Li DongXu, Chinese Landscape Painting for Beginners (2009), p19.

Excursion in Spring by Zhan Ziqian (late 6th Century) - the first traditional Chinese landscape painting.

During the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), deeply effective mindfulness practices became spread outside of religious and philosophical institutions. Educated court officials dreamt of becoming recluses in the mountains so that they could be more in harmony with nature, and in their free time they would paint landscape imagery in order to approach their dream to lessen their intense relationship with the societies in which they lived.

Out of this setting, traditional Chinese landscape painting culture apparently developed - using a focus on a combination of mountains and water as the core motif. Renowned Chinese landscape painter Li DongXu defines the tradition in his book Chinese Landscape Painting for Beginners (2009) as follows, p17:
"Traditional Chinese landscape painting has been described as "Shan Shui Hua", literally meaning, "mountain water painting" - a name suggesting that the major motifs of the genre are mountains and water. [...] Chinese people viewed a mountain as the symbol of longevity and water as the symbol of wealth...[...] Chinese art historians agree that the earliest extant landscape painting is Excursion in Spring by Zhan Ziqian (active in late 6th century). The painting has been praised for its realistic presentation of "mountains and waters far and near in a foot-long picture that suggests a thousand-mile sight".
Humans, buildings, animals, and other additional features are included as small, more minor details which nevertheless provide a theme for the images, as Li writes, p98:
"...in traditional Chinese "mountain-and-water" paintings, buildings and human figures usually serve as minor motifs strewn among mountains or by waters. But in a sense, such minor matters usually give highlight to a painting's theme. So they are still important."
In addition to this, there are some basic differences in how a traditional Chinese landscape painter goes about depicting the landscape in the Ink Wash tradition. Scenery can often be a montage of various sights witnessed during a journey, and the rendering attempts to present the internal as well as the external experience; unifying the mental and the physical. Li writes of these features as follows, p9-10:
"A Chinese landscape does not display what the artist sees when standing at a fixed position. Instead, it usually displays, as it were, what the artist sees along the way he has travelled. [...] ..a Western landscape usually presents one field of vision while a Chinese view presents many visions simultaneously. The Chinese artist looks with his mind's eye! ... The Western landscape is "physically" realistic while the Chinese landscape is less true to the images projected on to our lens but more faithful to our mental experiences. That is why ancient Chinese people compared viewing landscape paintings at home to a "journey while lying in bed"."

A traditional Chinese 'Mountain and Water' Ink Wash painting by the author's teacher; Jasmine Zhang, Beijing.

Seeing natural features as having personalities of sorts and being loaded with dynamic intention is key to painting such landscapes. Li mentions this with regards to rendering mountains and rivers, p140:
"To paint a mountain is like depicting a human being. Just as humans in their various forms have different personalities, mountains and rivers not only look different, but also have their own "souls" or dispositions. Chinese artists endeavour to manifest the spirit of everything through depicted forms. They believe that a good artwork must display formal and spiritual likeness at the same time."
A couple of weeks ago I began private classes in Chinese Ink Wash Landscape painting for 2 hours a week with Jasmine Zhang - the wife of my Chinese Insight Calligraphy teacher, Paul Wang.

Traditional Chinese painter and teacher Jasmine Zhang, Beijing.
Jasmine has a daily Buddhist mindfulness practice and goes on meditation retreats every year. Her classes begin with a short seated meditation and then some calligraphy practice to tune into the brush and ink. There is a long-standing relationship between traditional Chinese calligraphy and Ink Wash painting, as Li states in Chinese Landscape Painting for Beginners (2009), p14:
"Chinese painters apply "calligraphic" brushwork in their creation of paintings. They prefer sure-handed, forceful and energetic strokes."

Practicing calligraphy Chinese painting class with Jasmine Zhang - the author's calligraphy is on the left.
Techniques for depicting the natural features of a landscape using black ink and calligraphy brushes have been refined for over a thousand years, and one begins learning by copying established masters. This is the  standard practice for all traditional Chinese arts. Once one has a feel for the established tradition, then one reflects upon nature and combines the skill and natural feelings to produce the work of art. As Li writes, p16:
"..in basic training one learns depiction skills by copying ancient works and in creation one draws inspiration from nature. Without copying former works, one's painting will lack the characteristics of Chinese painting. Without inspiration from nature, one cannot make innovation. [...] To infuse something new into one's art the artist must draw on life."
Paul Wang illustrated this traditional notion in my last Chinese calligraphy class by writing out the often spoken associated verbal maxim:

It can also be translated as follows, after Li, p15:
"An ancient Chinese maxim goes that one "learns from nature meanwhile following his mind"... The first half stresses observation of life and the latter half emphasises the mental treatment of what one sees."
Here are the paintings I produced during my last Ink Wash painting class:

And here is the final product:

These classes are becoming one of the highlights of my week - maybe because Beijing is so dry and lacks many waterways, immersing myself in these landscapes as I paint seems to give my spirit more vitality.

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