One of the oldest forms of traditional art still made, Chinese brush painting is a striking art form with strong cultural roots. Contemporary Chinese brush artists are giving this old art form all kinds of 21st-century twists. Read on to see examples and to learn how to get started by taking a lesson yourself. 

What Is Chinese Brush Painting?

cherry blossom tree painting
Source: Instagram
Blossoms painted with Chinese brush and ink.

Chinese brush painting is the traditional art of painting on rice paper or silk with a natural animal-hair brush and ink. Paintings can be monochrome or colored and typically depict animals, birds, flowers, or scenes from nature. The “trick” to this style of painting is holding and directing the brush in the appropriate way to produce strokes that are delicate and refined. These paintings are similar in style and technique to traditional calligraphy.

The History and Origin of the Art

book of traditional paintings
Source: Instagram
Traditional Chinese brush paintings of landscapes.

Chinese brush painting is believed to be one of the oldest continuing artistic traditions in the world. It has been practiced since around 770 BCE, when artists in the Eastern Zhou dynasty began to depict the natural world. 

Brush painting and calligraphy have been highly valued art forms throughout Chinese history. Chinese imperial courts employed court painters to depict a wide variety of subjects and for different uses, from hanging scrolls to the decoration of lacquerware.

From the 13th century, simple subjects that look appealing to our early-21st-century eye became popular: a single flower, fruit, or birds sitting on a branch. These days, traditional subjects from the natural world are still popular, as are traditional inks and brushes. Contemporary Chinese and international artists put a modern spin on classic subjects and materials.

Paint and Materials Used in Chinese Brush Painting

Some Chinese brush painting supplies as part of a Chinese brush painting kit. 

Supplies necessary for learning are:

  • Calligraphy brushes is various sizes
  • Black and colored ink (sometimes called Sumi ink)
  • Palette or container for the ink
  • Rice paper
  • Pencil

The traditional ink used in Chinese painting has been used for centuries. It comes in liquid or solid form, and these days also in tubes. It’s very lightfast, and the small pigment particles means it penetrates the surface of the paper or silk well.

Silk has often been traditionally used as a surface for brush painting, but rice paper is a more easily available (and cheaper) alternative. Rice paper (xuan) is much thinner than watercolor paper, but it holds watery inks and paint well without buckling.

Chinese painting brushes are fat at one end and taper to a point. The handles are commonly made of bamboo and the bristles of goat, rabbit, or weasel hair. Brushes come in a range of sizes, from very large to very fine. Beginners won’t need a full set of brushes, but three or four in various sizes is a good idea. A kit will usually come with a limited selection of brushes and inks.

Modern Examples

chinese brush painting
A peony flower by student Marek Dombrowolski.
chinese brush painting
Some Chinese brush painting classes teach how to paint snowdrop flowers.
chinese brush painting
Source: Instagram
A stylized crane.
chinese brush painting
Water buffalo representing the Chinese zodiac.
chinese brush painting
Source: Instagram
Cherry blossoms.
chinese brush painting
Source: Instagram
A landscape in ink.
chinese brush painting
Boat and landscape scene in northern Vietnam.
chinese brush painting
Kingfisher and red lotus flower.

How to Start Chinese Brush Painting Yourself

chinese brush painting
A brush and ink are essential supplies.

Artist Ashley Yang Liu, who teaches brush painting lessons, says the best way to learn is to follow tried and tested methods. Indeed, traditional Chinese brush painting was long taught by rote and imitation: students would copy masterpieces until they had learned the techniques necessary to paint themselves. If you want to learn, this immersion technique may help. You can flex your individuality and creativity later, once you’ve perfected the core techniques.

Step 1: Choose a Subject

chinese brush painting
Student work by Marek Dombrowolski for Chinese Painting Tutorial: Bamboo.

After gathering your supplies, it’s time to choose a subject. Chinese brush painting classes for beginners tend to focus on just one subject. Traditional Chinese painting uses four “gentlemen” or core motifs—bamboo, plum blossoms, orchids, and chrysanthemums—all of which are good subjects for beginning Chinese brush painting because they’ll enable you to practice the brush strokes integral to the art form. 

Step 2: Mix Your Inks

chinese brush painting
Mix your inks in a saucer or palette.

You can use various colors for brush painting, but if you’re a complete beginner, start with black ink, mixed into lighter and darker shades by adding more or less water.

Step 3: Sketch the Outline in Pencil

chinese brush painting
A sketched outline of a waterfall.

Lightly sketch the outline of your subject, or the main lines and shapes you’ll need to follow, with pencil on the rice paper.

Step 4: Begin Painting

chinese brush painting
Hold the brush correctly to form the strokes of your painting.

The look of your painting will be determined by your mastery of some basic Chinese brush painting strokes, including:

  • Upright vertical 
  • Oblique 
  • Reverse 
  • Hidden 
  • Exposed 
  • Scatter
  • Drag
  • Rub
  • Dot

A visual tutorial is the best way to get an understanding of how you should hold the brush and the amount of pressure required to form these strokes correctly. Start practicing, and have fun!

Oh, and wondering how to mount Chinese brush paintings when they’re finished? They are traditionally presented as scrolls, but nowadays they can be framed and mounted like other paintings.

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Written by:

Elen Turner