Chinese Painting

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 21, 2021

Chinese painting is one of the oldest continuous artistic traditions in the world. Ink paintings, an important component of the cultural heritage of China, has at least existence of 2 500 years, as illustrated by silk paintings discovered in a grave of the Chu Kingdom (Warring States Period -475 B.C.- 221 B.C.-) in Changsha capital city of Hunan, south-central China.

Chinese Painting in Sui Dynasty

Zhan Ziqian, Stroll About in Spring (游春图), Sui dynasty (581 – 618), is the oldest landscape of traditional style conserved in the Imperial Palace Museum in Beijing.
The only painting that survives today from this famous painter of ancient China, Yangxin County, Shandong province, and which is a perspective arrangement of mountains drawn with a big delicacy.

Chinese Painting in the Tang Dynasty

Chinese Tang Dynasty paintings of characters (618-907 A.D.) are distinguished for their elegance and their lively expression. One of them, Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers or Court Lady with Servants painted by Zhou Fang, describes a group of ladies of the court amusing in a garden.

The outward appearance, manners, and dresses are so well sketched that their imperial family status can be easily recognized as well as their proper individuality.
Zhou Fang (c. 730-800 CE) was one of two influential painters during the mid-Tang dynasty. Zhou lived in the Tang capital of Chang'an, which is now modern Xi'an, during the 8th century. He came from a noble background and this was reflected in his works.

Chinese Painting in the Song Dynasty

The Song Dynasty paintings (960-1279) depict much about the life of this period. In terms of historical significance, Zhang's original painting of the Along the River During the Qingming Festival reveals much about life in China during the 11th-12th century.

Zhang Zeduan's lived during the transitional period from the Northern Song to the Southern Song and was active in the early history of the Chinese landscape art style known as shan Shui.

Its most famous masterpiece is a wide handscroll which gives a picture of the prosperity of Bianliang, capital of Nothern Song (960-1127): it counts 550 different people interacting with one another, each of them painted in a pictorial way.

About sixty horses, oxen, donkeys, mules, and camels can be seen, about twenty horse and cart and palanquins; it shows ships of different dimensions and around thirty houses and how personal gardens had begun to take root in China.

Mainly impressive is the riverboat loaded with cereal passing with difficulty under the prominent bridge of the painting, the boatmen maneuvering with all their strengths, under the eyes of the curious onlookers massed on the bridge. This scene is so well represented that it seems the noise is perceptible.

Also in the masterwork, on the left, a caravan of camels rides proudly to the animated center of the city; a reflection of the nuances of class structure and the many hardships of urban life.

Chinese Painting in the Yuan Dynasty

From the Yuan Dynasty onwards (1271-1368) noticeable progress became obvious in the ink depiction of landscapes, flowers, and birds.

Artists of this period managed to finalize new techniques of the brush. Today, multiple different schools coexist in the pictorial world of China.

The Chinese painting characteristic developed during two thousand years. In spite of their own peculiarities, they have a common artistic line.

The Two Main Techniques in Chinese Painting

Gong-bi (工筆), meaning "meticulous", uses highly detailed brushstrokes that delimit details very precisely. It is often highly colored and usually portrays figural or narrative subjects. It is mostly practiced by artists working for the court or in independent workshops.

Ink and wash painting, in Chinese Shui-mo or (水墨[1]) also loosely termed watercolor or brush painting, and also known as "literati painting”. In theory, this was an amateur art practiced by gentlemen, this style is also referred to as "xie yi" (寫意) or freehand style.

Tools and materials used for painting include –as for calligraphy- the brush of traditional style, a kind of very fine paper or silk, black or colored ink, mineral substances, and plant extracts; oils are not used. Special care is required as brush and ink are brought into play.

As Chinese painting does not suffer any retouch, a painter has to practice dedicatedly to know well and handle perfectly his tools and his materials, before creating, for example, light and shadow with diverse nuances.

To obtain such an artistic effect, he must know how to observe in a meticulous and penetrating way the expected object to be drawn - his shape and his essence; besides he must know what is to be underlined or what is to be exaggerated. A binding and constant work is essential before realizing a fitting work.

Chinese painting -and calligraphy- distinguishes themselves from other cultures' arts by their emphasis on motion, and change with dynamic life; in other words, the determination of theme and design is a particular aspect of Chinese pictorial art. This method which emphasizes a high concentration of the contents and the artistic design offer more significant works.

The significance of brush and ink is another particular aspect. Indeed, a Chinese painting consists essentially of diverse lines which translate the feelings of the author.

The Chinese painting is by no means a simple copy of nature. Some lines are sufficient. Not much attention is granted to the light and in the shade. Vast spaces are mostly kept in white.

But these white and these few features provide vivacious images and confer more meaning to the subject. These spaces left deliberately in the white figures in a way a picture in the picture. They contribute to obtaining the whole effect of the work.
The ink painting is also marked by the use of various perspectives in the same scene. It enhances the expressiveness and allows seeing what cannot be seen at the first stage, so that any theme, whatever is its complexity, and any view so immense it could be, can be accessible in a single picture.

The integration of poetic inscriptions written in a decorative hand with elegance, calligraphy, and seals is also another particular aspect of Chinese painting. Seals decorate and balance the painting; it’s an input to a higher degree of expression.

The assemblage of the finished work on scrolls, such as hanging scrolls or handscrolls, on album sheets, walls, lacquerware, folding screens, and other media call for special techniques.

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