Chinese Brush Painting

with Anita Pounder

Anita Pounder, from SAA Head Office, introduces the beliefs behind Chinese Brush painting, and encourages us to practise the basic brush strokes to master this ancient art

The ancient art of Chinese Brush painting and Calligraphy has changed very little over thousands of years. Traditionally the Chinese Brush painter defines objects through line and form, with the intention of portraying the essence and spirit of the subject rather than a realistic representation.

The three main styles in Chinese Brush painting and ink are:

Spontaneous (Xieyi): a free and spontaneous style where usually only ink is used and colours are limited. Nature is interpreted rather than copied. Brush strokes are used to suggest form and texture. Influenced by Calligraphy and poetry this style has been developed to include inscriptions which reflect the personal philosophies of the artist.

Detailed (Gongbi): lots of small detail with smaller brush strokes and usually more uniform than other styles, along with much more use of colour.

Combination: (Half Gongbi, Half Xieyi) Detailed foreground subjects are placed against a fluid background offering interesting and harmonious contrasts.


Typically there are five subject catogories:

Landscapes (Shan Shui) – dominated by mountains, rocks, rivers and clouds.

Figures (Ren Wu) – mainly figures but other subjects can be included.

Animals, birds, insects (Qin Shou) – it is important for the artist to capture the life and vitality of the image. The spirit and movement of the animal is an integral part of the painting style.

Flowers (Hua Hui) – many flowers are symbolic of different moods or seasons.

Combination – (Hua Niao) - a common combination is flowers and birds.


You only need a few materials to learn the basics of Chinese Brush painting; these are known as the “four Treasures” of study:

Brush - the first Treasure

Usually made from natural hair with bamboo handles and available in three sizes; small, medium and large, and generally classified into three types according to the animal hair used:

Soft Brush (Yang Hao) made from goats hair – usually used for free-hand spontaneous brush strokes. As the hairs are soft they can absorb plenty of ink and water making this ideal for washes, creating rich tones and adding colour.

Stiff Brush (Lang Hao) made from badger, rabbit, horse, pig or deer hair, this brush is suitable for adding fine lines or detail and outlines.

Mixed Brush (Jian Hao) a mixture of soft and stiff hair making it an easy to use brush.

Ink - the second Treasure

Traditionally the ink (Mo) used in Chinese Brush painting comes in a tightly packed powder stick which needs to be added to water and ground into an ink stone. It does not fade when exposed to sunlight and once dried is permanent. Commercially made liquid inks are also available.

Paper - the third Treasure

Chinese rice paper is the most commonly used paper. It is highly absorbent and allows the ink to dry quickly.

Ink Stone - fourth Treasure

These are usually made of slate and are used to grind down the ink cakes or sticks. A good ink stone is carved with flat shallow reservoirs for the collection of the ink.

Getting started

Learning to hold the brush in the correct way is essential if you want to produce the spontaneous brush strokes required in Chinese Brush painting.

Hold the brush between the thumb, index and middle fingers, creating a hollow space between your fingers and palm. The brush should be straight in the air. This is called the centre brush. For wider brush strokes hold the brush on its side.

Movement needs to come from the shoulder so move the arm rather than the hand and each brush mark needs to be confident and precise as it cannot be improved or corrected after it has been applied.

Stand up to paint as greater freedom of movement can be achieved.

Gather all the materials you need, and put down some newspaper to protect the table. You need to be comfortable and at ease as this will help with the execution of your work.

Before you start painting you will need to grind some ink. Grinding the ink is an important part of the preparation ritual. It is more than just making the ink, it is a good time to focus and mentally plan what you want to achieve from the painting.

Once the ink is prepared it is time to get painting.

Ensure you are holding the brush correctly. This is very important, as strong confident brush marks cannot be achieved without being able to manipulate the brush properly.

Brush strokes should be simple, confident and fluid, with each brush stroke evoking a character and sense of spirit.

You will need to work quickly as there is a balance of skill required when using the absorbent paper. It is easy to allow the ink to bleed because the brush has been left on the paper fractionally too long.

You need to practise manipulating the brush. With each stroke you will learn how to handle your brush and the marks it can make. In Chinese painting there are no errors, each mark has its own reason for being.

A simple sketch can be a way of helping you envisage what the painting might look like and can help you focus, but the idea behind Chinese Brush is to be intuitive with each mark, with each image broken down into its simplest form and structure.

Let’s try some simple bamboo...

You will first need to grind some ink - add some clean water into the centre of the ink stone, hold the stick vertically and, applying gentle even pressure, grind in a clockwise movement. Grind only enough ink for your painting. This will create a strong black colour.

You will need to dilute some of the ink. Use a tinting saucer or palette to add some ink and plenty of water. Load the brush and drain off the excess fluid on the side of the palette.

Hold the brush so the hairs are almost horizontal to the paper.

With a quick sweep of the brush make the first section of the bamboo. Leave the brush fractionally longer at the beginning and the end of the stroke to create the shape of the knuckle of the bamboo. Repeat this until you have a number of sections.

Whilst the ink is still wet add a little of the undiluted ink to the ends of the joins.

With the same diluted ink and using the brush held in an upright position use the point of the brush to paint the side branches. These should be on alternate sides at the joints, as you move up the bamboo

Next you need to paint the leaves.

Practise beforehand as you need to be able to put the correct pressure on the brush in order to create the leaves. This is best achieved with a quick light, heavy, light pressure brush technique. Start with the tip of the brush and apply a little pressure and release. This should be a rapid fluid movement.

The bamboo leaves are usually in groups of three leaves.

Repeat the process with some of the undiluted ink to give a tonal contrast and balance the composition.

With practice you can quickly discover how paintings can be formed with a few simple brush strokes. Everyday objects and images can be broken down into a few lines to produce simple but effective paintings. This technique can be transported into watercolour giving you a different perspective on how to look at a subject and how to paint it.