Chinese spirit of ink and wash paintings

Ink and wash paintings are works of art created with merely water and ink, in which ink is also used to make colors and varying ink density produces astonishing variations in tonality.

ink and wash

Confucius Institute Reporter
Gao Yanqun
本刊记者 高燕群
If  you have seen Disney’s 1998 animated film “Mulan”, you were bound to be fascinated by the film’s Chinese style. The film narrates an ancient Chinese story of a brave girl who disguised herself as a man to fight in her old father’s place in war to defend the country. Instead of Disney’s usual style rich in brilliant colors, the film adopts a traditional Chinese art style of light colors in the film’s background, such as landscapes, flowers and grass, courtyards and fields, and uses several strokes to outline figures so as to highlight their personalities.

The Chinese art style featuring simplicity and light color is rooted in an important and unique traditional Chinese painting, that is, ink and wash painting.

Traditional Chinese ink and wash paintings are noted for their delicate nuance in tonality of black, grey and white and variations of ink strokes, thick or thin, fast or slow, square or round, and spaces left untouched, and their portrayal of landscapes, figures and flowers and birds.

Just as its name implies, ink and wash paintings are works of art created with merely water and ink, in which ink is also used to make colors and varying ink density produces astonishing variations in tonality. After spreading out a piece of rice paper, the brush is dipped in ink and is used to draw smooth lines, with the power of the wrist passing to the tip of the brush. The dark ink is then diluted with light ink or water. Alternatively, dark ink can be applied after applying light ink. As dark ink takes on a deep black, light ink takes on a silvery grey and rice paper is white. Traditional Chinese ink and wash paintings are noted for their delicate nuance in tonality of black, grey and white and variations of ink strokes, thick or thin, fast or slow, square or round, and spaces left untouched, and their portrayal of landscapes, figures and flowers and birds.

ink and wash
Chinese ink and wash painting works

Chinese Ink

It is known that Chinese ink traces its history back to the Tang Dynasty and has a history of over a thousand years. As only ink is used in ink and wash paintings, the quality of the painting depends on the quality of the ink. The ancients compared quality ink owned by a man of letters to the finest steed belonging to a general. Quality ink feels smooth, has a fine texture, takes on a brilliant black, and doesn’t give a sense of grey. In the Tang Dynasty, a businessman named Xi Tinggui was bestowed the national surname “Li” on him by the emperor and renamed “Li Tinggui” owing to his improvements in technology and his production of quality ink. His ink has since enjoyed the reputation of “it’s harder to get Li’s ink than gold.”

Ancient painters chose to leave drawings blank and use a great economy of lines to portray images, capture the spirit and soul, and manage to pursue the realm of “No form is better than any form” .

When making paintings, it is necessary to apply dark and light ink ingeniously. Otherwise, a painting with pure dark ink or pure light ink would look quite dull. The dark part and the light part should be interpenetrating into each other to form a rich tonality, so that the flexible brushwork of Chinese paintings can be displayed.

Why choose monochrome ink instead of brilliant colors to make paintings?

Ink and brush paintings reflect the way of thinking that “the complete absence of things is better than having their presence” in traditional Chinese culture, or in other words “The moment when silence could speak much more than speech” or “Don’t get confined by any particular strategy” in Chinese Kung Fu. As the universe is infinite, it is impossible for us to depict the universe. Therefore, ancient painters chose to leave drawings blank and use a great economy of lines to portray images, capture the spirit and soul, and manage to pursue the realm of “No form is better than any form.” Ink was an indispensable tool for the literati to write and draw paintings. Thus, the literati in ancient times were also called literary “ink men” (mò kè) and it is ink and wash paintings that eliminate useless details and reserve essence as well as give full play to its implication and reserve.

Ink and wash paintings encompass more than simplicity. Instead, the paintings convey vividness and rhythm of nature using a great economy of brush strokes. Celebrated Chinese painter Qi Baishi excels in paintings of shrimp and it would take him less than a minute to draw a translucent life-like shrimp with slender feelers and swaying pincers swimming in the water by first drawing the shrimp’s body with nine strokes, then painting in eyes, short feelers, long feelers, pincers, forelegs, abdominal legs and tails and dipping the ink brush in water to portray the shrimp’s translucent body and convey vividness, making the shrimp come alive.

Shrimps created by Qi Baishi are priced on a per-shrimp basis. It is said that a person once asked Qi Baishi to draw one more shrimp free of charge. To this request, Qi Baishi drew a lifeless shrimp for him. The person observed that the lifeless shrimp differed from the others. Qi Baishi told him that he had drawn a dead shrimp because the shrimp was free of charge. The strokes were seemingly the same, but the shrimp looked being alive or dead, which fully demonstrates Qi Baishi’s consummate painting skills.

chinese ink
Part of the “Along the River During Qingming Festival”. And panorama of the “Along the River. During Qingming Festival”

Freehand style composition

Some people have compared oil paintings with ink and wash paintings and they have compared the creation of oil paintings to the practice in photography of putting a tripod in a fixed place and pressing the shutter to photograph a landscape within the camera’s aperture. On the contrary, ink and wash paintings adopt a freehand style and are capable of portraying scenes of what you may choose without visual constraints.

The well-known painting in the Northern Song Dynasty entitled “Qingming Festival by the Riverside” adopts a freehand style and portrays busy urban streetscapes in the Northern Song Dynasty. The painting centers on a river and shows a busy downtown city and suburb, pedestrians on a bridge and boats under the bridge, pavilions and trees nearby and lanes and river harbors in the distance, all of which bear a resemblance in size and distance. It is impossible to portray these scenes in oil paintings.

The Mona lisa
The Mona lisa

The freehand style of ink and wash paintings has many forms of expression. Compared with oil paintings, ink and wash paintings put less importance to the background and the drawn figures often look like they are standing in the air. The painting entitled “Portrait of Confucius” by painter Ma Yuan in the Southern Song Dynasty portrayed Confucius wearing a robe, standing submissively, and with a solemn look and lost in meditation. The background is blank except for the painter’s inscription and seal and the painter showcased Confucius’ dignity by outlining his clothing with thin and long lines, pleats with intertwined lines, and his face, eyes and nose with curved lines, and his moustache with thin lines without techniques for portraying shadows and human anatomic characteristics. In stark contract with Confucius, the oil painting entitled “Mona Lisa” adopted oil painting techniques to depict faintly discernable shadows on Mona Lisa’s face, her mouth curved into a smile and soft skin. When painting, oil painters attach great importance to showing the countenance of figures, whereas ink and wash painters give priority to portraying the character of figures.

ink and wash
Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore, a Chinese ink painting by Xu Beihong.

Philosophical masterpieces favored by the literati

Ink and wash paintings are representative of traditional Chinese paintings and are also philosophical masterpieces favored by the literati who would express their feelings about the universe and depict life in the universe using a brush. This also explains why ink and wash paintings have no background. Actually, it is the universe itself that serves as the background in ink and wash paintings.

Ink and wash paintings depict the spiritual realm of “the world in a grain of sand” and portray a harmonious and peaceful world with all the cosmic beings full of vitality, such as magnificent mountains, mighty rivers, lovely birds, small insects and flowers and grass, which are viewed equally respectable.

The literati in ancient times felt obliged to master musical instruments, chess, calligraphy and paintings so as to cultivate morality, and ink and wash paintings constituted part of paintings mentioned above. There were a good number of royal painters who attached importance to outward appearance whereas the literati (most of them were officials) looked down upon royal painters and longed to create works in a freehand style to express thoughts and feelings, cultivate morality and relieve the pain and anguish of officialdom.

Therefore, appreciating ink and wash paintings differ from viewing oil paintings. Oil paintings originate from huge frescos and it is recommended to view oil paintings from a distance. On the contrary, appreciating ink and wash paintings means sharing private works..

This decides how to appreciate ink and wash paintings. The literati often used the word “play” to refer to the appreciation of ink and wash paintings. Just like tea appreciation, ink and wash paintings convey feelings beyond description and need careful observation and probing into the hidden philosophy of life.

Therefore, appreciating ink and wash paintings differ from viewing oil paintings. Oil paintings originate from huge frescos and it is recommended to view oil paintings from a distance. On the contrary, appreciating ink and wash paintings means sharing private works. To that end, the literati would chose auspicious dates, invite good friends, burn incense, wash their hands and take out artistic works from their collection for appreciation and critique. Those of the literati who possessed painting scrolls and made comments can be found in most of ancient Chinese literature and this is why the ancients were keen to collect small painting scrolls.

Contemporary painters adopt novel painting techniques and enrich the creation of ink and wash paintings. Celebrated contemporary painter Xu Beihong created an ink and wash portrait entitled “Tagore” by adopting Western painting techniques, using a traditional Chinese background of flowers and birds, depicting the figure’s countenance with a combination of tint and sketch techniques, outlining the figure with lines, placing an emphasis on displaying the inner world and creating a cultural atmosphere.

chinese ink
“Feelings of Mountains and Waters”,

LINKS

“Feelings of Mountains and Waters”, produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio in 1998, is reputed to be a masterpiece of Chinese water-and-ink animation, incorporating Chinese ink and wash paintings into animation. Ink and brush figures in picturesque landscape backgrounds are created on rice paper, and the characters’ expressions and actions are set off by vivid and life-like ink and wash paintings, creating a poetic and idyllic setting. You may start with this film if you plan on exploring the world of ink and wash paintings.


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pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 19. Volume 2. March 2012.
View/Download the print issue in PDF

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