Technical Aspects of Painting

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Below are the four main forms of paintings viewed in this unit.  

The hanging scroll displays an entire painting at one viewing and typically ranges in height from two to six feet. It can be thought of as a lightweight, changeable wall painting.  The earliest hanging scrolls may be related developmentally to tomb banners, which are known from the early Han dynasty.  Hanging scrolls came to be used with greater regularity from the tenth century onward.

What types of circumstances or environments do you think would have been particularly congenial for viewing hanging scrolls?  

Do you think these would have differed from the context of a stationary wall painting?

Detail of anonymous painting                       source

Handscrolls are typically between nine and fourteen inches in height but may vary greatly in length;  one of the longer paintings discussed in this unit is almost 29 feet long.  Like the hanging scroll, the handscroll is lightweight and portable.  However, only one portion (usually a shoulders' width) is viewed at a time.  Thus, the experience of looking at this type of painting is very different from that of the hanging scroll or wall painting.  Because of this feature, the artist can take advantage of the visual pacing of the painted elements to encourage the viewer to look more quickly in some some sections or to linger over details in others.

To view this and other handscrolls in this unit, start at the far right of the painting and use the scroll bar to view subsequent sections of the painting:

Gong Kai (1222-1307), Zhong Kui Traveling with his Sister             source

Album leaves were first used for painting during the Song; their use likely stems from printing  and book binding practice.  Albums were quite small and intimate in scale, and often juxtaposed poetry and painting on facing pages.

Ma Hezhi (act. ca. 1130-ca. 1170), Old Tree By a  Flowing Stream                                 source

Flat oval fans, such as the one shown on the right, are known from Tang times or earlier.  The period dating from the late Northern Song through the Southern Song saw the production of many paintings in this format, which was well suited to the abbreviated, lyrical images prevalent at the time.



Chen Hongshou (1598-1652), Appreciating

Plums (detail)                                 source


One other format, the standing screen painting, because it was used as a functional home furnishing element, deteriorated rapidly through frequent movement and exposure.  Paintings produced for screens were often salvaged and remounted as hanging scrolls.  Many of the paintings that we know today in one format may well have originated in another and could have been used in another context entirely.






Chinese painting uses water-based inks and pigments on either paper or silk grounds.  Black ink comes from lampblack, a substance made by burning pine resins or tung oil; colored pigments are derived from vegetable and mineral materials.  Both are manufactured by mixing the pigment source with a glue base, which is then pressed into cake or stick form; using a special stone, the artist must grind the ink back into a watery solution immediately before painting.  


The brush used for painting is very similar to the one used for calligraphy, but there is greater variety in the shapes and resilience of brushes used in painting.  


The two different types of painting surfaces, silk and paper, both require sizing, or treatment with a glue-like substance on their uppermost surface, to prevent ink and pigment from soaking into and being completely absorbed by the ground.  Silk remains less porous than paper, and is somewhat water-resistant, especially after sizing.  As a result, applying paint to a silk surface requires more painstaking techniques, building up ink and colors carefully and gradually in layers.  Paper, in contrast, is more absorbent and is favored for spontaneous effects.


Try to guess which of the album leaves below is on silk, and which on paper:

Ma Hezhi (act. ca. 1130- ca. 1170), Old Tree by a Flowing Stream (detail)                       source

Anonymous (S. Song), Loquats and Mountain Bird (detail)                                          source








Colophons, or inscriptions, are one of the more striking features of Chinese paintings that are unfamiliar to western audiences.  In the west, not until the twentieth century do we see text and art image interact to the same degree on the surface of the art work.  Early narrative paintings in the Chinese tradition often displayed text in banners next to the figures depicted; portions of the associated narrative text were also frequently found interspersed with sections of the painting.   Beginning around the 11th century, however, poems and painted images were designed to share the same image space.  


Although this practice was common at court, it was with the scholar painters that the practice of writing on the painting surface became firmly established.  Literati painters also appended notes concerning the circumstances of creation of  particular paintings.  These writings, added after the painting was completed, could be mounted together with the painting but on another piece of paper or silk (as was the case with handscrolls) or even invaded the picture surface itself (as in the case of the album leaf or the hanging scroll).  The content of these inscriptions typically included the appreciative comments of later viewers and collectors and constituted a major source of enjoyment for connoisseurs, who felt a connection to art aficionados and scholars of the past through their writings.




Wang Mian (1287-1359), Blossoming Plum                                         source




Most  Chinese paintings have small red impressions in a stylized script, placed either inconspicuously at the painting's outer boundaries, or scattered liberally through the image area itself.  These seals (or "chops")  can indicate either who executed the painting or who owned it.  Carved in a soft stone and impressed with a waxy, oil-based ink paste in vermilion red, the seals use an ancient script type that was in use mainly during the Zhou and Qin dynasties; this gives the characters an archaic quality that is often highly abstract.  Most seals are square; some are round or gourd shaped.  The names inscribed on the seal stone are typically the literary or personal name of the owner.  Historians use seals to trace the later history of  a painting, to see who owned and viewed the painting and which later artists may have been influenced by it.  The seal is one tool art historians and connoisseurs have used to authenticate paintings, but like signatures and the paintings themselves, these seals can be copied or forged and therefore may prove to be less than reliable evidence.

The design or layout of words by the seal carver evolved into an art form in itself, the challenge being fitting the relatively predictable forms of characters into an interesting composition where there was very little leeway for bold experimentation.  The characters can be carved in relief (resulting in red figures on a white ground as you see here at left) or engraved (with characters appearing in white on a solid red background).  The characters in the seal at left belong to a publisher, the Renmin meishu chubanshe of Beijing.  The simplest character, ren, is in the upper right hand corner.  


Can you guess where the other six characters are?  Where does each character end and the next one start?