Educators: Arts of China, Painting

Appreciating Chinese art is often described with the term du hua, “to read a painting.” On this board, the Freer|Sackler Education Department introduces Chinese paintings from the museum’s permanent collection. These albums, handscrolls, and hanging scrolls portray traditional Chinese subjects, such as landscapes, animals, flowers, and bamboo. To view detailed images and download them in high resolution, visit our online collection at open.asia.si.edu.
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Can you imagine how ancient Chinese artists created architectural drawings without CAD software? They used an ungraduated ruler called a jiechi 界尺, a brush attached to a stick that could move smoothly along a groove, allowing the artist to draw straight lines. This is a jiehua 界畫 (ruled-line) ink painting, the only non-freehand style of Chinese painting, which shows the Yueyang Pavilion in Hunan province.

Can you imagine how ancient Chinese artists created architectural drawings without CAD software? They used an ungraduated ruler called a jiechi 界尺, a brush attached to a stick that could move smoothly along a groove, allowing the artist to draw straight lines. This is a jiehua 界畫 (ruled-line) ink painting, the only non-freehand style of Chinese painting, which shows the Yueyang Pavilion in Hunan province.

What kind of brushstrokes did this artist use to depict rocks and mountains, essential components of a traditional landscape painting? In this hanging scroll, the artist first outlined the basic composition with ink, then used moist ink washes to depict the mist-shrouded mountain. The rocks in the foreground are rendered in detail, as if emerging from obscuring mists.

What kind of brushstrokes did this artist use to depict rocks and mountains, essential components of a traditional landscape painting? In this hanging scroll, the artist first outlined the basic composition with ink, then used moist ink washes to depict the mist-shrouded mountain. The rocks in the foreground are rendered in detail, as if emerging from obscuring mists.

A calligraphic inscription at the top left of this hanging scroll identifies its inspiration as the work of the early master Wang Meng (circa 1308–85). Wang was known for creating landscapes featuring dense textures and full compositions. To express a dense texture in this work, the artist, Wang Hui, used a dry brush with ink to articulate rocks, trees, and water.

A calligraphic inscription at the top left of this hanging scroll identifies its inspiration as the work of the early master Wang Meng (circa 1308–85). Wang was known for creating landscapes featuring dense textures and full compositions. To express a dense texture in this work, the artist, Wang Hui, used a dry brush with ink to articulate rocks, trees, and water.

How did the artist create foreground, middle ground, and background in this landscape painting? In depicting the mountains, the artist displayed his ability to combine bold washes of diluted ink with delicately articulated details. Gradation of ink makes the foreground mountains appear stronger and the mountains in the background appear lighter and less intense. By contrasting foreground and background elements, the artist created an illusion of space and distance.

How did the artist create foreground, middle ground, and background in this landscape painting? In depicting the mountains, the artist displayed his ability to combine bold washes of diluted ink with delicately articulated details. Gradation of ink makes the foreground mountains appear stronger and the mountains in the background appear lighter and less intense. By contrasting foreground and background elements, the artist created an illusion of space and distance.

Chinese artists often use bamboo as a metaphor. Seen here surrounding a small hut, bamboo symbolizes the gentleman who is able to maintain his moral integrity regardless of adverse circumstances. The artist, Shen Zhou, depicted a scholar sitting in the hut in front of a calligraphy screen with a lute and books.

Chinese artists often use bamboo as a metaphor. Seen here surrounding a small hut, bamboo symbolizes the gentleman who is able to maintain his moral integrity regardless of adverse circumstances. The artist, Shen Zhou, depicted a scholar sitting in the hut in front of a calligraphy screen with a lute and books.

A handscroll allows a viewer to have an intimate relationship with its contents while unrolling the work from right to left, section by section. The calligraphy on this handscroll narrates the scene of Mr. Zhu, a poor but noted poet and book lover, accepting the gift of a donkey purchased with funds collected on his behalf by scholar-friends.

A handscroll allows a viewer to have an intimate relationship with its contents while unrolling the work from right to left, section by section. The calligraphy on this handscroll narrates the scene of Mr. Zhu, a poor but noted poet and book lover, accepting the gift of a donkey purchased with funds collected on his behalf by scholar-friends.

The artist, Bada Shanren, a scion of the Ming imperial family, painted these long, upward-lifting lotus stalks with an inked brush. The discipline that this kind of mastery requires derives from the practice of calligraphy.

The artist, Bada Shanren, a scion of the Ming imperial family, painted these long, upward-lifting lotus stalks with an inked brush. The discipline that this kind of mastery requires derives from the practice of calligraphy.

Traditionally, Chinese paintings are characterized by a close connection between the written words and the painted image. In this handscroll,Tang Yin painted a scene of a musician and his servant departing for a journey. He also inscribed two poems for his departing friends. "On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes If someone you encounter should appreciate your music Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself."

Traditionally, Chinese paintings are characterized by a close connection between the written words and the painted image. In this handscroll,Tang Yin painted a scene of a musician and his servant departing for a journey. He also inscribed two poems for his departing friends. "On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes If someone you encounter should appreciate your music Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself."

How is painting like calligraphy or calligraphy like painting? Scholar artists (literati) often painted bamboo, old trees, and rocks using the same type of disciplined brush skills required for calligraphy. On the left of this hanging scroll, three columns of calligraphy, created by the artist, Wu Zhen in 1350 in cursive script, harmonize with a single spray of bamboo bending in the wind.

How is painting like calligraphy or calligraphy like painting? Scholar artists (literati) often painted bamboo, old trees, and rocks using the same type of disciplined brush skills required for calligraphy. On the left of this hanging scroll, three columns of calligraphy, created by the artist, Wu Zhen in 1350 in cursive script, harmonize with a single spray of bamboo bending in the wind.

Hanging scrolls are typically used for vertical compositions. They are hung for display using a cord attached to a thin wooden strip along the top of the silk mounting. A wooden rod at the bottom provides the necessary weight for the painting to hang smoothly. It is also useful when the painting is rolled up for storage.  This painting draws the viewer’s eye from the bottom of the mountains in foreground to the top of the mountain in background, mirroring its vertical composition.

Hanging scrolls are typically used for vertical compositions. They are hung for display using a cord attached to a thin wooden strip along the top of the silk mounting. A wooden rod at the bottom provides the necessary weight for the painting to hang smoothly. It is also useful when the painting is rolled up for storage. This painting draws the viewer’s eye from the bottom of the mountains in foreground to the top of the mountain in background, mirroring its vertical composition.


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