The Mechanics of Mastery
by Evan Yeh
Step 1: Confidence with the Brush
Step 2: Master the Moisture
Step 3: Loading and Blending the Brush
Step 4: Placing Strokes in Composition
Step 5: Following the Path to a Finished Composition
Step 6: Wet Mounting and Framing
Step 7: Showing and Selling
Over the Holidays, we spent some time thinking about the set of skills that a master Chinese Brush Painter possesses and how we might help our extended OAS Family identify and develop those skills. Of course, whenever one embarks on any journey towards mastery, it helps to be aware of what all mastery-development processes have in common. Whether it be playing a sport, or cooking, or in our case, Chinese Brush Painting, an effective journey towards mastery can be summarized by the following general steps.Step A: Decide that one will become a master.
Step B: Begin to develop and demonstrate the skills that a master possesses.
Step C: Maintain a positive, joyful attitude even when faced with difficulty or obstacles.
Step D: Create using developed mastery skills.
Step E: Evaluate the output of the creative process, appreciating the things that went well and identifying what you would like to change.
Repeat Steps B-E.
As we get into the more specific process of mastery when it comes to Chinese Brush Painting, it will be helpful to keep this more general process in mind. With that in mind, we will examine the 7 Chinese Brush Painting Mastery Steps:
Step 1: Confidence with the Brush
The evaluation of art is entirely subjective. It is not like sports or mathematics or other hard sciences where objective measurements can be taken to evaluate observations. One thing is universal amongst impactful art: confidence. Even a layperson can immediately sense if art was done confidently. If this sense is present, the artist effectively creates an impact with their art.
The nature of the brushes, technique, ink and paper in Chinese Brush Painting make the confidence of the artist completely transparent. Initially, when working with a brush, building confidence should be the goal. Paint decisively, using your whole body to move the brush. Think of the brush as an extension of your hand which is an extension of your arm which is an extension of your body. Think of the way someone moves when they do yoga, tai chi, or dancing and move your body and your brush in this way.
A tool that I have found invaluable in building my own personal confidence with a brush is a large piece of “magic” paper. Magic Paper is a special grey-blue paper that allows you to paint strokes with water. The strokes show up black and disappear as the water evaporates. This allows you to “paint” on Magic Paper over and over again. Practicing on rice paper is essential for developing moisture control but prior to mastering moisture, one must develop confidence with the brush. The easiest way to build confidence is through repetition. A large piece of magic paper is a wonderful tool to encourage the type of repetition that not only builds confidence but also a sense of freedom and delight while using a brush. Nothing you do on magic paper is permanent, the only thing that lasts after a session of painting on magic paper is the confidence you gain with the brush!
Another important tool in Step 1 is an OAS Practice Roll. Part of gaining confidence with brushes is removing the scarcity of paper. With handmade single sheets of paper, it is easier to get intimidated. With the 50 foot long continuous Practice Roll, you are likely to feel more free. Also, because the Practice Rollaccurately simulates the moisture handling of more expensive handmade papers, you will begin to work on Step 2 of the mastery process and discover how Step 1 and 2 are inter-related.
Will you start the journey to Mastery with us? Confidence with the brush awaits all those who embark on this journey! Stay tuned! We plan to discuss the other steps of the Chinese Brush Painting Mastery Steps in future newsletters.
Oversized Magic PaperMP15: $10
Small - 15"x13"MP18: $20
Oversized Regular - 28"x17.5"MP35: $30
Oversized Medium - 28.5”x35”MP59: $40
Oversized Large - 28.5”x59”
OAS Practice Roll
This continuous roll of machine-pressed raw rice paper has bleed resistant qualities similar to Double Shuen (Xuan) paper. Chinese Brush Painters and Sumi-e Artists truly enjoy the ease of painting with ink and color.P03A: $8.00
12” x 50 feet continuous rollP03: $12.00
18” x 50 feet continuous roll
Step 2: Master the Moisture
As much as ink or color, as a Chinese Brush Painter you are painting with water. Water is the Yin to the Yang of the brush. Your brush confidently cuts a path through rice paper and the water on the brush fills and expands the stroke, expressing and finishing it sometimes in unexpected ways. One of the most surprising things that new painters encounter is the experience of how water reacts with rice paper. It is this reaction that makes Chinese Brush Painting remarkably appealing on one hand and on the other, at times, confoundingly frustrating. So how do we go about mastering the moisture? First, decide that the water or moisture on the brush is your friend. Tell yourself that water is your ultimate assistant. Understand that although it is powerful and expressive, it only finishes what you start with your brush. Learn to take credit for what happens with the moisture on rice paper because even if you were unaware of how water would finish your stroke, it only followed the command of your brush.
Different Moisture for Different Strokes
Realize that different strokes require different levels of moisture. For example, the stroke for a bamboo leaf should have almost a sopping wet brush. A stroke for the outline of a mountain should be much drier. A stroke for a leaf or a flower petal will be somewhere in between.
Don’t Forget to Reset the Brush
Some moisture mistakes come from not drying the brush after rinsing color or ink off. When you rinse the brush to change color, the brush will be sopping wet. It is important to dry the brush before loading a new color. Dry the brush by stroking it repeatedly on some folded paper towels. Then reload just water about 1/3 of the way up from the tip of your brush. From here you can load your other colors from lightest to dark.
A Great Exercise
Try this exercise for getting more comfortable with controlling the moisture in your brush. Choose a stroke that you will practice and make note of the preferred moisture level for that stroke. For example: bamboo leaf (very wet), z-shaped leaf stroke (medium moisture), bone stroke (low moisture). Then load your brush with just water to what you think is the appropriate amount. On a sheet of raw shuen paper (single shuen, practice shuen, moon palace or practice roll), paint the stroke. If the stroke is too dry, reload the brush and try again. If the stroke is too wet, continue painting the stroke without reloading the brush until you paint the stroke with the appropriate level of moisture. Focus on this level of moisture, reload the brush and try again.
Moisture Control Bootcamp Papers
These three papers are great to use together for practicing moisture discipline and working up to final compositions. The Moon Palace Roll, Practice Shuen and the brand new Vintage Single Shuen all handle moisture similarly. Practice strokes on Moon Palace, practice compositions on Practice Shuen and paint masterpieces on the Vintage Single Shuen!
P03M: Moon Palace Roll $12.00
18” x 50’ continuous roll more info
P03B: Practice Shuen $9.50
48 Cut Sheets (9.25” x 14.25”) more info
Vintage Single Shuen
Cut Sheets (9.25” x 14.25”) more info
P36B-10: 10 Cut Sheets $7.00
P36B-50: 50 Cut Sheets $28.00
P36B-100: 100 Cut Sheets $49.00
In the last newsletter we talked about Step 2: Master the moisture. We talked about how Brush Painters actually think of Water as a color and how drying your brush by stroking it against a folded paper towel and then reloading water no more than 1/3rd of the way up the brush from the tip can help you target the correct amount of moisture especially when working with sensitive papers like Single Shuen.
Step 3: Loading and Blending the Brush
A signature element of spontaneous style brush painting is a single stroke where the color of the stroke fades seamlessly from darker colors to light colors. It is this stroke that give Chinese painting the look of elegance and simplicity while at the same time alluring beauty.
Remember to start with a dry brush (see above). Then load just water up one third of the brush. Then load each color from lightest to darkest with the light colors loaded deeper in the brush. See the diagram below for how the colors should be loaded.
Blending the Brush
Next you should brush the loaded brush in a small circular motion against a clean flat surface like a porcelain or plastic blending plate. This will remove the hard line between the different colors and encourage your stroke to show natural fading from darkest to light. After blending, reloading the darkest color again on the tip of the brush as the blending decreases the intensity of that color.
Applying the Stroke
If you only paint the stroke with the tip of the brush (like writing with a pencil), then you will get a small dark stroke with almost no variation. The get the benefit of good loading and blending, you have to “lower the boom” with the brush. This setting the tip initially and then placing the rest of the body of the brush on the paper as you begin to pull the stroke downward like a mop rather than painting with the tip like a pencil.
Proper Color Preparation
Make sure to take the time and mix your colors to the proper consistency. The colors should be mixed thoroughly with water so the consistency is somewhere between non-fat milk and cream. The thicker the color the more intense the color will be but consistency should be uniform. Rushed color preparation can create inconsistent color and the water separation with show on the paper.
Check out this Use of Color Video for Examples of Color Loading and Blending
Look out for Step 4 of the Mechanics of Mastery in our Winter 2021 Newsletter!
What is the Mastery Process
Often times when we are studying Chinese Brush Painting whether on our own or in class with a teacher, we do not realize that there is a tangible set of skills that, when properly developed, can make all painting activities more successful and satisfying.
The Chinese Brush Painting Mastery Process is our way of identifying these skills and teaching them methodically to empower the OAS extended family of brush painters and Asian art enthusiasts to be more confident and experience more joy when they paint.
Step 4: Placing the Strokes in Composition
Order of the Strokes
Think about the order of strokes. Spontaneous style brush painting evolved from calligraphy. Chinese is a pictographic language. In other words, Chinese characters are really simple paintings. When training in Chinese Calligraphy, it is very important that the strokes are done in a specific order. This order is not random. It is the most efficient way to write the character to get the ideal spacing and balance.
Stroke by Stroke Instruction
When starting out, it is extremely beneficial to choose instruction that details stroke-by-stroke sequential instruction. This is what has made teachers like Ning Yeh and Mayee Futterman so successful. They provide enough structure so it is clear what must been done next. This allows a student to tackle ambitious compositions without getting lost.
When following this type of instruction, it important to stay in the present moment. There will be a lot of detail and that can cause you to be overwhelmed. Just do one thing at a time and don't overthink the strokes. Stay focused on the instruction and keep your mind otherwise clear.
It is a bit like the difference between a map and GPS. Some instructions are like Maps. They show you the overall picture and leave it up to you to find the way. While other formats are like GPS, they tell you exactly which way to go and what turns you need to make and when.
Some Composition Sayings
If you are more of a map person, here are a few of principles of successful composition that Ning Yeh mentions in his books.
Host and Guest
Most successful compositions have a major element that anchors the composition and a small element that balances. This idea of Yin and Yang is explored through many parts of Chinese culture, philosophy and art. Whenever you hear Ning Yeh refer to "host and guest" in this instruction, this is what he is referring to.
Fish Looking for the Same Food
When painting flowers or plants you will see Ning paint them so that their origins resemble an overhead shot of "fish looking for the same food". That is, the strokes seem to be heading for the same point without overlapping.
This example of a group of bamboo leaves in Ning Yeh's Book Chinese Brush Painting: An Instructional Guide is a great example of the idea of "Fish Looking for the Same Food."
No Chicken Foot
A chicken foot is a stroke that finishes with three points that resembles a chicken's foot. This is a common mistake when painting branches and is unnatural. Better to alternate twigs coming from either side of a main branch.
Chinese Brush Painting: An Instructional Guide not only shows correct ways to paint elements but also features common mistakes in what Ning Yeh calls the "Boo-boo Pad." Here is an example of the dreaded "Chicken Foot" along side a more desirable element where the branching twigs are alternating.
Divide the White Space
One final thing to think about when placing strokes in composition is to think not about the strokes but about dividing the space of the paper in interesting ways. This takes the pressure off of the strokes themselves and is a trick that master artists use to make their paintings more interesting and balanced. For more information on this, see the post in our blog.
Enjoy The Journey Towards Mastery
We hope you are enjoying your journey towards mastery of these basic skills of Chinese Brush Painting. Many of these and much more wonderful information is covered in what many call the "Bible of Chinese Brush Painting" - Chinese Brush Painting: An Instructional Guide by Ning Yeh.
We encourage you to use this an any other of the wonderful tools available through Oriental Art Supply (OAS) to begin or continue your journey through the wonderful world of Chinese Brush Painting and Calligraphy.
Chinese Brush Painting Mastery Step 5: Following the Path to a Finished Compositionby Evan Yeh
Step 5: Following the Path to a Finished Composition
Quite possibly one of the biggest differences in mindset between Western and Eastern cultures shows itself in watercolor painting. There is an unpredictability to spontaneous style Chinese Painting that an Eastern mindset embraces. I remember being in my father’s Brush Painting classes and hearing him repeat the mantra “Do the stroke, whatever happens, happens.” Another one of my earliest memories of my father painting was watching him demonstrate a horse painting at the County Fair. As a large group of people looked on, he proceeded to paint the eyes of the horse. As he did this, he offered “I always start with the eyes of the horse. The eyes will tell me what the horse wants to do.”
These two examples show a mindset that is releasing expectations and willingly following a changing path with confidence and excitement even while being unsure of the way the path will wind or the final destination.
Quite often the hardest thing to resist for a painter with training in Western painting is to resist trying to “correct” a stroke that they judge as a mistake. Raw shuen (Xuan) paper used for spontaneous style Chinese Painting is very “honest” paper. If you judge a stroke as a mistake and try to fix it, this will be obvious. My father never says the word mistake, instead he offers the phrase “Happy Accident.”
The key to successful spontaneous style Chinese Painting is to see each stroke as it happens (reserving judgement), and then making the best choice for the next stroke. I see many artists develop a habit of stopping a painting after they make a “mistake,” crumpling it up and starting over. The problem with this tendency is that you will never develop the essential skill of recovering from an unexpected stroke. This is a skill that all master painters possess. So many of my Father’s best paintings are filled with unexpected strokes or “happy accidents.” This is one of the most exciting aspects of spontaneous style Chinese Painting. Once you learn to embrace the unexpected you can proceed joyously down the path to a rare combination of feelings: the feeling of mastery combined with the excitement of the unexpected.
Ning Yeh shared his family tradition with artists in Beijing during his 2010 American Artists’ Dream Journey Tour. Starting with the eyes of the horse, Ning Yeh picks the next best stroke based on his previous strokes, whether or not it was what he originally intended.
Practical Tips to Remember
- There are different types of practice. As critical as it is to practice strokes and elements to build confidence, it is equally as important to practice finishing compositions. When you are doing this type of practice, always complete a painting. No matter what goes wrong, don’t waste the opportunity to practice the skill of reacting to the unexpected by making the next best choice.
- Suspend the judgment of your analytic mind while you are painting. There will be plenty of time to evaluate and judge after the painting is complete. Instead, develop the habit of reacting to the unexpected with delight and positive expectations. Rather than saying “darn it, I didn’t mean to do that,” instead say, “how interesting, what should I do next?”
- Allow your mind to think out of the box of your original expectations. Ink drips can be turned into butterflies or bees. Water spills can become mist or clouds. I’ve seen master artists leave these types of things on framed paintings as signposts of spontaneity.
- Expectations are not bad, they just need to be applied with an open mind and long term thinking. Over time positive expectation can be a very powerful creative tool.
(Above) Evan and Jashin painting collaboratively.
Collaborative painting is when the two artists work together on a piece of artwork, alternating strokes or groups of strokes. It teaches the important lesson of releasing your expectations, focusing on what is already on the paper, and taking the next best step.
Release yourself from your own expectations and experience the joy and freedom it allows.
Chinese Brush Painting Mastery Step 6: Wet Mounting and Framingby Evan Yeh
Step 6 - Wet Mounting and Framing:
Because Chinese Brush Painting and Calligraphy is done on traditional rice paper, there is a process that is used to finish the paintings to make them suitable for framing. Rice paper is comparatively thin and because of the amount of moisture that is used in Chinese Brush Painting the paper can experience some minor buckling and waviness even after the painting is dry. You will also notice that because many rice papers are absorbent, the colors fade after they are dry.
This is why most Chinese Brush Paintings are finished with a traditional wet mounting process that flattens the paper and restores the colors. Instructions for wet mounting are tricky to find and many master painters consider it one of the secret processes that can only be shared with trusted long-time pupils. At Oriental Art Supply we have taken Ning Yeh’s system of wet mounting and paired it with ideal materials to make the wet mounting process accessible to all of you, our OAS Extended Family of Brush Painters.
We have guided thousands of artists through this process with a predictable level of success. So our first bit of advice is, “You can do it!” The second thing before we get into the details is that wet mounting is worth learning how to do. It is an integral part of creating a properly finished Chinese Brush Painting and it is the best way to give an observer or collector the experience of what the painting was like when you actually painted it. The way wet mounting returns the colors of the painting to their original vibrancy cannot be duplicated, so it is a process that is worth learning.
Basics of Wet Mounting
It is good to understand the basics of what you are doing when you wet mount. This will reduce your stress level and eliminate obvious mistakes that can result from being unclear of the basics. When you wet mount you are gluing the back of your painting to a larger piece of backing paper. Then you are gluing the edges of the back of your newly affixed painting and backing paper to a board for drying. It is important to remember that you are always applying glue to the back rather than the front.
Wet Mounting Success Tips
- Practice, practice, practice: do not wait until you have beloved finished masterpieces to practice wet mounting. Mount lots of practice pieces that you don’t care about to build your confidence and understand the variables that relate to successful mounting in your environment. Mounting practice pieces has a two-fold benefit. It builds your confidence in your wet mounting skill and it increases the value of your practice pieces. Once you see your pieces mounted with the flat finished look and the vibrant colors you may decide to frame pieces you once thought were just for practice.
- When mounting, give yourself plenty of time. We have made our share of mistakes over the years because we felt rushed or were fatigued from a late night session that was necessary because of procrastination. You should develop a habit of mounting work regularly that way you are never out of practice or rushed.
- Use the right paste and use it in the correct way. We spent a lot of time sourcing our OAS Mounting Paste. We mounted thousands of paintings with it and have the highest level of confidence in the way that it performs. A key to successful mounting is the right paste mixed to the right consistency, applied thinly and evenly.
- Find the right environment for successful mounting. Avoid mounting in excessively dry or hot environments. Stay away from artificial heat sources. You want the glue to dry slowly. If an excessively dry or hot environment causes the glue to dry too quickly, you risk causing tears in the painting.
- Avoid color bleeding by using a piece of “blotting” paper when you wet mount. Place your finished painting face down on top of a piece of raw paper like our OAS Practice Roll. When you apply the glue to the back of the painting, if you get any bleeding from the colors they will bleed onto your blotting paper instead of on the painting itself. After you put your painting on your board to dry, you should be able to peel off your blotting paper. Additionally, OAS recommends spraying painting with Krylon Crystal Clear to bring out color vibrancy and reduce bleeding.
Signature and Seal
The signature and application of soapstone seal imprints are an important part of traditional Chinese Painting. To sign a work an artist signs their name in Chinese Calligraphy and stamps an imprint of their Artist Name Seal in close proximity to their signature. If you do not have a Chinese Artist Name, you can purchase an OAS Signature Card.
This is an incredible value where, most commonly, some combination of your first and last name is translated into Chinese. This is done by choosing Chinese characters that when spoken sound like your name. For example my English name is Evan and my Chinese name is YiFan (逸帆) literally translated as “smooth sailing.”
Your new Chinese name will be delivered in a handsome folder which contains a finished example of how your Chinese name is written as well as a stroke diagram that details in which order the strokes are done. Practicing writing your new Chinese name is a fun way to introduce yourself to the practice of Chinese Calligraphy which can have huge benefits for your development as a brush painter.
When you look at classic Chinese Brush Painting masterpieces you will often see other seal imprints in addition to the Artist Name Seal. Chinese Brush Painters acquire or have carved “mood” seals whose meanings have significance. Oftentimes, a particular seal will adorn a group of paintings tying them together with a philosophical idea or a sense of the season. Collecting seals is fun and rewarding for any level of artist. There are fairly inexpensive mood seals, for those on a budget, all the way up to one of a kind treasures with artistic sculpted tops, hand selected stones, and exquisitely composed imprints.
Although soapstone seal collecting is not as mature as some other types of collection (like coins and stamps etc.), there is no question that the activity has everything that a collector looks for. You have a one of a kind found object in nature, shaped by hand by a skilled artist, carved with a poetic meaning, and useful both for making practical imprints on paintings or other correspondence as well as to purely display as a work of art unto itself.
Wet Mounting Set
This wet mounting set includes the basics necessary to mount your work:
- Mounting Paste
- Mounting Applicator
- Mounting Presser
- Western Mounting Paper 26”x40”
- Chinese Mounting Paper 24”x33”
- Chinese Blotting Paper 18”x27”
This is a translation of your name into Chinese and includes a stroke-for-stroke order on how to write your name.
Please be sure to include the name that you would like translated into Chinese in your order form.