The Mechanics of Mastery

The Mechanics of Mastery

by Evan Yeh

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 Paper

MP15: $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 roll

P03: $12.00

18” x 50 feet continuous roll

picture of the mastery steps for Chinese Brush Painting

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 Paperspicture of three papers that can be used together as a moisture control boot camp

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
add to cart

P03B: Practice Shuen $9.50
48 Cut Sheets (9.25” x 14.25”)  more info
add to cart

Vintage Single Shuen
Cut Sheets (9.25” x 14.25”) more info
P36B-10: 10 Cut Sheets $7.00 add to cart
P36B-50: 50 Cut Sheets $28.00 add to cart
P36B-100: 100 Cut Sheets $49.00 add to cart

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.

Loading the Brush

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.


This simple camellia painting by Ning Yeh featured in his book Chinese Brush Painting: An Instructional Guide shows a wonderfully clear example of the idea of Host and Guest in Chinese Brush Painting composition. See a larger version of this painting on our blog.

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.

Happy Painting!

1 comment

Nelson Brouillette

Nelson Brouillette

Thank you. This was very informative. Do instructions come with the wet mounting supplies ?

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