Notebook, 1993-

Preface - Way - Principle - Idea - Method - Synthesis - References

[Wong, Wucius. The Tao of Chinese Landscape Painting, Principles & Methods. New York: Design Press. 1991.]


Part Two



Flat Formations
Convex Formations
Concave Formations
Combinations and Adornments
Overlaps and Connections
Textures and Shadings

Sheet Formations
Band Formations
Step Formations
Shores, Banks, and Impediments
Surface Patterns and Reflections
Progression and Diversion

Rain and Snow

Bare Trees
Moss Dots

T E X T - [NOTE: The visuals from the original text are not yet provided]
Chinese aesthetics has been guided by the concept of Tao, or the Way, which accounts for the predominance of landscape themes in Chinese painting. Following the Way, artists aspire to achieve oneness with nature--the ultimate goal in their visual expression. Their works, however, seldom represent what the artists momentarily observe from a stationary viewpoint. They are personal compositions with recognizable elements arranged in a kind of order to suggest evolution of space, maintaining some degree of realism. Such aims do pose specific pictorial problems. How does the Chinese artist tackle the problems?

To paint exactly what is seen within a restrictive framework of space and time contradicts somewhat the concept of Tao, as this practice excludes the artist from being part of the nature portrayed and stresses his separate and independent existence. Of course, at moments of wandering in nature, the Chinese artist becomes an outsider observer as he enjoys, sketches, or else memorizes specific sights of interest. In this way, he is no different from landscape artists of any other civilization. But as he paints, the Chinese artist prefers to rely on his own imagination, and arranges the elements as though he were building a model. From his mind-heart he selects mountains, which he can then rotate and reshape; directs water to wind as springs, jump as waterfalls, or flow as rivers along folds; plants trees and shrubs at choice locations; and combines these elements in a harmonious orchestration displaying vital breath. What results is the creative equivalent of nature.

Concerning this process, Sung Dynasty art essayist Huang Hsiui-fu made the following statement around 1006 A.D.:

Painting is to provide matter with form, but a specially endowed artist can merge his thoughts with the spirit, originate the idea, and establish the structure, all in a wondrous synthesis in accordance with nature's operations.

Remember that Li, the Principle, briefly discussed earlier, governs the operations of nature and defines the laws behind all physical phenomena. Nature, therefore, manifests itself in a variety of elements not haphazardly interrelated. An artist who is not painting exactly what he sees needs, first of all, an excellent acquaintance with the various elements and second, a clear understanding of the laws. Through acquaintance with the elements, the artist will be able to visualize at will in fabricating his scene. Through understanding of the laws, the artist will position the elements in appropriate positions, directions, and proportions, with transitions, extensions, and overlaps conforming to a definite order. The Principle assures that Chinese artists, now and through the ages, accomplish what needs to be accomplished. What they do not accomplish is unnecessary to them. [p. 29]

Language. The elements, how they take shape and how they work together in a painting, comprise the visual language of the artist. The way the artist chooses the elements corresponds to the way a writer chooses words with appropriate meanings, for expressing thoughts and feelings, for communication. As words make up the writerÍs verbal vocabulary, the elements comprise the artist's visual vocabulary. Like words arranged in sentences to make sense, in accordance with the grammar of the language, largely determined by common usage, the elements interrelate to reveal some underlying visual grammar, which is determined by the Principle.

In a general sense, the visual language consists of dots, lines, planes, volumes, tones, colors, and textures. These basic components constitute shapes, which a viewer perceives as forms, either abstract or representational. Representational forms make definite reference to objects and phenomena of the material world, and they must remain reasonably recognizable to any viewer. Tackling representational forms with a range of subject matter is, in fact, fundamental training for every artist, as this enables him to develop a visual vocabulary. [p. 29]

Vocabulary. Through direct observation a skilled artist can cope with any subject that remains unchanging and clearly in sight. Such familiarization with subject matter establishes a vocabulary. In this way the artist is able to capture likeness with less effort, and to deal with aspects of the subject where eyesight does not provide enough information. A Western artist doing figure painting should know every muscle and bone of the human body, and should be familiar with their shapes and structures. Similarly, a Chinese artist working with landscape themes has to be conversant with all the elements occupying his work.

Chinese landscape painting is called shan shui hua [Fig. 35], the three characters standing for respectively mountain, water, and painting. Shan and shui, together as a term, stand for landscape. The Chinese vision of landscape is not as something in an intimate scale, not a confined corner of nature. Mountain and water comprise the two main vocabulary categories of the Chinese artist, whose prime interest is in immense distances and majestic heights. Showing a mountain in its entirety, with springs, falls, and rivers as small details, the artist creates some sort of microcosm, including all the elements that can be found in nature, presenting a world manifesting the spirit of Tao.

This kind of vision cannot be realized without a considerable range of vocabulary. A mountain in a Chinese landscape painting is not the mountain to be observed out in nature. It is probably an ideal mountain, and frequently also represents the artists. A good vocabulary enables the artist to establish his scene at will, without making direct reference to actual locations. If the artist wants to have a towering mountain with a steep front of solid granite, he proceeds to paint it without feeling restricted by any inadequacies of source material. If he wants to have a waterfall, he does not hesitate to put one with the right shape and length at the right place, and to relate it to adjacent elements.

By tradition, a Chinese artist learns to paint by studying with a mentor, copying the mentor's work and those of earlier masters. The artist's acquisition of vocabulary inevitably includes acquaintance with numerous conventions, codified ways to paint particular types of rocks, mountains, trees, or other elements in the manner of this or that great master. Such conventions, which appear in the various painting manuals, represent the essence of the tradition. They present a danger, however, in that an artist may adopt them as formulas, making no attempt to seek real understanding of nature, and just painting in the styles of his predecessors. [p. 30]

Grammar. Visual grammar guides various elements from the artistÍs vocabulary toward the establishment of organic wholeness. Generally speaking for example, a mountain cannot be bent or tilted arbitrarily without jarring the vision, and a tree cannot be planted just anywhere in the pictorial space. Nature, as seen by us in its present manifestations, is the result of millions of years of the earthÍs evolution, itself determined by the laws of physics. Explanations exist for the presence of all objects and substances, as well as for their changes.

To understand the working of the Principle is not exactly the same as making a scientific inquiry, although modern science does provide a wide spectrum of information relevant to any artist with high intellectual curiosity. An artist normally observes nature and discovers the Principle through intuition. He does not have to be a geologist to look into land formations. He need not be able to distinguish types of rocks, nor to identify every tree portrayed in his work. He should be sensitive, however, to the characteristics of shapes and textures, aware of structural significance behind the forms, able to organize pictorial space and effect rhythms. He should be easily moved by beauty, and ready to imbue the subject matter chosen for his work with his personal feelings and thoughts.

Understanding nature is made much easier today by advanced technology. Artists can visit previously unapproachable places with little difficulty, cover long distances in a relatively short time, ascend great heights with ease, view the earth's surface directly from above, use the camera to record sights instantaneously, and glimpse places not yet experienced first hand from photographic, cinematic, video, computer, and print sources. [p. 30]

Land. As land dwellers, we see a landscape dominated by land, the part of the earth above sea level and the part of the environment with the widest variety of elements. From the point of view of a geologist, land consists of different soil and rock formations, the results of weathering, erosion, denudation, sedimentation, earth movements, and metamorphosis over time. From the point of view of the artist, however, land consists of shapes, which can be categorized simply as flat formations, convex formations, and concave formations. [p. 31]

Flat Formations. The term flat formation refers to the type of land normally regarded as a plain, which stretches across and beyond the horizon with only very slight, if any, change in elevation. To illustrate the concept of ideal flatness diagramatically, an artist might draw a series of evenly spaced, horizontally placed parallel lines [Fig 36]. The angle in this case--observed perpendicularly from above--would be quite unnatural, however. In general, the artist relates himself to the subject matter from a slanting view, presenting what is nearer to him in a larger scale than what appears in the distance. Thus, the space between the parallel lines will increase gradually from top to bottom of the pictorial area [Fig. 37]. This technique introduces a sense of perspective, but not to the extent of having the sort of dramatic diminishing effects and vanishing points commonly found in Western art.

The artist may arrange the parallel lines in intermittent narrowing and widening distances to introduce slight rises and falls [Fig. 38], or disarrange them slightly to suggest the irregularity of a wrinkled surface [Fig. 39]. He might bend [Fig. 40] or curl [Fig. 41] the lines to stress surface changes, or even replace horizontal lines with diagonal ones [Fig. 42]. Adding naturalistic touches to the harsh geometry, the artist may transform any of these diagrams into more sensuous pictorial expression [Figs. 43, 44]. Adding descriptive textures with light-dark modulations further enhances the naturalistic effects [Fig 45].

As subject matter for a painting, however, flat formations are probably not interesting enough without the inclusion of other types of formations and additional elements. For example: the artist can exaggerate wrinkles, displaying prominent folds and crevices [Fig. 46], depict a formation with a shoreline [Fig. 47], add creeks and streams to break up the continuity [Fig. 48], or foil the plain with distant hills [ Fig. 49]. [p. 31]

Convex Formations. Land rises and falls, shaped by the earth's internal movements and external forces, leading to convex formations of different sizes and shapes. Such formations, which we might simply call mountains, constitute the most important category of forms and represent the wide range of vocabulary with the most varied manifestations in Chinese landscape painting. To represent a convex formation, the artist should, first of all, grasp its basic form and look into the extent of variations. Then he should examine its different parts to determine which might require special emphasis through modifications, combinations, and applications of texture.

He can distinguish three basic convex formations: pyramidal, semispherical, and prismatic. A pyramidal formation features sharp outlines with a pointed top and a centrally raised edge, characterized by hard, solid rockiness. A semispherical formation has a roundish body and a more earthy surface, suitable for exuberant vegetation. A prismatic formation has a terraced top and steep cliffs.

The simplest way to represent a pyramidal formation is to draw parallel lines [as in Fig. 37] bent in the middle, sloping forty-five degrees down the left and forty-five degrees down the right [Fig. 50]. The parallel lines become serial lines, seen as edges of triangular planes arranged from front to back. Along the tips of the planes, an invisible line divides the solid form into left and right sloping surfaces. To introduce variations, this invisible line can be slanted [Fig. 51], bent [Figs. 52, 53], or curled [Figs 54, 55], just as the parallel arrangement of the planes can change [Figs 56, 57].

Again, an artist can easily transform these geometrical diagrams into naturalistic scenes, with mountains displaying a kind of angular stoniness of almost crystalline quality [Figs 58, 59]. The centrally projecting invisible line represents a dominant ridge, distinguishing the yin and the yang, or the shady and the sunny components. The ridge marks the spine of the mountain, which is the main vein or artery, where minor veins originate. The Chinese call this main vein the dragon's vein, or lung-mo [Fig. 60], and name the vein system mo-lo [Fig. 61]

Substituting the triangular serial planes with semicircular planes [Fig. 62], the artist can construct a semispherical formation. Shifting the semicircular planes, he can depict any specific semispherical mountain [Fig. 63]. This type of mountain displays more flesh than bone, with a much less noticeable ridge, but the presence of a ridge remains essential [Fig. 64]. The frontality of the mountain conveys prominence, and the projection can be located centrally or slightly off-center.

Using rectangular serial planes, meanwhile, the artist can construct a prismatic formation [Figs 65, 66]. This form suggests a steeply rising mountain, of majestic height, in solid granite. The narrow frontality tends to dominate, and there may not be a noticeable ridge [Fig 67]. Shifting the rectangular serial planes results in formations with precarious projections [Figs 68, 69].

Horizontally stacking serial planes is another way to construct any of the mountain forms just discussed [Figs 70-72]. With such planes underlying its structure, the mountain thus visualized displays the layered characteristics of sedimentary rocks [Figs 73, 74]. The serial planes can vary in shape, with more angular edges [Figs. 75, 76] or wavy edges [Fig. 77].

Yet another way of constructing a convex formation is to use a number of vertical and slanting lines, starting from the top and joined to the base, a horizontally positioned plane [Figs. 78-80]. This method is particularly effective for the visualization of prismatic formations, since any horizontally positioned planar shape can represent the terraced top, with the addition of a few vertical lines to represent the cliffs [Figs. 81-83]. Additional horizontally positioned planes, inserted between the top and the base, create specific shape articulations [Figs 84-86].

Generally, convex formations of considerable size are seen as mountains [Fig. 87], but small ones with gradual slopes may appear as hills [Fig. 88]. Mountains consist of distinct parts, with the uppermost part identified as the peak [Fig. 89]. An exaggerated peak tends to soar high in a narrowly pointed shape, becoming a pinnacle [Fig. 90]. Next to the peak might be another high area, a bit flattened, called a shoulder [Fig. 91]. Protruding flat areas along the slopes are known as terraces [Fig. 92], usually surrounded on one or more sides by cliffs, which are nearly vertical rocky walls [Fig. 93]. A ridge starts from the base and leads to the top, marking a continuous, raised portion of a mountain slope [Fig. 94]. One mountain may have several peaks, or may be linked to another or several other mountains, forming a range [Fig. 95]. Familiarity with these commonplace terms helps the artist to understand, and thence to develop, individual shapes and forms, and this vocabulary can be expanded to include more sophisticated geological knowledge. [p. 33]

Concave Formations. If convex formations represent the positive elements of the land, the negative elements exist in spaces between convex formations, in depressions, cracks, sunken folds, hollowed-out areas, and sudden openings on a surface. These concave formations are also essential components of an artist's landscape vision.

Concave formations can be classified as V-shape, U-shape, and O-shape. A V-shape formation is a narrow strip of space between sections of land, such as a narrow passage between the steep slopes of two adjacent mountains. A U-shape formation has a wider bottom and more space than the V-shape formation, defined with steep or gently slanting slopes on two or three sides. An O-shape formation is a circular opening or depression in a vertical or horizontal surface.

To depict a V-shape formation, an artist might bend the parallel horizontal lines in Fig. 37, with lines tilting upwards on both sides, forming a sharp depression at the center [ Fig. 96]. Extending the tilted lines will suggest either flat formations or convex formations to the sides of the concave formation [Figs. 97, 98]. Varying the serial planes in the diagrams [Figs. 99-101] will create ravines, gorges, or canyons, which can be partially concealed [Figs 102, 103].

Bending both ends of the horizontal lines upward in a vertical or slanting direction, meanwhile, produces a U-shape formation [Figs. 104, 105]. Naturalistic scenes based on the diagrams reveal a flat-bottom valley or some kind of basin [Figs 106, 107]. Varying the shapes of the steep cliff walls, and the widths between them, results in different negative shapes [Figs 108, 109]. It is also possible to have enclosure from three sides [Figs 110].

Stacking increasingly large rectangular or circular serial planes front to back produces an O-shape formation [Figs 111, 112]. Found less frequently in nature than either V-shape or U-shape formations, O-shape formations appear as caves, caverns, arches, and windows [Figs. 113-116]. [p. 39]

Combinations and Adornments. Combining the different formations, an artist can achieve a wide variety of interesting shapes. For instance, one or more prismatic formations added to a pyramidal formation appear as terraced areas in a mountain [Figs. 117, 118]. A semispherical formation can incorporate a pyramidal peak, increasing its grandeur [Fig. 119]. All concave formations require the presence of convex or flat formations to give them shape [Figs. 120-122]. O-shape formations create special focal points in any type of land formations [Fig 123].

Introducing adornments such as rocks, boulders, or small stones to surfaces of land formations adds visual interest. Frequently globular or cubical in shape, rocks sometimes look like miniaturized mountains [Figs 124-126]. They may be positioned along the ridge of a convex formation to stress its rising presence [Figs 127, 128], or be nested in concave areas, near the foot of a mountain, and on flat surfaces requiring accentuation [Figs. 129-132]. Other adornments include buildings, bridges, boats, manufactured artifacts, and people, with definite cultural, historical, and geographical references, but these are not the natural components of Chinese landscape painting. [p. 41]

Overlaps and Connections. When two land formations are brought together without being combined into one mass, one formation may overlap the other. They may be entirely separate [Fig. 133] or partially connected [Fig 134].

To establish connection between two rising mountain slopes is to have the ridge of one joining the ridge of the other, showing a feeling of continuity. The ridge, or dragon's vein, can move uphill and down hill. In moving downhill, it might extend out of sight at the back of the mountain and must be implied [Fig. 135]. Using the dragon's vein concept, an artist can connect a series of mountains in obvious and less obvious manners [Figs. 136, 137]. [p. 44]

Modifications. An artist begins to visualize a land formation with external contours, which define the overall shape [Fig. 138]. Internal contours, added to suggest folds on the slopes, reveal the position and direction of the ridge and determine its volume [Fig. 139]. Modification of both the external and the internal contours, or simply the internal contours, resulting in alteration of their shape, length, quantity, spacing, and direction, remodels the entire mass [Figs. 140-142]. It is possible, however, to modify the internal contours considerably while generally maintaining the basic shape of the external contours [Fig. 143].

Modification means giving individuality to the form created, introducing refinements, establishing a center of interest, and stressing rhythmical movements. Like a sculptor chiseling marble, kneading clay, or molding with plaster, the painter delineating contours creates, at will, protrusions and depressions, smoothness and cragginess, to achieve the appropriate simplicity or complexity. [p. 45]

Textures and Shadings. After the internal contours are defined, the next step is to apply textures and shadings. Textures provide a descriptive quality to the surfaces. Shadings show the modeling of light and enhance solidity of the form. The application of textures, an important part of the Chinese painting process, incorporates the use of specific brushstrokes. Shadings are done with a tonal wash that helps to pull the textures together, strengthening light-dark effects not related to any single light source.

The Chinese use the character ts'un [Fig. 144], also meaning wrinkles, to stand for textural brushstrokes applied to land formations. Over the centuries, the masters developed various types of ts'un techniques, which form the essential foundation of any artist's training. Names for the brushstrokes were for the most part given by followers of the pioneering master. In relation to the classification of pyramidal, semispherical, and prismatic formations discussed earlier, three basic types of ts'un techniques exist: ax-cut strokes, hemp-fiber strokes, and bent-ribbon strokes. [A f ull discussion of brush techniques appears in Part Four, under the heading Brush].

To make an ax-cut stroke, the artist holds the brush in a slanting position so that the brush tip is bent slightly to one side [Fig. 145]. The stroke has a triangular shape: Its application resembles chiseling with an ax. Using a pen or pencil, the artist can approach the same effect by first exerting pressure, then letting the line taper off [Fig. 146].

The ax-cut stroke is most useful for depicting hard, rocky surfaces, as in pyramidal formations [Fig. 147]. Contours for such a formation can be in sharply bending lines [Fig. 148], with the strokes applied at right angles to the contours to stress sharpness and cragginess [Fig. 149]. The stroke is also effective for the description of angularly shaped rocks of crystalline quality and sedimentary rocks displaying layered structures [Figs. 150, 151]. The best-known exponents of the ax-cut stroke are Li T'ang, Ma Yüan, and Hsia Kwei, associated with the Northern School of landscape painting, which thrived particularly in the Southern Sung Dynasty [1127-1280 A.D.].

A slightly sinuous and perhaps broken line, the hemp-fiber stroke is used for describing the gentle slopes of earthy semispherical formations [Fig. 152]. For this the artist applies layers of the strokes, usually with a vertically held brush, with more density next to the outer sides of curved, internal contours to give them a clear definition [Fig. 153].

Long hemp-fiber strokes express relatively smooth surfaces [Fig. 154]. Short hemp-fiber strokes provide more wrinkles [Fig. 155]. Entangled hemp-fiber strokes tend to intercept one another from different directions, expressing roughness of the surface and a feeling of casualness in the brush application [Fig. 156]. The great Southern School master Tung Yüan [907-960 A.D.] first developed the short hemp-fiber strokes. These were given variations and generally favored by the literati painters, who dominated mainstream Chinese landscape painting beginning with the emergence of the Four Masters of the Yüan Dynasty. The most important of the Four Masters is Huang Kung-wang [1269-1354 A.D.], who practiced the strokes in a loose, calligraphic manner.

An artist obtains a bent-ribbon stroke with a brush held slantingly, making a horizontal line, then bending it downward sharply into a slightly thicker vertical line [Fig. 157]. This stroke is appropriate for representing prismatic formations, sedimentary rocks, slab-shape rocks, and terraces [Figs. 158-160]. This stroke, however, is of limited application, but the artist can overcome the restrictions by combining it with other brush expressions, particularly ax-cut strokes in depicting cubical rocky structures [Figs. 161, 162]. Bent-ribbon strokes were created by Ni Tsan [1301-1374 A.D.], another of the Four Masters, and later practiced by Hung-jen [circa 1603-1663 A.D.].

Among the many less popular types of strokes are the lotus-leaf strokes, which have lines branching and proliferating downward as veins and wrinkles [Fig. 163]; the raveled-rope strokes, with long and dry brush marks resembling disarranged rope fibers [Fig. 164]; the entangled-firewood strokes, with sharp lines from conflicting directions [Fig. 165]; the ox-hair strokes, featuring fine curly lines densely applied [Figs. 166, 167]; and the cloud-head strokes which suggest globular rock forms [Fig. 168]. Of course, as the artist acquires all of the different techniques, he may apply any of them as appropriate to the form. He may intermix various types in one painting, or develop his own special types of strokes.

Water Whereas land provides solid elements with definite forms, water, as a liquid element, helps to enhance the sense of movement in a painting. Water tends to seek a level surface if it is contained. It fills cavities and, easily affected by gravity, will rush down slanting channel beds and passages. Water has no form of its own, except for its surface patterns, which may display some specific shapes. The general shape of a body of water is defined by the land that marks its edge, on one, two, or more sides. So, with reference to its relationship with land, water breaks down into three basic types: sheet formations, band formations, and step formations. [p. 50]




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