03.2: Landscape Practice In Traditional Media
Take a look at this section of a scroll. It belongs to the masterpiece 溪山清遠 (Xī shān qīngyuǎn) by Xia Gui (夏珪). The first two characters are “streams” and “mountains” while the last two are “clear” and “far.” Together, the common English translation is “Pure and Remote View of Streams and Hills.” Throughout this nine meter long scroll, Xia Gui demonstrates his mastery over ink wash to create depth and distance.
As ink wash–controlling the strength of ink through dilution–is a central technique in Chinese art, I experimented to recreate the effects Xia Gui achieved.
Practicing landscape has been monumentally easier than calligraphy (not that I mastered either). My first goal was to figure out how to get different tones out of the ink. So, I got a palette with multiple compartments, put ink in one and water in the others. Adding tiny amounts of ink to the water with the tip of my brush, I tried to get a pale gray but couldn’t. I could only mix a darker gray that’s still lighter than black. It was strange. After the first few tips of ink, there wasn’t enough ink to make it any different from water when I applied it to paper. The ink mixture would jump from that to something much darker. Nonetheless, I continued.
I went on to create some awful looking trees and mountains that look like wet triangles, but after I-don’t-know-how-long, I finally made something good-looking.
Ignore the two mountain peaks at the lower center and right. The dark-ink mountain slopes were much easier than I anticipated. Using fast and careful strokes, I am able to make unintentional beauty. My hand can shake left, right, up, down, and it can still look natural.
For the tree on the right, I started with the darker ink first. The trunk and branches were placed, then the darker blobs, then the lighter blobs. It turned out alright I think, but the tree on the left was a lot better.
For the left tree, I made the dark gray branches first, then made touches of very light gray for the leaf background (the light gray was more of a fluke and I don’t know how I made it at that time). Then came the dark leaves and they turned out great. Dipping the tip into the light gray caused intentional spread. By the time I got to outlining the branches with dark ink, the dark gray dried enough so that my outline wouldn’t spread. On a similar note, whisking very light gray over some of the mountain outlines did not wash away the hard lines. All of these details were important for my next landscape practice.
I wanted to make a full piece, using traditional Chinese material, before I move on. I decided to paint the first part of Xia Gui’s 溪山清遠 Pure and Remote View of Streams and Hills as there was a good mix of close and distant trees and mountains.
This is start and finish of my left side. The rugged mountains looks extremely scratchy, which isn’t good. Instead of being smooth, they are chicken scratches (they were made with a fraying brush). I did finally get my light gray color kind of by accident. I got an unused brush as my initial brush already had ink from creating the dark outlines. When you want to use an unused brush, you have to wet it first to make it soft. So, instead of mixing ink and water in a bowl, I achieved this light tone by adding a small amount of ink to a slightly wet brush.
The next two images are an early and finished stage of the center. For the central trees, I made a lighter layer first for the leaves and some slight spread when I added the dark ink. While some of the leaves look good, it still feels incredibly messy. There are blots of ink instead of sophisticated strokes for the denser area of leaves, and the rocks are also very scratchy. Objectively, the shading is completely random but I have no idea what would look the best.
I began adding the palace, and the idea was to shroud it with foliage. Since my paper was not as big as Xia Gui’s scroll, I decided to make the palace ratio smaller and more to the left so that my composition looks better. It was also to make the palace literally smaller. A common theme throughout Chinese landscape paintings are the small buildings and people surrounded by vast nature. This was a nod to cultural values and to remind us of the grandeur of nature. As a result of this decision, I had to improvise the castle, creating a courtyard and door but please note that I have no idea what palaces or castles in Song Dynasty China looked like.
Here is the final product for now. A lot of the trees did not turn out as expected. I wanted controlled, light gray strokes for distant trees, but I can’t get the ink right. This time I had to make small, thin trunks and leaves with diluted ink, which was too difficult to control. It was either too weak, too strong, or spread far too much. Because I could not create leaves with only diluted ink, the forest became messy.
Although there are a lot of improvements to make, I think this was pretty good considering the first time picking up traditional media was only a few days prior. This piece isn’t “complete” yet. The right-hand space is perfect for a title or poem, and I still haven’t signed my name. However, being that my calligraphy is, at the moment, atrocious, I decided to put it off for now (also I don’t have a stamp/seal).
This past week has been so much fun that I’ve decided to continue exploring traditional Chinese media and art. There is still a lot to learn! For example, I still have yet to figure out how to create mountains with a fading effect, and there are many different styles of mountains to paint.
I hope you enjoyed my progress so far, and look forward to some colored painting next week!