Step-by-Step Chinese Painting Demonstration

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Introduction to Chinese Painting

Step-by-step Chinese Painting by Zhaofan Liu
Artist Zhaofan Liu with his completed painting "Shu-Han Ancient Plank Path". Photo: ©2007 Zhaofan Liu,

I would sum up the philosophy of traditional Chinese landscape painting as “regarding Nature as your teacher outside and using your spirit or intellect as your creative source inside”. Landscape paintings need to be created from both scenery in the natural environment and your creative vision. Chinese artists in past dynasties were looking for the creation process, characters to express this, and also the inner relationship between them.

“Regarding Nature as one's teacher outside” does not mean only painting the appearance of a mountain and brook, but also means feeling the spirit of cosmology and biology, turning the scenery of nature into scenery of the heart and into paintings, to give the spirit form and create the ideal vision of landscape as seen in the artist’s mind.

Because of the diversity of artists’ characters and personalities, and the diversity of their skills, feelings, and aesthetics, the style of every artist varies. In their own way, each artist discards the gross and selects the essential, eliminates the false and keeps the true. The artist gets in touch with the outside world and unites this with their inner world.

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The Inspiration for the Painting “Shu-Han Ancient Plank Path”

Step-by-step Chinese Painting by Zhaofan Liu
The painting was inspired by this famous Yinchanggou landscape. Photo: ©2007 Zhaofan Liu,

The photo above was taken in autumn (August) at the famous landscape Silver-Mine-Valley (Yinchanggou) which is in the Chengdu Sichuan Province of China. At the time, the trees were dense, the colors were strong, the air was clean, the river was gushing. The plank path was hanging like a girdle, studded around the cliff and stretching into distance.

As I was walking on the mountain, I felt touched by this particular scene, took a photo at once, and drew a sketch.

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Developing the Idea for the Painting

Step-by-step Chinese Painting by Zhaofan Liu
A sketch of the scene was done, as well as reference photos taken. Photo: ©2007 Zhaofan Liu,

Going back to my studio, a vision emerged in my mind: an ancient plank path which is heavy with the weight of history wreathed by white clouds. Nature in the abundant spring; a mountain stream thundering in the ravine; a path bringing me back to the real world. The painting "Shu-Han Ancient Plank Path" came from this. (Shu and Han are both the name of a kingdom in Ancient China.)

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Essential Art Materials for Chinese Painting

Step-by-step Chinese Painting by Zhaofan Liu
Traditional Chinese painting equipment -- Chinese brushes, ink, and rice paper. Photo: ©2007 Zhaofan Liu,

This photo shows the art materials I use for painting -- Chinese brushes, ink, and rice paper. (The paper is not stretched before being used, as with traditional Western watercolor. Instead it is held down with a paper weight on the edge.)

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Start by Painting the Key Lines

Step-by-step Chinese Painting by Zhaofan Liu
The outline drawing must be clear and concise. Photo: ©2007 Zhaofan Liu,

Start by using a brush to draw the key lines (or outline) of the scene. The lines must be concise. Pay attention to the overall layout of mountain rocks, and be sure to convey the crisscrossed network of the scenery in a way that embodies the geological and topographical form.

Distinguish between elements of primary and secondary importance. Capture the character of the scenery. Do not be a stickler for detail, though the subject must be clear in order to portray the vision in your heart.

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Adding Texture to the Rocks

Step-by-step Chinese Painting by Zhaofan Liu
Adding texture. Photo: ©2007 Zhaofan Liu,

When using a Chinese brush, first put down the key lines of the structure of the object or subject, to form the ‘skeleton’. The movement of the brush tip must be purposeful and powerful. Know what you intend to do with the brush, and link the steps (strokes) up so as to activate the painting, to give it rhythm.

Then use Cunfa (a Chinese Painting technique or method using light ink strokes to express texture) and Dianfa (a Chinese Painting technique or method using dots) on all the mountain rocks and trees, making them more ideographic and solid. The variety of nature is expressed using various Cunfa and Dianfa.

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The Power of the Brush Stroke

Step-by-step Chinese Painting by Zhaofan Liu
Use the power of the brush stroke. Photo: ©2007 Zhaofan Liu,

The power of brush stroke should correspond with the 'skeleton', using ink to fill in the 'flesh', to express light and shade of the rocks, to enrich the layer. Compare the way you visualized the painting with the result. Handle dark and light, dry and wet. Use ink techniques such as Accumulate (to build up density), Break (to create tension), and Sprinkle (to add texture) repeatedly to make the painting more massive and profound. Pay particular attention to the use of water (no more or no less than it needs).

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Limit the Main Colors

Step-by-step Chinese Painting by Zhaofan Liu
Limit the main colors in the painting. Photo: ©2007 Zhaofan Liu,

Variegation is used to unify the overall of the painting, but there should not be more than two main colors in a minimal-color ink painting. The color should not conflict with the ink, and the ink should not conflict with the color; they should complement one another. The main color in "Shu-Han Ancient Plank Path" is green. Big areas of color, such as the mountain, sky, and woods, are washed in, while areas of small color, such as leaves and moss, are dotted in.

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Analyze the Painting

Step-by-step Chinese Painting by Zhaofan Liu
Stop to analyze the painting. Photo: ©2007 Zhaofan Liu,

After the above four steps, stop and look at the painting as a whole. Analyze and summarize with critical eyes, and make the necessary adjustments. Decide whether the ink or color is enough, whether the result is the same as your vision; if not, complement and modify it. All in all, you must express the vision in your heart. Finally, sign and stamp. A landscape painting has been completed.

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The Finished Painting and a Little About the Artist, Zhaofan Liu

Step-by-step Chinese Painting by Zhaofan Liu
Photo: ©2007 Zhaofan Liu,

This photo shows me holding my completed painting, “Shu-Han Ancient Plank Path”. It also gives you an idea of how big it is.

About the Artist: Zhaofan Liu is an artist living in Chengdu in Sichuan Province in China. His website is at

Zhaofan says: "I have painted for more than 40 years, since I was 10 years old. I paint traditional Chinese water-ink style paintings, and get my inspiration from my cultural heritage, the many famous mountains and temples around Chengdu, as well as modern landscapes."

This article was translated into English by Qian Liu.