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Chinese Painting

Chinese painting originated over 5,000 years ago. Steeped in Chinese history, literature and philosophy, Chinese painting is different from that of the West in its motifs, form and technique.


One basic distinctive feature of Chinese painting is that the ideas and motifs are mainly presented in inked lines and dots, rather than colour, proportion and perspective.


Chinese paintings are created using brush pens made of a penholder and a pen head. The penholder is usually made of bamboo or wood, while the pen head is made of animal hair; typically wolf or sheep. The brush heads are soft and flexible, and match well with the style of Chinese paintings. Generally, only black ink is used in Chinese paintings and delicate silk and paper are used as the "canvas" in Chinese paintings.


Chinese paintings fall into three main categories: characters, landscapes and flowers and birds. Of the three traditions, character painting is the oldest, dominating the scene until the end of the Tang dynasty. Landscape paintings were generally of mountains and water, which comes from the Taoist tradition of seeking solitude within nature. Landscape became a favourite subject of artists and would become a dominant subject by the 11th century. Even today, if you're to ask anyone from China their definition of a beautiful place, they'll say "a place with mountains and water". During the 9th century, a separate genre of flower and bird paintings evolved which included detailed paintings of birds, fruits, insects and flowers. Some of these works are incredibly detailed and lively.


Ancient Chinese painters used paintings as an expression of their sentiments rather than merely reproducing the world on paper. From the 10th century onwards, many painters were also multi-talented poets and calligraphers, who etched poems or descriptive words onto their work. It would be natural that many of the great painters also excelled at calligraphy as it shared many of the brushstroke techniques with Chinese painting. Chinese calligraphy in itself is considered an art that requires years to master.


Chinese paintings are usually presented in scrolls and do not abide by the so-called "Golden Law", the Western notion of the Law of Proportionality. This law states that two unequal parts of a whole must be in relation to each other to create a balanced image to the eye. Instead of the "focus perspective" used in Western paintings, Chinese paintings use a "spread-point perspective" which offers a delicate sense of proportion. A good example of this can be found in the famous "Riverside Scene of Pure Brightness" which measures 24.8cm by 528.7cm. This large scroll painting portrays various aspects of Kaifeng during the Song dynasty. Minutely detailed, the characters and scenes are proportional from any angle.


Another feature of Chinese painting is that blank spaces are commonly used. The unmarked space is used to evoke the sky. Sometimes they represent water or fog and at other times the blank space is simply nothing, just a sensation of emptiness.


In 1714, Italian painter Giuseppe Castiglione introduced the Western painting methods to China. He taught the artists in the imperial court Western styles and methods, and in turn studied Chinese art. This marked the first fusion of Chinese and Western paintings.