Chinese painting is one of the oldest art forms that continues to exist today. Like many forms of Chinese art, it began as an ornamental task, but soon evolved into something purposeful. This article describes the origins and history of this artistic tradition, as well as the techniques that are commonly associated with it.
In China, painting began as decorative patterns and shapes that typically would adorn pottery; these include spirals, dots, squiggly lines, and various animals. It was not until about 400 BC that Chinese artists began using paintings as a way to epitomize the world surrounding them. During the Han and Tang Dynasties, which occurred in 202 BC and 618-906 AD, respectively, artists tended to paint the human body. These paintings ended up in burial sites on silken scrolls, and were there to protect the dead on their journey to paradise. From 907 to 1127 AD, Chinese paintings evolved to include the landscape; this era is considered to be the high point of Chinese painting, and is therefore known as ‘The Great Age of Chinese Landscape’. Artists from northern and southern China each painted their respective landscapes; the north had gigantic mountains and rough stone cliffs, whereas the south had beautiful hills and rivers.
As time progressed, people began to recognize paintings as beautiful works of art, individual artists came into the spotlight, and guidelines for Chinese painting were instituted. Most prominently, ‘The Six Principles for Chinese Painting’ came into being during the fifth century. These principles were written by Xie He, an art historian and writer. The principles are as follows:
- Spirit Resonance, which is the energy that is transmitted from the artist to the work.
- Bone Method, which refers to the way in which the brush was used.
- Correspondence to the Object, which refers to the painting, and whether or not it effectively portrays the real entity.
- Suitability to Type, which is the tone and colors of the painting.
- Division and Planning, which references the layout, spacing, and depth of the painting.
- Transmission by Copying, which is he duplication of models from life and history.
The Tang Dynasty allowed paintings of royal life to prosper, so much so that realism reached its height during this time period. Many artists employed extravagant color and extensive detail in their paintings; one artist, however, decided to do the exact opposite. Wu Daozi was a master artist that refused to include any color in his work. After this time, paintings such as his were considered to be finished works of art rather than just sketches that would later be filled in with color. Landscape paintings soon became much more expressive in that they freed themselves from replicating nature exactly and instead exposed the spiritual nature of the artist. This allowed painters to describe the ‘inner spirit’ of the objects that they were painting rather than its outward facade. At the dawn of the 20th century, Chinese artists were exposed to many forms of Western art, and some even studied in Europe. The majority of these artists began to reject traditional Chinese painting, while others tried to mesh together the two forms.
From the 13th century to just before the 20th, artists developed the tradition of painting simple objects such as fruit or flowers. Technical manuals on the subject of painting also came into being, as color-printing techniques were improved.
Originally, painting was done on silk because of its durability and association with the lifestyle of royal nobles, which is where the majority of painters came from because they had the appropriate amount of recreational time to perfect painting techniques and instruments. Soon after paper was invented by Cai Lun in the first century, it replaced silk as the primary medium for writing and painting.
As the popularity of painting began to expand, two fundamental techniques developed. The first is known as Gong-bi, which means meticulous. The other style is called Shui-mo, which means freehand; this sort of technique is similar to what western cultures know as watercolor painting. These techniques, which are collectively referred to as traditional painting, resemble the art of calligraphy in practice because they use a brush that is dipped in ink rather than oils. Traditional painting is typically done on paper and silk, but is sometimes also done on other media.
The art of Chinese painting has matured over thousands of years into an amalgamation of styles, subjects, and cultures. Its history spans throughout several dynasties, evolving with each one. The art form has progressed from silk to paper, realism to spiritualism, and unknown to beloved.