Friday, October 14, 2011

Learning to Paint Bamboo

Sifting through my stockpile of pens and brushes, and I am reminded of the lessons I took when I was in grade school in the afternoons with a lady who taught me the basics of Chinese painting. I went to her house with my brother and a couple of other neighborhood kids after school. For some of them, the time spent in her kitchen was not much removed from glorified babysitting. My brother liked to draw, copying some of the cartoon characters from the stacks of how-to books she had on hand. She noticed at one point that I was interested in some of the traditional Chinese art books. I wonder if something clicked inside her when she saw that; if it made her delve into something she obviously loved.

She gave my parents a list of materials. That weekend we went to San Francisco's Chinatown. We entered a store that on the outside was just like the dozens of others that catered to the tourist ideal of imported Asian goods. Past the twin kierun that guarded the gilded exterior. Past racks of polyester brocade dresses, earthen tea kettles, porcelain cups and bowls, paper lanterns and umbrellas, chopsticks, incense. The basement of the store was filled with prosaic and practical goods, and more like a thrift store than the jade and glittery upstairs.

At a glass counter, my mother handed the list to the clerk, who began pulling out various brushes, and describing the providence of their hair: goat, squirrel, wolf, horse. Brushes, ink stick and stone, and translucent rice paper.

After that, my time at my teacher's house changed. No more cartoon how-to books. The other kids still doodled with pencil and googly-eyed creatures. But she showed me how to mix the ink stick with water and grind it against the stone, releasing a mellow scent like old leaves and earth, and thick black ink. The ink stick itself was cast with the relief of a dragon on it, twining down the length that lay in my hand, melting slowly in to a pool of rich darkness.

The grinding of the ink, the smell, the tactile roughness of the rice paper, the entire process becomes a part of the art-making. It is a ritual where everything and nothing happens, before the brush is even lifted.

She showed me to hold the brush straight upright, and to not let my drawing hand rest on the paper, in order to facilitate sweeping gestures. A single brush stroke was like the choreographed movement of a dance. She made it look so easy. Her hand was just an extension of arm and body and mind - graceful, elegant. It was one of the most difficult things I ever tried - creating the illusion of looseness, simplicity, and freedom with careful forethought and planning. For weeks, she made me practice dozens of pages of bamboo: graceful, stark, in black and white. Grind the ink, lay out the paper, and dance the brush across the pages.


  1. You create just as lovely pictures with words as you do with paint, Stephanie. Thank you for sharing this story. I loved reading it.

  2. Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it!

  3. What a wonderful experience!

    There's one thing I feel I've completely neglected these last ten years of focusing on digital art, and that's the physicality of painting. I've very recently started to try my hand at watercolours (for which you are undoubtedly my muse, it must be said!) and rediscovering just that: the arranging of my workspace, the pans, the brushes, the smells, and the importance TIME has. Apply paint too slowly, and you get edges you don't want. Too early, before it's dried, and you lose the edges you want. It's a completely new (and possibly more whole) way of painting.

  4. What a beautiful evokative story. Thank you for sharing your early lessons!

  5. Thank you for writing this. It's a moving and intimate memory, gently shared.

  6. Thanks for this post Stephanie. It reminds me of my own experience with brush painting lessons. These were held after Saturday afternoon Chinese classes - I often hated learning the language - its arcane runes eluded me in their complexity. But come time to paint them and I gained a different perspective and appreciation for the characters and the radicals.

    The sessions often had two parts too - we would write characters and we would paint a variety of plants and animals, all which had their own recipes for the way they should be drawn. These included bamboo, swallows and even crabs.

    It was disciplined but we still had room for self-expression. Although at the time I was probably still wrapped up in manga-mania I was excited to rigorously replicate the classic imagery and equally disappointed in my failings to live up to the standards of my teachers. It was okay though - they told me it was important to find my own style.

  7. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your experience.