This tutorial will show you how I developed a painting technique for dogwood blossoms using a Chinese approach.
Living in Atlanta every spring I am charmed by the amount of flowering trees, it reminds me of the time I spent in East Asia. The cherry blossoms in Korea and Japan and the plum blossoms in China. In fact, the plum blossom is one of the four noble gentlemen of Chinese painting and it is the flower associated with spring. There is also a very long tradition of painting these flowers that has its own technical approach. Therefore, I thought it time to explore Atlanta’s symbol of spring through an East Asian approach.
These are the traditional Chinese painting materials: Chinese brushes made from wolf and lamb’s hair, an ink stone, ink, painting trays, and a felt mat. There is an entire culture developed around these tools, far beyond the scope of this article. Unless you are really into Chinese painting, don’t go out and buy everything you see here. The Chinese brushes can be substituted with round, watercolor brushes, a flat plate and a saucer will suffice for an ink stone (I use an old Ikea plate), and as you can see from the photo I keep my water in an old jar.
More difficult to substitute are the ink, the mat, and the paper (not shown.) I have found some Japanese and Chinese ink in art stores, but the quality is somewhat lacking and the choice is far more limited. Unfortunately, this is not something you can get around. India and Dr. Brown’s ink will not work in the same way, so either poke through Chinatown looking for ink, or live with what you can get nearby. Rice paper (which is not made from rice) is available in the USA. At first, look for a sturdier paper, as you get comfortable you can use paper that allows to the ink to run. The felt mat is much more important that you may believe at a glance. It keeps the paper in place and keeps the the ink on the paper and not on the table. I’ve never seen these for sale in the USA, but I also haven’t looked. I am guessing felt bought from your local craft store will suffice.
Brushes are held differently from how we hold them in the west. Place your thumb opposite your fingers and keep the shaft of the brush away from the palm of your hand. This is awkward at first but with a little bit of time you’ll find it a very liberating way to paint. We hold the brush this way to allow your knuckles, wrist, elbow, and shoulder to act as pivot points. Again, a lot could be written about brush technique but for now, just get a feel for it through practice.
At first I assumed dogwood flowers would be similar to plum blossoms. However, after experimentation and a long time observing, I found the dogwood has a technique that is similar to painting a chrysanthemum. Plum blossoms are painted in circles; chrysanthemum petals are painted in two strokes from the end of the petal towards the center. Dogwoods work the same only the shape is different.
A dogwood has four petals evenly centered on an axis. Start at the top of the petal and move away from your starting point, then down towards the center of the flower. Do the same for the other side of the petal. Follow this technique in reverse for the petal opposite the first, and then again for the remaining petals. It’s like centering a drum or a car tire. Do all of this with watered down ink that appears gray on the paper.
Dogwood petals have a little hook at the end of the petal. To reconcile this, and to give the flower a little more emphasis, dry off the brush then load the tip with thick, black ink right from the bottle. With the tip of the brush pointing out, set the brush down lightly at the end of each petal. Now move to the inside of the flower and even more lightly make a series of dots to represent the stamen. Finally, dip your brush into water just enough to make the ink flow again and line each petal with two or three lines to show the creases in the petals.
Paint three or four flowers at a time varying the size and direction of the petals, make sure at least some of the flowers overlap and that the distance between flowers is not uniform.
Use think, black ink again to paint the branches. Even though dogwood branches are not always straight, use assertive, straight lines to create the branches and twigs. My teacher told me once to “think like a tree.” Sounds funny, but after enough practice, one really does think like a tree. Work from the inside out, the closer to the trunk the more of the brush used. Dogwood twigs are symmetrical, meaning two come out of the same point of one branch, but you can use a little artistic license to suggest depth.
Create the leaves in an upward motion. Press half of the brush into the paper and move it upward, as you do, evenly release pressure on the brush. A fun thing to do, and a mark of good Chinese painting, is to load your brush unevenly, dip the entire brush into light, gray ink, and then just the tip into think, black ink. It will give your leaf more depth. If it doesn’t work, you can always touch a brush with black ink into the base of your stroke and the color will flow.
This is the basic technique that I developed through observation and practice. Play around with it; cover a page in flower practice before trying to make a finished piece. When you do feel comfortable then have a go at a finished painting. Generally speaking the same rules of composition follow as for every other painting; vary your tone and rhythm, create emphasis in both multiplicity and unity, and most important, enjoy yourself.
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