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15. Dots in Chinese brush paintings November 26, 2007

Posted by kentneo in Art.

“Se” is to explain, “Shui” is water, “Mo” is Chinese ink, “Hua” are paintings and “Dian” are dots. To explain the dots in Chinese ink-wash paintings.


[The enclosed painting is in monochrome ink of a lady under a large tree. The leaves of the tree are made up of big splashes of ink dots. The lady under the tree has several baskets filled with oranges.]


Some time ago, I wrote a piece called “Bai Miao Ming Yao” (Bai Miao painting style and Folk Songs), there were two paintings of different “Kejia Sange” (Hakka mountain song) that some admirers had bought, my friend, Mr. Zhu mailed me a photo of the piece he bought, it contained this Hakka song:-


I plucked nine baskets of fruit from the mandarin orange tree,

I didn’t know a tree could yield so much fruit,

I should replace these orange trees to grow some wick grass,

If I am in your heart why are you so agitated?


The orange tree can fill nine baskets of mandarin orange (orange and anger sound alike),

I have never had such a big temper,

I don’t want any more orange trees and will chop them down and replace with wick grass, (wick grass sounds like heart)

If I am truly in your heart I won’t be so angry.


[Double check Hakka translation!]

[As the Hakka language and many Chinese words are homomyns, many words of different meaning have the same sounds. The Hakka were able to use this quite adeptly in their songs, with men and women singing and counter singing].


Mr. Zhu added in his letter, “I like the way you used the “Pomo Diandian” [to flick the ink from the brush, creating dots on the paper] to create the plants in this painting, on top of that I like folk songs, … I know a bit of Hakka and so I have translated the poem for you in the attached sheet, please do take a look.” I don’t understand Hakka but I think their songs are fascinating, [here are is the double meaning behind the above folk song]:-


I am very angry!

I have never been so angry in my life!

You, with no heart!

But if I am in your heart, you won’t be angry.


These Hakka people sure know how to sing love songs, with Mr. Zhu’s help, he was able to make the folk song even more meaningful for me (Hua Long Dian Jin, literally “to draw the dragon’s eye”, or to make a good piece even better).


Since he mentioned about “Pomo Diandian” and I talked about the “Dian” in describing (his translation efforts with the expression) “Hua Long Dian Jin”, lets talk casually about the necessary skills, in ink-wash paintings, to do “dots”.


Ink-wash paintings consists of three types of brush strokes, (1) dots, (2) lines and (3) wrinkles (textured strokes). Lines and wrinkles are long stories, for this time, lets just talk about “dots”. As you know, in Chinese ink-wash, the black is made up of five colors/shades, so if you do Chinese ink-wash painting, you must have good ink as ink in itself consists of five colors/shades. So for ink monochromes, color is not necessary.


In ink-washes, the “dots” are like a painting’s “eyes” [the eyes are the reflection to one’s soul, they bring the painting alive]. With that, one cannot simply use dots. In Chinese history and methodology, the “Mi dots” from the “Mi Family method” are most famous.


Mi Fu (1051 – 1107) is from the Song dynasty (960 – 1279) and is the same character as “Mi Dian Bai Shi” [crazy Mi worshipping rocks]. He is known in history as a very detailed oriented specialist, a scholar and an artist and had a very big influence on his own period and thereafter. You can research him further in “Shu Gu Hua Ce”. Lets talk about how he “invented” the method to paint mountains and clouds in the “Mi family landscapes”.


In history, good landscapes used to only have “lines” or “wrinkles” and that was considered enough. If one did not need the effect of moss, one did not need to use “dots” (for examples, see Ni Chien Jian Jiang’s (research more… is this the 4 landscape artists of Yuan?) landscapes). After Mi Fu passed on, people later called him “Da Mi” (big Mi or literally big rice) and his son, Mi Ren, who continued to use his father’s method to paint landscapes was known as “Xiao Mi” (Mini Mi or small rice).


According to books on art, “Mi uses Wang Qia’s (also known as Wang Xianzi, 344 – 386) “pomo” (flicking ink), in addition to “pomo” (broken ink), jimo (piled ink) and xiangmo (dark burnt ink), that has very solid and stable looking effects. A lot of people think that Mi was good at manipulating ink and overlooked the fact that it was his mastery over the brush”.


We can see that Mi Fu was able to utilize “pomo, jimo, xiangmo and pomo” because he didn’t follow the traditional rules of the dot’s common usage and he had come to understand the inner abilities of ink and manipulated it to a very lively usage, that’s why when his brush meets the (rice) paper, every brush stroke is lively, until the unity of the ink and the brush merges. Only when the strokes are “bimo” (ink and brush) is this an ink-wash painting.


It is not only technique but the way you grind, sweep, cover and pour (ink onto paper via brush) or said another way, the way the ink spreads on paper determines the success of your painting. The most important part of ink-wash paintings is in the fact that we can observe not only every brush stroke of “ink”, it is also every brushstroke we can observe the “brush”. With this melding of brush and ink together, one can achieve landscapes with mist like scenary (Shi Tao’s (1638 – 1720) article “Yi Hua Lun” discusses this in greater detail).


“Although Mi Fu learnt a lot from Wang Qia, before Wang, Mi Fu was influenced by Dong Yuan”. To learn Mi’s method one must also research Dong Yuan’s (? – 962) paintings, notably “bei yuen”. “Mi Family Dots” can bring Chinese landscapes to the level where “negative spaces (i.e. not painted in) can look as if a dragon could be lurking around, its form not immediately recognizable” and “clear places look like a river of very bright stars”. “So to learn from Mi one can say the brush is used like an efficient ice-pick and the ink would fly”. The article goes on to say, “use ink sparingly as if it were gold, use the brush as if it were a round object, the ink and brush should meld as one, then you would have achieved “Mi””.


To learn Chinese ink-washes, one should definitely examine and research the energy from “Mi Family” paintings because from his unwavering skill do we get the effect that he uses his brush like an ice-pick, his every dot are like pearls, collectively they emanate the ink’s innate attractiveness and he brought ink-wash paintings to a whole different level. Do not merely paint sloppily (some up and some down strokes) and think that is technique and all to painting.


Dots in ink-wash paintings, in the early days were used to depict moss and actually “moss dots” were used to hide flaws in the painting, like filling the space between “lines” and “wrinkles”, where brush strokes were not executed well, then use “moss dots” to cover up. One can’t simply use dots or must necessarily use dots, so remember not to dot unnecessarily.


In ink-wash paintings, there are specialist “leaf dots”, there are tens of types with lots of different names, some examples include, “pepper dots”, “sharp dots”, “bowed head dots”, “looking up dots”, “plum flower dots”, “rat footprint dots”, “chrysanthemum dots”, “pine dots”, “collection of dots”, just to name a few. Dots are one of the foundations of painting. One has to be familiar with the water content the ink, the color of ink, the strength to use when the brush meets paper, these are all from practice, experimenting and knowing one’s body. How you derive pleasure from that is all from the “yi” or idea of the painting. 


Although painting is considered a “xiao dao” (minor dao), “dao can be dao or maybe not”, even a small dot needs technique, or does it? From the technique, one must be natural in using it, when a technique is natural, that is the best.


I also thought of Shi Tao’s other book “Shi Wan Er Dian” (ten thousand scary dots), it’s a long scroll but a very good read. In recent years, the older Huang Binhong (1865 – 1955) is able to make “collective dots” look like wrinkles, not only does he use ink to dot but also color paints to dot, layer by layer, although on the surface it looks very unorganized and very fuzzy, if you take a second look, the effect on the landscape has a lot of depth and uneven surfaces, they are really really good paintings. In the beginning some Shanghainese actually called him “Huang Lata” (dirty messy Huang) and thought his landscapes were not “clean”, if you don’t understand the technique it does look rather messy. His “li” (strength) is actually from Shi ?san’s technique of dots, in recent times, many people seek him out but do not understand where his “li” is derived from, so they can not find the path in the right direction and are like blind wanderers.


On the one hand we need to diligently innovate, “re re sin, yu sin re” (everyday new and a new day!), on the other hand we can’t discard the benefits from learning from the past, “wen gu er zi sin” (to know the past is to know the future), if you don’t study the successes and failures of the past, how do you know what to innovate for the future? The result would be a terrible failure. It is this point that has caused the eastern art world to lose its bearings and has not yet recovered.


Dots, one can say are, “like rain, like snow, like hail, like the big waves that hit the cliffs, millions of drops dispersing into a spray!” Dots, once painted, they cannot be corrected, the ink technique brings endless fascination as there is so much history and background to learn from.



1. Barbara Bornet Stumph - October 26, 2010

I really enjoyed this essay with both Chinese sayings and vocabulary, as well as insight into art techniques. As a student of Chinese brush painting, I can tell you this writing is important for us English speakers.
Sincerely, Barbara

2. Tulen Young - October 26, 2010

Thanks you so much, very enlightening.
Our Yahoo Chinese Brush Painting Group enjoyed reading about the dots.

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