Brush, Ink and Rice Paper

By Judee Fong

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Chinese brush painting is a remarkable discipline of brush and ink gliding gracefully on rice paper. This ancient art is alive and thriving at Goward House.

“Our group began under Nenagh Molson who taught us and gave us the name, 'Studio of Harmonious Endeavours.' When she retired, we kept the name,” says artist Ann Gibbard.

These artists share a common bond: a commitment and passion for Chinese brush painting; Goward House offers a place for like-minded artists to meet weekly to paint, and share their expertise and knowledge.

“Our eight to 10 members have all learned from experienced artists like Nenagh, John Nip, Keleasa Wong and Andy Lou,” says Ann. “We continue to meet as a group for the pure enjoyment of this art form.”

New to Victoria, Barb Mekelburg Googled for a source to buy her ink and found not only an ink supplier, but a website for Chinese brush painting. “I contacted Ann and hearing that I could paint and meet with others, I thought I had died and gone to heaven!” says Barb.

Among the group of 10, someone could always suggest a solution to a problem. Barb recalls the time she wanted to paint a lotus leaf looking as if it came out of the water.

“One of my art books suggested using cream as a “resist.” The cream is brushed on rice paper, allowed to dry and when you paint over those areas, the ink won’t penetrate, it resists. John Hart, a fellow brush artist, mentioned he was taught to use milk. There was a lively discussion on the pros and cons of milk versus cream,” says Barb. “I learned that the amount of butterfat, the type of paper, the consistency of the ink and the type of brush used can produce different results.” Barb shows one of her paintings and says, “I used this technique on my trees and it gives a misty effect because the ink can’t penetrate where the milk has soaked into the paper.”

Barbara Downie began her art career painting watercolours. When she decided to try brush painting, she found she liked it. But, it was when she encountered John Nip’s classes with calligraphy that she found her niche. “Calligraphy helps in your brush strokes and often there is some calligraphy on Chinese paintings,” says Barbara.

Many old paintings often show several sets of calligraphy, along with a number of different chops or seals. These sets of calligraphy may serve as a form of provenance as each owner would write his appreciation of the brush painting and original poetry, stamping his chop of approval.

Unlike modern landscape artists, who paint on site what they see, the ancient artists would intensely study their subject and paint from memory. With an image clearly in his mind, the artist would either paint quickly using minimal strokes called a “free-style” or execute a more detailed picture called the “fine style.” The subjects most favoured for this free-style were the cherry blossom, the bamboo, the orchid and the chrysanthemum. These came to be known as the “Four Gentlemen,” as these subjects were the most popular among the ancient scholars and artists.

“I find there is only one chance to produce what you see in your mind. I don’t do any sketches beforehand, just immediately paint,” says Ann. “If there is too much water or too much ink or the paper isn’t quite right, the painting will not be what you had hoped. There is always a margin for error because of this unpredictability.”

“It’s not just grinding your ink and preparing your mind,” says Barb. “When you hold your brush, you can’t help but think there are hundreds of years of tradition behind this technique. Once I come in and put my brush to paper, I can forget the time and I wouldn’t hear a thing around me!”

Thoughtfully, Barbara adds, “Once you put brush to paper, you’re committed. But if it’s the wrong colour ink or wrong placement of subject, you may as well begin again because this won’t be easily corrected unless it’s a landscape, which might be correctable.”

Everyone laughs in agreement as Barbara says, “Well, you do get lots of original wrapping paper from the mistakes!”

The public is invited to view Goward House’s Annual General Exhibit of all their artists including the Chinese brush artists, on display until June 2, 2010.

The Goward House Oriental Brush Artists will be showcased in their annual show in December 2010.

Goward House Chinese brush artists meet every Wednesday afternoon from 1-4 p.m. at 2495 Arbutus Road. New members who enjoy painting this art form are welcome. For more information, call Ann Gibbard, 250-477-2986 or Goward House at 250-477-4401 or visit




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