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Bilingual Arts: The shared origin of painting and calligraphy: I

Detail of a mountain in Pure and Remote View of Streams and Mountains.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the previous Bilingual Arts we introduced a piece of calligraphy to explore the interrelation of subject matter and the visual form of the characters within the calligraphic medium. Chinese characters and the brush form the core of the East Asian culture. The brush is not only an instrument for writing and expressing ideas: it is also an implement used for painting.

The Chinese literati would speak of how painting and poetry resonated with each other, one evoking the other, and of the relationship between poetry, painting and calligraphy. The artist’s approach was informed by the concept that poetry and painting have a shared origin, a theory originating from the essay “On the use of the brush by Gu, Lu, Zhang and Wu” in Famous paintings through History by the Tang writer Zhang Yanyuan (815-875 AD). The concept of yongbi — the use of the brush — is first seen in the Record of the Classification of Old Painters (completed approx. 532-552 AD) by Xie He (dates unknown) of the Southern Qi dynasty, who wrote of the “six principles of Chinese painting,” which are interpreted as resonance (qiyun shengdong); outlining compositional elements with the brush (gufa yongbi); accurate depiction of form (yingwu xiangxing); fidelity of form and color (suilei fucai); composition (jingying weizhi); and transmission through copying (chuanyi moxie). Zhang’s concept of the shared origin of painting and calligraphy laid the theoretical foundations for the calligraphic use of the brush to be applied to painting.

Calligraphy is more than a linear representation: through variations in the amount of ink on the brush the calligrapher creates the impression of spatial depth on the two-dimensional surface of the paper or silk.

The Chinese character cun originally meant the tiny lines or cracks that appeared in the skin of the face dried out by long exposure to cold winds. The cunfa — texture stoke — technique is used in landscape painting to represent trees and rocks.

During a painting, cun entailed dipping the brush in ink and water and then wiping it on a separate piece of paper to absorb some of the liquid. The artist would then draw the semi-dry brush, perpendicularly or obliquely, across the textured surface of the paper or silk. This would naturally create a dry brush effect, leaving textured traces of ink reminiscent of axe cuts.

The precipice shown in this central section of Pure and Remote View of Streams and Mountains by the Song Dynasty painter Xia Gui (active approx. 1200~1230 AD) is painted using the fupicun — axe-cut texture stroke — technique to create a layering effect and to differentiate rocks, while also giving them the impression of substance and weight. The artist would draw in the outlines of the precipice with a brush liberally loaded with ink, using it to differentiate the different layers of rock, and then paint on the finer lines on the rock surface using a lighter tone of ink and employing the zhongfeng — perpendicular to the paper, using the the brush along its central axis — method. Finally, he would have etched on the surface texture of the rock, with protrusions and crevasses, in the axe-cut texture stroke using the cunfa technique.

This cunfa technique lies somewhere between rendering lines and textures: if using the zhongfeng method, one can depict lines; if using the cefeng (oblique attack) method, one can give the impression of a surface texture.

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