Chinese watercolors are natural pigments bound with glue. I will explain the types, features and techniques of Chinese watercolors and how to use them.
What are Chinese watercolors?Traditional Chinese watercolors are mineral and vegetable pigments, premixed with some kind of binder, mostly animal glue. They are used in the same way as the Western watercolors by adding some water and after painting they fix perfectly on the rice paper. The main feature of genuine Chinese watercolor painting is its luminosity and transparency and that’s what vegetable and mineral pigments are all about. The purer the pigments, the more subtle their tones and brilliance will be. The quality of the pigment is also affected by the glue used, its origin and color.
The classic Chinese painting manual the Mustard Seed Garden explains the elaborate processes of how to manufacture traditional Chinese watercolors. Actually, it is still done the same way today, and if you want to know more about the Chinese alchemy of traditional pigments I recommend reading this chapter of the book. However, there is no need to make your watercolors yourself. Nowadays you can buy some of them in Western or Oriental art supply stores. I will now discuss some of the Chinese and Japanese watercolors I use myself.
Chinese Marie’s watercolor
Marie’s Chinese watercolors come in student grade, in 12 ml tubes, in sets of 12, 18, 24 or 36 Chinese watercolors. I recommend them for beginners and exercises. They are inexpensive, easy to use, but not that luminous. If you want to experiment with Chinese watercolors and spend little money, these watercolors are a fair deal. Later on, if you continue with Chinese watercolor painting you should change to more expensive Chinese/Japanese watercolors of higher quality.
You could try the high grade Marie’s Chinese watercolors, which come in sets of 12 or 18 Chinese watercolors, in 9 ml tubes. The premium Marie’s Chinese watercolors have a finer consistency and spread with more transparency.
Japanese color cakes
With the color cakes we enter the world of light.
Color cakes are small pans with color pigments. You can use them in the same way as Western watercolor cakes; pick up some color from the color pan with a wet brush and mix it with a few drops of water on a white saucier. Adding more or less color allows you to make a great variety of tones. They come in sets of 12 or 24 colors or as single color pans. Pay attention to the different range of colors of Chinese and Japanese watercolor sets; depending on your personal taste you might prefer one above the other.
Chinese watercolor chipsChinese watercolor chips are pigment chips which have to be dissolved in warm water to achieve a smooth and homogeneous dispersion on the rice paper. They are one of the best pigments for Chinese watercolor painting as they produce luminous colors, especially on unsized rice paper.
The available Chinese color chips cover some of the watercolors you need for landscape painting, flower and bird painting. Among them there are indigo, burnt sienna, vermilion, other kinds of red, lemon yellow and Chinese rattan yellow.
Rattan yellow is sold as a lump and is used differently from the smaller chips. Do not dissolve the entire chunk in water. As it crumbles easily you should only dissolve in water the amount of little pieces you need. If the chunk is hard and whole you can either grind it on an ink stone or pick up the color by passing a wet brush over the chunk. Do not bring rattan yellow to the mouth, as it is slightly toxic.
Natural pigment color sticksColor sticks of genuine vegetable and mineral pigments are in my opinion the best for Chinese or Japanese watercolor painting, but they are difficult to find and expensive. They are small sticks of pure pigment bound with little glue. Like the sumi ink sticks, you have to grind them on an ink stone. Use a different ink stone for each color and make sure you use rather inexpensive ink stones, as these pigments, some of them minerals, are abrasive. For smaller quantities of color you can rub the stick directly on the white mixing plate.
I like the natural pigment color sticks the most because you have to prepare the color yourself and concentrate on the pigment itself, while grinding it fresh before every painting session. This is probably the reason why I experience these colors as more alive once painted, as if they had an inner movement with vivid particles. The luminous quality of these watercolors is comparable to the radiance of the best ink sticks used for Japanese calligraphy or Japanese sumi painting.
What is a basic Chinese Watercolor set?
The world of colors is infinite and one can easily get lost in it. Therefore, it is useful to start with a basic set of colors and progressively extend your color range.
My own basic color set consists of the mineral pigment umber brown and the vegetable pigments indigo, rouge, umber and rattan yellow, and of course sumi.
Mixing indigo and rattan yellow gives you different green shades, while rattan yellow and rouge together bring out different red-orange shades. Umber covers the subtle brown tones and is often mixed with sumi ink. As a general rule I always grind a small quantity of ink before a painting session, which I mix with the other color pigments to create contrasts and darker shades.
If you want to extend the set of colors and have the traditional color range for landscape painting and flower painting you should add another tone of blue and green especially mineral azurite blue and malachite green and a few more red tones, like vermilion and carmine.
With these colors you can really go a long way.
Why use color?
Why use color if precisely in Chinese and Japanese painting you have a unique pictorial language at your disposal: sumi painting, painting with only one color; black and its tones. Express the most with sparse means embodies the Chinese and Japanese mind. I myself am a great admirer and follower of monochrome ink painting, and I consider it to be a most exceptional, profound painting. In the spirit of sumi painting, you depict the essence and not the outer form. You suggest more than depict, you invite more than impose, a quality that gets lost, even in art, in a world of increasing materialism of our life. As the ancient Chinese masters say, with sumi ink and its infinite richness of tones you can produce the effect of the five principal colors and even more colors than the physical eye can see. Actually, there is no need to paint with colors!
Then why paint watercolors? Some say they use color to add a more realistic sense to the subject, others just because they like colors. In Chinese watercolor painting I would add the quality of luminosity. Here colors represent not that much a material reality, but their insubstantial essence, light. While painting with colors the mind is enchanted by this light, the unique energy of a color.
Chinese watercolor techniques
Colors are used in the two mayor styles of Chinese painting, in the detailed, more academic style called kung-pi (gongbi) and in the spontaneous style hsieh-i (xieyi).
Two of the techniques of Chinese and Japanese watercolor painting I use myself are:
1. The filling-in technique
This technique is strongly related to calligraphy. First outline and shaping lines are done in sumi. Then color washes are applied within the previous brushed ink structure. Either you apply the color in a single layer or in several washes, increasing the color shades where it is needed. In this technique the sumi brush work is still the essential element, it gives strength and consistency to the painting, and colors are merely suggestive.
2. The boneless technique combined with splashing-ink technique
The main characteristic of this technique is that a previous brushed ink skeleton is completely missing. Color is the main performer on the rice paper. There is no outline or shaping lines in ink, and both, form and volume, are achieved through color only. It is especially used in flower painting, but can also be used in landscape painting.
This technique is used in the spontaneous style of painting. It is in my opinion the most interesting of the Chinese and Japanese watercolor techniques. It is comparable to the splashing ink technique that uses only ink. Here instead of ink you use color, sometimes mixed with some ink. The brush is previously loaded with the different color tones and through a masterly handling of the brush, in which the painter lifts and sets the brush continuously, the different color shades flow out of the brush. A certain degree of casualness gives this technique an additional magic.
Buying Japanese and Chinese watercolors
When you buy watercolors, if possible, buy quality watercolors that are resilient and long-lasting, which is the best way to preserve your watercolor paintings.
Click here for Chinese watercolors. At this reliable company you will find the different kinds of Japanese and Chinese watercolors I have discussed earlier.
Chinese watercolor prints
Artist Nadja Van Ghelue offers you high quality Chinese watercolor prints at her gallery of sumi paintings. Check out her Chinese watercolor paintings.
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