Ink-and-Wash 水墨


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Ink-and-Wash painting (Shui-mo hua) is one of the most widely used techniques in Ink-and-Brush painting. The technique is a traditional Chinese art form that allows for the recording of delicate visual impressions on absorbent rice paper. Ink is one of the most important mediums in Chinese art history, akin to the centrality of oil painting in Western art since the Renaissance. Traditional artists who work in this medium often limit themselves to the creation of works in black-and-white. Their paintings are understood and evaluated in relation to a system often termed the “rhythm of the ink,” by which different applications and gradations of ink--including wet, dry, light, dark, burned, and others--express concepts such as purity, self-reflection, and human nature. Since the Cultural Revolution, Ink-and-Wash painting has met with varied responses from both artists and officials, including the creation of entirely new genres by contemporary artists.



Emerging during the Tang Dynasty, Ink-and-Wash painting continued to develop during the Wu and Song Dynasties. However, it was not until the Ming and Qing Dynasties that the Ink-and-Wash brushstroke techniques reached their full maturation and expressive capability. A remark such as “ink has five colors” refers to the broad register of colors suggested by the layering of ink. In a refined atmosphere of delectation by connoisseurs, subtle variations in this traditional, slowly-evolving art form loomed large: Tang and Song Dynasty painters for instance, favored a wet brush technique to paint mountains and water, while Yuan Dynasty painters tended to use dry brush techniques and the layering of ink to create various gradations or colors. 

During the Cultural Revolution, Ink-and-Wash painters were initially frowned upon by party leaders as proponents of the "four olds"–-that is, old customs, old habits, old culture, and old thinking. It wasn't long, though, before officials realized that such artistic skills could be used for the pr
Guo Xi, Early Spring (1072)
Guo Xi, Early Spring (1072)
oduction of propaganda. The new, politicized form of ink painting (guohua) demanded the addition of color to the subtle palette of traditional Ink-and-Wash painting, as well as a new emphasis on the realistic rendering of the human form required by the proletarian themes of Socialist Realism. Traditional methods of applying ink were frequently and necessarily abandoned in favor of conventionally naturalistic, Western-derived techniques.

Medium & Techniques

The materials and processes employed in Ink-and-Wash painting are delicate and codified. The five ink types are: normal, light, extra-light, heavy, and burned. The interplay between materials and effects is subtle and prescribed. Achieving light areas, for example, with carefully applied heavy ink tends to
Huang Yihan China Post-Human Being (2007)
Huang Yihan China Post-Human Being (2007)
be easier than achieving darker areas with light ink, although, the thickness and absorbency of the rice paper is a factor to be considered as well. Light ink is ideal for depicting shadows, rain, fog, and snow, but painters must avoid mixing light ink with the color red or with cloudy water. Injunctions about achieving desired effects are also difficult for the non-initiated to understand, as are criteria for success, even with illustrative examples at hand. For instance, it is thought that although the inherent qualities of the materials may appear "cold," the successful painting must inspire a "sense of warmth." The desired "smooth and "reflective" surface is referred to as “bright black.” General rules for the uninitiated Ink-and-Wash painter are more straightforward. A harmonious, overall plan for the finished work should always be kept in mind. Black areas typically req
Zhang Yu, Light of Spirit Series No.60 - The Floating Incomplete Circle (1998)
Zhang Yu, Light of Spirit Series No.60 - The Floating Incomplete Circle (1998)
uire heavy ink, grey areas necessitate light ink, while white is achieved by leaving the rice paper blank. When painting a crowd, the masses of people should be defined before individual details are added. Depth is achieved through the layering of ink, but layering is not advisable, for instance, when painting a single stalk or a strand of bamboo. Nor should layering be too evenly applied or allowed to hide original patches of ink. Technically, all ink paintings where perspective is rendered through the use of Sfumato-like applications are using some type of ink-and-wash technique, but there are plenty of examples where space or depth is suggested without using ink-and-wash. This academic approach to technique and expression usually demands years of practice to achieve success.

Current Developments

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution contemporary Chinese artists have been identified with a number of old and new Ink-and-Wash genres including the traditional, expressionist, documentary, or experimental

Some artists, such as Zhang Yu, reject being classed as "Ink-and-Wash" painters. Despite employing traditional techniques to create such works as Light of Spirit Series No.60 - The Floating Incomplete Circle (1998), Zhang feels that the historic and formal associations of the term Ink-and-Wash restrict the artist who wishes to engage in artistically relevant practices. "We should get out of the limitations of the genre of Ink-and-Wash," he asserts, "And participate in the criticism, dialogues and exchanges about common problems of contemporary art." Other artists, however, embrace the traditional significance of the medium and its time-honored connections with Chinese culture, which they believe, inextricably link it to contemporary life. For them discussions of whether or not to be labeled as Ink-and-Wash painters are beside the point.


The past decade has seen the resurgence of exhibitions devoted to Ink-and-Wash painting since the First International Ink Painting Biennial at the Shenzhen Art Museum in 1998. Since then contemporary Chinese ink paintings have been the subject of major exhibitions around the world, including the 2008 Asian Art Triennial in Manchester, UK; Transforming Marks of Ink: Chinese Contemporary Ink Paintings at the Museen Dahlem in Berlin in 2008, and the exhibition A Tradition Redefined: Modern and Contemporary Chinese Ink Paintings, which traveled to the Phoenix Art Museum, Harvard University's Arthur M. Sackler Museum, and the University of Kansas's Spencer Museum of Art, among other US venues in 2009.


Melissa Chiu and Zheng Shengtian: Art and China's Revolution. New York, Asia Society, 2008.

Pi Daojian: "The History of Black and White: 50 Years of Evolution of Ink and Wash" [1]

Scritto da Huang Du: "Contemporary Chinese Ink and Wash Under Cross-Cultural Conditions" 

Scritto da Huang Du: "The Chinese Experimental Ink and Wash Seen from the Angel of the History of Art and the History of Ideology"

Chinese Painting Network 

Chinese Brush Drawing 

ARTXUN: Ink Painting

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