Ink and Brush Painting 水墨画


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Ink and Brush painting is one of China's oldest and best known art forms; its centrality to Chinese art history is comparable to that of oil painting in Western art since the Renaissance.  Its sophisticated techniques allow for the recording of delicate visual impressions on absorbent rice paper. Traditional artists who work in this medium usually create black-and-white works which are understood and evaluated in relation to a system termed the “rhythm of the ink,” through which subtly 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 founding of the PRC, Ink and Brush painting has met with varied responses from both officials and artists, who have created entirely new genres from this traditional art form.

Gao Xingjiang, The Blind Swimmer, 2007.
Gao Xingjiang, The Blind Swimmer, 2007.



Chinese ink and brush painting is defined by a number of different styles, techniques, and genres. The most common types of painting include calligraphy, bird-and-flower painting, ink-and-wash painting, and landscape painting. The most well known of these styles, and often considered synonymous with Chinese ink painting, is ink-and-wash. The different classifications of ink painting often overlap and borrow from one another, making a rigid taxonomy difficult and frequently irresolute, however, basic distintions can be made based on thier histoical origins.


Calligraphy (Shufa 書法) is the art of writing. Works of calligraphy are simultaneously admired for their form and ability to communicate information. The first examples of Chinese calligraphy date to the Shang dynasty and have continued to evolve since this time. The art form typically uses ink brushes to create characters (Hanzi). The aesthetic qualities of calligraphy originate from the artists’ use of brush strokes as a means for expressing thoughts and emotions. The techniques and materials used in calligraphy are extremely similar to those of ink-and-wash.

Landscape painting

Landscape painting (Shan Shui 山水) is a form of ink painting that depicts natural often-monumental scenery inspired by Taoist and Neo-Confucian history. This type of painting originated in the Liu Song Dynasty and is considered the highest form of traditional Chinese ink and brush painting. Landscape painting also uses techniques associated with traditional ink-and-wash painting, however, some compositions include elements of color. Western art movements such as Impressionism were heavily inspired by this style of ink painting centuries after it was developed.

Bird-and-Flower Painting

Bird-and-flower painting (huāniǎo-huà 花鳥畫) is a form of traditional ink painting named after the subject matter it depicts and frequently uses elements of color.  Although commonly referred to as bird-and-flower painting, the art form also includes depictions of fish, insects, plants and other types of animals. Bird-and-flower painting matured as a style during the Tang Dynasty where it was divided into two primary schools. The first school was lead by Huang Quan and is characterized by a technique known as meticulous painting (gong-bi). The other school was lead by Xu Xi and typically used techniques associated with ink-and-wash painting.

Ink-and-Wash Painting

Emerging during the Tang Dynasty, Ink-and-Wash (Shui-mo hua) 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.
Guo Xi, Early Spring (1072)
Guo Xi, Early Spring (1072)

 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 ink, 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 require 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 stand 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.

Current Developments

During the Cultural Revolution, Ink-and-Brush 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 production of propaganda. The new, politicized form of ink painting (guohua) demanded the addition of color to the subtle palette of traditional Ink-and-Brush painting, as well as a new emphasis on the realistic rendering of the human form required by the proletarian themes of Social Realism. Traditional methods of applying ink were frequently and necessarily abandoned in favor of conventionally naturalistic, Western-derived techniques.

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, contemporary Chinese artists have been identified with a number of old and new Ink-and-Brush painting genres including the traditional, expressionist, documentary, and experimental. Unlikely themes are found in works such Huang Yihan’s China Post-Human Being (2007), in which the apocalypse, Western commodification, and existentialism are all evoked in a swirling, psychedelic, multi-scaled composition rendered using ink-and-wash techniques.

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 most famous Chinese contemporarey artists within the Cynical Realism or Political Pop movements sometimes use Western and modern tools (oil, acrylic, video, photography...) rather than Chinese traditional tools (ink and brush on Xuan paper). Nevertheless, on one occasion, these artists accepted the challenge to use traditional tools: that was during the "Sanya Elegant Gathering" organised by the curator Lv Peng in December 2006. The artists who attended the event were: Wang Guangyi, Zhou Chunya, Wu Shanzhuan, Mao Xuhui, Zhang Xiaogang, Zheng Fanzhi, Ye Yongqing, Yue Minjun and Zhang Peili. The result of their get together is 28 pieces, painted with traditional tools: The Sanya Collection.[1]

Increasingly, emerging artists of critical note are relying on contemporary interpretations of ink and wash.  Examples include work from Xu BingWang Jinsong, Peng Wei, Jennifer Wen Ma, Liu Qinghe, Gu Wenda, Wucius Wong, Tang Guo, Cindy Ng, and Jin Weihong.


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. "The RE-INK Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary Ink and Wash Painting 2000-2012", organized by Today Art Museum Hubei Museum of Art, 2013.04.03 -- 2013.04.16.The renewed interest is manifested with Auction Houses increasing their interest. Chinese Contemporary Ink | Christie's Private Sales, Hong Kong.Nov 21-26, 2013. Also interest is raising in western big institutionos like Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China will demonstrate how China’s ancient pattern of seeking cultural renewal through the reinterpretation of past models remains a viable creative path, December 11, 2013 - April 6, 2014. 



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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