Oriental Art

by Gloria McMillan
Reprint permission from The Sonoran Arthropod Studies, INC.
(Backyard BugWathching Issue 14, 1992)

The art of ink painting in countries such as China and Japan has evolved in an amalgamation curious to Westerners of seeming dualities: old and new, mannered and spontaneous, realistic and abstract, subjects both trivial and profound.

As Chinese painting evolved, there was tension between the dictum of the Taoists’ Model After Nature and the urge to show one’s admiration for the classic models of painting by copying and repeating the formal brushstrokes of predecessors. Work closely following nature usually did not fare as well as the more stylized pieces.

Classifiable as both spontaneous and seemingly trivial, insects have long been a favorite subject for Oriental painters. The beginning of insect painting in China has been traced to the twelve insects found in Beautiful Birds Sketched From Life, an album of painting models meant for his son made by the artist Huang Ch’uan (887-965?). (From the sound of the title, insects may have been the beautiful dinners for these beautiful birds!)

There are insect painting dating from the Sung (960-1279) and Yuan (1260-1290?) Dynasties which also give models for painters. One such scroll of insects painted during the Yuan Dynasty is attributed to Ch’ien Husan (1235-1290?). A much later collection of models for painting insects was the well-known and much-used Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual, attributed to Wang Kai, who was active from about 1677 to his death in 1705. The Manual has inspired the painted depiction of insects for nearly three centuries.

Both academic and folk painters in the Orient have a limited reliance upon visual modeling after real-life insects. Other elements, such as poetic license and symbolism, are valued as much as the strictly zoological. The abstract groupings of interesting arthropod shapes in some of these paintings may remind viewers of Western abstract painting of the twentieth century in their emphasis on formal values.

In the late eighteenth century, there was a challenge to traditional Oriental approaches to insect painting from certain Chinese artists, labeled “Eccentrics”. Some artists known for their eccentric styles were Shih-t’ao and Pa-ta Shan-Jen (1625-1705). Pa-ta’s seemingly slapdash brushstroke was the model for many of the “Eccentric” painters, yet like his spiritual counterparts, the Zen master painters, his stroke was clear and precise. There was a large element of abstraction in Pa-ta’s work. “This was ink play at its purest, “writes a scholar, “yet it is no mere virtuosity, for Pa-ta Shan-Jen’s deceptively simple style contains the very essence of life and form of the flowers, plants, and creatures he portrays. In a few strokes he has made a complete statement…”

An admirer of Pa-ta Shan-Jen was Ch’i Pai Shih (1863-1957), the premier painter of insects in China. Noted for his breaks with tradition, Ch’i made many series of abstract groupings of arthropods. He was so noted for his shellfish paintings that Ch’i was afraid that he would be nicknamed “Shrimpy Ch’i” or “Crabby Ch’i”. His other arthropod works, mostly insects, are justly famous in China.

Ch'i Pai Shih painting

Painting by Ch’i Pai Shih

A poor boy, Ch’i Pai Shih was apprenticed to a carpenter. Perhaps it was in that shop that he discovered a copy of the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual and began to paint. He did not reach his full potential until his fifties, when he struck out on his own and began to paint insects from nature rather than from models. In 1921, Ch’i painted an album of insect pictures called The Songs of Pin Expanded. These paintings were based on some of the oldest folk songs in China, many of which deal with agricultural cycles and the behavior of insects: “In the month for the silkworms mulberry branches lengthen …” and so on. Three more insect albums of Ch’i pai Shih’s insect works have been printed: Too Bad One Can’t Hear Them: Insect Sketches by Pai Shih and Insect Paintings by Pai Shih.

Besides his freer brushstrokes, Ch’i broke with traditional painting as represented by Pa-ta Shan-Jen with his fine line renderings of insects-a technique nearly unheard of in Chinese painting. Especially eccentric were the broadly painted plants which often accompanied his insects. Explaining his style, Ch’i Pai Shih said, “The overly realistic flatters but the uncultured; a total lack of resemblance deceives the world.” Ch’i also brought his love of bright color (disliked by the cognoscenti) to his paintings of insects. However, the opinions of others seldom deterred Ch’i Pai Shih. He once said in verse, “Where the work is just right, it is said to be wrong.

He who offers a real rare jade earns only a cruel penalty. My blessed children, when you grow as old as I, You don’t have to paint against the fad of your time.”

Ch’i often spoke of the search for balance, the hallmark of Oriental art. It may be subtle; it may be asymmetric, but the balance is there. When he died at the age of ninety-four, Ch’i Pai Shih had found the balance of opposites he had sought.

Another factor in the rise of painting from live insects was the more spontaneous Japanese art of sumi-e (ink painting). These artists are also masters of attaining such a balance of opposites in their work. They employ a kinetic; approach to everything they paint, incorporating the rhythm of the arm in motion to give a balance between recording detail and living nature.

In his book Japanese Ink Painting as Taught by Ukai Uchiyama, the artist says, “Insects, in their small way, add life to a painting … While it is well to be familiar with the anatomy of these little creatures, it is the animation of their flight and their actions we wish to convey with a minimum of detail.”

How essential the insect is to Japanese painting is shown by the name of one of the most basic strokes: the mantis body stroke. This is the brushstroke used to represent the area where the blade of grass widens. A brief introduction to the basic techniques will have to suffice for a visual counterpart to this article, as reproductions of Oriental paintings are often inadequate as so much depends on the subtle nuances of the ink. The examples shown are freely adapted from the teaching book of Ukia Uchiyama.

To begin, one should have a fine hard brush for detail and a soft broad brush for the tonal washes. Practice paper may be newspaper or any other soft absorbent paper.

There are two basic inks used. The deepest black is called nobuko, and the middle gray tone is called chubuko. Although it is not in the tradition of the earlier painters, Ukai Uchiyama suggests a hint of color for the light tone washes which form the wings. Pale blue or yellow would do well in a dragonfly or butterfly wing.

Using the soft broad brush, loosely shape the entire wing in one or two very pale wet strokes, leaving a white space between the two wings for the body. Before the wings are totally dry, add any veins or markings using the small hard brush. These strokes may feather out a bit; this is to be expected. Then, with the very thin brush, paint antennae, legs, and the outlines of wings. These outlines should be painted with the darker nobuko ink.

Covering every square millimeter of space inside the insect is not important. The flecks of white paper showing in the body of the insect give the appearance of reflecting light. With these white flecks the insect will appear alive and, if we are lucky, in motion.

If the insect is worked too much or ruler-like lines are applied too carefully, the quality of life will be lost. This is one of the elements in which the art of the East has much to teach us. Much practice is given to the perfection of the spontaneous and irregular line. The linear brush stroke, called sembyo, used on the wings, legs, and other markings, is truly calligraphic. Whether or not it is spontaneous is a matter of debate among non-painters. One must trust the line to be what it ‘needs’ to be. After a while painting, a rhythm develops. So, to a degree, it is spontaneous. Sort of.

The lesson of this style of insect painting is that perfection may be found in the imperfect. Could anything be more Zen than that?