Copying Wu Bin

Here’s a step-by-step guide to painting a landscape in traditional Chinese style.

The Chinese painter Wu Bin lived during the Ming dynasty, though his birth and death dates are unknown. He painted this large hanging scroll, entitled A Thousand Peaks and Myriad Ravines, in 1617. This monochrome ink on silk work is almost surreal with its contorted mountains; a world of the imagination, although with details based on reality.

I usually paint very small but wanted to try painting something large, and I’ve always liked Wu Bin for his strange, otherwordly landscapes so I chose him as a model. I used one full size sheet of cicada wing Chinese xuan paper, which is about 28 by 55 inches. It is purchased in folded bundles and you can see the fold lines in the illustration. These will disappear when the backing sheet is applied. The small dark spots around the edges are the pins that held paper to wall.

Usually I work with my paper flat on a table but for this large work I pinned the paper to a wall so I could get back from it for a better overall view.

The first step in painting is to create an ink outline drawing
—this is pure and simple calligraphy. Next is to add some black and white texture strokes and a few light washes to indicate lights and darks.

More texture strokes are added along with more overlapping light grey wash. Although cicada wing paper is so called because it is extremely thin, it is also very strong and can be worked over and over again with multiple layers.

With more and more details and subtle buildup of layers of wash the picture approaches a finished version in black and white.

Although Wu Bin’s original was in black and white, I like color and always wonder what the old paintings would look like if colorized. So here I’m adding subtle washes of color, which also adds to the contrast.

More and more layers are added. There’s a saying that a painting must have a minimum of three or four layers. Look at details of old paintings and see if you can count how many there are; some have dozens of layers of ink and color. By using overlapping layers of subtle ink and color, depth is created. These layers intensify the color and increase the contrast.

This is the finished painting. After additional layers of color some of the lines may be gone over again in black and white to bring out the contrast, lost when washes are applied over the initial drawing. Black and white washes may also be used to bring up the contrast.

I wouldn’t use this paper again for such a large work because the paper, although relatively strong, is so thin that it tears easily and is hard to handle at this size.

At this final stage it’s interesting to compare my version with the original. Copying isn’t frowned upon in China as no two versions will be exactly alike. The goal is to capture some of the energy of the original.

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