Where our painters have chosen wood or canvas as a ground, the Chinese have employed silk or paper. While our art recognizes that drawing itself, quite apart from painting, is a sufficient objective, drawing and painting have always been closely intermingled in the Far East. While the mediums used in Europe for painting in color, distemper, tempera and oil, led to an exact study of form, the colors employed by the Orientals—at times brilliant, at times subdued with an almost studied restraint—preserved a singular fluidity and lent themselves to undefined evanescences which gave them a surprising charm.

The early paintings were generally done on cotton, coarse silk or paper. In the eighth century, under the T’ang dynasty, the use of finer silk began. The dressing was removed with boiling water, the silk was then sized and smoothed with a paddle. The use of silken fabric of the finest weave, prepared with a thick sizing, became general during the Sung dynasty. Papers were made of vegetable fibres, principally of bamboo. Being prepared, as was the silk, with a sizing of alum, they became practically indestructible. Upon these silks and papers the painter worked with brush and Chinese ink, [1] color being introduced with more or less freedom or restraint.

The brushes are of different types. Each position of the brush conforms to a specific quality of the line, either sharp and precise or broad and quivering, the ink spreading in strong touches or thinning to delicate shades.

The colors are simple, of mineral or vegetable origin. Chinese painters have always avoided mixing colors so far as possible. From malachite they obtained several shades of green, from cinnabar or sulphide of mercury, a number of reds. They knew also how to combine mercury, sulphur and potash to produce vermilion. From peroxide of mercury they drew coloring powders which furnished shades ranging from brick red to orange yellow. During the T’ang dynasty coral was ground to secure a special red, while white was extracted from burnt oyster shells. White lead was later substituted for this lime white. Carmine lake they obtained from madder, yellows from the sap of the rattan, blues from indigo. To these must be added the different shades of Chinese ink and lastly, gold in leaf and in powder.

Plate I

Second to Third Centuries. Rubbings taken by the Chavannes Expedition.

The brush-stroke in the painting of the Far East is of supreme importance. We know that this could not be otherwise if we recall that the characters in Chinese writing are ideographs, not actually written, but rather drawn. The stroke is not a mere formal, lifeless sign. It is an expression in which is reflected the beauty of the thought that inspired it as well as the quality of the soul of him who gives it form. In writing, as in painting, it reveals to us the character and the conception of its author. Placed at the service of certain philosophical ideas, which will be set forth later on, this technique was bound to lead to a special code of Aesthetics. The painter seeks to suggest with an unbroken line the fundamental character of a form. His endeavor, in this respect, is to simplify the objective images of the world to the extreme, replacing them with ideal images, which prolonged meditation shall have freed from every non-essential. It may therefore be readily understood how the brush-stroke becomes so personal a thing, that in itself it serves to reveal the hand of the master. There is no Chinese book treating of painting which does not discuss and lay stress upon the value of its aesthetic code.