Paint By Numbers

Andrei Marks · December 9, 2007

I’m preparing a short presentation on Chinese painting for my China Survey class, so here’s an excerpt from the textbook’s section on painting, which describes some of the features of Chinese painting in comparison to its Western counterpart.


Looking over the history of the Chinese art of painting, we can divide genres of traditional Chinese paintings in the following ways, among others: in subject matter, they can be classed into portraits, landscapes, or flower-and-bird paintings; in technique and method, they can be split into detailed brushwork paintings and freehand paintings. Detailed brushwork painting refers to paintings with neat and careful depictions, and with meticulous coloring. Freehand painting denotes the use of free, easy, and succinct brushwork, and in delineating an object’s figure, the emphasis is on expressing the artist’s creative feeling. If one were to compare traditional Chinese painting and traditional Western painting as a whole, Chinese traditional painting clearly possesses the following characteristics:

First, the prominence of lines. Traditional Chinese painting, from the very beginning, already relied on lines to depict form. Even afterwards, there were very few works that didn’t employ the use of lines; it could be said that traditional Chinese painting is basically a linear art. On the other hand, in traditional Western oil paintings and watercolors, the expression of form mainly relies on the light and shade of levels of colors, and there can even be a total absence of lines. Precisely because of this, Western painting particularly emphasizes the spreading and arrangement of color, while Chinese painting emphasizes the application of pen and ink–“Pen and Ink Technique”.

Second, the importance of likeness in spirit. During the Southern Dynasties period (420-589 CE), China’s first painting theorist, Xie He (谢赫), presented the “Six Principles of Painting”. Among these principles, the first required the expression of the image’s tone and vitality; the second required brushwork to have inherently strong, calligraphic strokes, the third principle, finally, is the precision of the subject being painted. That is to say, Xie He put “spiritual likeness” at the head, and “physical likeness” secondarily after that. Xie He’s artistic theory became the rule in Chinese painting. For instance, when painting a portrait, it’s not simply a matter of painting a person’s appearance. Rather, it is more important to portray the person’s expression and personality through their exterior, making the character more vivid and full of implication. But in traditional Western paintings, the changes in the light and color of the persons or scenery are what are pursued, along with the temporal and spatial effects of day and night, indoors and outdoors, etc. They possess a more realistic and three dimensional feeling.

Third, the integration of poetry, writing, and painting. In the West, though poetry and painting are sister arts, even if a painting itself might greatly possess poetic significance, that meaning is very rarely inscribed on the painting itself. The reason being that in the West there is no calligraphic art that can stand between poetry and painting as a harmonizing intermediary. China’s calligraphy itself possesses artistic beauty, so it is often used at add poetic accompaniment to a painting, linking poetry, writing, and painting. This creates an effect of “poetry in painting, and painting in poetry”, and gives the art more creative concept and emotional influence than a simple painting.

Although China and the West both practice the art of painting, in style and technique they are truly different. Through understanding the history of Chinese painting and the characteristics of Chinese and Western painting, it is possible to have a deeper recognition of Chinese painting as a variety of culture, and promote the improvement of one’s ability to appreciate art.


I’m just doing my presentation on landscape paintings, basically drawing on the textbook and supplementing that with what I learned in my Chinese Art History class back at school. It’s a powerpoint presentation, and I want to finish it off with some pictures by Zhang Hongtu (张宏图), who is probably my favorite painter from that class. His website is, which I actually can’t get to from here in Beijing, because it’s blocked.

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