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Chinese Painting Formats:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Chinese artists traditionally paint on silk or paper. Skilled artisans then mount the paintings to a backing with very thin paste. Silk is the more difficult medium, but is also more luxurious. Silk tends to darken with age, which explains why so many early Chinese paintings seem brown. Literati painters championed paper as the appropriate medium, as they admired its simplicity and its ability to absorb ink.

Unrolls horizontally from right to left. Meant to be looked at one section at a time. A more personal format.

Hanging Scroll
Unrolls vertically. It is held up by cords attached to a wooden slat on the top. It was hung on walls or held up for examination by servants.

Both hanging and handscrolls were rolled up and stored in wooden boxes. Paintings were changed often depending on the season or mood of the owner.

Album Leaf
A small painting, square or circular in shape. This was mounted on paper or silk and kept together in a box or between hard slats that were tied together. Each album leaf could be taken out and examined individually.

Paintings done on paper or silk were mounted onto fan frames. Some were the Japanese style folding fan, while others were an uchiwa or flat roundish Chinese fan.

Folding Screen
This format, more well known in Japanese painting, was developed by the T'ang Dynasty in China. Made of layers of heavy paper or silk placed on a wooden frame, the screen was used as a room divider or wind block. The hinges of many of these frames are made of paper as well.

Flat Screen
Large-scale like the folding screen, the flat screen was mounted on an ornate wooden frame and used to divide up rooms.

Wall Painting
Wall painting is one of the oldest painting formats in China. Murals have been found which date from the Han Dynasty, and legends of wall paintings date back to the Shang Dynasty. Very few ancient wall paintings remain because when the buildings on which they were painted were knocked down, burned, etc., the paintings were also destroyed. The earliest wall paintings still in existence come from tombs. Chinese wall paintings like the MIA's (50.41.1-3) are not done in a western wet fresco technique. Instead they are painted directly onto a dry wall. This also helps to explain why there are so few left today and why this painting is so faded.


The Three Perfections, painting, poetry, and calligraphy, are three arts that are intimately connected in the minds of educated Chinese. (Sullivan.)

Why do the Chinese write on their painting? Doesn't it spoil the picture? These are questions that one is often asked when people first see Chinese painting. Within their answer lies one of the fundamental differences between Chinese and Western painting.

The simplest inscription consists of an artist's name followed by his or her personal seal or seals. To this the artist may add a date, or perhaps the name of the person for whom the picture was painted, a note on the occasion and the style he or she has chosen to paint in.

Beyond this, the inscriptions may explore the realms of philosophy and metaphysics, art history and art criticism, and may reveal more about the private life of the painter and his or her relations with friends and patrons. An inscription of this kind can turn an ordinary painting into a very human document.

"Writing and painting," said a Chinese art historian of the 9th century, "have different names but a common body."(Chang 1)

Captions appear to be the earliest form of writing on painting. Just when painters began to integrate the inscription with the picture as an artistic whole, we cannot be sure; perhaps it was when the musician, scholar, and poet, Wang Wei (699-761?) painted his country estate and dotted the scroll at appropriate points with his poetry. His poetry like that of other T'ang painters is vividly pictorial:

We play our flutes as we cross to the far shore
And the sun is setting as I see of my friends
Turn and look back over the lake
White clouds curl on the blue hills

Did the painting inspire the poem, or the poem the painting? Both were inspired by the riverside estate itself. An 18th-century critic wrote that both poetry and painting are scholars' occupations which express human moods and feelings. Therefore, what can be a subject of poetry can also be a subject of painting, and what is vulgar in painting is like bad verse.

It became increasingly common to judge the acts of painting and calligraphy by the same critical standards. In the hands of a gentleman, the twin arts were to reach an expression of the highest levels of scholarship, sensibility and taste.

The value of the inscriptions on paintings depended on who wrote them. Needless to say, no one would dare write on a painting unless their handwriting was accomplished and the sentiments, however conventional, were elegantly expressed. There is no parallel for this in Western art.

The Chinese view of a picture is not as a complete artistic statement in itself, but as a living body, an accretion of qualities, imaginative, literary, historical, personal, that grows with time, putting on an even richer dress of meaning, commentary, and association with the years.

Seals on Chinese paintings are symbols of ownership, creation, or possession. Seals are the personal symbol of the artist, owner, and various distinguished viewers of a painting. Seals are carved from fine stones, ivory, and other hard materials such as jade or soapstone. Most are round or square in form and tend to be diminutive in size. (Although some imperial seals were enormous.) Carved into the end of a seal is a name the person liked, usually a literary or artistic name such as "old man of the mountains." The characters are carved in relief, and usually done in archaic characters called seal script.

The artist stamped the work with a seal upon its completion, or when someone took possession of it. The seals were inked in a red cinnabar paste and stamped on the painting usually near a signature or some commentary. Sometimes those who put their seals on a painting were not cognizant of its composition and would stamp it in the center of the sky or some other very obvious place. Some famous paintings are almost covered in seals.

These seals help art historians trace the ownership of important paintings. It also helps to authenticate earlier works. If a painting bears the seal of someone important it increases in value.

Seal carving became an art in its own right. A literati, besides being educated, a painter, a poet, a calligrapher, and a musician, should also be a fine seal carver!

A Chinese brush is extremely responsive and sensitive, unlike the stiffer oil paint brushes of the West. It is made of layers of animal hairs shaped to a point and attached to a supporting tube made of bamboo, lacquered wood, ceramic, etc. Brushes were made in many different sizes. Thick brushes enabled the artist to create a wash in broad stokes, while brushes made of two or three hairs allowed the artist to make thin and precise lines. The brush is like an extension of the artist's hand. It is not held like a pencil, but is held at a right angle perpendicular to the paper. Only the artist's wrist moved.

Ink was most often made from pine soot, which was combined with glue and kneaded into a thick paste and pressed into molds and dried. The blocks of dried ink that came out of these molds are called inksticks.

To turn the inksticks back into liquid the artist would pour water on the flat surface of a stone slab called an inkstone and then rub the inkstick across the surface. Depending on how long one grinds it and how much water is added, the tonality of the ink will vary from pale gray to rich black.

Color pigments were dealt with in the same way as ink. Made from plants and finely ground minerals, colors were made into sticks and were water soluble.

Although this illustration comes from a Japanese painting, it shows the universal method of grinding the inkstick on the upper part of the inkstone.

To achieve complete control of the shade of ink, water could not be haphazardly poured on an inkstone. To ensure that water was added drop by drop, water droppers were created. These small vessels could be made in any shape just as long as they were hollow and had a tiny hole from which the water could emerge. Plunged into water, a water dropper will fill up. When tilted one could have water flow out or sprinkle out just one drop at a time. Water droppers were usually made of ceramic, but were also done in metal and lacquer. The scholar's studio contained many objects that could be termed "brush paraphernalia." A studio might contain brush boats, wrist supports and special tables.


In the early 13th century the Mongols who lived beyond Central Asia attacked and conquered China. The Mongols, out of admiration and a desire to more easily control their Chinese subjects, quickly adopted Chinese ways. Yet it was an immense blow to the Chinese psyche to be ruled by foreigners.

During the initial years of Mongol rule, many of the Confucian literati, who would have ordinarily held positions in the government, went into cautious retirement-whether out of loyalty to the fallen Sung Dynasty, or for more practical reasons. Only slowly did some emerge from seclusion to accept office under the foreign rulers.

A kind of society of "recluses" came into being around the old capital of Hangchow. There, relying on old money and land, the literati visited one another, wrote poems, and practiced calligraphy and painting. Because they no longer used their talents in government, many pursued the arts—writing popular dramas and novels, as well as painting. Some of the less fortunate became teachers or turned to fortune telling. Basically the Mongols did not interfere with intellectual life.

The early Yuan painters did not have healthy traditions to build upon. During the political turmoil the imperial academy of the Sung and its many styles had become defunct. Ch'an Buddhist painters were still active, but their art was too independent to form a school. The scholar/literati rejected both. The Ch'an painting, they felt, lacked discipline, while the Sung Academy painting was too appealing with too much emphasis on the surface.

Thus the literati artists had two choices—archaism and innovation—a revival of old styles or the creation of new ones. They combined both. Literati artists who previously were on the periphery of painting, continued to be amateurs, that is they were not paid for their paintings. Now with no institutional patronage, many professional artists were unemployed, and the importance of the amateur rose.

Yuan painting was an "art based on art," that is, it was not solely based on the observation of nature, but on previous artworks. This demanded from the audience a higher degree of aesthetic sophistication. A viewer of later Chinese painting must be familiar with art history and specific styles.

Archaism in the painting style was not based so much on an admiration of past styles, but as an evocation of the past itself with all its associations. Because they despised the Southern Sung for its weakness, they looked back to the T'ang, Five Dynasties, and Northern Sung. The artists did not try to reproduce these works visually, but tried to recapture their "ancient and austere spirit." They tried to do everything opposite of the Southern Sung. Instead of wet flowing washes, they used ink sparingly. They abandoned the one corner/diagonal compositions and returned to the full detailed compositions and precise brushwork of early masters.

During the early Ming Dynasty two major movements in painting developed outside of the court. These are loosely referred to as the Che and Wu Schools. These names are based on geographical locales where the schools thrived. Che School derives from Chekiang (Zhejiang) Province and Wu from Soochow in Jiangsu Province. (Wu was the ancient name of Soochow.)

The Che school painters followed the old academy style of the Southern Sung Academy. There were a great many Southern Sung paintings left in Chekiang at that time, so the painters had firsthand models to copy. From the Southern Sung the Che school borrowed diagonal compositions, delicately graded ink washes, twisted pines, distant buildings, and the "ax-cut" brushstroke. They added to this a greater complexity in composition, more anecdotal details, a looser organization and free flow of space, and a scattering of elements in contrast to the carefully constructed Southern Sung works. The MIA's A Poet Contemplating a Waterfall, attributed to Chang Lu (62.70.9), provides an excellent example of Che school painting.(For a detailed discussion of this work, see Susan Erickson, "Cheng Lu's 'A Poet Contemplating a Waterfall'," Ming Studies 18:36-45 (Spring, 1984), in docent files.)

Wang Ch'ien's White Plum (or White Prunus, 43.5), provides an example of the integration of painting, calligraphy and poetry. Wang Ch'ien, also called Mu-chih and Ping-hu Tao-jen, came from the southern province of Chekiang where plum blossoms seem to have been the favorite motif of flower painters during the Ming Dynasty. Like bamboo, the plum was adopted as a symbol for the literati and as the first plant to bloom in the late winter, it was also a popular synonym for spring. Typical of much scholar-amateur painting the inscription records the occasion for this careful rendering: it was done as a gift for a retired officer of the imperial court. The colophon reads as follows:

I have recently received gifts of pearls and jade from my distinguished relative Shih-chai, chief Advisor to the Prime Minister, and I deeply appreciate his great kindness. I have taken this occasion to combine a poem with a flower (painting) in ink as an expression of our sincere friendship.
There never was found such a flower in the Northland.
The wave of a brush, a slanting branch,
expresses an image of thought.
Pure, clean, exalted and natural, it surpasses all
common plants; one fitting to present to the family
of a retired Statesman of the Imperial Court.
The first day of Winter (Nov. 7th) in the fifth
year of Ching Tai, being the cyclical year Chi
Hsu (1454).
Greetings from your humble relative, Wang Ch'ien.

The inscription's reference to the gifts of pearls and jewels are not literal, rather they refer to the friendship and wisdom given to the artist by Shih-Chai. Wang's poem compares the purity of the plum to the pure austere spirit of his relative. The placement of the inscription is deliberate. The plum branch wraps around the poem and sings of its spirit and the wisdom of Shih-Chai.

Before the inscription, there are two seals on the right:
1st: in four characters
" I Ming Chih I" (Seal of the artist)
2nd: in four characters
"Wan Ku Ch'ang Ch'un" (Seal of the artist)

After the inscription on the left, there is one seal in two characters:
"Mu Chih" (Seal of the artist)

On the lower left of the painting, there is one seal in four characters:
1st: in four characters
"Examined and approved by Hsu-chai"
(Seal of Pang Yuan-chi, a well-known collector)

On the lower right of the painting there are two seals:
2nd: in six characters "Approved and collected by Lai-ch'en, a genuine work"
(Seal of Pang Yuan-chi)

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Source: Docent Manual entry for <i>Chinese Painting Formats,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009