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The Beauty of Ink Painting: A Guide to Artistic Excellence

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Traditional East Asian ink painting stands as a unique medium in the art world, capable of producing, at once, images of ethereal beauty, feelings of serenity, and moments of indescribable wonder.

That is because the interplay of water’s moisture, ink’s intensity, and the paper’s absorbency offers limitless possibilities of expression to this enduring art form. Simply watch how ink gracefully melds with water, creating a mesmerizing dance of countless subtle chromatic variations.

So, how can we truly savor and appreciate the beauty of an ink painting? Many of the ancient Chinese paintings are magnificent in scale and brimming with subtle details. Luckily, as early as 1,500 years ago, an ancient scholar had the wisdom to share what to look for in masterful ink paintings.

Xie He, a celebrated Chinese artist, art critic, and connoisseur, who lived during the Southern Qi and Liang dynasties in the 6th century AD, introduced the six principles of painting (繪畫六法) in his most renowned work, Record of Old Paintings (古畫品錄), in which he furnishes us with essential guidelines for the appreciation and creation of ink paintings.

In this article, we’ll walk you through five out of the six principles by introducing 13 examples of contemporary ink painting that unite traditional painting techniques with an innovative, modern perspective.

1. Spirit resonance with rhythmic vitality 气韵生动

According to Xie, an excellent ink painting can capture the inner spirit or life force of its subject, creating a resonance between the artwork and the viewer. Whether it’s through the portrayal of human figures, majestic landscapes, or the delicate world of flora and fauna, every subject carries within itself a distinctive spirit to be discovered.

This ability to articulate the subject’s inner spirit ultimately determines the artistic value of an ink painting—a value that speaks not only to the technical prowess of the artist but also to his or her ability to breathe vitality and spirit into the creation.

This requires painters to form a deep connection with nature, enlighten to deeper philosophical values, and insightfully communicate their realizations through their artwork.


Ink Painting 1
Title: Flying Dragon, 2018
Painter: Hou Xiantang
Medium: Ink on washi paper
Size: 92 cm X 72 cm

For Taiwanese ink painter Hou Xiantang, painting is a form of escapism, an opportunity to remove himself from the constant bustling and cacophony of the city and seek solitude in a realm of tranquility.

Hou’s paintings are not only a form of escapism for himself, however, but also for the viewer. In his ink painting Flying Dragon, he masterfully depicts the peaks of a mountain range as it rises through the clouds, reminding us of the spine of a massive divine dragon flying into the sky.

The masterfully woven array of subtle tonal variations throughout the undulating landscape is juxtaposed by the misty clouds shrouding it. The clouds below are visibly thicker, concealing the landscape below them and imbuing the painting with a sense of mystery and uncertainty.


Yet above all this, comfortably nestled among pines and perched upon the mountain peak in the foreground is a small temple, unbothered by the foggy clouds below but rather looking out towards greater heights and a more boundless landscape. This sparks curiosity, prompting us to ponder what enlightened breadth of mind the temple’s resident must possess to live so utterly detached from the secular world below.

The colossal mountains themselves, though not realistically rendered, have the same humbling solemnity and magnificence of mountains in nature.

Like real mountains, although they’re humbling to see, they don’t belittle us; quite the opposite, they gently remind us that there are always greater heights to be attained and that nature is gentle and magnanimous, cradling life in its embrace.


Ink Painting 2
Title: Daybreak, 2017
Painter: Chen Shi-hang
Medium: ink on paper
Size: 198 cm x 198 cm

Although Chen Shi-hang’s Daybreak is a monotonous painting, it’s by no means less vivid than if it were done in full color. In fact, the lack of color ensures that the viewer’s attention is immediately captivated by the interplay of light and shadow.

In this painting, the mountainous landscape is just beginning to shed the blanket of night and welcome a new day with the dawn light behind the mountain ridges beginning to spill across the mountain slopes. The world holds its breath as it waits for the glorious moment when morning overtakes night and illuminates nature’s beauty.


Coordinating with the sunlight and providing further contrast to the shadowy mountains are thin, pristine waterfalls trickling over the rocks and the foot of the mountain. The water is a stark presence upon the darkest area the light has not yet touched, yet it succeeds in vividly conveying that this landscape, even as it slumbers throughout the night, is very much alive.

On a deeper level, the painting is imbued with a strong conviction that light is always just around the corner.

2. Structural use of the brush (also called “bone method”) 骨法用笔

Literally translated as the “bone method,” this technique uses brush techniques to create lines that serve as a structural foundation—or a skeleton—around which the subject’s form is conveyed.

Unlike Western oil painting, which often involves intricate layering and refining to achieve the desired effect, ink painting, rooted in the art of calligraphy, is characterized by the spontaneity and unrepeatable nature of each stroke.

The hallmark of a valuable ink painting lies in its capacity to transcend external forms to capture the essence of the subject.


Ink Painting 3
Title: Into the Wild, 2020
Painter: Hou Xiantang
Medium: ink on washi paper
Size: 72 cm x 95 cm

Shrouded by a thick fog against a stormy gray backdrop, lofty mountains loom. Hou Xiantang’s ink painting Into the Wild awakens both a self-awareness of one’s existence before nature and an impulsive desire to take up the life of a recluse.


The mountains convey the immensity of the universe—the painting’s central theme. The two horses and the cluster of trees at the bottom left offer a contrast to the mountains, further accentuating the magnitude of the landscape, while the restless grass conveys the invisible presence of a powerful wind.


Ink Painting 4
Title: Undiscovered: Mysterious Realm, 2016
Painter: Sha Ching-hwa
Medium: ink and color on xuan paper
Size: 136cmx68cm

Sha Ching-hwa’s fantastical mountain in Undiscovered: Mysterious Realm floats in the sky among the clouds. The contours of the craggy, porous mountain emphasize its peculiar appearance and multi-layered texture.

The mountain resembles both a coral rock and a meteor rock and looks as though it belongs either in the depths of the ocean or in the depths of the galaxy. In this case, Sha’s aim is not to use the “bone method” to accurately capture the characteristics of a realistic mountain but rather to transport viewers as far away from reality as possible, compel us to exercise our imagination and open the doors to a world of limitless possibilities.


The waterfall plunging down the left side of the mountain and the birds flying past it bestow a crucial spark of life upon the landscape, which, barren of vegetation, would otherwise resemble a simple rock. One might even say that the presence of the waterfall allows viewers to immediately recognize the painting’s main subject as an immense mountain and not a rock. At the same time, the waterfall and birds animate the painting by contrasting the stillness of the mountain.

3. Proper resemblance of objects 应物象形

Xie He advocated for a representation of the subject that faithfully captured both its external appearance and its inner essence. An accurate depiction of the subject’s outer appearance allows the viewer to recognize it, while the representation of its inner meaning honors the subject’s uniqueness.

Achieving both feats successfully isn’t easy. Qi Baishi, one of the greatest Chinese painting masters of the 20th century, famously said: “To be too alike is conventional, to be unlike is deceptive; the magic lies in a sense of subtle balance between resemblance and non-resemblance.”


Ink Painting 5
Title: Melody of Lingering Lotuses, 2015
Painter: Chiu Su-mei
Medium: ink and color on silver paper
Size: 99cm×58cm

Chiu Su-mei’s ink painting Melody of Lingering Lotuses contrasts life and death through color choice. The kingfisher, full of life and painted in vibrant colors, immediately catches the viewer’s attention. The bird, however, is perched on a lotus pod, surrounded by lotus leaves long past their prime.


The meticulous depiction of the leaves’ veins and their bent, twisted stalks increase the realistic quality of their appearance.

Chiu’s ink painting reminds viewers that while autumn is a time of decay, it’s not necessarily something to grieve because it merely makes the presence of the remaining life even more vibrant.


Ink Painting 6
Title: An Ode to Happiness, 2017
Painter: Chiu Su-mei
Medium: ink on paper
Size: 90cm×72cm

An example of an ink painting that captures both the visual and the spiritual essence of the subjects is Chiu Su-mei’s An Ode to Happiness.

The starlings, animated with a palpable sense of playfulness, are strategically placed on branches that zigzag rhythmically, imbuing the composition with dynamism.


Through her distinctive creative spirit, Chiu interprets a realistic scene within nature. Her astute observation and artistic mastery converge, creating an immersive tableau that invites the audience to partake in the exuberant joy radiating from the canvas.

4. Specific coloration of objects 随类赋彩

The fourth technique Xie He mentioned refers to assigning specific colors to the different elements within a painting. This technique existed before Xie, although with the rise in popularity of ink paintings after Xie’s time, this term came to be understood as a way of applying varying shades of ink.


Ink Painting 7
Title: Glistening Allure, 2016
Painter: Chen Jiu-xi
Medium: earth pigment on silk
Size: 50cm×50cm

Chen Jiu-xi expertly uses this technique in his paintings. In Glistening Allure, the birds, grapes, and praying mantis are depicted in starkly different colors. Still, the colors don’t clash; rather, they come together in the painting as a cohesive whole.


Chen’s use of colors is also not inflexible. The light green on the grapes complements the mantis’s vivid, darker green while still allowing it to stand out as a central element in the painting.


Ink Painting 8
Title: Breezy Arrival, 2020
Painter: Chen Jiu-xi
Medium: ink on silk
Size: 50cm×75cm

In the ink painting Breezy Arrival, the birds’ coloration makes them stand out distinctly from the vibrant green bamboo. The birds are likely mates, with the russet-feathered one perched on a bamboo branch being the female, and the white-feathered one with the ribbon-like tail feathers being the male.


Shades of green and yellow make up the majority of the painting’s background. The yellow background ensures that the bamboo and rock provide a setting for the birds— the main subjects—to appear in, while not being too eye-catching and distracting.

5. Planning of composition 經營位置

An excellent ink painting demands the thoughtful arrangement of various elements within the composition. The artist must masterfully balance the interplay of size, positioning, concealment, revelation, elevation, and distance of the depicted subjects to achieve overall visual harmony. This artful planning of composition is what distinguishes a remarkable ink painting from a mere illustration.

Traditional Chinese ink paintings have a unique concept of composition called liubai, literally translated as “left blank.” This term refers to the artful employment of white—or negative—space to balance and enhance the presence of the subject. The deliberate arrangement of expanses of emptiness has become a significant subject for painters and calligraphers.


Ink Painting 9
Title: Beneath the Celestial Vault, 2023
Painter: Hou Xiantang
Medium: ink on washi paper
Size: 72cm×95cm

In the ink painting Beneath the Celestial Vault, the mountain in the foreground is presented against a backdrop of mountains in the distance. The sheer size of the landscape is made obvious by how small and insignificant the building on the right and the lonely traveler on the left look.


The tension between the majestic enormity of the mountains and the man’s diminutive presence invokes a profound sense of awe, encapsulating the immeasurable aspects of time and space.


Ink Painting 10
Title: Majestic Mountains and Flowing Water, 2018
Painter: Hou Xiantang
Medium: ink on washi paper
Size: 95cm×72cm

Rolling mountains take up over eighty percent of the composition of Majestic Mountains and Flowing Water by Hou Xiantang. Meanwhile, the positioning of the waterfalls creates a sense of continuity that makes the viewer perceive these mountains as a single unit, rather than individual peaks.


The small boat positioned in the bottom left corner nearly blends in with the mountain and is easy to miss, yet the stream running down the slope at the foot of the mountain subtly draws attention to its presence.


Ink Painting 11
Title: Rippling Reflection, 2017
Painter: Chen Jiu-xi
Medium: Mineral pigment and earth pigment on Japanese Kumohada mashi paper
Size: 85cm×65cm

Motion and stillness are contrasted in Chen Jiu-xi’s masterful ink painting Rippling Reflection. The pied kingfishers, depicted in stunning vividness and positioned in two diagonal corners, mark this painting as an ingeniously subtle symbol of yin and yang.


The kingfisher on the left is a male, distinguished by the black stripe across his chest, and he is the only source of motion in the painting. The motionless kingfisher on the right is presumably a female, as pied kingfishers are often found in pairs. Yang is often associated with masculinity and action, while yin often refers to femininity and stillness.


Ink Painting 12
Title: Cherry Blossom Salmon 2, 2013
Painter: Chiu Su-mei
Medium: ink on paper
Size: 72.1cm×50cm

In the ink painting Cherry Blossom Salmon 2, Chiu Su-mei brings viewers underwater for a glimpse at the nearly-extinct cherry salmon.


A large expanse of negative space depicts the water the salmon are leisurely gliding through. The blank space gives viewers the opportunity to fill in that space for themselves with their imagination, evoking a sense of boundless freedom.


Ink Painting 13
Title: Touch of the Divine, 2017
Painter: Sha Ching-hwa
Medium: ink and color on xuan paper
Size: 70cm×97cm

Sha Ching-hwa’s painting Touch of the Divine is undoubtedly unique. Against a backdrop of an immense setting sun and rising from a sea of clouds are two mountains, peculiar not only because of their porous texture but also because of their precise, geometric shapes.


The “egg-trees” growing from the squared mountain are also a curious phenomenon, further reinforcing this scene as a fantastical landscape produced by an imaginative mind seeking to connect with the inquisitive mind of each viewer.

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