Charlotte Hopkinson '13: Starting from the Elemental: The Art of Traditional Chinese Painting

Charlotte Hopkinson was one of the 2013-2015 Shansi Fellows at Shanxi Agricultural University. This is her second year narrative. 

Last year, I spent a lot of timefocusing on cooking. I would go to all the street vendors and restaurants as well as Rui Ping, the office cook, and ask them to teach me to cook something. Not only were the results delicious, but I was simultaneously able to learn about every day Chinese life and improve my Chinese language skills.

This year, through the help of a close friend, I sought out painting lessons. I dabbled briefly in painting during my 8 weeks in Kunming and was excited to start again. I had some fairly decent success painting on my own but wanted to delve deeper into traditional Chinese painting.

My close friend set up an appointment for me with Mr. Liu–a famous painter in Taigu and Shanxi Province, a member of the Committee for Chinese Arts for Shanxi Province, and archivist for the school (though given 2/3 tables in his office are filled with painting supplies, I’m not sure what he technically does as an archivist). He often travels throughout China to do a “performance” of his painting, for which he is paid between 10,000-20,000 RMB, in addition to stipends for room, board, and transportation!

Charlotte and co-fellow Xenna, with Mr. Liu

My appointment with Mr. Liu was at his house. I walked in and was instantly overwhelmed by his artwork; not only did he have beautifully framed art, but his house also was overflowing with his paintings. We walked through a labyrinthine path carved through the mountains of paintings and scrolls covering the floor into his second studio where we discussed my interests, goals, time commitment, and payment. I also took this time to show him my own paintings. Although he said (without mincing words) that my paintings had many problems, he admitted that they were a good start and even that I had potential. Ultimately, we decided on 4 hours a week of Chinese painting and 2 hours of calligraphy. Though I exponentially preferred painting to calligraphy when I was studying in Kunming, this was nonnegotiable. In order to study Chinese painting, you MUST study Chinese calligraphy.

Chinese paintings have 3 crucial elements: 1) the painting, 2) the calligraphy, and the 3) stamp. I will explain how one goes about fulfilling all of the requirements for each elements and then the requirements for combining them.

Plum Flowers, Chrysanthemums, Orchids, and Bamboo

The painting I have studied over the past eight months is Chinese watercolor and ink painting (写意画). Most of the painting is created through varying shades of the ink by adding water. Then, adding watercolor to make the important items pop. Although the paintings look rather easy to draw as they are imprecise and freeform, there is a precise set of rules you have to follow to achieve this carefree look.

In every painting you must see:

Dry and wet elements
Dark and light elements
Thick and thin elements
Dense and scarce areas which have to coordinate balancing the painting out
One corner must be left blank

Each time you make a brushstroke, you run the risk of messing up another part of the painting; you cannot paint just one area without taking the other section into consideration.


At the beginning, Mr. Liu made me practice the basic parts of the drawing over and over and over again. I spent weeks painting plum flower branches over and over again, before I was even allowed to learn how to draw the plum flower. At home, I would practice painting branches for hours. However, my results at home were worse because I didn’t have Mr. Liu to correct every false brushstroke, how much water/ink was in brush, and the placement of my branches. After successfully studying the branches, we moved on to the flowers, and then the painting as a whole.

Charlotte’s wisteria

Through this technique of explaining the meaning of what we were painting, repeating the basic elements, and finally combining all the elements in to one complete painting, I noticed that I learned more and I learned quicker. Although this process was time consuming, in the eight months I studied with Mr. Liu we were able to study: plum flowers, bamboo, orchids, chrysanthemums, gourds, cucumber, grapes, wisteria, peonies, peaches, rocks, birds, fish, and lotus flowers.

The next element of painting is the calligraphy on the painting. First you have to choose an appropriate place to put it. How you decide which place is appropriate is still a little bit of a mystery to me. Although I used to guess wrong consistently, I have now gotten a “feel” for the appropriate location and can now correctly guess where to put the calligraphy about 80% of the time.


After deciding where to place the calligraphy, you must decide what to write. This is where I am completely lost, as are most other Chinese people who don’t study Chinese painting. Mr. Liu’s preference is to write a short bit about what the painting is, but also include some double meanings based on the features of the painting. For example, plum flowers are known for opening right at the end of winter. So if he were to write “sweet plum flowers, iron bones”. This would tell us A) about the plum flowers B) about someone or something that is resilient against all matters (as plum flowers are against the cold, harsh February weather). A picture featuring fish would probably have nine of them, as the word for nine sounds similar to the world for a “long time”. This painting (and calligraphy) would probably wish someone a good healthy life.

Luckily for me, Mr. Liu provides me with the subject matter, and I just have to copy the words down. It is a shame that I cannot come up with something poetic, however all of my Chinese friends say even they do not know how to do that. Calligraphy, at times, has proven to be more difficult than painting. Every Saturday, (along with several younger students who are exponentially better than I am at calligraphy) Mr. Liu gives me a short passage, explains it to me, and shows me how to write the characters in traditional Chinese. If there are any words that are identical within this passage, they are still written slightly (or sometimes, completely) differently so as to not bore the eye.

The final element of Chinese painting is the stamp. Mr. Liu has an impressive collection of stamps made from rocks of all different shapes, sizes, materials, and carvings. Usually, you stamp your name at the end of the calligraphy. If one corner of the painting is too empty (or the balance of the painting is off) you can restore the balance by adding a stamp in a corner of the picture. Typically, this second stamp in the corner is not one’s name, but rather a picture of a Chinese zodiac sign, a saying related to the painting, or a saying related to the painter. For example, Mr. Liu is an expert in painting bamboo. On the times that he does not paint bamboo, he will sometimes paste an “I love to paint bamboo, but did not paint bamboo” stamp in the corner. Of course, like most Chinese idioms or sayings, this idea is only expressed in four characters.

Mr. Liu taught me much more than art, he taught me about Chinese life and language, as well as the local language and lifestyle. Every painting class, he would play either patriotic Chinese music or Buddhist music. Eventually, after hours of the class, I would find myself humming along. Additionally, Mr. Liu would always make a different tea for me to try. He is particularly well-liked, which means he gets a lot of gifts, so his tea collection is delicious and expensive.

Liu’s workshop with a famous visitor painter

On several occasions I have gotten to meet some of his artists friends visiting him for help with their painting, just stopping by to chat, or to go hiking in the mountains. The best excursion was in Taiyuan were we met Mr. Liu’s teacher, who is also a Mr. Liu. We will call him Sr. Liu for simplicity’s sake. He came to Taiyuan to give a free master class in painting. The class lasted 8 hours, and we had a big feast in the middle of it. The afternoon paintings were a little sloppier thanks to that feast. During that day I was able to meet Mr. Liu’s group of artist friends who each specialize in a different style of painting. I learned that in Chinese painting, you can see the generations; your painting style resembles that of your teacher’s, and your teacher’s style resembles that of their teacher’s.

Painting Lesson in Taiyuan with Sr. Liu

This year started out with a crazy idea to learn how to paint. And, I did learn how to paint. But, I learned much more than that. I learned Chinese culture and language through an in-depth study of traditional Chinese painting with a well-respected local artist. I hope to continue to paint and study Chinese painting when I return to the United States.