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于非闇 Yu Fei An: the calligraphies which helped me to paint

Yu Fei An: How I learned to paint flower and bird in Gongbi style?

Inkston Note: This article is an extract from Yu Fei An’s famous little book on how he paints Gongbi style flower and bird. It talks about whether you need to do calligraphy to improve your painting techniques and what type of calligraphy would help most. It also talks about how to hold brush properly – an important while always ignored point.

This article is so interesting that we decided to translate it immediately when we read this part. We are so inspired by how he explained the relationship between seal script and cursive script and painting. Also, it is not easy to get used to the way Yu Fei An recommended to hold brush. However, it is very important to get used to it if you want to paint well. Otherwise, you will restrict your potential and reach your limits very quickly. 

If you are able to read Chinese, we extremely recommend this small book from him. Inkston is a huge fan of this artist in every way.

Should I practice calligraphy?

Li Yang Bing Qian Gua

Although I have been citing examples of over 3000 years old oracle writing as the origin of Chinese painting, I do not believe practicing big or small regular calligraphy would necessarily help with learning painting. Quite on the contrary, a lot of folk artists do not practice calligraphy at all. Instead, they started with practicing drawing circles, squares, straight lines, and different sizes of ink dots. These are very popular and good practices. However, in order to learn how to control your wrist and strength, learning calligraphy seems inevitable. The warning here is practicing calligraphy properly. This does not mean writing big or small size regular script.

Knowing how to control your wrist, your strength, and your accuracy of using brush will help your strokes strong, mellow and full, flexible and vivid. For me, the most useful calligraphy practice is to do seal script, especially the seal script of the famous seal script calligrapher 李冰阳 ‘Li BingYang’ of Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). For example, his 三坟记 ‘San Fen Ji’, 谦卦 ‘Qian Gua’ etc.

His seal script style emphasises the importance of balanced structure, beauty of mellow, and the inherent  strength of the strokes. The bigger and more balanced you write Li’s calligraphy style, the most benefit you can get to improve your painting techniques. When looking at his calligraphy, you will notice that when there is need for empty space, Li leaves it with big emptiness; when a lot of writing is required, he tries to put many strokes gathered together to form a feeling of crowd while keeping the size of each character the same. This is extremely helpful for your to form a sense of structure for painting.

Monk Huai Su ‘Zi Xu Tie’

In order to practice the curves, the balance of embellishment and dryness, the power, the continuity, and the flexibility, I have also learned the 自叙贴 ‘Zi Xu Tie’ of monk 怀素 ‘Huai Su’, a famous cursive script calligrapher from Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). This piece of work from Huai Sui very well trained me to draw flexibly the lines for my Gongbi flower and bird paintings. According to my experience, seal script, such as Li BinYang’s style, helps me paint accurately and stably; cursive script, such as monk Huai Su’s style, helps me load my brush in a fast, handsome, and artistic way. However, even if we do not practice calligraphies, we can still master these painting techniques by practicing painting circles, lines, dots, etc. as what the folk artists do. However, if you want to make your strokes more flexible and vivid, you still need to practice seal script and cursive script. These calligraphy styles are very good!

How to hold your brush?

Lastly but not the least, I have noticed that some young artists are not able to hold brush properly. Therefore, I would also like to share the way I hold my brush. I use my thumb, forefinger, and middle finger to hold the brush, while you can leave the other 2 fingers either lean on the brush or not. When you hold firmly your brush with your thumb, forefinger, and middle finger, you only move your brush by moving your wrist, elbow, and shoulder. This is very important. It does not matter what type and size of calligraphy or painting you do, remember not to move these three fingers and only use your wrist, elbow, and shoulder to control your brush. By doing this, you can paint very long lines, very round circles, and very firm bamboo stems. On the contrary, if you are used to paint by moving your three fingers, you will not be able to paint vividly.

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