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The Science and Art of the Chinese Watercolor Paint: Gemstone, Mineral and Plant Colors

In my last blog post about the Symbolism of Mythical Creatures in Xiang Li’s watercolor paintings, I also talked about the fascinating use of colors in her paintings. One of the aspects of Xiang Li’s paintings that fascinates me is the use of colors in the robes of the Empresses. I learnt that historically these robes were made of heavy, rich silk fabric for the Chinese royalty and Xiang Li has beautifully recreated that feel of the heavy and iridescent silk robes of her Empresses.

These watercolors can visually produce the richness and grandeur of a thick silk robe, as beautifully and effectively as producing the effervescence of flowers and birds in the same painting (see visual samples from her paintings below). I realized that there is something special about these watercolors. They can create a spectrum of visual effects–heavy/opaque to light/translucent (like oil and acrylic paint), and unlike regular ‘translucent-only’ watercolors that I was so used to seeing. I wanted to find out more about what made these colors so special!

Chinese Watercolor Paint

Above: Observe the contrast of the visual effect of the Empress’s robe and the flower she is holding.

In this one above, Xiang Li has used the peacock blue color to depict the strength, thickness & shine of the peacock’s neck and simultaneously used a similar color to depict the peacock’s magnificent but very feathery fan.

In my quest to learn more about these special watercolors (how they are sourced, processed, etc.), I have compiled a summary of my findings below. This summary is based on my online research and information gathered from Xiang Li and her daughter, Fei Wu.

Traditional Chinese paintings use a combination of ‘gemstone’ watercolors (actually made from gemstones) and ‘plant’ colors to create the visual effects discussed above.

Chinese Watercolor Paint: What’s Being Used?

Gemstone colors, process, and symbolism

Below are the most common types of gemstone colors, their production process, and symbolism:

Lapis Lazuli Blue or Heavenly Blue:

  • Gemstone: Lapis Lazuli, a deep blue metamorphic rock.
  • Production: Extracted from mines, Lapis Lazuli is crushed into a fine powder and mixed with a binding agent to create a brilliant blue pigment.
  • Symbolism: Represents the vastness of the sky and the boundless heavens. Used to create dreamlike landscapes and celestial scenes.

Malachite Green or Eternal Green:

  • Gemstone: Malachite, a vibrant green mineral.
  • Production: Mined and ground into a powder, Malachite is mixed with a medium such as gum Arabic to form a vivid green pigment.
  • Symbolism: Signifies everlasting vitality and growth. Malachite green is frequently employed to portray lush landscapes and symbolize harmony.

Cinnabar Red or Vermillion Harmony:

  • Gemstone: Cinnabar, a bright red mercury sulfide mineral.
  • Production: Cinnabar is ground into a powder and mixed with a binding agent. The color can vary from deep red to orange, offering a spectrum of warm tones.
  • Symbolism: Reflects the concept of balance and harmony in Chinese philosophy. Cinnabar red is used for auspicious themes and traditional motifs.

Turquoise Blue or Azure Tranquility:

  • Gemstone: Turquoise, a blue to green mineral.
  • Production: Turquoise is crushed and mixed with a binder, resulting in a captivating blue pigment used to depict serene waters and skies.
  • Symbolism: Evokes a sense of calm and peacefulness. Turquoise blue is utilized to depict serene waters, creating a tranquil atmosphere in the artwork.

Amber Yellow or Golden Radiance:

  • Gemstone: Amber, fossilized tree resin.
  • Production: Amber is ground into a fine powder and combined with a medium to create a warm, golden-yellow hue reminiscent of sunlight.
  • Symbolism: Represents warmth, sunlight, and positive energy. Amber yellow is employed to infuse artworks with a radiant glow and a sense of optimism.

Plant colors, process, and symbolism

Below are the most common types of plant colors, their production process, and symbolism:

Indigo Blue:

  • Plant: Indigofera tinctoria, a plant used for indigo dye.
  • Production: The leaves of the indigo plant are fermented and processed to create a deep blue dye, which is then mixed with a binder to produce a rich blue pigment.

Saffron Yellow:

  • Plant: Crocus sativus, the saffron crocus flower.
  • Production: Saffron threads, extracted from the flower, are used to create a golden yellow pigment when mixed with a suitable medium.

Madder Red:

  • Plant: Rubia tinctorum, the madder plant.
  • Production: Madder roots are dried, ground, and processed to produce a range of red and pink hues, symbolizing energy and passion.

Tea Brown:

  • Plant: Camellia sinensis, the tea plant.
  • Production: Tea leaves are brewed, and the resulting liquid is used to create a soft brown pigment. This color is often employed to depict earthy landscapes and traditional scenes.

Bamboo Green:

  • Plant: Bamboo, a versatile and abundant plant in Chinese culture.
  • Production: The leaves or stalks of bamboo are crushed and mixed with a medium to produce a refreshing green color, often used for depicting nature and vitality.

When used on silk, these colors have a very long life and do not require any anti-fading treatment or lamination for the finished paintings.

The rarity of these color sources and the intricate production process make these pigments very expensive. However, there are many cost-effective alternatives available today in the form of synthetic pigments which can be used by artists and hobbyists for their various needs.

Below are some examples of cost-efficient alternatives currently available in the market. For authentic gemstone colors, it would be more cost-effective to find a wholesale supplier.

Etsy: Gemstone colors, set of 24

Amazon: Traditional Chinese Watercolor made from minerals and plants, set of 12

Xiang Li’s demo of her gemstone and plant colors

You can also explore Xiang Li’s videos below with a demo of how she uses her traditional gemstone watercolors (which she gets from China). The videos show the packaging, the appearance, and the process of mixing the colors. Enjoy the videos!

Conclusion: Gemstone, Mineral and Plant Colors

It truly feels like a combination of art and science when it comes to these traditional watercolors. We hope you find this article helpful, and please let us know if there’s anything else you’d like to explore.

If you are just getting started with watercolors, you should check out our Favorite Watercolor Supplies, link below. You certainly do not need gemstone colors to become a watercolor artist! These fine supplies accessible from your local stores are great.

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