We have been asked many times about how to get started with Chinese watercolor paintings, and the basic materials you need as a beginner. Don’t worry if you feel puzzled, we will explain everything you need in plain English.
Materials for Chinese Watercolor Paintings
You can find these Chinese or Japanese watercolor paintbrushes at your local art stores in the U.S. For example, this Japanese brush set can be found at Blick Art Store. A similar set or individual brushes of various sizes are likely to be found at Artist and Craftsman Supply or Utrecht Art Supplies.
If for any reason you are unable to find an Asian brush set, simply buy a few sizes of the American / Western watercolor brushes (preferably 3 sizes: small, medium and large). The sizes are not absolute but relative to the size of your painting. For example, Xiang Li has thousands of brushes at home and you should have at least 3 to start.
For Chinese watercolor, we prefer to use more round and pointy brushes instead of flat brushes which allow more control. However, having an extra flat brush or two may be helpful for painting larger background as the color will appear more even.
Another way to look at the brushes you may need is related to the subjects you work on. Think in terms of painting lines, shapes, and texture background may help you determine the sizes of the brushes you need.
There are two major types of Chinese brushes available in the market today: sheep and wolf hair brushes (and sometimes a combination of both). At the basic level, different brushes have different qualities. A small wolf-hair brush that is tapered to a fine point can deliver an even thin line of ink, much like a pen. A large wool brush (one variation called the big cloud) can hold a large volume of water and ink.
Enough said about brushes. We’ll cover interesting tips and tricks for choosing Chinese watercolor brushes in future posts.
Paper is very important for Chinese watercolor paintings as it helps achieve the desired effects. You can practice Chinese watercolor techniques using regular watercolor paper made by brands such as Strathmore or Canson. However, if you want to work on “Xieyi”, also known as the freehand style, then rice paper is your friend. Chinese rice paper can be purchased online the price may range from $.5 to a few US dollars apiece. Ms. Li pleasantly discovered the Yasutomo Japanese rice paper if you want to give it a shot.
For beginners, it is easier to paint on rice papers that are larger in size. For this reason, Ms. Li prefers the 12” X 18” version of the Yasutomo rice paper pads to the 9” X 12” ones.
If you happen to find traditional Chinese rice paper, we highly recommend you try them out. There are various types of rice paper available in China which we can discuss in detail in future posts. The two most common selections are: “Sheng Xuan” and “Shou Xuan”. Sheng means “untreated”, or “raw” paper, whereas “Shou” means “treated”, or “cooked” paper. The treatment (or “cooking” process) referred to in this context are glue and vitriol/alum.
Without getting into technical details, Sheng Xuan is a great choice for beginners and Xieyi artists as it easily absorbs the water and color from a brush, and is also very affordable; Shou Xuan is a choice of experts and significantly more expensive – it is also more resistant to water which makes it an excellent choice for Gongbi (Meticulous painting) to achieve fine lines. For example, the Tang dynasty paintings were often completed using Shou Xuan. However, Shou Xuan can be labor intensive as it requires an artist to repeat the coloring process (i.e. transparent painting technique where similar colors have to be applied multiple times) in order to achieve the desired result.
Because rice paper is rather thin and ink can easily leak through it, Chinese watercolor artists all use something called painting felt to put underneath the rice paper. There aren’t as many options to choose from outside of China, but you can find options such as this on Amazon.
The Yasutomo Black or Ultra Black Ink is a great find. Similar to Chinese ink, this type of ink is very concentrated and can be diluted as needed.
4. Watercolor Paint
We recommend getting watercolor tube sets for the best value. The set does not need to be expensive, such as this one from Amazon is a good starting point. Either the 12-color or 18-color set should do.
As you progress in Chinese watercolor painting, you will notice the more popular colors that tend to run out in your sets. You may choose to refill the individual tubes instead of buying a new set every time to be cost-efficient.
Some of the colors Ms. Li often uses in her class include various shades of blues, yellows, and browns; and it’s good to have orange and magenta in hand. You don’t need to worry about the black color as much as the ink should cover it. Last but not least, whites are very useful in highlighting and mixing with other colors to lessen the intensity.
Voila! Hope this helps and please feel free to submit questions. We hope to deliver more information about these topics in greater detail in the future. Thanks for stopping by!