Ancient Chinese Landscape Painting

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

When you look at mountains or a stream tumbling over rocks, does it give you a sense of calm? It did to early Chinese artists, who created one of the earliest art forms in Asia. In this lesson, learn about ancient Chinese landscape painting.

An Old and Enduring Art Form

Chinese landscape painting is one of the oldest art forms in the world. It developed as Buddhism spread in China, and when you look at an ancient landscape scroll full of towering mountains, it gives you a sense of contemplation and calm often connected to that religion. Buildings rarely overpower nature and people are small compared to the vast landscape around them. It's no accident that the Chinese word for landscape painting, shanshui, literally means mountain water.

These paintings don't portray specific landscapes. Rather, they capture the essence or spirit of the natural world. The artist aimed to evoke a feeling rather than render a place in strict realistic style. Most of the artists were amateur painter-scholars who had the time and patience to do such work. Because they were educated people, they also wrote about painting techniques and expectations for a good work of art as far back as the 10th century. And by the end of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 906), landscape painting in China had developed into an established art form.

Types and Methods of Landscape Painting

To create a landscape painting, artists painted on paper mounted on silk, and used water-based media like ink and watercolor paints and delicate animal hair brushes. They had to be patient and focused because ink and watercolor are permanent and transparent. Any mistakes and they had to start over.

Two styles of landscape painting emerged in the Tang Dynasty. In the north, images were decorative and meticulous: strong black lines, ink washes, sharp stabs of the brush to delineate stones and other small features. Artists like Jing Hao and Guo Xi painted in this style, which was also known as blue -green landscape for the mineral pigments used.

Here's an example of this style in a landscape by artist Li Chao-tao painted during the Tang Dynasty.

Li Chao-tao, Tang Dynasty landscape in the northern style
Tang Dynasty landscape

In the south, the painting style was looser, with softer edges and rubbed brushwork that made them feel more spontaneous (free and unrehearsed). Artists like Dong Yan and Ju Rau used less color, so the works were monochromatic, meaning the tones and shades were within one color hue.

By the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279), landscapes became more atmospheric, with blurred outlines and misty landscapes. They conveyed a sense of escaping or getting away from civilization, which echoed the upheaval in China at the time during the Mongol invasion. Later, some artists began to use their calligraphic skills (writing with a brush) to render landscapes with calligraphic-like brush strokes. Artists in the Yuan Dynasty (1279 - 1368) took it one step further, creating works with poems inscribed on paintings.

Ma Yuan, Dancing and Singing - Peasants Returning from Work, 1160-1225, Song Dynasty
Ma Yuan lanscape painting

Notice the soft edges and suggested lines of the mountains with just a few swipes of the brush. The scene emerges from the mist, with the tiny figures of the title in the foreground.

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