Ancient Chinese Scroll 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.

Have you ever watched a scene unfold before your eyes? That's what happens when you look at one form of Chinese art. In this lesson, we'll explore ancient Chinese scroll painting.

What is Scroll Painting?

When someone tells you to look at a painting, I'll bet you think of an image on the wall. But in Chinese art, the tradition of scroll painting presents a painting in a different way. The image is painted on a roll of paper or silk and unrolled for viewing.

There are two types of scroll painting: handscrolls and hanging, or landscape, scrolls. Neither stays on the wall all the time. The scrolls are lightweight and mobile, and meant to be enjoyed for a while and then put away, to be brought back out and viewed on special occasions.

Handscrolls are painted in a horizontal format. They're usually long and continuous. One famous 12th century work by artist Zhang Zenduan, titled Along the River during the Qingming Festival is more than seventeen feet long! Here's a section of that scroll:

Section of Along the River scroll showing a cityscape. Ink and colors on silk
section of Qingming Festival scroll

Imagine the rest of this scroll, all done with the same level of fine detail in the rendering of sailing ships, buildings and the life of this community during the festival.

Each scroll is mounted on a wooden roller with a protective silk wrapper around the outside, and stored in a special wooden box. When you want to view one, you unroll it by hand while it's flat on a table. The image, which often involves a scene or story, unfolds before you. Think of it as an illustrated book that tells a story as the pages are turned.

Unlike hand scrolls, hanging or landscape scrolls tend to be vertical. They are unrolled, can be hung on a wall and viewed all at one time. But they are still lightweight, portable and on the same silk or paper as handscrolls.

An Ancient Art Form

Chinese scroll painting is a very old art. The earliest known works were done thousands of years ago, and the idea might have originated with painted banners meant to hang in tombs. Artists at first used inks. Then the practice of wash painting, meaning brush or watercolor painting, was invented during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) and further developed during the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279). Artists used fine brushes and water-based inks or paints, made by hand from pigments (dry materials like minerals that provide color) that the artists ground themselves.

Scroll painting was also practiced in parts of Japan and Korea, but it was never adopted by Western artists, who always followed the practice of framing a painting in a rigid mount for viewing on the wall.

What's On Scroll Paintings?

Common themes on scroll paintings tend to be landscapes (including natural features like mountains and cities), people, and birds in floral settings. Here's a handscroll painted by Ma Yüan titled The Four Sages of Shangshan, done between 1220 and 1230. It's an example of people combined with landscape as a subject.

Four Sages of Shangshan
Handscroll titled Four Sages of Shangshan

Many paintings have colophons, or written comments added at a later period of time after the painting was finished. And on many scrolls, you can see small red seals, squares with calligraphic figures. They are the marks of the person who made or owned the painting, and they printed on the scroll using small, carved stones dipped in a waxy vermillion (a bright red) ink.

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