Welcome to The Helpful Art Teacher, an interdisciplinary website linking visual arts to math, social studies, science and language arts.

Learning how to draw means learning to see. A good art lesson teaches us not only to create but to look at, think about and understand our world through art.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011




Before you begin this painting lesson click here for a list of suggested art supplies (and where you can find them) for your own ink paintings click here to visit
 'Mastering the art of Chinese painting' at the Metropolitan Museum of art in New York City. 
Click here to learn how to read a Chinese hand scroll.
Click here to look at Chinese landscape scrolls
 from the museum's collection.

Summer MountainsAttributed to Qu Ding (active ca. 1023–ca. 1056)

 click here to visit the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery and to read about the art of Chinese Brush Painting

A few facts about Chinese and Japanese brush painting:

Ink and wash painting originally developed in China.

The Sumi-e brush painting of Japan has it's origins in traditional Chinese painting.

In China and Japan, calligraphy and painting were traditionally considered one and the same. The same brush strokes that were used in writing were also used in

traditional Chinese and Japanese painting.

 In  1854 Commodore Perry of the U.S. Navy compelled the opening of Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa.

What did this mean to artists in Europe and the United States?
Suddenly Japanese goods became very popular. Everyone wanted things from Japan. 



 A print maker in Japan named Hiroshige created many beautiful woodblock prints.

Many of his most popular  images were landscapes.
His pictures had a tremendous influence on 19th century painters. They inspired the famous Western artists of the day to learn more about Eastern art.

Here are a few of his prints:

If you would like to see more beautiful prints by this important artist,
visit the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, New York.
Many of his prints are also on permanent display
 at the Newark Museum, in Newark New Jersey

The above pictures by Hiroshige were
 woodblock prints, NOT paintings!
Why is this important? Because woodblock prints were very inexpensive to reproduce. An artist could produce many of them in full color and sell them for very little money.

Hiroshige created so many of these prints in fact that they were often used as padding to protect fragile items being shipped to the West from Japan.

Artists like Monet, Van Gogh and Whistler loved to look at Hiroshige's art work. They began to collect his prints.

Here is one of Monet's favorite prints by Hiroshige:

Monet was so inspired by this print and by Japanese culture that he built a Japanese foot bridge in his own garden.

Here is a picture of Monet in his garden:
Monet in his garden at Giverny

Here is a painting that Monet created in his garden:

Bridge over a pond of waterlilies by Claude Monet 1899
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
To learn more about the artist Claude Monet, click here to read my post on Impressionism.

Compare this painting by Whistler...

Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge
James McNeill Whistler
Tate Gallery, London
Oil on canvas

...to this woodblock print made just a few years earlier by Hiroshige

Bamboo Yards, Kyobashi Bridge, No. 76 from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo

Artist: Utagawa Hiroshige (Ando), Japanese, 1797-1858              
       Medium: Woodblock print
                              Place Made: Japan
             Dates: 12th month of 1857

Here is one of Van Gogh's favorite prints by Hiroshige:

The Plum Garden by Hiroshige

Here is Van Gogh's painting of The Plum Garden:

The Plum Garden After Hiroshige by Vincent Van Gogh
To learn more about the artist Vincent Van Gogh,click here to read my post:
\What do artists look at when they create art? From Vermeer to Van Gogh

left: Hiroshige, "Great Bridge, Sudden Shower at Atake"
right: Van Gogh, "The Bridge in the Rain"

19th century artists were so excited by these beautiful inexpensive prints that they began to study Japanese art.
 They learned about Japanese Sumi-e brush painting
 and calligraphy. 

Van Gogh and Monet began to apply Japanese brush painting techniques to their own art work.

Here are some things that they learned:

 Japanese Sumi-e landscape painters do not draw their pictures before painting them. Instead they use a complex vocabulary of brush strokes. By combining these brush strokes they can create just about any picture without drawing it first. All of these brush strokes can be created with a soft, round bamboo brush.

Chinese landscape painters use these techniques too.
In fact, many techniques employed by Japanese Sumi-e painters have their origins in China.

19th century Western artists discovered they had much to learn from Eastern art.
 Some Chinese landscape paintings:
Poetic Twilight Clouds by Ma Wan
Yuan Dynasty - 1271–1368. Most likely 1349
The Thatched Hut of Dreaming of an Immortal early 16th century
       Tang Yin, (Chinese, 1470-1523) Ming dynasty Hand scroll;
 ink and color on paper China
Click here to read the beautiful story behind this painting
Water and Bamboo Dwelling by Ni Zan

 Landscape by Jiao Bingzhen

Project directions:

 Printable Handouts

Atmospheric perspective: Objects in the distance appear progressively lighter and less distinct as they get farther away.
You can create atmospheric perspective effects in your watercolor paintings by adding water to the paint, painting a layer of mountains and then adding more water to the paint before painting the next layer farther away.  This will create the illusion that your mountains are fading in the distance.
Use black acrylic paint or waterproof ink diluted with water to create atmospheric effects.  Try copying one of the landscapes above or invent your own.  The next day, when your painting is dry, add color using watercolor paint.  In order for this to work the black you use must be waterproof, otherwise it will smear when you add color.


Printable Handout
Chinese cloud designs

Printable handout:
Creating Waterfalls with Brush and Ink
By Rachel Wintemberg (The Helpful Art Teacher)
Printable Handout
More Landscape Elements

After your acrylic paint or waterproof India ink has dried you may add color to your landscape, using transparent watercolors.

19th century landscape artists from both Eastern and  Western cultures knew how to use advancing and receding colors to make their work look more three dimensional.

Van Gogh, Monet, Whistler and Hiroshige all used this technique: They made sure to put the brightest colors in the foreground and the duller, more muted colors
 in the background. This  gave their landscapes
a sense of depth and space.

Traditional Chinese landscape painting (Shan shui; literally Mountain-water) has very little, if any color. Shan shui painters relied instead on progressively lighter washes of ink to give their landscapes a sense of dream-like realism.

If you are using transparent watercolors, you should use water to lighten your paint.

 A small amount of black mixed with water will dull your colors and make them appear to fade. 

Use the printout below as a general guide.

The brightest colors are in the foreground.
Faded colors are in the background

Please click here and here to read my posts on atmospheric perspective and here to read my post on color theory 101,
 before adding color.

 is a beautiful animated film using traditional Chinese landscape painting techniques and music. As you are watching it, imagine that, instead of an animated cartoon, the story is unfolding as you read the pictures on a long Chinese hand scroll. Chinese hand scrolls were meant to be viewed flat on a table, as a developing story, a small section at a time. The story would begin on the right hand side of the scroll and end on the left. 

To learn more about Chinese landscape painting, click here.

Here are some  tutorials  on Chinese Landscape  painting


My cousin Hiroko grew up in Japan. She says every child in Japan is required to learn sumi brush painting. I am humbled to find that I know less about these techniques than the average Japanese elementary school student. Imagine living in a world where each and every person knows how to create beautiful artwork with just a few brushstrokes.



Additional information on traditional Chinese brush painting
courtesy of Wikipedia
“Shan shui (Chinese: 山水 lit. "mountain-water") refers to a style of Chinese painting that involves or depicts scenery or natural landscapes, using a brush and ink rather than more conventional paints. Mountains, rivers and often waterfalls are prominent
 in this art form.

Shan shui paintings involve a complicated and rigorous set of almost mystical requirements for balance, composition, and form. All shan shui paintings should have 3 basic components:

The Heart - The heart is the focal point of the painting and all elements should lead to it. The heart defines the meaning of the painting.  The concept should imply that each painting has a single focal point, and that all the natural lines of the painting direct inwards to this point.”

Paths - Pathways should never be straight. They should meander like a stream. This helps deepen the landscape by adding layers. The path can be the river, or a path along it, or the tracing of the sun through the sky over the shoulder of the mountain.. The concept is to never create inorganic patterns, but instead to mimic the patterns

that nature creates.

The Threshold - The path should lead to a threshold. The threshold is there to embrace you and provide a special welcome. The threshold can be the mountain, or its shadow upon the ground, or its cut into the sky. The concept is always that a mountain or its boundary must be defined clearly.

For the complete Wikipedia article on Shan Shui, click here.

To visit the China Online Museum and learn more about the art of Chinese landscape painting, click here.


First published in 1679, many scholars now regard The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, to be the definitive instructional text on Chinese brush painting. Click here to learn more about this influential book. If you would like to view the book, in it's entirety, including the original Chinese text and illustrations, click here. Below are some printable worksheets that I have reproduced from the book.

Print out the pictures below and refer to them as you are painting. Design your own landscape scroll. As you are working, play this short film I have created on painting waterfalls. You may follow the steps or just enjoy the relaxing scenery and music.  

How to paint a waterfall from Rachel Wintemberg on Vimeo.

Tell a story through pictures, using Chinese brush painting techniques. Use instant coffee mixed with water to 

create sepia tones. 

Create washes of black ink by adding water to black waterproof ink or acrylic paint. 

Attach two dowels to the ends  of your scroll when it is dry so that you can roll up your story as it unfolds


Why are the worksheets black and white? Where are the subtle mid-tones? Where are the gray washes that are evident in all the finest examples of Chinese Shan shui and Japanese Sumi-e brush painting?

The worksheets above are actually reproductions of woodblock prints skillfully carved to imitate the subtle strokes of a bamboo brush. This was the only means that Chinese artists had in 1679 of mass producing books.

The Mustard Seed Manual was reproduced in Edo Period Japan. Woodblock printed copies were sold in all the major cities: It came to be used by a great many Japanese artists and was a major element in the training of artists and the development of Edo period painting.

Now our story has come full circle. Hiroshige was one of the most influential artists of Edo period Japan. As you may recall from the beginning of this article, he was famous for his colorful woodblock prints.


Artists in ancient China developed a precise language of artistic brush strokes which they used for writing and art. Japanese artists and writers employed a similar vocabulary of brush strokes. Traditional Chinese landscape painting is called Shan Shui. Traditional Japanese painting is called Sumi-e. While the brush strokes have their origins in ancient China, parallel artistic styles developed in both countries. 

 In China, artists used this vocabulary of brush strokes to develop a  mystical style of landscape painting. Shan Shui landscapes have very little color. They are mostly made up of subtle washes of grays, blacks and sepia. 

Chinese landscape artists eventually shared their techniques through a book called 
The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting. 

 Japanese artists reproduced copies of this book through the art of wood block printing. 

A wood block printer in Japan named Hiroshige was influenced by these techniques to create, not the grays and browns of Shan Shui, but his own style of brightly colored landscapes. 

Western artists, like Whistler and Van Gogh, saw Hiroshige's colorful landscapes and were inspired to learn more about Japanese culture. 

Once they learned about Sumi-e, European and American artists began to develop their own energetic, expressive brush strokes in oil paint. Before the influence of Eastern brush painting, European tradition dictated that oil painters had to create artwork with smooth surfaces. Western artists of the early 19th century took great paints to faithfully and realistically reproduce nature and not let their brush strokes show. Visible brush strokes would have been considered a flaw.  With the advent of photography artists began to view the task of faithfully reproducing nature as irrelevant. They began to look for new ways to express themselves.

 Shan Shui, an ancient and rigid Eastern painting style helped Western artists to break free of the constrictions of their own traditions and create something entirely new.

Monet, Van Gogh, Whistler, Hiroshige and other famous artists did not adhere to the strict rules of Chinese Shan Shui landscape painting. Instead, they took inspiration from the art of another culture and used it as an expressive tool in their own artwork. Monet was a French artist, Van Gogh a Dutch artist, Whistler an American artist and Hiroshige a Japanese artist. They all developed distinct, personal artistic styles over the course of their careers but each took inspiration from Chinese landscape painting.

While traditional Chinese landscape painting was done using ink and a bamboo brush, it is perfectly fine to use any  medium to explore this exquisite art form.

What will you find in Chinese landscape painting to inspire you?

Below is the worksheet packet that I handed out to my class:

Student Art Gallery
Chinese Landscape Drawings by Fifth Grade Students


  1. Love this can't wait to use this in the classroom. Thank You!

  2. absolutely gorgeous and inspiring technique. thank you for the retrospective. i will meditate on it, and i will paint sumi-e

  3. really you have good site and provide unique content, we wish more

  4. Great site for sumi-e fans! I love the videos and illustrations! Great insight and explanations! I have started painting sumi-e style and am hungry to learn more. Thank you! Domo arigato!

  5. Great post, all the paintings shared by you looking awesome thanks for sharing.
    famous chinese paintings

  6. Great. Painting with heart-mind. Grateful