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Learn to Draw > Chinese method for holding a brush

The variety of expression possible with the brush led the Chinese, and, hence, the Japanese, to adopt it for their writing. This use entailed the development of a very precise and disciplined system of hand movements which could be used equally effectively for drawing. It is natural that the brush became the classical drawing instrument in the Far East, for every literate Chinese who underwent the rigorous training in using the brush required to learn to write found himself in possession of a most expressive drawing technique as well.

In the West, brush drawing has always been purely a matter of personal choice, and with the absence of a traditional discipline it has never been used to much effect.



Japanese brush work, writing and designs

In the West the original close relationship of writing and drawing vanished long ago; nothing but the word "graphic" remains to remind us of it. It would be ridiculous here to try to use our writing as the basis of our drawing. Even the way a writer holds his hand is much too limiting and cramped for the draftsman. The edge of the writer's hand rests on the paper, while the pencil or pen is moved almost solely with the thumb and first two fingers.

This position of the hand does not allow the writing even to flow; the hand has to be moved along after every few words. This primitive hand position is adequate only because our script is legible without any subtlety of line. Only with the introduction of modern shorthand have definite differences of thick and thin strokes produced a graphic symbol which functions in much the same way as the Chinese ideograph.

In oriental character writing the brush makes eight different marks: a dot, a horizontal stroke to the left and one to the right, a vertical stroke upwards and one downwards, a hook, and two short strokes downwards, one to the left, the other to the right. These eight strokes are composed of combinations of eight different movements of the hand: laying on, lifting, drawing, lingering, pressing, turning, returning, and finishing. The beginning and the ending of each stroke are especially important, for much of the personality of the stroke depends on them.

Japanese manner of holding paint brushIn the West no one has ever thought of working out a system of this kind, not even to the extent of devising a system of hand positions and movements. This is regrettable, for after the usual cursory instruction everyone has to fumble for himself, struggling with all the inadequacies and mistakes which have made trouble for even the most proficient of his predecessors. There are, of course, countless and immensely varied examples of their finished work, but without copying them exactly every student has to start from the beginning for himself.

The Chinese draftsman, on the other hand, starts with an ancient tradition which has evolved to the greatest perfection and simplification. This tradition is based on the script. No one would be considered capable of drawing a good picture before he had developed a good hand in writing. This is understandable, for the same movements that are used for parts of characters are also used for depicting, for example, bamboo leaves, waves by the shore, pine branches, grass under snow, and meadows in morning mist. One could continue indefinitely to enumerate what can be done with the eight hand movements with their eight strokes, all with the one hand position.

This position has been so skillfully devised to use every subtlety of which the human hand is capable that all draftsmen would be well advised tcf try it. The thumb is turned slightly upwards and supports the handle of the brush against the first two fingers, which point slightly downwards. These three hold the brush. The nail of the third finger and the tip of the fourth finger guide the more delicate movements.

The hand is suspended freely, and the brush always points vertically onto the horizontal paper or silk. Only the elbow is supported, and the forearm and wrist make the larger brush movements. The vertical position of the brush makes possible the finest subtleties of movement. When the brush is held at a slope, as is usual in the West, the resultant stroke is much less controlled and sure. Chinese classical painting countenances only this single hand position, and it cannot be improved upon.

Next: Drawing hand positions





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