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Vines with Charles Leung - March 11th, 2006

Twisting, gnarled vines adorned with spectacular flowers like wisteria are a staple image of sumi-e brush painting. They remain, however, a challenge each time you pick up the brush. One person who has studied vines and their flowers for many years from right outside his Lindsay, Ontario studio is popular instructor Charles Leung. Charles led us on a fascinating outdoor workshop last year, where we learned first hand why Charles' motto is: Nature is our best teacher. This year vines and the wisteria flower were Charles' subject. 

Charles began the workshop with a discussion on brushes and paper suitable for this type of painting. Specifically, a medium-size brush that resolves to a point can be used for the entire painting. These brushes were for sale for those of us without one. Charles also recommended his favourite brush, which has bristles gathered from the ear of a bull. This type of brush is harder to find. For paper, Charles recommended a thin paper, which allows the flowers to diffuse more with the medium. 

Charles Leung discusses brushes and paper with workshop participants

There are two types of vines, Charles reminded us. The first type of vine is perennial; it grows year upon year. The branch of this vine becomes more gnarled and twisted with age. The second type of vine is an annual, appearing once a year. The branch of this vine is thinner and less twisted. Charles told us we would learn to paint both in this workshop.

The older, gnarled vine was the first painting that Charles demonstrated. In addition, Charles brought instructions on how to create the branch, so that we could remember the technique in the future. 

Instructions on how to create the older, gnarled vine

Charles drew several test brush strokes on a test piece of paper he keeps to the side of the painting. He recommended this practice to the artists gathered at the workshop. The initial brush stroke is done in one continuous line. The brush is loaded with black ink. The stroke is thick and broken with knots to indicate the age of the branch. 

First brush stroke for branch of older vine

You may run out of ink in creating the branch. When that happens, Charles suggested simply getting some more ink and continuing the branch. 

Branch completed

A secondary brush stroke showing a thin, spindly vine about the main branch is next added in another single stroke. With this secondary brush stroke, it is critical to use a brush with a point. Also, use a lighter gray to offset the black branch.  

Secondary brush stroke of a fine, spindly vine about the branch

The completed branch should be expressive but not totally fill or dominate the painting.  There must be room for the wisteria, which will be added later. 

Completed older branch

This close-up look at Charles' painting shows the contrast of the darker and lighter tones of black ink.

Close-up view of the branch showing the tones of black ink

Charles next demonstrated the annual vine. He provided some instructions for painting the branches for this vine too. The branch for the annual is thinner and has less twisting similar to young branches that one finds on trees in the spring. 

Instructions on how to create the younger, annual vine

Similar to the first painting, the initial brush stroke is with black ink and forms a continuous line. The branch is not as thick, so a brush with a point will work well for this thin branch. There are few twists, just long straight strokes that lead to notches and then more straight strokes. 

Initial brush stroke for annual vine

A secondary, very thin vine is added in a lighter tone. 

Secondary thin vine added

The completed painting of the branch shows a similar layout to the first painting, which in the picture below is beside it, but the branch is more youthful and has more of a spring. 

Completed branch for annual vine

A close-up look of Charles' painting reveals a delicate vine. 

Close-up look of annual vine

Then it was our turn. Charles had the workshop participants paint the branches and then provided advice one-on-one. 

Chares Leung offers guidance to artist

One tip Charles offered artists was to sketch a miniature of the painting. This technique lets you judge how to use the space of the painting effectively before you get wrapped up in the details of the work. 

Using a miniature sketch of a painting to understand layout and proportion

This miniature sketch gives the artist an idea of the interplay between the wisteria flower and the branch so that in the real painting the two will complement each other effectively. 

Close-up lview of miniature sketch

Charles returned to demonstrate painting the wisteria. To get the right colour for the flower involves some experimenting with a blue or purple and a white. Charles uses the Pelican white brand. To make the flower more luminescent, Charles suggested dipping the tip of the brush in water before painting the petal.  

Mixing colors for wisteria flower

As with the branches, Charles suggested testing the colour and brush stroke before painting the actual wisteria flower. 

Testing the colour and brush stroke

The wisteria petals are painted in pairs, sometimes beginning with the left petal and sometimes beginning with the right petal.  

Wisteria petals

The yellow centre of the petal is added afterwards. 

Yellow centre added to petals

At the lower end of the wisteria, younger, darker buds are added. 

Young, dark buds at lower end of wisteria

Leaves are added above the wisteria. 

Leaves added to wisteria

Branches are then added to tie the flowers and leaves together and provide a link to the original branches created earlier. 

Branches added to wisteria

A butterfly is worked into the painting to add another element to the picture and offset the plant. 

A butterfly is added to bring in another element to the painting

It was our turn again. This time we had to create the wisteria and add it to our earlier painting of the branch to create a complete painting. Charles again provided helpful advice to all the participants. 

One-on-one advice for wisteria painters

Some of Charles Leung's work was on display including this work of swans and wisteria. 

Swans and wisteria

Other paintings of vines with different flowers were also hung for viewing. 

Paintings of vines with different flowers

We were all given a gift from Charles. A bookmark that was itself a work of art! The bookmark was inscribed with Charles' motto: Nature is our best teacher. 

Bookmark gift from Charles Leung

You can find more information on Charles Leung in the links section.