The cymbidium orchid (Chinese: 蘭 lan) has been cultivated in China for a very long time. The flowers are delicate, exotic and graceful. Many orchids possess an elegant fragrance which is very subtle. Since the time of the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE), orchids have been associated with elegance, virtues and integrity. Over the centuries, numerous literary and philosophical works attributed other virtues to the orchid, such as friendship, loyalty, and patriotism. Because of these associations, members of the scholar-official class came to identify strongly with the flower.
The cymbidium orchid became an independent subject of Chinese painting during the Song dynasty (960–1279). Artists created meticulous depictions of the orchid employing outline and color. This kind of painting is known as gongbipainting (工筆畫), literally means painting with detailed strokes. The strokes delimit details very precisely and without independent or expressive variation. This kind of detailed painting is similar to the botanical painting of the western art.
Since the 13th century, most scholar artists chose to paint the leaves and blossoms calligraphically, using only ink. Following the Mongol conquest of the Song in 1279 and the founding of the Yuan dynasty, the “ink orchid” took on strong overtones of loyalty to the fallen regime. Those paintings may look like sketches or unfinished drawings to some people. People who appreciate Chinese calligraphy will also appreciate the beauty and the elegance of the brushstrokes. This kind of painting is known as literati painting (文人畫) or painting in free-sketch style (意筆畫).
Initially, orchid painting was popular among scholars and monk artists. Then it gained wider popularity during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties (16th–17th century) when many masterpieces were drawn.
Learning how to draw Chinese orchid
Jie Zi Yuan Huapu (芥子園畫譜) “Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden” is a manual of Chinese painting complied during the early Qing Dynasty. It was first published in 1679 in five colours and five juan (卷) or volumes. This is the most popular book for beginners to learn Chinese drawing and painting.
Orchid Painting by Lan Ying (藍瑛) (1585 – 1664)
(1) Album leaves
(2) Long scroll
Gongbi (工筆) Paintings
Some examples of Gongbi (工筆) Paintings are as follows.
Mai-mai Sze(1978) The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, Princeton University Press
Edelstein, Debra (1988) Views from Jade Terrace – Chinese Women Artists 1300-1912 Indianapolis Museum of Art