This is my first tutorial introducing shan shui (山水) painting.  The term shan shui painting means landscape painting.  Shan shui  painting has a long history of at least 1600 years in China. Landscape painting at first served merely as the background of figure paintings (similar to the famous Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci).  After many centuries, landscape of hills and mountains with waterfalls and rivers became the subject of the paintings.

Mountains have long been seen as sacred places in China. They are viewed as the homes of the immortals and mountain tops are close to the sky.  Philosophical interest in nature has contributed to the rise of shan shui painting. The mountains are drawn high and large and figures in the paintings are usually drawn small. This emphasises how minor the human presence is in the vastness of the universe.

Shan shui painting also depicts escapism from harsh realities such as when a dynasty was overthrown.

Artists have used brush-strokes in various ways to depict the surface texture as well as light and shade in hills and rocks. These ‘textural strokes’, ‘moulding strokes’ or ‘shading strokes’ are collectively called “ts’un” or “cūn” (皴). For the past 1300 years, many different forms of ts’un (皴) and their variations have been invented. At least ten types of ts’un are commonly seen in shan shui paintings. In this first tutorial, only two common forms – the hemp-fibre ts’un (披麻皴 ) and bent ribbon ts’un (折帶皴) are introduced.

Instead of copying my work, I strongly recommend my students to learn from the masterpieces of the old masters. I will analyse the composition and the brushstrokes of each masterpiece.

The first piece I would like to talk about is a miniature work of Dǒng Qíchāng (董其昌) of the Ming Dynasty (明朝).

董其昌山水册頁 (1)
a miniature work of Dǒng Qíchāng 董其昌山水册頁


The painting is made up of two parts – the foreground with a few big trees, houses and a bridge leading to a small shore. The background is made up of hills and mountains. In between is water. The water may be a river or a pond. The foreground and background echo with each other.

I shall explain below step-by-step how to copy this painting, with sketches by me on each step.  I have included short explanations in Chinese in each of the sketches.

Stage 1 – We usually start the painting by drawing the trees in the foreground. The tree trunks are outlined first. More branches are added onto the trees. I always recommend my students to use very pale grey ink to sketch the outline.  The pale ink is made by diluting the black ink with a lot of water on a palate.  After the sketching has been finalised, darker and firmer lines can be drawn onto the pale lines.

Stage 1
Stage 1


Stage 2 – Then leaves in symbols of ‘m’ or ‘inverted w” (个字點 或 介字葉贴), small black dots (胡椒點), small vertical strokes (小垂葉點) or small circles (夾葉小圈), etc are added to the tree branches. The symbols can be put in group of three (品字型). This can form a pattern with variations. The edge of the foliage should not be too straight or too regular.

Stage 2
Stage 2


Stage 3 – After the trees have been drawn, start drawing the rocks of the foreground. The rocks come in different sizes, big ones surrounded by smaller ones.

Houses and bridges can be added. It is important that the walls of a house have to be vertical. The bridge should be supported by strong bases or foundations.

Stage 3
Stage 3


Bent ribbon ts’un (折帶皴) is widely used to shade the small rocks in the foreground.

Stage 4 – The next stage is to draw the mountains in the background. Firstly, sketch the outline (勾劃輪廓) using pale grey ink (淡墨).


Stage 4
Stage 4









Stage 5 – Once the sketch is finalised, darker lines can be added. It is essential that the background should be lighter in tone (色調) than the foreground.

Stage 5
Stage 5


Stage 6 – The following series of diagrams show the steps in drawing a rock:

  1. Sketch the outline (勾)
  2. Adding ts’un (皴), textural strokes
  3. Rubbing / smudging (擦) : add some dry and pale rough lines to smudge with the ts’un strokes. This can help to merge the strokes together.
  4. Dotting (點) with small dark dots. Those dots represent small trees or shrubs on the tops of the hills or among the boundaries of rocks.
  5. Colouring (染) : different colours usually brown (赭石) and blue (花青) are put onto the rocks and trees. Green colours are used for spring and summer scenes. Brown colour is common in autumn scene. Instead of using colours, pale ink of different shades can be used for this processing to give more tone and contrast to the painting. The blank paper without ink shows white colour. The blank paper is used to represent water, sky, snow, etc.
Stage 6
Stage 6


Stage 7 – Putting an inscription of the artist name and the date of the work with a red seal is the last job.

The finished work in ink only before colouring looks like this.

Finished work.
Finished work dated Chinese New Year Day of 2015 (乙未元旦)


Dong Qichang (董其昌): courtesy name Xuan zai (玄宰) (1555–1636), was a Chinese artist, calligrapher, scholar, art historian and theorist in the later period of the Ming Dynasty. He was the leader of a group of literati who influenced the style of shan shui painting for the next 300 years in Chinese art history.

Acknowledgements :

I would like to thank Mr IP Chit Hoo (葉哲豪老師), my art teacher who generously and unreservedly passed on the vast knowledge of shan shui painting to me. Mr Ip celebrated his 97th Birthday in Hong Kong a few days ago. I would like to follow his footsteps to pass my knowledge unconditionally and wholeheartedly to anyone who is interested in this amazing fine art.

I would also like to thank Miss Maria Yip, Mr Ip’s daughter for her continued support and encouragement.


Further reading:

Mustard-seed Manual of Painting (芥子園畫傳)

Cahill, James (1976) Hills beyond a river – Chinese Painting of the Yuan Dynasty, 1279 – 1368 Weatherhill

Cahill, James (1978) Parting at the Shore – Chinese Painting of the Early and Middle Ming Dynasty, 1368 – 1580  Weatherhill

Cahill, James (1982) The Distant Mountains – Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Dynasty, 1570 – 1644 Weatherhill

Cahill, James (1982) The Compelling Image – Nature and Style in Seventeenth – Century Chinese Painting, Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-15280-8

5 thoughts on “Shan shui (山水) Painting Tutorial 1

  1. Dear Patrick, thank you so much for creating such an informative, erudite and easily accessible on-line tutorial program on Shan Shui painting to share with all of us who are interested in learning more about this art form in a contemporary context. Very well done!
    Art grows when it is shared.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Patrick what fantastic resources, so well explained but that would be because you are a generous, experienced and natural teacher. I have looked at all the 4 tutorials and have learnt so much. I loved the information about the mixing and application of blues and greens. There is so much to know about any art practice and having access to well developed explanations unlocks a new world to explore.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for sharing and tutoring the Shan Shui/landscape painting. This tutorial is excellent, clear and systematic. It is a good practice and can lay a foundation of learning and painting the Chinese landscape in future.


    Liked by 1 person

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