This tutorial consists of 4 parts :
- A study of a vertical panorama
- Great Masters of Landscape Painting in Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (五代十國)(c. 907–79) and Northern Song (北宋)(959–1126) periods
- A study of Wang Jian’s ‘Emulation of Wu Zhen’s Endless View of Mountains and Streams’ (王鑑 倣梅道人 溪山無盡)
- How can the water of a river or a lake be at the top of the painting ?
1. A study of a vertical panorama
When I was young, I thought that a high mountain like Huangshan ( 黃山) was like a skyscraper. When we stood at sea level and looked up, we could see the high peak.
Of course, it is not true. A mountain is like a pyramid with a wide base.
In fact a mountain may not have a uniformly pyramidal shape like that. The mountain is made up of a few levels. In the following model, the mountain is made up of 3 levels, the orange level (the lowest), the pink level (middle) and the blue level (highest).
When we stand at the bottom of the orange level, we cannot see the pink level. To see the pink level, we need to climb up to the top of the orange level (at altitude 1500 m). At this altitude, we may also see the blue level. A mountain like Huangshan ( 黃山) has more than one peak, it has about 36 high peaks and about 36 low peaks.
A three dimensional model is made to show the possibility of seeing the peak of the mountain at three different scenarios.
Of course when we place the camera far away enough from the model, all the three levels are visible.
Diagram 1 : the observer is at Position A, only the orange level is visible (highlighted with purple colour). As light travels in a straight line. The blue level and the pink level is under the dotted line, so they are invisible.
Diagram 2 : the observer is at Position B, further away from the mountain. Only the lower part of the pink level is under the dotted line (and therefore invisible). About 75% of the whole mountain is visible (highlighted with purple colour).
Diagram 3 : the observer is at Position C, only a very small portion of the pink level is under the dotted line (and therefore invisible). More than 90% of the whole mountain is visible (highlighted with purple colour).
However in reality, because of the curvature of the Earth’s surface, if the observer moves too far away from the mountain, the observer will drop ‘below the horizon’ and the mountain will not be visible.
Diagram 4 : the observer is at Position D, only the orange level and the very top part of the blue level is visible (highlighted with purple colour). As light travels in a straight line. Most of the blue level and the whole pink level is under the dotted line, so they are invisible.
Diagram 5 : the observer is at Position E, further away from the mountain. The whole orange level is visible together with most of the blue level and the top part of the pink level which are situated above the dotted line. But those parts below the dotted line are invisible.
Diagram 6 : the observer is at Position F or even further from F, the whole mountain is invisible as it is situated below the dotted line. Beyond Position F, the observer has dropped ‘below the horizon’.
We are familiar with this scenario – when a ship is approaching in the distance on the horizon, the mast of the ship comes into view before we can see the ship itself.
Diagram 7 : the ship is far away from observer O on the top left hand side. Again light travels in a straight line. Only the top of the mast can be seen as it is above the dotted line.
Diagram 8 : the ship is now closer to observer O, about two-third of the mast is visible as it is above the dotted line.
Diagram 9 : the ship is close enough to observer O and now the whole ship is visible as it is totally above the dotted line.
The above models show that the whole mountain can never be seen at one time or from one single location. Artists in the old days had to climb up the mountains of different levels, made sketches as camera had not been invented. (George Eastman in 1884 invented flexible, paper-based photographic film. From then onwards, outdoor photography started to become popular.)
With sketches or just with the scenes in their memory, ancient Chinese artists returned to their studies and stitched the images together to form a vertical panorama. As China has a lot of high mountains and the great masters were fond of those beautiful and inspiring mountain scenes, they painted the scenes in hanging scrolls.
Hand-scrolls are common for horizontal panorama. Please see my page on horizontal panorama:
2. Great Masters of Landscape Painting in Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (五代十國)(c. 907–979) and Northern Song(北宋)(959–1126) periods
Great artists like Jing Hao (荊浩)(c. 855-915), Guan Tong (關仝)(c. 906-960), Dong Yuan (董源)(c. 934 – c. 962), Ju Ran ( 巨然) (dates unknown), Li Cheng ( 李成)( 919–967), Fan Kuan ( 范寬)(c. 960 – c. 1030), and Guo Xi (郭熙)(1000－c1087) were seven of the great masters of landscape painting in Five Dynasties (五代)(907–960), Ten Kingdoms (十國) (c. 907–979) and Northern Song (北宋)(959–1126) periods. They all executed vertical panoramas in an artistic and poetic way. Some artists eg Dong Yuan also executed (horizontal) long scrolls. Their influence is tremendous. Their paintings are regarded as the ‘Orthodox (正統)’ landscape paintings. People follow this style generations after generations even to the present day.
Jing Hao (荊浩) Mount Kuang Lu (匡廬圖) Ink on silk 185.8 x 106.8 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei (台北 國立故宫博物院)
Guan Tong (關仝)(c. 906-960) Autumn Mountain Shadow (秋山晚翠) Ink and pale colour on silk 140.5 x 57.3cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei (台北 國立故宫博物院)
Dong Yuan (董源) (c934 – c962), Dong Tian Mountain Hall (洞天山堂圖) Ink on silk 183.2 x 121.2 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei (台北 國立故宫博物院)
Ju Ran ( 巨然) (10th century) Storied Mountains and Dense Forests (秋山問道圖) Ink on silk 144 x 55.4 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei (台北 國立故宫博物院)
Li Cheng ( 李成)( 919–967) A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks (晴峦蕭寺) Ink and light colour on silk. 111.76 x 55.88 cm. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Fan Kuan ( 范寬)(c. 960 – c. 1030) Travellers among Mountains and Streams (谿山行旅) Ink and slight colour on silk 206.3 x 103.3cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei (台北 國立故宫博物院)
Guo Xi (郭熙) (1000－c1087) Early Spring (早春圖) Dated 1072. Ink and colour on silk 158.3 x 108.1 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei (台北 國立故宫博物院)
These masterpieces are very detailed, large in size and dark in tone because of the great age. They are very difficult to be studied or copied. These masterpieces have been copied by artists generations after generations. Dǒng Qíchāng (董其昌) of the Ming Dynasty and the Four Wangs (四王) of the Qing Dynasty made excellent copies in large hanging scroll sizes and also in album leaves sizes. Dǒng Qíchāng’s (董其昌) Xiǎo zhōng jiàn dà cè (小中見大册) (‘big scenes in small leaves’) are excellent learning materials for artists. This is the reason that I encourage artists to learn from Dong and Four Wangs first, then to the great masters of Ming Dynasty and Yuan Dynasty, and finally to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms and Song Dynasty.
3. A study of Wang Jian’s (王鑑) ‘Emulation of Wu Zhen’s Endless View of Mountains and Streams’ (倣梅道人 溪山無盡)
Wang Jian’s (王鑑) ‘Emulation of Wu Zhen’s Endless View of Mountains and Streams’ (倣梅道人 溪山無盡) Dated 1664. Ink and pale colour on paper. 213.5 x 95.4 cm. Shanghai Museum (上海博物館)
Three different colours – orange, pink and blue are used to represent different altitudes. To see the scene of the pink level, the artist has to climb up to the top of the orange level. To see the view of the blue level, perhaps the artist has to climb up to the pink level.
A copy of the scroll by Patrick (dated 2014) Ink and pale colour on paper. 136 x 68 cm.
4. How can the water of a river or lake be at the top of the painting ?
The image below shows a part of a painting by Kūn Tsan 髡殘（1612－after 1674) The Pao-en Temple (報恩寺圖), dated 1664. Some people are puzzled that a river or lake is right at the top of the painting. This composition is quite different from Western landscape paintings where the artist’s perspective is based usually at ground level.
The perspective in the The Pao-en Temple is similar to an aerial view of the scenery. Of course, there was no aeroplane or air balloon in the old days. Artists used their imagination as if they were looking down from the sky. In this way, Kūn Tsan created an amazing painting.
The model below help explain this composition.
The orthodox composition of Chinese landscape painting has been discussed. The composition is a vertical panorama. In the modern days, aerial photographs of scenery can be taken. However, the image usually shows some distortions. The top part of the mountain which is closer to the camera appears bigger whereas the bottom of the mountain which is further away from the camera, is much smaller. This kind of distortion can be overcome by taking photographs horizontally at different altitudes. Imagine you are ascending up the sky in a hot air balloon, you can take photographs at uniform intervals of time. The photographs are then stitched together forming a vertical panorama.
These orthodox compositions have been studied and copied from generations to generations. Artists take the liberty of deleting or adding more hills, waterfalls, clouds, houses, etc from the compositions. This is the reason that many people found Chinese landscape painting repetitive, non-creative or even boring. However, beside composition, brush strokes, ts’un (皴), good tone of the grey ink (墨色) or the use of colours (設色) are also important for a good painting. To appreciate these abstract qualities, we need to learn and practise the skill. By executing the skill and comparing your own copy with the original work, you will appreciate how amazing the orthodox masterpieces are.
I do hope that more artists will use this ingenious vertical panorama composition to draw spectacular scenery, not only in China, but at other scenic places like the Canadian Rockies, Swiss Alps and Australia’s Snowy Mountains.
I would like to thank Mr A McElroy for his kind support and encouragement.
Bibliography and further readings :
http://jsl641124.blog.163.com/blog/static/177025143201292311436480/ 明 董其昌 仿宋元人缩本画及跋册 台北故宫博物院藏（高清 精品）(highly recommended)
Landscapes of the WANGS: Paintings by Wang Shimin, Wang Yuanqi and Loudong School from the Palace Museum and Shanghai Museum, (2011), Macau Museum of Art
Cahill, James (1960), Chinese Painting, Skira
馬郁翠 (2003) 四僧畫集 中國民族攝影藝術出版社