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About Chinese Brush Painting, Sumi-e

Traditional Chinese Painting, also known by the Japanese term, "Sumi-e," developed out of, and alongside, calligraphy, and therefore is very dependent on the mastery of linear brushstrokes and the integration of calligraphic inscriptions and seals with visual images. In an approach similar to Acupuncture and T'ai Qi, traditional Chinese painting involves a process of capturing and expressing "qi" -- what the Chinese call the "energy" of life, or the "life force." Individual paintings are executed quickly, in the energy ("qi") of the moment, although the brushstrokes are often practiced for hours before a painting is begun.
The Four Nobles

Because nature, in traditional Chinese culture, was believed to contain a greater life force than the human body, traditional paintings tend to depict symbolic plants, animals and landscape elements. The Chinese scholar-painters chose four plants - the "Four Nobles" or "Four Gentlemen" - that they believed symbolized qualities of character to which all humans should aspire, and that also came to represent the four seasons. The Wild Orchid represents Spring, and the virtues of humble beauty and quiet strength. Bamboo is the Summer plant, representing flexible strength, resiliency and adaptability. The Chrysanthemum is a long-lasting Fall flower that symbolizes perseverance and longevity, and the Plum Blossom is a Winter bloomer that represents hope and growth in the most severe of circumstances.

The Four (or Five) Treasures


Very specific tools and techniques were developed over the centuries to depict the essence of "The Four Nobles," and grew out of the valued elements of calligraphy.  The bamboo brush, the ink stick, the ink stone, and rice paper were considered "The Four Treasures," and now have many variations in China and Japan.  

Dr. Tonelli considers the signature stamp (or "chop") as the "Fifth Treasure," because it is critical to the composition and "flow" of the finished image, and in Chinese culture, it is said to "place the 'eye' on the dragon," that is, to give "life" to the image.

Dr. Tonelli talked with Arts & Culture Coordinator Melissa Hersh about her artwork and technique.

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