Materials: Xuan paper

There were a couple of problems.

1. I thought my first problem was a lack of nifty, one-day projects. (I could only think of bigger projects, and for those I found myself procrastinating, while telling myself that I was waiting for the ideas to percolate.)

Believing this to be my first problem was a problem.

I finally picked up a brush when a “nifty” idea occured to me, and this had a lovely domino effect.

2. I wanted to make use of a set of Japanese watercolors.

I’d only made color cards, by applying a wash over individual sheets of cold press watercolor paper, each cut down to just larger than a playing card.

When they dried, they curled, and despite having them underneath heavy books for a month or so, they wouldn’t remain flat. (I’ve heard of “stretching paper,” but I’ve procrastinated on that too.)

Solution: xuan paper which dries very well.

3. I wanted to compile a “book” of my “sketches” on xuan paper but the material is very thin. Creating a traditionally designed book made only of xuan paper didn’t pan out even in my imagination.

Solution: I folded a sheet of xuan paper into a “book,” which allowed me to avoid stitching pages into signatures.

4. I hadn’t posted anything in a while.

5. I had stopped reading.

Solution: I would post something about the “book” I was making.

6. I applied a wash again of each color to each panel, but it wasn’t enough for a good post. (Yes, I let the idea of what others might think have an influence on my creative life.)

Solution: I browsed through the many books I own and looked for ideas.

7. I had a few books that had been waiting to be read for… well, a long time.

Solution: Peach Blossom Spring: Gardens and Flowers In Chinese Paintings by Richard Barnhart

(I have not really sat down with this, but from what I can tell, it looks anecdotal, which I think is the best way to write about art history.)

Below is the “book” unfolded. There are eight panels and the upper middle panels are each only attached on one side.

When you fold it in half, you see the first two panels (besides the “covers”) and the last panel.

The first two panels are based on a part of Plum Blossoms By Moonlight by Ma Yuan, who was actively painting 1190-1225. (p 21)

Here’s the “book” with the two upper middle panels folded in.

The lower bottom middle panels are the third and fourth panels. For the third panel, I was looking at the flowers in Carnations and Amaranthus by Yun Shou-p’ing (1633-1690) (p 84)

For the fourth panel, I was looking at Tree Peonies (1688) by Yun Shou-p’ing (p 87)

Here’s the book folded in half and the middle panels have been flipped to reveal the third, fourth and fifth panels.

For the fifth panel, I was looking at the leaves of One Hundred Flowers by Yun Shou-p’ing (p89)

For the sixth and final panel, I was looking at the rocks or depictions of mountainside in Peach Blossom Spring (1719) by Huan Chiang (active ca 1690 – 1746) (p 115)

I have to be more patient with waiting for the wash to finish drying before adding fine lines, so it got muddled there (and elsewhere), but hopefully I’ll improve with more practice.

Below is the book neatly folded.

Folded, it’s about 5″ x 6.” The paper didn’t exactly dry smooth, but it didn’t get warped either, with some parts more stretched than others. Instead, the pages are wrinkled and only because I creased them when applying the wash.

Salvaging Old Drawings: Fire Balloons


Gaa Wai (dot) com, Figure 5c

Like the initial drawing for Solar Flare, the figure above is an old drawing which I want to make use of. I’ve been thinking of creating layers and using sketches as elements in a larger story.

In my sketchbook, the figure fills the page, but it’s like the detail of a larger image. You get a character and not a full vignette, much less a full story.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons, Oracle.JPG

The challenge of creating a story for the element goes hand in hand with the challenge of making the new drawing look like everything in it was meant for one drawing. I was looking for something simple and which the figure could naturally support. I randomly thought of fire balloons.

I prepared the paper with tea and created my first layer, which were lines depicting clouds, in the style of old Chinese paintings and painted with coffee.

I then made a carbon copy of the figure with the idea that it would act as a double image: an oracle and a fire balloon on fire.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons, sketch (1).JPG

Midway, I thought of titles, but I may have gotten ahead of myself or ahead of the drawing. I thought of “Oracle on fire and there are people watching,” and I let the words guide me, because I couldn’t think of how to complete the drawing and sketched in silhouettes of people on the bottom.

I put it away for a couple of days and when I was ready to paint, I realized it was too much or it felt contrived or it didn’t seem like the drawing was developing organically in that way. (I can’t quite articulate the problem, but people on the bottom was not the right choice.)

So I replaced them with a close up of one of the balloons, which gave me an opportunity to have two elements interact.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons

I knew, even while painting it, there were too many colors or it’s not a unified color scheme, and I definitely need to spend some time developing basic skills in watercolor. However, having completed the drawing, I could look at it critically. I could also look back at the process, which has revealed to me a few things.


New elements, like the wisps of smoke near the figure’s head and the fire/smoke in the balloon at the forefront of the picture look pretty and I’m already using them effectively as elements in this drawing, so I know I can use them again in other drawings.

They’re simple and can be used as building blocks, unlike the oracle, which seems too complex to use again in the same drawing without it looking like wallpaper or contrived in some way.


In the original drawing, the lines in the bodice of the figure feel like lines from another drawing, so it looks confused.

However, if the bodice is really a balloon and the smoother lines are really fire and smoke, there would naturally be tension between the two elements, and using different lines for each can be seen as supporting this tension.


It’s in the context of the story that this can work. It makes use of the structures that are already there and helps explain them.

There’s also the theme of Man vs Nature, and thus the oracle. Fire balloons are sent to float up into the heavens with the hope of granting wishes, while an oracle is burning. Or is the message too didactic?

The oracle having a girl’s face seems a little too explicit. Maybe I should focus more on the fire and less on the oracle… but the face is what’s pretty about the oracle. … Maybe it’s the hair, which looks too much like hair. Yes.

I’d forgotten the initial drawing had the face as the centerpiece and everything flowed from the figure of the girl, so it looked too much like a girl. It demands your attention and competes with the fire balloon as the center of everything, when it’s not anymore.


I originally had the figure in red, but decided midway that it would be difficult to use it and have an overall unified color scheme, so I added blue to make it purple.

I’m not very good with colors, and it’s something I need to work on in terms of finding what I like. You have to like what you draw in order to gauge whether or not it’s getting better or worse each time you edit the piece.

I tend to approach my work with the idea that Less is More, and for this drawing, as with many others, I want to show off the line. I tend to use the variety of colors (if there is a variety) to help me do this.

Like Flowers II, each color can help a viewer keep an eye on an element while it interacts with another element.

The elements for this drawing are Fire (bodice of the oracle, bottom fire balloon), smoke, fire balloon (intact), fire balloon (not intact) and Oracle. (Some parts double as parts of two elements.)


Layering two colors of ink looks really cool.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons, Edit 1 sketch

So I decided to limit the colors to red and black (Fire vs Smoke vs Fire Balloon) The smoke and fire balloon will both be in varying hues of gray, which suggests the fire balloons, even the ones intact, are floating up like the smoke; they are both the color of ash.

This makes room for the color of the clouds, which are painted with coffee.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons, Edit 1, sketch 2

I had considered not having clouds and actually freaked out a little when I added them midway, because they seemed to be overwhelming the figure, but after applying ink to the bottom fire balloon, it all balanced out again. One of those things you don’t know until you try.

Because they are in a different color and are a different style of line, they do not readily interact with the figure and fire balloons, and therefore add another layer or the illusion of depth. They also make the transparency of the ink more noticeable, which underscores the idea of the fire balloons being beautiful and fragile, which creates tension with their being dangerous and their power to wreak havoc on the environment when their thin shells inevitably burn and start fires elsewhere.


I still have to finish the larger balloon and add and color in a few smaller balloons but the overall idea is there.


Notes on Editing: Flowers II (Part I)

Flowers II 092018

I like the bright colors and the pinks and greens are a good contrast, but I’m far enough away from having drawn it to have a vague sense of it looking “amateurish.” But what does that word mean? And can I get away with it? I may have been thinking of “naive art,” but there is a fine line between “amateur” and “naive.” The first encourages you to change things, while the second ignited an entire art movement.

Let me first look up “naive art.” … Okay, according to our much beloved Wikipedia, “Naïve art is any form of visual art that is created by a person who lacks the formal education and training that a professional artist undergoes (in anatomy, art history, technique, perspective, ways of seeing).”[1]

Well, I can always say I’m “authentic,” as in I am a bona fide amateur. But how can this be art? …

Back to Wikipedia… “Naïve art is recognized, and often imitated, for its childlike simplicity and frankness.[2] Paintings of this kind typically have a flat rendering style with a rudimentary expression of perspective.[3]”

So… It’s imitated by artists who have had formal training in the arts. Which means… “they know what they’re doing.” Sorry, that’s another one of those phrases that get tossed around. Like being “happily surprised” by the results of one’s work in the context of other work having been criticized for being “contrived.” We praise an artist who discovered something, meaning one does not know what one is doing, and criticize an artist for knowing exactly what one is doing (and letting it show in one’s work) which can look “formulaic.” And when looking for the “it” factor, please don’t say, “You’ll know it when you see it.” That’s not helpful.

… Maybe the only way an artist can know what any of this jargon means is by actual experience with producing and evaluating one’s own art and critically seeing others’ art from an artists’ point of view.

So… back to “Flowers”… I admit… I am not “getting away with” … anything. Even for “naive art,” it’s not done well, because the elements of the work lack follow through, and in the end, it shows signs that I did not know what I was doing.

  1. There are streaks in the watercolor, which if done intentionally, could’ve been used to create the illusion of volume. Not that I wanted volume; I wanted solid blocks of color, for which gouache would’ve been good. OTOH, having time to think about it, I’ve decided against using gouache, because I like the translucency of the watercolor of the vases and the flowers often overlap with the vases; and I have other plans for the flowers anyway.
  2. The perspective isn’t only rudimentary. It’s inconsistent. You don’t see a table, but it’s implied the vases are standing on some surface, by virtue of the tops of the vases being visible and elliptical and the vases being somewhat three dimensional. Some of the flowers are also seen at an angle.  So it’s not flat and for the perspective which is there, I failed to follow through. On a more positive note, I’m glad I did not add the details of a surface, and instead allowed for it to only be implied, as I would have had to work that into the composition, as something else that interacts in lines, shapes and colors with the vases and flowers, and that would have been too much. It’s enough to only have vases vs flowers.
  3. Coloring in the flowers freezes the fluidity of the lines. What I liked about the flowers, from the beginning, was there fluidity, and yet (maybe because I was thinking of the flatness of “naive art”), I decided to color them in. The fluidity implies volume, which is three dimensional, while coloring them in makes them flat and two dimensional.. Moreover, once drawn in, some of the flowers lost their sense of being flowers.

Flowers, Edit 1, flowers detail

Over all, I had the problem of being inconsistent, which can lead to the vague criticism of being “amateurish” or “it lacks confidence” or “it lacks focus” or “it follow through.” If I wanted solid blocks of color, I should’ve found a way to make that happen. OTOH, if I wanted the fluidity of the lines, I should’ve found a way to make that work. Same with the perspective. If I didn’t want perspective to rule over this drawing, I shouldn’t have given each object a given angle. However, having given each object an angle, I should’ve followed through with all of them being seen from varying angles, according to how far away the viewer is away from each.

Here goes attempt #2

I made a carbon copy of the original.

Flowers, original , carbon copy.JPG

Flowers, Edit 1.JPG

This was in pencil, of course, on which I could then edit the perspective as well as the composition. There seemed to be too many flowers — a case of “less is more” — which made it “cluttered.” Sorry, more jargon. What I mean is… the flowers were overpowering the vases, and taking out a couple of them allows the vases to be the focal point and compete equally with the flowers.*

This was done on drawing paper and saved as a copy of the second version, below.

Flowers, original.JPG

I then prepared a sheet of watercolor paper by giving it seven washes of tea. (It turns out that I’d been using red tea and not green tea.) It creates a yellowish hue, which I like more than the bright white I began with because it’s more “muted” (or bright white has a greater contrast with the other colors), and doesn’t call as much attention to the negative space… which I have a lot of.*

I’ve also decided to use ink for the flowers, which I intend to fill in with hashes. The translucency of the watercolor is an integral part of how the flowers and vases interact with each other, and using lines not only (1) maintains a sense of translucency, it maintains (2) the fluidity of the original idea for each flower. Now, if I were to only portray the flowers as outlines, as seen below, they may look “unfinished.” Sorry… What I mean is… the flowers have to be substantial enough to compete with the vases. I also cannot forget that the contrast between the pinks and greens was a major element in and of itself and an integral part of the interaction between the flowers and vases. Using red ink (3) will be as good of a contrast as the various shades of pink and (4) filling in details with hashes adds volume helps the flowers compete equally with the vases.*

Flowers, Edit 1, flowers in ink only.JPG

To be continued…


* The paragraphs which are followed with an asterisk were edited 11/29/18.


The below references are for the quotes from Wikipedia and taken from the Wikipedia page on Naive art.

  1. Benedetti, Joan M. (19 April 2008). “Folk Art Terminology Revisited: Why It (Still) Matters”. In Roberto, K. R. Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front. McFarland. p. 113. ISBN 978-1-4766-0512-8.
  2.  Walker, John Albert (26 April 1992). Glossary of Art, Architecture, and Design Since 1945. London: Library Association Publishing. p. 433. ISBN 978-0-85365-639-5OCLC 26202538.
  3. Matulka, Denise I. (2008). “Anatomy of a Picture Book: Picture, Space, Design, Medium, and Style § Naïve Art”A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books. Westport: Libraries Unlimited. p. 80. ISBN 978-1-59158-441-4OCLC 225846825.