Make Every Brushstroke Powerful

Landscape Painting, Meet Calligraphy

Have you ever approached a watercolor painting as if each stroke would be your last? Practitioners of calligraphy approach their art something like this, and the results are fresh and spontaneous, not overworked.

Calligraphy has a long and rich history in Asia. And, it has made a powerful impact abroad, with its ability to create a feeling of movement on paper.

As the Sun Rises by Freda Lee McCann
As the Sun Rises by Freda Lee McCann

An Extension of Your Finger

For Katherine Chang Liu, former president of the National Watercolor Society, the most lasting impact of practicing calligraphy as a child in Taiwan was her relationship with the brush itself.

“The brush becomes an extension of your finger,” she says. “It becomes something you don’t have to learn how to use; you just naturally work with it and write with it.”

Unfolding by Katherine Chang Liu, mixed media
Unfolding by Katherine Chang Liu, mixed media

For calligraphy artists, the line is supreme. Its weight and how it flows over the paper surface are most important. Some schools of thought believe the line should be orderly and uniform. Others take an expressive approach — it becomes like a dance, and there is a strong gesture from the writer or artist that is more emphasized than the form itself.

Who’s in Charge?

“The traditional Chinese saying is, ‘You control the brush — you don’t let the brush control you,'” says artist Freda Lee-McCann.

As a child, McCann practiced calligraphy every day, and she still devotes an hour to the form before every watercolor painting session. Since moving to the U.S. in the 1960s, she has created artwork that combines Eastern and Western styles.

Grandeur by Freda Lee McCann, watercolor painting | calligraphy and painting equal powerful brushstrokes
Grandeur by Freda Lee McCann, watercolor painting

“A piano player does scales first to warm up his or her fingers, to gain control,” the artist explains. “It is the same for me. I start out doing calligraphy, making sure my hand and brush are one. Once I have more control, I can start painting.”

For Liu, who works abstractly, her background in calligraphy is evident in the prominence of the brushstroke in her work. “It informs the spirit of the painting,” she says. “Whether it is quiet or there is some kind of momentum — the brushstroke needs to do something for me.”

Cubic Waterfall by Freda Lee McCann
Cubic Waterfall by Freda Lee McCann

McCann applies her calligraphy experience to traditional Chinese paintings, contemporary mixed-media work, and watercolor painting landscapes built on lines of varying widths and color.

“I’m more comfortable with line,” she says. “It is what I have been doing all my life. Layering colored lines underneath each other instead of putting down flat areas of color is a different kind of mark making. It creates a texture that makes the work interesting.”

A Journey Not Yet Finished by Freda Lee McCann
A Journey Not Yet Finished by Freda Lee McCann

A Powerful Ally

A brushstroke can communicate powerfully in any medium. Even without an understanding of the characters, marks made with a calligrapher’s ink resonate with the viewer.

“Good calligraphy makes you feel comfortable just to look at it,” says McCann. “How it flows, the spacing, where it is not too uneven, and flows without being frantic, balanced without being stiff. You’ve probably seen paintings like that — with just a few strokes it beautifully tells a story without a lot of details. It gets the feeling across. It takes years of practice.”

McCann is right — painting a composition that comes together in a balanced, compelling way doesn’t happen overnight. Luckily, Lian Quan Zhen’s insightful and inspiring book on Chinese Landscape Painting Techniques in Watercolor is filled with his knowledge in the ways of watercolor so that you can improve your practice — and make every stroke count! Enjoy!

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