Chinese Brush Painting

Chinese brush painting is a traditional style of art making in which artists use a few different types of brush strokes to place ink on paper or silk. Chinese ink brushes are never made from synthetic materials; they are always made from animal hair. Different animal hair brushes are used for different styles of paintings. Artists use softer brushes to paint flowers, plants, and birds, and stiffer brushes to paint landscapes and portraits. White brush hair is made from rabbits, goats, or sable; brown brush hair comes from various types of animals, like wolves or sable; black brush hair, only used for landscape paintings, comes from horses. The lighter the hair color, the softer the hair. The brush handle is usually made from bamboo but more contemporary brushes can be made from plastic.

Several types of paper—with varying levels of absorbency, or how much water it soaks up—are used to create Chinese brush paintings, and the subject in the painting often determines which paper should be used. Bamboo, flower, or bird paintings are most commonly created on shuen paper or rice paper. Mien paper is used for landscapes and portraits since it is thicker, absorbs more paint, and shows a lot of detail.

Artists use ink in Chinese painting because it can be diluted with water to create a wide range of values from light to dark. Traditionally, an artist dips an ink stick in water then rubs it on a grinding stone to make different values of ink. However, many artists today prefer to use bottled ink, which is easier to dilute. Watercolor can also be used in place of ink because it has similar qualities. Chinese brush paintings are not only done with black ink; they can be very colorful!

The instructions below will help you create a painting of bamboo, one of what is known as the Four Gentlemen in Chinese art: the four plants that are most often depicted in traditional ink and ink wash paintings. The other three are plum blossoms, orchids, and chrysanthemums.

Have fun!

Artwork and instructions courtesy of Sue Yang.

Tall scroll with black ink painting depicting bamboo with leaves


You will need:

  • large piece of paper to cover your table
  • paper towels
  • a small plate or saucer
  • a medium-sized glass, plastic cup, or bowl for water
  • Chinese ink brush with sable, rabbit, or goat hair (size 2, 8, 10, 12, or 16)
  • Yasutomo hanshi rice paper cut to 4.75 x 13 inches
  • newsprint paper for practicing brush strokes
  • watercolor or ink
  • two wood dowels, 0.25 x 6 inches

About the Materials

Many of these materials are referred to as treasures in Chinese brush painting. The four traditional treasures are the brush, paper, ink stick, and ink stone. Many modern artists substitute instant ink or watercolor for the ink stick and stone because they are easier to use. When setting up your area to paint, it’s easiest to put your treasures on your dominant side: if you’re right handed, your materials should be on your right; if you’re left handed, your materials should be on your left.

If you’re interested in creating more advanced-level Chinese brush paintings, artist Sue Yang recommends the following materials.

  • Happy Dot detail brush
  • Orchid bamboo brush, size large
  • Shuen paper, 18 x 13.5 inches
  • Chinese or Sumi ink, liquid or stick

Also check out the MFA’s Studio Art Class offerings to learn more art-making techniques.


Step 1

arrangement of various tools and materials, including ink brush, rice paper, two dowels, and ink block
Let’s get ready! Cover your table or work surface with newspaper, a tablecloth, or kraft paper to protect it. If you have an MFA art kit, place the materials on top of the protected table. If you don’t have an MFA art kit and want to make a scroll, cut the rice paper to 4.75 x 13 inches; if you don’t want to make a scroll, you can leave the rice paper uncut.

Step 2

dipping ink brush into small glass jar of water
Soak the tip of your brush in warm water to loosen the starch that protects the hairs until you are ready to paint. Unlike other types of painting, you should start with a wet paintbrush. Remove any excess water before you paint by pulling the tip across the side of your water container.

Step 3

Inserting moistened brush tip into ink block and applying ink onto white ceramic plate with the brush
Dip your wet brush in the watercolor paint or container of ink and apply a small amount onto your plate. To create lighter shades, make small isolated puddles of water on the plate. Dip your wet brush in the ink and then dip it in a puddle. Add a little more water to make the color lighter; less water to make the color darker. Use the paint or ink from your plate while you’re painting and add more to your plate as needed.

Step 4

dragging tip of ink brush along paper towel to make sure tip is pointed
Make sure the tip of your brush is pointed before you start painting. Drag the paintbrush across the edge of your water cup or bowl and your paper towel to roll and shape the tip of the brush so that it’s pointed.

Step 5

holding ink brush above paper, vertically straight
When holding the brush your hand should be positioned halfway on the handle. Two fingers should be positioned on the outside of the brush, and your thumb should be on the opposite side, in the space between your two fingers. A fourth finger should also be on the brush, with your pinky supporting it from below. It’s important to have a firm grip on the brush, and your posture is important! Sit up straight and place the paper directly in front of you before you begin.

Step 6

four details of various black ink marks on paper
Before you practice your brush strokes, take a look at these four basic brush strokes to make a painting of bamboo: the bone stroke rotating into the vertical stroke, followed by the joint, and the branches and leaves. The bone stroke looks like a bone! It has a larger bump on either end of the stroke and is used to form the main stock of the bamboo. Each section of bamboo stock is separated and starts out wider at the bottom and gets narrower toward the top of the paper. Bone strokes that form the stock are separated by the joints. Thin vertical bone strokes form the branches and “grow” out of the joints in the bamboo. Leaves then “grow” out of the thin branches.

Step 7

practicing making brush strokes on newsprint
Practice making the brush strokes on newsprint paper before using the rice or Shuen paper. When using rice paper, the shiny, smooth side should be facing up.

Step 8

ink paintings of bamboo on rice paper; details of various markings that make up bamboo painting
Start creating your painting on the rice or Shuen paper! Begin your first brush stroke at the bottom of the paper and continue up toward the top. Your last stroke should end off the paper. Chinese brush painting is asymmetrical, meaning your painting does not need to look the same at the top and the bottom or the left or the right. Experiment with varying the pressure, angle, and speed of the brush to create your own unique painting!

Step 9

applying glue dot to back of rice paper and placing dowel on it
To transform one of your paintings into a scroll, turn your painting over so that the back is facing up. Attach one glue dot to the bottom of the paper then place the dowel on top.

Step 10

bottom edge of rice paper rolled up around dowel and secured with another glue dot; string tied to the end of dowel
Roll the attached dowel upward so that it is covered by the paper, then attach another glue dot to the paper. Roll up one more time so that the glue dot is covered by the paper. Repeat these steps to attach a dowel at the top. Tie a piece of string or ribbon to each end of the top dowel. Hang it on the wall and admire your beautiful painting of bamboo!

About the Artist

Artist Sue Yang sitting at table, holding ink brush, working on paintings of bamboo

Sue Yang received her MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University (SMFA), her MA from Ohio State University, and her BA from National Taiwan University. She has had more than ten solo shows in the US, Europe, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, including at Dong-Li Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan; Howard Yezerski Gallery, Boston; Kwang Hwa Culture Center, Hong Kong; and Paradigma Gallery, Brussels, Belgium. She has received numerous awards including a Traveling Fellowship from the SMFA, and her art has been in group shows in the US, Europe, and Asia. Yang was also a teacher at the SMFA.