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Chinese Figure Painting

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Chinese Figure Painting


As with many aspects of Chinese brush painting, figures can be painted as the main subject of the proposed painting or may feature as a small part of a landscape. Figure painting is thought to be the oldest element in traditional Chinese painting, as everyday scenes were portrayed on the walls of tombs.

The Chinese (Daoist ) concept is that humankind is unimportant in comparison with nature. Therefore, when figures are shown in a scene, they are disproportional to the mountains and other landscape elements. In the same way, servants were shown much smaller than their masters, giving rise to the misconception that children were carrying books and equipment for the scholars who were immured in the mountains while "communing with nature" and painting or writing poetry.

Chinese paintings are obviously a useful source for studying figures. Journals and calendars, and books about life and scenery in China, are invaluable. Chinese legends and stories, such as "The Outlaw of the Marsh"(also known as "The Water Margin"), "Monkey," and other classics, even children's books, incorporate a wealth of information and inspiration. Pictures brought to the West by travelers during the earlier part of the 20th century are another good source for clothes or poses. While not necessarily being in popular taste, they are relatively cheap.

When painting figures as the main part of the painting, decide whether the painting is to be a portrait or whether the attitude or action of the figure is of prime importance. Portraits are a little unusual in China, and there was a time when only the emperor was considered "strong" enough (as "the son of heaven") to resist the evils of having a likeness made –even then, it was only for record purposes. Any painter who carried out this style and purpose of painting was considered very lowly.

Often the qualities of a figure are exaggerated, showing proudness, strength, resistance, or being downtrodden. Many paintings, especially those from the era of the Cultural Revolution, show heroic stances.


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