Introduction to painting and calligraphy

Art: Uncle Qianlong, it's really dark in here. Awesome! This exploration is really exciting!

Qianlong: We're in the painting and calligraphy galleries! It's dark in here to protect these fragile works. They're hundreds of years old and bright light will damage the art works, causing the colors to fade. That's why the Museum changes its painting and calligraphy exhibitions every three months. So every time you come to visit you can see new displays! Today I'm going to show you how to understand Chinese paintings of landscapes, birds and flowers, and paintings of people, known as figure paintings. Then I'm going to show you how to appreciate Chinese calligraphy. All you need to do is to look carefully and keep practicing and you'll become a little expert!

Art: That's awesome, it's like we're reading a secret book. It's so exciting!

Qianlong: Painting and calligraphy actually have a lot in common. Take a guess, what do you think they might share?

Art: Um… they both use the same tools, a brush, ink, paper, and an inkstone…

Qianlong: Good answer! Have you also noticed that they're both mounted in the same format?

Art: Oh yes! Some are vertical and some are horizontal…

Qianlong: That's right, Chinese paintings and calligraphy are written and painted on paper or silk. If you're not careful, you can easily rip or tear them. To keep the paintings and calligraphy safe and to allow people to appreciate them, they are mounted in special ways. The three main types are hand scrolls, hanging scrolls, and album leaves. You unroll hand scrolls from right to left, the same way Chinese is read. The ones that you unroll downwards, that look good hanging on a wall, are hanging scrolls. The third type is album leaves, and they're like a book. You can put them on a table and turn them over page by page. Look around, can you see these different mountings?

Art: I see them! But why are so many of these paintings done with black ink, why aren't they in color like today's paintings?

Qianlong: Good point! Most of the paintings you see today, even in Taiwan, are Western style paintings like water colors and oil paintings. These have brighter, more varied colors, and you don't write on them either. Chinese art is different though. Calligraphy and paintings are very closely connected. Lines and strokes are very important in both. The same brush can be used to paint or write rounded, flat, rough and fine lines. The techniques used in calligraphy can also be applied to painting.

Art: I never knew that Chinese painting and calligraphy were so closely connected! Hey! There are Chinese characters written up the side of this painting, and there are red seals on it as well. Does this have some kind of special meaning?

Qianlong: Painters, their friends, collectors, or connoisseurs could all add notes called inscriptions on paintings, or leave impressions of their seals. These inscriptions and seals recorded that the paintings were part of their collection and expressed their love for the painting. I'm as guilty as anyone. I loved leaving my seals and inscriptions on paintings more than any other emperors in history!