Six Principles of Chinese Painting

Chinese artists were not content to simply imitate nature. They set for themselves a more challenging goal. They wanted to capture the spirit of nature as well as the form of their subjects.

In the 5th century, Chinese art critic Xie He said that a painter needed to fulfill six canons to be a truly great artist. These canons have remained pivotal around which all art criticism in China has revolved. He set these down in the following order:

  1. Qi - "Spirit Harmony
    This is the most mysterious one but the most important. It is the life-spirit, the cosmic energy. It is the ability to give a painting life. It can't be learned or taught. It is something like a gift from Heaven that enables the artist to impart life to a painting and enable him to capture the spirit of his subject, the moment of inspiration.

  2. Brushwork
    This is the skilled manipulation of the brush. Mastering the brush was necessary to give life to a painting. This is the "heart-print". In Chinese art the same brush is used in writing as in painting. It can be likened to handwriting but in this case it is the calligraphic line that is the basic structural element of painting. . In Western art more emphasis is placed on light and shadow.

  3. Accurate Likenesses or Visual Virtuosity
    The artist needs to be able to draw good likenesses. This canon became the focus of a continuing debate among Chinese artists and critics. Was it more important to have exact representation or free expression? There was agreement that the subject of a painting should have recognizable form, but many felt that the spirit of the subject was even more important. In other words, an artist who could capture life had to be adept at rerpresentation but a good representationalist could not always capture life.

  4. Versatile Colors
    The colors should match the hues of nature. However, with the Chinese increased interest in landscape painting, after the 10th century, there was a decline in the strong colors of nature. Artists felt color obscured fine brushwork and they began to use delicate ink washes and to make line more important. Eventually they gave up color completely believing that the contrast between black and white captured nature more effectively.

  5. Well-Planned Space
    In Western art this would correspond to composition. In Chinese art it is proper balance of elements in a painting, and achieving three-dimensional space. In Western art with the use of perspective the view is seen as through a window. This is unlike the Chinese handscroll which as it is unrolled viewers are not confined to just one fixed viewpoint but have the opportunity to see a shifting point of view of depth, height, and subject matter thus giving the work a sense of time. The painting becomes like a movie.

  6. Venerated Tradition - Learn by Copying the Master
    This was considered honorable and a way of "transmitting the past". Copying was a way of showing respect for what had gone before and it was training for the artist. But, importantly, they believed that the student could never be as good as the master. (This canon has led to the great problem in Chinese painting of authenification of works of art).