Chinese landscape painting is well-regarded throughout the art world. The Chinese word for "landscape" is written with two characters, signifying "mountains" and "water." The specific techniques involved reflect the beliefs of Taoism. As a result, Chinese landscape painting is associated with refined scholarly tastes.
Chinese painting uses brushstrokes similar to those used in calligraphy. The artists paint imaginary, idealized landscapes that usually include mountains. Seeing mountains is considered to be good for the soul, as mountains reach up into the heavens. The traditional colors used are subtle, with ink in the foreground and a few watercolors decorating the pieces. Landscape paintings are mounted on silk instead of being framed.
The earliest examples of the genre were found in artifacts from the Late Zhou (Chou) period (fifth to third centuries BCE). Representations of trees or mountains were found carved in bronze or jade. In the succeeding Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), artists depicted trees and mountains on stamped pottery tomb tiles. The Six Dynasties period of the third to fourth centuries CE left few artifacts depicting landscapes, and the landscapes seemed incidental, as if they were props to show that the scene was occurring outdoors.
Numerous Buddhist frescoes have remained from the fifth and sixth centuries. They depict landscape settings as backgrounds. The artist of that era understood how to draw perspective. Yet Buddhism did not allow room for pure landscape art.
By late in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), landscapes were given a central role in art. They embodied the longing of cultured people to escape their world and attach themselves to nature. The longing reflected political realities: As the Dynastic tradition struggled, people sought refuge from the failure of the human order.
During the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), a new class of scholars and officials extolled the merits of self-cultivation. They engaged in the arts, including poetry, calligraphy and a new style of expressive painting. Painting became a means of conveying the inner workings of the artist's mind and heart.
Court artists of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE) produced images that were metaphors for the state as a well-organized garden. During the ensuing Qing dynasty (1644-1911 CE), many Ming loyalists lived as recluses as a political symbol of protest. Isolated, they drew inspiration from the local scenery.
To the present day, certain tenets of Chinese landscape painting remain. Painters felt they should set out to create a harmonious relationship between heaven and earth. Images of scenery should be equally distributed between the upper and lower halves of a page. A large mountain, called the master peak, should be given prominence. The relationship of the mountain to the other elements of the painting should mirror that of a master to his servants.
Next, consideration should be given to a pine tree, known as the aged master. Once the large tree has been drawn, the artist can continue to other details, such as small plants and flowers, as well as pebbles. The pine tree's relationship to smaller details is like that of a person of great virtue with those of lesser standing.
Some mountains are covered with earth and others with stones. Some water flows, and there are drops poised to rain, and flakes prepared to snow. The artist can depict heavy precipitation or the clearing of precipitation. Villages should be drawn on a plain instead of a mountain, because the lands of a plain are more easily cultivated for planting.
A Chinese painter should be master over the brush and the ink. Similar to calligraphy, an artist cannot gain mastery without exerting careful control. Several types of ink should be used in a landscape painting to avoid a sense of monotony. Likewise, several types of brushes should be used: rounded, fine, ponted, coarse, broad and needle-like.
The color of water varies according to the season. In spring, it is green, in summer it is jade green, in autumn blue and in winter black. Similarly, the sky changes tone with the season: bright in spring, azure in the summer, clear in autumn and gloomy in the winter. The artist should paint in a secluded room with a joyful spirit undisturbed by worries.
Themes and subjects of Chinese landscape paintings may be related to the four seasons or stories from ancient writings. Within each season, certain themes are acceptable. For example, spring paintings can depict spring clouds rising out of the valley, and autumn paintings may represent an autumn evening over a forest. Drawings of dawn and evening differ according to season and weather conditions.
Drawings of pine trees, stones, clouds, mist and water also follow specific conventions. For example, a pine tree set on a peak must be drawn green and tall. Miscellaneous themes that are not as specific to nature grant more flexibility. Possible miscellaneous themes include a wine shop by a bridge or plowing viewed from a balcony.