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Tools & Materials of Chinese Brush Painting

Traditional Chinese painting has its special materials and tools, consisting of brushes of different types, ink and pigments of different textures, xuan paper, silk and various kinds of ink slabs. Chinese people have called writing brushes, ink sticks, paper and ink slabs the four treasures of the study since ancient times.


There are three types of brushes used in traditional Chinese painting: soft, stiff, and mixed.

The soft brush is made mainly of fleece, with the addition of bird feathers. It absorbs a large amount of water and is suitable for painting flowers and leaves and applying water and colours. For instance, there are large and small soft ti brushes, large tai brushes for painting wider objects such as bamboo, and colouring brushes. The stiff brush is made mainly of weasel hair. The artist uses a stiff brush to give the effect of strength, elasticity and resilience. It is convenient for contour lines or painting hills, rocks or tree trunks. Such brushes include brushes for painting the veins of leaves and folds of garments, large and small brushes for calligraphy and painting, brushes for painting plum blossoms and large lanzhu brushes for drawing the bold lines of bamboo or orchids. The third kind of brush is a mixture of soft fleece and weasel hair. The artist uses this kind of brush for the combined effect of strength and grace. For instance, the baiyun brush, made of a mixture of soft fleece and stiff weasel hair, can also be used for painting flowers and leaves. In addition, there are specially made stiff brushes, such as a brush made of short pig bristles or mouse whiskers.

Choosing the right brush for painting depends on your requirements or the circumstances in which you are painting. It is better for beginners to use the mixed brush. When buying brushes, it is better to buy in special stores for the four treasures of the study, as they have a complete assortment. Before you start to use a new brush, soak it in cold or warm water. After using the brush, you must wash it clean, squeeze it dry, arrange the brush hair neatly and hang the brush up. The brush can then be used for a long period.


The ink used for painting is made by grinding an ink stick on an ink slab. You can also buy prepared ink in bottles. The ink sticks consist of pine soot ink and tung-oil-soot ink. In general, tung-oil-soot ink is used, because it is of fine quality and the black has a bluish-purple lustre. Ink sticks with light glue are of top quality. Ink sticks made long ago that have lost their lustre and brightness should not be used. Pine-soot ink, which is black but lustreless, is used only occasionally when painting birds or butterflies in meticulous style. It may also be used when you wish a special effect. Ink sticks should be well protected against dampness, or sun, so that the glue will not be lost and the stick will not become dry and cracked.

Pigments are used in addition to ink for colouring in Chinese painting. They are mixed with water, instead of oil. Pigments for Chinese painting are classified as transparent or opaque. Transparent colours are made with plant pigments, including mainly vermillion, gamboge, ochre, cyanine, rouge and carmine. Opaque colours, made mainly of minerals, are also called mineral colours, which include mineral blue, mineral green, titanium white, mineral yellow and cinnabar. Mineral colours have strong covering capacity, but fade easily. Hence, it is necessary to mix mineral colours with an appropriate amount of liquid glue (animal and plant glue). In addition, there are gold and silver powder, made of real gold and silver. Pigment stores in China's Suzh-ou add glue to gold and silver foil, grind them into a fine paste and glue them onto a small porcelain cup, hence the name, gold or silver cup. You can use a clean brush soaked in water to dip up the gold powder in the cup. Gold and silver powder are used mainly to trace leaf veins and on metal objects, giving a sense of splendour in green and gold. However, they are rarely used.

Paper And Silk

Xuan paper is the special material for traditional Chinese painting. It is so called because it is produced at Xuancheng in Jing County, An-hui Province.

Xuan paper may be processed or unprocessed. Unprocessed xuan paper absorbs moisture and ink, and colours sink in easily when water is added. When using this kind of paper, pay attention to the moisture of the brush and the speed with which you move the brush. If there is too much moisture and you move the brush too slowly, ink and colours will sink in easily.

Processed paper (treated with the proper amount of soybean milk or liquid glue) does not let ink and colours sink in. This kind of paper is suitable for doing paintings in the meticulous style.

Chinese artists also like to paint on silk fabric. In general, it is used after being treated and is used mostly for paintings in the meticulous style. Raw silk is used for freehand painting.

There are many kinds of xuan paper, each with its own properties. Beginners in traditional Chinese painting should grtsp and make use of these properties through constant practice. Only in this way can they succeed in painting well. In addition, there are ancient xuan paper and imitation ancient xuan paper, each with its own properties and able to produce a particular artistic effect. Xuan paper should be protected against moisture.

Ink Slab

The ink slab is the tool for grinding the ink stick. A good ink slab is a beautiful handicraft. Many materials are used for ink slabs. The most famous are duan stone, produced at Duanxi in Zhaoq-ing, Guangdong Province, and xie stone, produced at Longweishan (Dragon Tail Hill) in Wuyuan County, Jiangxi Province. Both are aqueous rock, fine, even and hard in texture. It is easy to grind the ink fine, even and thick, and the ink does not dry quickly. Ink slab for painting should be large (20 to 26 cm in diameter) and deep and have a lid to keep it clean. It can be either square or round.

Color-Mixing Tray

This is a dish or plate for mixing colours. White porcelain is best, because the white reflects colourscorrectly. It is not suitable to use a coloured dish or plate or one with decorative designs to mix colours.

Brush Wash Untensil

This is equipment for washing brushes. It can be made of glass, porcelain or enamelware. It holds water for washing brushes. Its mouth should be wide, smooth and not rough, so that it will not impair the brush's hair.

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