Chinese Painting 101

November 3, 2013


When I signed up to take Chinese painting classes with the Chinese cultural center at the university where I teach, I just assumed I’d be really bad at it.

It’s not that I’m particularly bad at art.

It’s just been a while since I’ve attempted anything vaguely art-like. A really, really long while. Like a thirty-some-years while.

In fact, I’m pretty sure this was one of my last artistic creation:


See, GOOD, right? And the disembodied ET hand? Total artistic license.

Plus, I have a tendency to assume I’m going to be really, really bad at anything that I try for the first time.

This may sound pessimistic.

But I prefer to think of this outlook as practical. You know, not exactly glass-half-empty. More I-think-this-glass-might-be-broken-because-it-keeps-dripping-all-over-me.

After all, I have pretty much sucked at every new thing I’ve tried.

Like that time I took kick-boxing classes while in Brazil. And the teacher had to make me go to the back of the class so I wouldn’t accidentally punch anyone. After I accidentally punched someone.

Or that time I signed up for belly dancing classes in Japan, and I thought I’d be really good at it, or at least a lot better than my Japanese classmates because I definitely had more of a belly than they did. But every time I tried to dance the way the instructor showed us, I just looked like I was being electrocuted. And not in a cool, sexy, belly dancing way.

And well, every time I’ve attempted to learn a new language EVER.

So, yeah, sucking at new things is just kind of my thing.

And then on the first day of class I discovered something that was more than a little bit shocking to me.

You guys, I’m kind of good at it.

Or at least I was better than the one other person in my class. And, really, that’s all I need to feel like a total winner.

I chalked up my first class’ success to beginner’s luck and our subject matter: bamboo.

My first Chinese painting creation.

My first Chinese painting creation. And, yes, that’s my name in Japanese on the side. Because I’m a total show-off.

Thanks to all the years I spent living in Asia, I’d probably seen a bit more bamboo in person than my poor classmate.

Bamboo, schmamboo. Just another day in Asia.

Bamboo, schmamboo. Just another day in Asia.

Plus, the instructor kept on telling us to draw the leaves like chicken feet. And, well, I’ve probably seen a few more chicken feet than my classmate thanks to my year and a half of Chinese grocery shopping.


Looks just like a bamboo leaf, right?

The second class was an even bigger shocker.

Look, you guys, peonies! That actually kind of look like peonies! Even though I’m not entirely sure what peonies look like!

See! Peonies! I think!

See! Peonies! I think!

Even the instructor, a low-key grad student from China, seemed impressed. “Have you done this before?” he asked.


Do I look like a woman who paints peonies for a good time?

Yeah, maybe not so much.

Yeah, maybe not so much.

I quickly snapped a photo of my painting on my phone and Instagrammed it. When I showed him the new version of my painting, all soft-focus-filtered and blurry-edged, he was even more impressed.

Post-Instagram peonies

Post-Instagram peonies

He had never heard of Instagram before, so I flipped through the different filters to show him how it worked. And then I showed him some before and after Instragrammed photos on my phone. Maybe I don’t paint peonies for a good time, but I do Instagram-filter-select for funsies.

Fun times with Instagram

Fun times with Instagram

Given my two weeks of Chinese painting success, I was feeling pretty confident when I sauntered into class this week.

And then I discovered two very unsettling things.

First, there was a new student in our class. It’s not too hard being the top student when your class consists of a measly two students. But now with three students, my odds of being the best weren’t looking so good any more.

Besides, this new student? She totally looked like the type who painted peonies in her free time.

The second thing: our subject matter was grapes.

Fruit and I? We’re not always the best of friends.

Let’s just say fruit has a better tendency to rot in my fridge than inspire me to great art.

And, sadly, the grapes in my painting did end up looking like they had weathered a few too many bad days in the bottom of my crisper.



The grapes weren’t the only problem. The grape leaves didn’t look chicken feety enough. Or maybe they looked too chicken feety. The vines were too twirly and spirally when they were supposed to be jaunty and asymmetrical.

Everything just seemed a bit off.

Meanwhile, my fellow classmates were batting this whole grape assignment out of the park.

As I looked disappointedly at my own creation, the instructor came up beside me.

“I know what you should do,” he said.

I waited for him to suggest some magic Chinese painting trick that would save my painting – a brush stroke or mixture of paint and ink that would transform my grapes from droopy to delicious, the leaves from wilted to wonderful, the vines from lackluster to luminous.

“What was that thing you showed me last week? On your phone? That will make it much better. Just don’t show anyone this,” he pointed at my painting.

This was his ancient Chinese painting secret?


But you know what?

It kind of worked.

Much better. Let's all forget that other one even happened.

Much better. Let’s all forget that other one even happened.

Have you ever tried something for the very first time and been kind   of good at it? What was it? And did you stay good at it or did it take approximately three weeks for failure to set in? I’m, umm, asking for a friend.

I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On November 3, 2013 at 2:16 pm Hata Trbonja said:

    Your grapes look just fine! I also am drawing impaired. I usually draw people that look like stick figures with enormous shoulder pads. But, I am pretty good at eating and watching tv. Does that count? Oh and I guess baking too.
    Hata Trbonja recently posted..Sweets de la Semaine (part 2)

  2. On November 3, 2013 at 4:49 pm Priya said:

    You are now a writer, traveler AND a e Chinese painter? Whoa, girl. I can’t keep up.
    Priya recently posted..November Is A Pretty Sucky Month

  3. On November 3, 2013 at 9:11 pm suzette said:

    I love this post! Most new things intimidate me, I try to remember that there’s fun to be had, no matter the outcome. And career / hobby related, people always say, ‘do what you love’. I’ve always felt I need to try every new thing I can, otherwise how will I know if I like it or if I’m good at it. -suz
    suzette recently posted..Portland’s Got The Hip Tracks

  4. On November 4, 2013 at 3:37 am Katherina said:

    I recently took an intensive 2-day architectural sketching course. Most of the other students were architects or designers, so I was a bit at loss when we first started. However, I did turn out to be pretty good at it – maybe because nowadays designers and architects don’t do much of hand drawing anymore and everything is computerized, so we almost were at the same level!
    Katherina recently posted..The Best of 3 Worlds

  5. On November 4, 2013 at 2:25 pm Amy said:

    For the record, I think the grapes look fine. Much better than anything I could have done. In 4th grade, we had to draw a body onto a pasted on photo of our head. I drew myself in a ballgown (because who wouldn’t?), and it actually turned out good, but my hands looked like they had been mangled in a wheat thrasher and then stretched out to twice normal human size. I can still see those deformed hands in my dreams. The horror! Look away!

  6. On November 4, 2013 at 2:39 pm Patty Murphy said:

    I so want to be a painter. I went out and bought a “how to paint” book, bought the brushes, canvas and paint. Got home, put it all out to be ready to start my masterpiece, opened the book and the first step was draw a picture. WHAT! I didn’t want to learn to draw, I can’t draw, I want to paint.
    That really burst my bubble I tell you. Do you really need to know how to draw in order to paint? Apparently if you want to be any good you do.
    Your peonies are beautiful!
    Patty Murphy recently posted..Enchanted Tree’s

  7. On November 4, 2013 at 4:23 pm Andi of My Beautiful Adventures said:

    Learning the Chinese language surprised me, I thought I would be terrible, but I was actually pretty hen hao!!! I love your paintings, beautiful! 🙂
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..England & Scotland With Trafalgar: Day 1

    • On November 10, 2013 at 2:57 pm Sally said:

      Thank you! And I’m so impressed you were able to learn Chinese. I’m a horrible auditory learner so the tones did me in. I just couldn’t hear the difference.

  8. On November 4, 2013 at 5:33 pm Jose at Coldwell Banker Puerto Vallarta said:

    Way to expand your horizons! Good job on the paitings! Saludos!
    Jose at Coldwell Banker Puerto Vallarta recently posted..Las Palmas PH 409

  9. On November 4, 2013 at 11:47 pm Selly said:

    The power of Instagram, haha! Good suggestion 😉 That said, I still think your paintings look pretty cool. I’m totally artistically challenged, it’s just not my forte, so I love what you’ve created. I’d love to give Chinese calligraphy a try, but I just can’t seem to find the time…meh.

    • On November 10, 2013 at 2:56 pm Sally said:

      Chinese calligraphy was on the list of classes I could take, but that seemed a bit too similar to Chinese language (and, actually, would require some Chinese language skill) so I passed. I figured I could handle flowers… of course, I didn’t know about the stupid fruit requirement!

  10. On November 5, 2013 at 7:04 am Tom @ Waegook Tom said:

    It was all going well until those pesky grapes came along. Then again, Instagram makes anything look pretty. I love that your teacher recommended you use it. Hopefully you’ll be back to flowers soon, and you can knock those other students down a peg or two.
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted..Things That Surprised Me About Milan

  11. On November 6, 2013 at 1:57 pm Nicole | The Wondernuts said:

    you know, your art really isn’t that bad. It’s quite good!
    Nicole | The Wondernuts recently posted..Wednesday’s Wonder: Watermelon

  12. On November 6, 2013 at 2:25 pm Montecristo Travels (Sonja) said:

    You need to frame and hang the Peony one in your “now with stuff” place. 🙂

  13. On November 6, 2013 at 6:14 pm Heather said:

    Your grapes look better than anything I could paint! I took a pottery class in Shanghai which was pretty disastrous. I thought I’d be safe color-blocking instead of trying to paint flowers, but even that was unsuccessful. I’ve got the vase displayed in the living room anyway 🙂
    Heather recently posted..Mount Vernon: Home of America’s First President

  14. On November 9, 2013 at 12:00 am Carmel said:

    After massive failure at the Mongolian language, I was pretty sure I was going to suck at all Asian languages. But I surprised myself with how quickly I took to Korean. Not that I was all that good at it, but it was interesting and I actually figured out how to say a few things (with the help of YouTube, of course).

    But no, I haven’t found that I’m a prodigy at anything…yet.
    Carmel recently posted..FINDING PEACE IN SEOUL

  15. On November 12, 2013 at 11:01 pm choi kum fook said:

    Miss Sally, you are titled another talent,a Chinese art painter! I am no surprising you can catch it up very fast, especailly the drawing of peonies flower,well done Sally! I hope one day you can send me a Chinese Art picture, of course with sagnature and chop, paint for mommentos which hang on the wall in my house. Ha! Ha! Just Kidding!

  16. On November 15, 2013 at 9:47 pm choi kum fook said:


  17. On November 26, 2013 at 7:48 am Ceri said:

    Wow, you’re really talented, Sally. I couldn’t do anything like that. :/

    Unfortunately I have one of those annoying personalities where if I don’t excel at something straight away, I pout, get frustrated and never try it again. Haha.
    Ceri recently posted..Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico City

    • On November 26, 2013 at 10:36 am Sally said:

      Oh, trust me, I have one of those personalities too. Hence, the reason why I never tried to rollerblade again. (Okay, so that might have had to do with the way I managed to take off all the skin on my right thigh.)

  18. On December 6, 2013 at 2:11 am Jack said:

    Love this post. Plus I discovered super ancient Chinese painting secret is Instagram. M-M-M-a-r-velous.

  19. On October 30, 2014 at 9:43 pm Pleddie said:

    I did take one painting lesson in Yangshuo, but I think it was Chinese Painting 0.01. It was very interesting. I really like loading up the brush with two colors and the resulting effect that had when you made a stroke.

    No, I can’t tell you of a case where I was very good at something the first time, and then became very bad. I seem to start poorly and regress from there. However, if that has ever happen to you, I can tell you how to prevent that.

    My dad was an engineer and a quite good artist. He loved nature and liked to go camping. On one outing, he had given me a toy bow and arrow. I keep bugging him to try it, apparently thinking I could do better than he could. After much begging on my part, he finally agreed. On his very first shot, he hit the Bull’s Eye. After that, I could never get him to shoot again. Whala. No subsequent failures…


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