Early Chinese Painting (403BCE – 1367AD)

The style of painting in China might be the oldest continuing form of art in the world. It began simply as works created by amateur artists who had other jobs in government and had free time to perfect their craft. As in other older cultures, painting began as depictions of people doing various things and telling stories. But then beginning around 220AD, people began appreciating art for the sake of art. For the first time in world history, landscape painting for the sake of the beauty of the landscape became popular.

Xie He, was a writer, art historian and critic in 5th century China. In his book, “Six points to consider when judging a painting”, he defines things much in the same way modern painters and landscape photographers do today.

The six elements which define a painting according to Xie He are:

Spirit Resonance, or vitality. (the enthusiasm transmitted from the artist into the work…and then to the viewer)

Bone Method, or the way of using the brush. (This is true for painting and for how we use the camera today in terms of exposure, light etc.)

Correspondence to the Object, or the depicting of form. (foreground, background objects etc.)

Suitability to Type, or the application of color, including layers, value and tone. (Sounds quite contemporary!)

Division and Planning, (corresponding to composition, space and depth.)

Transmission by Copying, or the copying of models, (Copying great works is still important to developing personal style. Possibly the best way to learn is to copy!)


Gu Kaizhi (344-406AD)

Gu Kaizhi was an author, a poet, and might have been one of the ‘old artists’ to whom Xie He (above) referred. He wrote three books on painting. And he loved the landscape as we can see below.

Luoshenfu_Gu_Kai_ZhiGu Kaizhi (approximately 400AD)

Here are three sections of a super-wide angle view. Landscape photographers sometimes like to do wide-angle panoramas, and the idea probably originated in China in the 4th century AD and before. A wide-angle view allows the eye to travel across the landscape and absorb the finest details, as we might do while standing on a mountain. The figures aren’t in perspective compared to the large landscape because this tells a story about people. But the landscape played an important role and provided a setting of beauty and tranquility in which the story could unfold.

Guo Xi ( 1020– 1090)

Guo Xi is one of China’s most famous landscape painters. He pioneered techniques which allow for multiple perspectives within a single painting. He studied light and how it interacts with mist, which swirls around mountains at different times of the year. He was a model for the great master landscape painters who came after him, because he was a studious observer of nature.

Kuo_Hsi_001Clearing Autumn Skies over Mountains and Valleys, Kuo Hsi (Guo Xi) (1072)

This painting doesn’t rely on color at all. Much like a good black and white photo, it relies on form and depth to provide a sense of reality. Notice how the tops of the hills in back are strongly outlined while the lower parts of the hills behind are brighter and more diffused? This shows how important mist and atmosphere can be in a painting or in a landscape photograph. With no mist, there’s no depth on a two-dimensional print. So, get out and embrace the bad weather. It’s your friend.


Guo_Xi_-_Early_Spring_(large)Early Spring, Kuo Hsi (Guo Xi) (1072)

Mist in the form of white space again provides a sense of depth in what is perhaps his most famous painting. This style served as a model for hundreds of years and continues to this day. Wouldn’t it be great to stand on this spot and watch the mist drift through this scene?

Chinesischer_Maler_des_11._Jahrhunderts_(I)_001Buddhist Temple on the Mountains, unknown artist (11th century)

Notice how the strongly outlined features in front such as the temple and the rocks and trees are set in front of a light background. The background, which could be a little fog, separates the foreground from the mountains in the background. Mist and fog are important in painting as well as in landscape photography. It’s easy to imagine a photographer moving up and down on the hillside to compose this scene with the temple in just the right spot. A painter can place an object in the desired position at will, but a photographer must move around. This allows a photographer to compose a scene just like a painter.

Ma Yuan ( 1160/65 – 1225)

Ma Yuan came from a long line of painters. His landscape paintings have strong and precise compositions. The outlines are bold and can be plainly seen across the room. If he were a landscape photographer today, he would be popular on a photo sharing website because the thumbnails would grab your attention.

Ma_Yuan_-_Dancing_and_Singing-_Peasants_Returning_from_WorkDancing and Singing (Peasants Returning from Work) Ma Yuan (around 1200AD, exact year unknown)

Ma Yuan used bold and dramatic vertical lines to show the immensity of the landscape. And he also used fog and mist to create a lot of depth. Each area of interest is like a small self-contained island. As a photographer, it’s good to have important areas of interest separated, rather than in one big confusing clump of clutter!

Ma_Yuan_Walking_on_Path_in_SpringOn a mountain path in Spring, ma Yuan (1200AD, exact year unknown)

Mist and depth still play an important role in this painting. Notice how the hilltops in the upper left-hand corner fade away? The gaze of the man and the bird are pointing in the direction of the infinite mist. Ma kept it simple, and that’s another important thing to remember when creating landscape photographs. If you have strong elements in front, the background can just be a nice soft place.


Xia Gui (1195–1224)

Details of his short life are scarce, but his highly regarded work with black ink on scrolls lives on in the works of his admirers.

Xia_Gui,_Streams_and_Mountains_with_a_Clear_Distant_View,_detailPure and Remote View of Streams and Mountains, Xia Gui (approximately 1220)

This is a great title! He kept the background to the right simple, with the water below merging into the softness of the sky to imply a brilliant light in the distance. The small inlet of water with the figures and the structure show the immensity of this landscape. He made sure the viewer noticed the struggling trees clinging to the cliffs. Wouldn’t you like to be one of those tiny people standing along the shoreline admiring this view? This painting places the viewer right into the scene. The most effective images in landscape photography usually place the viewer right alongside the camera or somewhere in the scene itself. This photo of this painting is probably cut off at the bottom so you can’t see the bottom of the actual painting. Don’t let an important part of your landscape photo be cut off along the edges of the frame! Be careful as you compose your photo.


Xia_Gui_-_Untitled_Album_LeafUntitled leaf from an album, Xia Gui (approximately 1220)

Once again, simplicity is important. It’s difficult to imagine what could be added to improve this. Often figures are added, and there’s one along the path in the lower right side. In landscape photography today, some people like having no people in the scene at all. It makes them feel like they have this private space all to themselves. Sometimes it’s good to have several figures in a scene and sometimes no figures at all. In this case, it’s perfect as it is. Experiment including and excluding people from your landscapes. See what works best in different situations.


Chinese Ming Dynasty Painting (1368-1644)

During the Ming Dynasty, Chinese painting continued to develop with many art schools teaching many thousands of students. Some of those students became masters, whom are revered and copied even to this day. At the beginning of this period, Chinese art continued a 1,000-year tradition of being the world’s center of fine-art painting and art in general. The Middle East was also fertile ground at times during this period. Few works remain however. Europe was stuck in the middle ages, stifled by strict religious traditions, which limited artistic freedom, especially when it came to landscape painting. Only towards the end of the Ming Dynasty period, did the European Renaissance awaken artistic talent to begin to rival those talents in the east.

Shen Zhou (1427–1509)

Shen Zhou was extremely well accomplished in his studies of history and the classics. This knowledge provided him with the ability to envision and design paintings with a classic and traditional style. He also lived during a critical time in Chinese history where he had great freedom for artistic expression. So, his knowledge combined with freedom allowed him to compose classic works and more creative contemporary works (for his time) of high quality and refined style. The same idea holds for landscape photography. The more you know, and the greater freedom you enjoy, and the better prepared you are to envision and create great works of art. Throughout history, most of the biggest advancements in the arts and sciences occurred during times of political peace and religious freedom. Many of us today live in relatively free and technologically prosperous times. As a result, landscape photography is currently enjoying a sort of renaissance due to advances in digital capture and processing as well as sharing and learning on the Internet.

Lofty_Mt.Lu_by_Shen_ZhouLofty Mt.Lu, Shen Zhou (1467)

This painting and many others in this book have an incredible amount of detail, which can be better seen when you increase the magnification of the page or image. Many Chinese artists liked to present views in a panoramic format, both horizontally and vertically. Vertical panoramas (or vertoramas) are often overlooked in landscape photography. However, sometimes they are the best way to present views of towering mountains and waterfalls. Here is a view where a precariously perched wooden bridge almost seems to struggle to stay upright against the towering falls and cliffs. The viewer is left to imagine crossing this river via this bridge and climbing up the vertical path behind it. When photographing a vertical landscape, think about doing vertical panoramas. They can present perspectives no other format can accomplish!

Tang Yin (1470-1524), (Tang Bohu)

Tang Yin was a student of Shen Zhou (above.) and a friend of Wen Zhengming (below.) He lived his life selling his paintings, which made some critics disregard his art because they believed an artist should belong to the wealthy class, free to pursue art for art’s sake. Even today, many fine-art landscape photographers retain other jobs so they can be free from the financial pressures which might encourage them to produce only work which will sell. In addition, some critics today feel landscape photographers who attempt to ‘mass market’ their works to make money are ‘selling out’ and tainting their art. This is also common in music where you might hear complaints that a musical artist has sold out when a commercial features the artist’s music. You must decide how to pursue your goals.

Tang_Yin_003A Fisher in Autumn, Tang Yin, (1523)

Tang combines a bit of a vertical format into this landscape oriented painting. The vertical drop of the cliffs is enhanced by the rushing stream in the middle of the painting, and the way the larger river appears to drop off to the behind the tree. This painting shows the rapidly moving water in a dynamic way because of that drop-off and the waves in the river. The viewer can almost see the waves lapping up against the side of the boat. In fact, the feel is so dynamic the flute player on the left should be a little more aware of the possibility of going over the waterfall, which seems to lurk to the right of the frame! He seems oblivious to the danger. Landscape photographers should always be looking for ways to show the dynamic processes happening in the landscape.

Wen Zhengming (1470–1559)

Many important Chinese painters were serious scholars of history and art. Wen Zhengming followed in this tradition. He had many interests and even helped with the design of the Humble Administrator’s Garden, generally considered one of China’s four greatest gardens today. Designing a well-landscaped garden employs the same skills as composing a well-designed landscape painting or photograph. He preferred to paint simple subjects such as single trees or rocks. That tradition still is strong today in landscape photography. Many photographers prefer to create abstracts, or ‘extracts’ and Ansel Adams used to say.

Wintry_trees_after_Li_ChengWintery Trees, Wen Zhengming (1542)

This vertical format is perfect for showing a meandering stream through a tall forest of bare deciduous trees in the winter. A landscape photographer would have to climb to an elevated position and use a long lens to carefully compose this perspective. Spend the extra time to get the best overview and composition.