dot against water detail

What a dot can do

about a dot in Chinese arts

When I was once introduced to Professor Wolfgang Kubin (he is the most important sinologist in the German-speaking world – an incredible man BTW), he said: “Yes, I know who you are. You’re the man who can deliver a lecture on just one stroke”. (Well, that would be the short version, the full evening would come closer). This already shows that this topic “about strokes” could hardly be dealt with in a single blog post. So let’s start small, with one dot.

If you are not in a hurry and have 1 minute to spare, please do the following exercise:
Imagine you are asked to give a short lecture on what a dot is in western art.

This exercise is not only exciting for those interested in art. We live in a time when the term “mindfulness” is gaining importance. At the same time, many not only find it difficult to practice mindfulness, but some also do not know exactly how to practice it sensibly.

Painting and Calligraphy

Don’t worry, I’m not writing an article about esotericism or well-being, rather I want to reflect on a part of Chinese art that is generally under-recognized and yet of great importance. Traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy are inextricably linked. What applies to a large scroll painting also applies to the individual stroke – and for a dot. Everything must be spiritually permeated.
I have already written several times about what is considered the be-all and end-all of Chinese art: the play of opposites. At this point, it is decided whether a job is successful or not. In the west, there is a lot of talk about yin and yang. In my 5 years in China and with numerous conversations with painters, teachers, and colleagues, I hardly heard anything about that. Probably because it is so natural for the Chinese painter.

What is a dot?

In a sense, a dot is a (very short) stroke. So what applies to the line also applies to the dot. A very important aspect of this is to fill this point with meaning – otherwise, it’s just a meaningless blob.
But how concretely can you fill a point with meaning? When one begins studying, he is already instructed to put points that go “through the paper to the table.” When a teacher is examining a student’s calligraphy, he often turns the paper over (rice paper is used, i.e. unsized paper) and you can see very clearly which dots or strokes are “only on the surface” and which are powerfully written.
But even before the brush is picked up, the painter prepares himself mentally.

A good dot must be powerful, and must have “qi”. How do achieve this? For example, a beginner can imagine holding a brush in both hands. He also imagines the brush tip hitting the paper like a stone from far above. But that would be too simple, not spiritualized enough. So he continues to imagine that one hand is pushing the brush up and the other hand is pushing it down. One forward, one backward, left, right… And in the force field thus created, the brush tip hits the paper. Or the brush touches the paper, is pressed a little harder, then almost forms a circle before the pressure on the brush is released and the brush tip completes the point.

These are “strong” dots then, they bury themselves in the paper, they can’t be “blown away”.
This may sound a bit like mumbo-jumbo, but once you try it, you’ll immediately see the difference.

A good dot

A point rarely comes alone and if you now set 2 dots, they must communicate with each other. Of course, the same applies to 3 or more dots. Now how do you bring a soul into a cluster of points? As is always the case in Chinese painting, which is primarily influenced by Daoism, a reference is made to objects. So there are dots that are meant to look like scattered peppercorns. Or like a rabbit’s trail in the snow (very dynamic), or ones that look like chrysanthemum blossoms… Often in these formations, the center is empty, similar to an enso.

This table above with a handful of samples makes it clear how important dots are. The student just practices those different kinds of dots for many, many hours.

dots and overall painting

It is particularly interesting to look at the dots in the overall picture, how they create formations of individual areas and how they communicate with each other. Not only are some painters famous for their dots, the way they set dots has become a style of its own. Such as the Mi dots, named after the painter Mi Fu (Chinese: 米芾 or 米黻; pinyin: Mǐ Fú, also known as Mi Fei, 1051–1107).
The probably most important expert on dots was Shi Tao. (Shitao or Shi Tao (simplified Chinese: 石涛; 1642–1707 ). Some of his paintings seem to consist almost entirely of dots.

And now to my dot.

The picture would of course work without that “dot” in the lower part, but it gives the picture a deeper meaning. I could have as well have added a dot that resembles a leaf and would have achieved another mood or just have not added one.

Why do I think it is a good dot? On the one hand, the “dot” consists of 2 lines (yin yang) with a hint of emptiness in between.


It has good calligraphy quality and has a strong “qi”. And in this dot, the mood, the style, and the soul of the overall picture are well captured. (The large black elements in the picture form an enso, i.e. a circle, and the “point” at the bottom becomes a counterpoint.) And since, as we discussed above, points also need to capture something concrete, this one has something of the bird about it. If the bird had been painted too realistically, it would have been too vulgar. It was about finding the right balance between realistic and abstract. And, as it takes his place against the water, you can almost hear it calling. At least that’s how it was thought.

More articles on Chinese arts: HERE | Ophelia 2022 |




26 responses to “What a dot can do”

  1. acrylicphil avatar

    Fascinating, thank you for this, Friedrich.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      You are most welcome! I am happy you like this!

  2. florentboucharel avatar

    Very interesting, as always.

    One question on “When a teacher is examining a student’s calligraphy, he often turns the paper over (rice paper is used, i.e. unsized paper) and you can see very clearly which dots or strokes are “only on the surface” and which are powerfully written.” I guess the teacher does this for the sake of showing the student and he knows exactly from the painted side which dot is powerfully written and which is only on the surface. Do you think a teacher could mistake a powerfully written dot from a “surface only” dot? This looks like a pretty objective way to judge of esthetics and reminds me of the movie where a famous Western art critics develops suicidal and homicidal thoughts after being conned into praising the work of… a monkey. Obviously, in Western art, one does not equate the esthetic result with technical performance any more, generally speaking.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      When the students are still at the very beginning, they are usually not aware of the mistakes they are making. One of the basic mistakes that I have made for a long time, for example, is to be much too quick with the brush.
      You see the dynamism of a famous painter and you confuse it with speed. But the dynamic effect is something that comes from the mind and the composition.
      At this point the teacher is not concerned with aesthetics but with technique, craftsmanship. What’s more, the aesthetics only come from mastering the brush.

      It can best be compared to practicing a musical instrument. When a good musician rushes across the piano keys at great speed, he has nevertheless first learned to give meaning to every touch.
      As Westerners, we often don’t pay that much attention to craftsmanship anymore. But if this weren’t of such unrestricted importance in Chinese art, calligraphy would be of little importance – a few characters lined up one on top of the other.

  3. Klausbernd avatar

    Thanks for your explanation.
    Wishing you a wonderful weekend
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you very much! A most pleasant weekend to you!


    Thank you for such clear explanations and helpful links. Each little bit of understanding makes your paintings even more beautiful. Would you consider allowing me to reblog one paragraph and one image with links to your original post?

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you very much for your kind words! Yes, of course, you may use any content if it is useful.


        Thank you! 😎 Would you like me to include caption information on the image?

      2. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        You are welcome. Please feel free to decide what fits best.

  5. Chinaman Creek avatar

    You must have read Jean Francois Billeter . It makes a lot of sense to me, as do you do, about qi . . . Thank you, Friedrich

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you very much! I do not know this author and sure will check! All the best!

      1. Chinaman Creek avatar

        I am sure you will find it very interesting, Friedrich! All the best!

  6. Rosaliene Bacchus avatar

    What a fascinating article! I had no idea about the importance of a dot in its various forms in Chinese art.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you very much! There is much more but I tried to keep it simple. And one would never believe what strokes can tell. A fascinating topic for sure 😄

  7. rothpoetry avatar

    I love your painting! My first impression was hawk capturing another bird with feathers flying!
    Beautifully done.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you very much Dwight! Yes, I often “hide” birds in my landscape paintings. Rather abstract but one can “feel” them. All the best!

      1. rothpoetry avatar

        You are welcome!

  8. swabby429 avatar

    A dot can also represent a “full stop”…a form of punctuation. This reminds the viewer to halt and contemplate the complete image.

  9. viviennelingard avatar

    Thank you for this interesting post. Calligraphy has always fascinated me, since living in Hong Kong and Japan for a spell. It was the explanation at the end, when you refer to the dot, as representing bird, but a realistic one would have been too vulgar. Once a bird image came into my mind I saw the heavier abstract shapes above as flocks of ravens. Great abstract.

  10. Zettl Friedrich avatar

    Thank you su much for your kinds words! I am happy you like it. How I miss Hong Kong…..

  11. les2olibrius avatar

    Mon observation de votre création ne me révèle ni un faucon ni un corbeau mais une chouette en attaque… Sans doute parce que cet oiseau est associé à la sagesse dans mon esprit nourri par mes études classiques occidentales. Donc… Le qi est la force… Alors le point devient un poing… Mais dans votre article il est conçu comme un contrepoint… Il n’est donc pas une frontière comme en linguistique… Alors mon oeil s’évade vers la lune en bas à droite, dans la partie calme… comme une fin de nuit d’orage.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Merci! Vous avez un très bon pouvoir d’observation et une belle imagination. Quand je peins un tableau comme celui-ci, je n’ai souvent pas d’idée très concrète. J’ai souvent peint des études au préalable et une partie de cela s’y rattache. Que vous voyiez un faucon ou un hibou dépend du spectateur. Pour moi, il est important que l’image ne soit pas seulement perçue comme abstraite, mais qu’une âme, quelque chose de vivant soit ressenti. Je ne fais qu’indiquer la direction à prendre.

      1. les2olibrius avatar

        Eh bien vous y réussissez fort bien.

  12. Mich avatar

    The dot at the bottom of your painting is spectacular in its illuminated isolation in an otherwise (as I see it) foreboding picture. An astonishing work. I do love the painting by Shi Tao, which is complex and momentous — until one sees the simple hut and the man in the boat.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you for your kind words! I’m glad you like Shi Tao. Yes, I spent some time on dots, it’s kind of like a mindfulness exercise “plus” 🙂

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