painting tutorial bamboo

Daoist talks (VI) Principles of Dao in Painting

a few examples

As already explained (art theory articles), Chinese painting of the last 1000 years is primarily focussing on Daoist ideas. These influences are of such an extensive nature that books can be written about them – and of course, much has already been written about them. It can even be said that Chinese xieyi painting (freehand painting) is applied Daoism.

Today I would like to deal with an aspect that is generally not given such great importance. But it definitely seems to me to be one of the most essential for understanding Chinese freehand painting.

As is well known, Daoism is primarily about living in harmony with nature and its principles. This is a somewhat vague term and not understandable for everyone. The following 3 examples should make this easier. “Nothing is done because the painter has wholeheartedly vanished into the doing. This ‘nothing’ is, in fact, everything.

the Dao of bamboo

We all know a lot of bamboo pictures, but we can’t always understand why some are treasures and others are worthless. If we take a closer look at the examples, fig. a, below, some things will become clearer.

daoism talks: painting tutorial bamboo
fig. a

Each individual leaf must look “natural”, ziran. [1] That’s enough challenge for a beginning painter. The next step is to bring the individual leaves into a ” natural ” formation, so the composition reflects nature. It can then look like a crane, a wild duck, flying up to the sky or settling on the water, a moon, and other things. And ONLY if you do it like this, bamboo paintings work (I have practiced many hundreds of exercise sheets and therefore know it quite well).

Doa, one step further

A very important bamboo painter of the Southern Song period was Wu Zhen. I chose this work of his because it shows very well how hundreds of years later a painter like Ye Qianyu picks up the idea. fig. b. It shows very well how hundreds of years later a painter like Ye Qianyu took up the idea. Although he has painted a dancer, she has the same grace with which Wu Zhen makes his bamboo “dance”.

Ye Qianyu and Wu Zhen
fig. b

Qi Baishi dances from life

A not-so-well-known picture of Qi Baishi is the following, which to my knowledge was his last. It’s a peony, a favorite subject of this exceptional artist. On the left side, fig. c, again is a practice example for learners. And again, only when you understand how a peony blossom is structured and can therefore paint it in a “natural” way, is it possible to dance like a peony out of life in old age. fig. d

daoism talks: Qi Baishi peony 齐白石牡丹画
fig. c and fig. d


As I wrote in an earlier post I consider many of my own works to be committed to Daoism. A major reason is that I try to paint “naturally” – even if the finished pictures may appear to be completely abstract. What I wrote above about bamboo here is part of my paintings again and again, like in these samples of dots. fig. e. They can appear in the shape of abstract birds, fish, or other objects. Of course, all of this is the result of years of practice.

daoism talks: dots by zettl
daoism talks – fig. e


[1] ziran 自然, is a key concept in Daoism that literally means “of its own; by itself” and thus “naturally; natural; spontaneously; freely; in the course of events; of course; doubtlessly”. The contrary would be “zuozuo , affected, artificial, made up.

related: What a Dot can do | Analyzing a Qi Baishi Painting



9 responses to “Daoist talks (VI) Principles of Dao in Painting”

  1. swabby429 avatar

    Now that you have revealed them in a different light; I have become more intrigued by peonies.

  2. Mike and Kellye Hefner avatar

    I enjoyed this interesting post. As always, I enjoy seeing your beautiful paintings.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      As always, you are very kind! As always, I am happy 😊

  3. luisa zambrotta avatar

    Another interesting post! I enjoyed the explanations, the images, and your paintings very much

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much for your support, Luisa!

      1. luisa zambrotta avatar

        You’re more than welcome 🙏🌼🙏

  4. mich avatar

    Your posts, sir, are a treasure in the cluttered, often ‘zuozuo’ world of the blogosphere; they inspire one to aspire to a ‘ziran’ state of mind and expression. I do love the parallel between Yi Qianyu’s dancer and Wu Zhen’s dancing bamboo.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! And I’m very glad that you see it that way. “Ziran” is getting lost more and more in our modern world. But small children live it and are in it and therefore are so full of joy.

  5. rabirius avatar

    I know basically nothing about Dao. Therefore I found this especially interesting!

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