Monday, December 03, 2007

The Tao of Sketching

The Tao of Sketching by Qu Lei Lei
The complete guide to Chinese Sketching Techniques

The Tao of Sketching starts from a different place to other 'how to' instruction books about sketching and sketchbooks. The Introductory chapter provides quotations from various revered Chinese figures and explains about Chinese philosophy - hence the title.
Man is ruled by the Earth, and earth is ruled by Heaven, and Heaven is ruled by the Tao and the Tao is ruled by Nature.
Lao Tzu (604-531 BCE)
I'm not going to try and explain it as he does it so much better than I ever can plus you can read about Tao on Wikipedia.

Qu Lei Lei, the author, was born in China in the 1950s. He was first taught Chinese calligraphy by his parents and is now a Chinese brush painter and calligrapher. He came to England in 1981 after the Cultural Revolution and has been a Visiting Scholar at the Victoria and Albert Museum, tutored in Chinese Art at Oxford University and has participated in exhibitions at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the British Museum.

The Tao of Sketching considers materials which are not a lot different to those reviewed in other instruction books - except they do also include waterbrushes and Chinese brushes and ink. There are lots of images which demonstrate how Chinese brushes are used and to lay a wash or draw a line or make marks of various sorts within the context of his approach to sketching. Most importantly he relates media to how well suited they are for use in sketching and how much time you have available. Interestingly he highlights coloured pencils as being a very useful medium for sketching.
Successful sketching depends on two distinct elements to be combined: the understanding of how each medium works and the ability to measure the amount of time you have available against the scene you want to record.
Qu Lei Lei - techniques
His focus on the time available, using time effectively and the development of one's visual memory is one which I very much subscribe to (see my Advice on Sketching and "Sketching for Real") and is an element which I find can sometimes be underplayed in other books about sketching. He provides examples of the sort of sketches which can be completed in different time periods using different media and reviews different approaches to being able to sketch - such as how to capture movement and how to develop your visual memory.

The book then works its way through a number of projects relating to landscapes, townscapes, people and figures, animals, still life and flowers. As such it's not that different from other 'how to' sketchbooks - except of course he shows you how to use different materials in approaching these projects. However, Qu Lei Lei also focuses on how the philosophy of Tao and how being 'at one' with nature can be applied to how you approach sketching and what sort of image is produced. So, for example, he encourages his students to concentrate on trying to capture a person's chi or life spirit and then demonstrates with images how this can be achieved.
Whenever we are sketching people, whomever they are, the most important thing is to capture their soul rather than simply form their shape.
Qu Lei Lei Practical Sketching Tips
I liked a number of aspects of this book - but I would have loved to know how he first conceived it as its structure in some ways follows every other 'how to' book even it if does provide a twist. I do have the impression it's been 'anglicised' (this is what people are used to) for its intended audience whereas I think the sort of person interested in this book would have liked even more of the input which is specifically Chinese.

Nevertheless he is providing sound advice and focuses on a number of tips and techniques which I find very useful to know about when sketching. The book also provides a very different perspective on how to sketch which I think a number of people who are interested in sketching will find stimulating. Ultimately it's more about the 'why' than the 'how'. I'm convinced he has an even better book in him and I'll reserve five pencils for that and award this one four pencils within the The Big Drawing Book Review scale of appreciation.

Notes: Chinese Embassy Bio for Qu lei Lei
was a founding member of the Stars Art Movement in the 1970s, the influential group of artists who fought for freedom of expression within the arts after the Cultural Revolution. He came to London in 1985, and has spent the past twenty years studying, creating new works, lecturing and exhibiting worldwide. He has recently published three books: The Simple Art of Chinese Calligraphy (2002), The Simple Art of Chinese Brush Painting (2004) and The Simple Art of Tai Chi (2004). In March 2005 his paintings will be displayed at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, at the solo exhibition 'Everyone's life is an epic'.



  1. Hi Katherine...this book caught my eye, because I've been "bitten" by the pen and ink - bug. and it's very do successful sketching, you have to know the medium you're sorking with... I realize that more and more. I'm having so much fun with the pen and ink and my apprach is completely different from other sketchwork I've done....thanks for this information!
    (I know you through Robyn and once you left a message on my blog(Africantpestry?)....

  2. Hi Katherine, This DOES look interesting. I think I can see it in my very near future.

  3. A few years ago, I made some attempts with pen and ink, following the method of some Chinese works. It was quite interesting and very useful to find new ways of painting ...

  4. I want this for christmas, thanks for the recommendation.

  5. drawing peacefully is always a big goal


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