Chinese painting of the Sung dynasty, when it reached its highest development, is subtle and suggestive; never obvious or elaborate. It is neither abstract decoration nor a literal imitation of nature, but, as always in the greatest painting, a combination of realism with design. Once its peculiar idioms have been grasped, it will be found to speak the universal, basic language of pictorial form. Its means are simple: principally line, and various shades of light and dark; color contributes little. With these means the painter seeks, not only to present a rhythm of repeated themes, but to put down what seem to him the few essential, distinctive qualities of the natural objects he is painting-these and no more.
What are the essential qualities of the reeds that grow beside a stream? They have a distinctive slender stiffness; their leaves stick out in dark, spear-like points; the wind blows them in a certain way; they break off and lie on the ground in a certain way. To grasp this and be able to put it down vividly with the fewest possible strokes of the brush, one must observe these reeds for days and years, and practise drawing them until every stroke counts to the utmost. The same with a tiger: how does he turn and glare through the forest? How does his fur take the light, as the fur of no other animal does? These are problems, not of copying, but of revealing and interpreting nature. Then, in addition, the fascination of repeated forms in nature, of subtle, concealed resemblances between things otherwise very different, impels the painter to put them together in a design. The reed-leaves are like the tiger’s stripes, but more distinct. They stand, as he does, tense and alert, with diagonal outlines crossing each other. His left shoulder curves as does the swaying branch overhead, and so does the distant waterfall. The leaves overhead make a soft mottled silhouette against the light, that resembles the soft shadowing of his fur. Of such elements, woven together, a new design is created. The painter would scorn to copy every shadow cast in an actual scene, or imitate perspective lines. He can suggest solidity (as in the tiger’s muscular leg) or deep space (as in the waterfall) without actually copying them.