PAINTING... The Nightinale
It's just a year since Demi first appeared in The Home Forum with ``How I grew up to draw what I knew at two'' on a page including her drawing based on a painting by her great-grandfather, William Morris Hunt. We mentioned then that, after 40 other children's books, she was illustrating a new edition of ``The Nightingale,'' by Hans Christian Andersen. Now, with the book published (by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), Demi tells how the art for it involved four treasures, five peaks, and a kitchen with n o more dishes left. THE first Chinese paintbrush I ever saw had a bamboo handle with a white tuft that was made of sheep and goat hairs picked in autumn. A brass cap containing one mothball covered the tuft for protection against ``small flying creatures.'' Exquisite red characters carved into the handle said, ``This brush contains the four virtues; pointed, well-proportioned, round and strong.''
Immediately I envisioned a brushmaker climbing a Chinese mountain and, upon encountering a goat, saying, ``Excuse me, it is now autumn and your hairs have achieved their perfect spring, would you please spare me a few?''
Likewise with the sheep.
Then he would proceed down the mountain with his minute collection and begin putting together an ingenious and extremely sensitive instrument -- the Chinese brush. The tip would contain the longest, thinnest, and most springy hairs, surrounded by a layer of shorter hairs, again surrounded by several long hairs. This arrangement would create a hollow space between the core and the outer layer like a reservoir to hold the ink, and would automatically keep its point after lifted pressure.
The Chinese brush was considered one of the ``four treasures,'' along with the ink, inkstone, and silk. They were to be highly respected and used as instruments conveying the laws of heaven. From their use the culture of man derived, and all were developed according to a pedigree. This -- with philosophy such as ``Learn to hold in your thoughts the Five Peaks . . . Study 10,000 volumes, walk 10,000 miles . . . See the wind blowing through willow branches in Heaven'' -- (Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Pai nting, 1679, Wang Kai) -- left me in a state of awe.
The opportunity to use these treasures came when Anna Bier, my magical editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, proposed Hans Christian Andersen's ``The Nightingale'' and was looking for something awesome. The idea came to her from Barbara Knowles, a fine designer who had lent Anna a copy of Andrew Lang's ``The Yellow Fairy Book,'' first edition (1894), and was also looking for something awesome.
This could only mean silk, ink, inkstone, and Chinese brushes made of sheep and goat hair picked in autumn.
The base line art was prepared first. Then the color paintings were prepared on closely and wonderfully woven Wu silk. With the help of my friend Tze-Si Huang, I acquired 16 yards of this fine and foglike silk, which was then dyed in a gold solution in my bathtub and dried and sized on serigraph pins in my studio.
Traditional Chinese paints were used. The blues and greens came from azurite, malachite, and indigo; the reds from cinnabar, realgar, and orpiment, with the brilliant red from coral and the pink-red from a flowering vine; umber from iron oxide called limonite; yellow from the sap of the rattan plant; and white from lead or pulverized oyster shells. To all powdered jade was added ``for good fortune.'' These colors were mixed with stag horn, fish or ox glue, or glue made from the pulp of the soap bean. Th e black Chinese ink was made from 10 parts pine soot, three parts powdered jade, and one part glue from donkey hides boiled in Tung River water.
The paints were mixed with boiling water. In the first stage the water must look like fish eyes; in the second, like innumerable pearls strung together; and, in the final stage, like the rolling breakers. The paints were applied with brushes made of rabbit, weasel, wolf, as well as sheep and goat hairs picked in autumn, and mouse whiskers, with handles of blackwood, buffalo and rhinoceros horn and tortoise shell. Where changes were required in the art, the paint was removed by wiping the are a with the juice of the apricot seed.
What my studio looked like was this:
Wu silk hanging from above on serigraph pins; on every flat surface 100 two-inch white porcelain dishes in stacks containing mixed colors; 100 tiny half-inch square Chinese white paper boxes containing the raw solid or powdered colors; precious three-inch envelopes containing, between folded rice paper, the powdered jade. Also gourd-shaped water containers, brush holders, separate grinding stones for ink in ink-stick form, which came in many colors embossed with Chinese cloud designs, magical deer, and l ucky signs.
In the kitchen there were no dishes left. Glue combinations took over most. Pulverization of oyster shells and apricot work took place on the chopping board, and all pots were at various stages of boil. Nobody really remembers how or what we ate in those days.
The day came when I felt this life was closer to living on the moon. The particular day was when I completed my first painting -- the painting being in itself still a piece of painted silk, which was most fragile, transparent, see-through, gauze-like, feather-weight, filmy, flimsy, and entirely more likely to disappear and melt into its own foglike qualities than to stay on earth.
To Simon Ho, on Mott Street, Chinatown, New York City, USA, 20th century, I was going to take this piece, and he with his magic glue was going to back it onto rice paper. But on that day, as I walked along Mott Street, holding my fine and foglike Wu silk with all of the 20th century racing by, it was more difficult than ever to hold on and believe in any peak, far less five. But lo and behold, before my eyes, it really became a painting!
I would like to thank Anna Bier and Barbara Knowles for their awesome thoughts, and to all those who call out for unknown, or known and forgotten, higher things, because that concept and belief and the painting of ``The Nightingale'' for me became a magical experience leading to more.
There is nothing like painting on Wu silk, and there really are four treasures.
It is possible to hold your thoughts on the Five Peaks, there is a harmony of the universe, and there is an inner and outer harmony of man.
And if you do study all things in all seasons, you really can still your heart and you really can see the shape of the wind blowing through willow branches in heaven!