Friday, November 20, 2015

Korean Traditional Painting: Symbolism

The National Museum of Korea hosted a special painting class using traditional paints. The focus was on educating foreign participants on the Confucian iconic imagery in traditional art imbued with symbolic meanings. Much of the visual iconography in paintings is for giving a message, something that Westerners are unaware of when viewing Korean pictures, clothing, architecture, etc. Before participants actually started painting a picture of each person's choice, they were briefly instructed in the various meanings of some typical flora and fauna commonly featured in Korean traditional art:


  • peony - symbol of the king, queen or royalty - typically appearing on folding screens, royal paintings or even clothing
  • lotus blossom - not only the iconic symbol of Buddhism but also symbolizing fertility and purity


  • butterfly - symbols for seniors or people of old and venerable age; also a fertility symbol and features on wedding pictures and bedding of newly-weds

examples of the use of symbols in Korean traditional art
  • duck - a symbolic prayer for the passing of a test, especially for becoming a government official; the underlying meaning is "to win first place in a scholarship competition."
  • magpie - bringer of good news, or a sign of a close friend soon to visit
  • fish - featured as a pair as are many symbols of fertility; the pair of fish symbolizes conjugal harmony
  • tiger - a most popular motif in Korean folk painting, likely originating from the mythical "white tiger" guardian spirit of the east, and so the animal is seen as a protector. The tiger is usually depicted as comical and friendly, even a stupid animal, and as such, it is a symbol for driving away evil and therefore bringing luck. It's a very complex symbol but one that typically has very positive meaning.

So many more symbols exist, but this was an introduction. After the quick introduction to the symbols, some large laminated traditional pictures, having some of the symbols described, were passed around and participants were given an art frame for painting, a tray of the basic colors of traditional paints, brushes, and a sheet of carbon paper for tracing and transferring a portion of a traditional painting to the art board.

I wasn't particularly interested in copying someone's art. Plagiarism in traditional Korean art is not considered negative in any sense, but rather is a mark of having mastered a skill. But I wanted to design and paint my own picture and, for some reason, lately I've become fascinated with cranes and ibises, symbols of longevity as are pine trees and mountains and other sipjangsaeng images, so I looked up some Asian art pictures on my smartphone and found a picture that appealed.

Painting with Korean watercolors

Korean (and Chinese) traditional watercolor paints are different than western paints. Because Korean and Chinese watercolor paints were/are typically used on rice paper, which is fragile but highly absorbent, the paint needs more starch as a binder to adhere to the paper. Because of the binder, the watercolors do not bleed as much as western watercolors which are known for running, smearing and puddling. Korean and Chinese traditional paints are also made with natural dyes and minerals rather than the finer pigment particles in western watercolors. Because of this, some of the colors are opaque (the minerals) and others (the pigments) are transparent. I read somewhere that Marie's set of 12 Chinese watercolors has seven transparent colors and five opaques, which makes the colors blend, outline and wash in very exciting complimentary ways. For this reason, the Korean or Chinese watercolors are ideal for using inksticks, sumi ink or India ink; they blend well with the ink, and unlike western colors which become muddy when blended, these make beautiful gray washes.

A simple repertoire of colors plus calligraphy ink ... to make amazing expressions on paper!
After sketching my cranes on a scrap paper (the fibers we were working with do not take eraser well at all), I very lightly transferred the sketch to the board.
It's amazing how a few simple Korean watercolors plus calligraphy ink can make such a colorful picture. The paper on the right is a unique, modern watercolor-palette paper. It replaces the palette and after use is just tossed! Very handy!
My interpretation of a painting I found online.

No comments:

Post a Comment