Sansuiga / by Nerina Lascelles

People are often asking me to describe the inspiration behind my work and while my paintings have taken a leap into a new direction, the Japanese influence is still apparent. There are other components that inspire each piece but I'd love to share with you some of the historical movements in traditional Asian paintings that somehow found their way into my own artistic practise.

One Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, Wang Ximeng of the late Northern Song dynasty (960–1127).

One Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, Wang Ximeng of the late Northern Song dynasty (960–1127).

History of Shanshui/Sansuiga

One such movement is Shanshui (China) or Sansuiga (Japan). The term Sansuiga applied to traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese painting which depict an idealised landscape primarily using the forms of mountains, rivers, clouds and mist. In Chinese, Shan means mountain and Shui means water.

Originating in China, Shanshui draws much of its influence from Buddhist art that traveled across Asia on the ancient Silk Road and began to develop in the 5th century.

In Japan, landscapes served first as settings in Buddhist paintings as influenced by the blue-and-green landscapes of the Tang dynasty. from the 14th century, primarily by Zen priests.

By the late 18th century, new influences from Western realism transformed much of Japanese landscape painting from a conceptual or idealised image of nature to naturalistic views of real locations.

Guo Xi - Early Spring, 1072

Guo Xi - Early Spring, 1072

Elements in Shanshui paintings

Mountains have long been seen as sacred places in China and were viewed as the homes of the immortals and thus, close to the heavens. Mountains are the "heart" of a Chinese landscape painting. They are the centre point of a vast landscape, either rising upward toward the heavens or depicted as steep green monoliths covered with craggy rocks and ridges. These surreal landscapes are a product of the artist's imagination. Behind these scenes is a very deep, philosophical meaning. The landscape surrounding the mountain entices the viewer to partake in its beauty and contemplate the meaning of the mountain - or sometimes, the vast emptiness surrounding it.

 In Confucianism philosophy, mountains are an image of calm stillness, while water represents movement and change, hence the complimentary concepts of Being and Becoming.

The inclusion of fog surrounding the mountain is the "spiritual void" we must fill by contemplating the painting. The mist clouding the landscape also symbolises psychological uncertainty. As it obscures the view, it represents a lack of clarity, insight, or knowledge.

Reading in a Bamboo Grove, Tenshō Shūbun, 1446

Reading in a Bamboo Grove, Tenshō Shūbun, 1446

When Shanshui artists work on a painting, they do not try to present an image of what they have seen in nature, but what they have thought about nature. It is not important whether the painted colors and shapes look exactly like the real object; the intent is to capture, on paper, an awareness of inner reality and wholeness, as though the painting flows directly from the artist’s mind, through the brush, onto the paper. The skilled artists used their works to address and portray the transformations and subtleties of the universe. The conceptual landscapes of Shanshui were said to provide not only a mirror of the natural world but a means of expressing human thought and abstract or philosophical principles.

According to Chinese author, jurist and ambassador, Ch'eng Hsi:

“Shanshui painting is a kind of painting which goes against the common definition of what a painting is. Shanshui painting refutes color, light and shadow and personal brush work. Shanshui painting is not an open window for the viewer's eye, it is an object for the viewer's mind. Shanshui painting is more like a vehicle of philosophy.”

Pine Trees Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539 – 1610)

Pine Trees Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539 – 1610)


Shanshui paintings involve a complicated and rigorous set of requirements for balance, composition, and form. Each painting contains three basic elements, “paths,” a “threshold,” and the “heart” or focal point. Paths—Pathways should never be straight. They should meander like a stream. This helps deepen the landscape by adding layers. The path can be the river, or a path along it, or the tracing of the sun through the sky over the shoulder of the mountain. The Threshold—The path should lead to a threshold. The threshold is there to embrace you and provide a special welcome. The threshold can be the mountain, or its shadow upon the grounds, or its cut into the sky. The Heart—The heart is the focal point of the painting and all elements should lead to it. The heart defines the meaning of the painting.

Shanshui paintings have no fixed perspective, as Western landscape paintings do.

The principles of Shanshui can be extended to gardening and landscape design. Shan represents “yang” or strong, tall, and vertical elements, while shui is “yin,” soft, horizontal, and lying on the earth. Vertical and horizontal elements must be maintained in balance. The application of Shanshui to gardening implies having a deep respect for natural forces, and allowing nature to shape the garden, rather than trying to dominate nature.

Ming Dynasty Painting

Ming Dynasty Painting

Blue and Green Paintings

Another strong influence on my new body of paintings is the blue, green, aqua and gold palette from the Buddhist paintings from the Tang Dynasty (7th - 10th century China).

Qinglu Shanshui (China) and Seiryoku Sansui (Japan) literally translates as blue-and-green landscape. These paintings were heavily coloured with mineral pigments, especially blue azurite and green malachite with use of gold highlights. During the Heian period in Japan, the colored Seiryoku Sansui formed the basis of what came to be called yamato-e

Shanshui Poetry

Shanshui poetry or Shanshui shi refers to the movement in poetry, influenced by the shanshui (landscape) painting style, which became known as Shanshui poetry, or "Landscape poetry". Sometimes, the poems were designed to be viewed with a particular work of art, others were intended to be "textual art" that invoked an image inside a reader's mind. It is one of the more important Classical Chinese poetry genres. Developing in the third and fourth centuries in China, Shanshui poetry contributed to the process of forming a unique aesthetic outlook.

temple tea path.jpg

And finally, here is a collection of Shanshui poems by Wang Wei who lived in the Tang Dynasty, 8th century (701–761) and is sometimes referred to as the “Poet Buddha”.

Deer Park
No one seen. In empty mountains,
hints of drifting voice, no more.
Entering these deep woods, late sun-
light ablaze on green moss, rising.

Magnolia Park
Autumn mountains gathering last light,
one bird follows another in flight away.
Shifting kingfisher-greens flash radiant
scatters. Evening mists: nowhere they are.

Vagary Lake
Flute-song carries beyond furthest shores.
In dusk light, I bid you a sage’s farewell.
Across this lake, in the turn of a head,
mountain greens furl into white clouds.