The Use of Color

    The ch'aesaekhwa ("painting in brilliant colors") style of painting has long played an important role in the history of Korean painting, predating even the ink monochrome style favored by Korean professional and scholar-amateur painters from the end of the Choson dynasty (1392-1910). Famous painters of the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE - 668), such as Tamjing of the Koguryo kingdom (37 BCE - 668), Insaraa and Prince Ajwa of the Paekche kingdom (18 BCE - 660), and Solgo of the Silla kingdom (57 BCE - 668) all appear to have painted with colors. The colors used in their paintings — blue, red, yellow, white, and black — were closely related to the East Asian cosmological concept of five elements (tree, fire, earth, metal, and water), and to the five directions (east, south, center, west, and north). Although the use of strikingly vibrant primary colors is one of the major characteristics of Korean decorative painting, secondary and tertiary colors were also frequently used. In contrast to ink monochrome paintings, which were created by both scholar-amateur and professional painters to express their innermost thoughts and responses to life experiences, decorative paintings were created by professional painters to wish for joyous happenings, to expel evil influences, and to bring health, happiness, and longevity. The aesthetic forms and images found in Korean decorative painting, therefore, best represent Koreans' long-held hopes and aspirations.

    Religious Painting

    Korean decorative painting served all segments of society, including the worlds of religion, the court, and ordinary people. The style was a vital part of Korean Buddhist art, which was kept alive by trained monk-painters at many major and minor temples. Monasteries selected talented young novices and trained them to be full-fledged painters, a practice which has continued to this day.

    In the hierarchy of Buddhist art, the paintings of Buddhas and Bodhisattavas were viewed as most sacred. Such paintings were produced during both the Koryo dynasty (918 AD - 1392 AD) and the Choson period. By the late Choson era, works that could be hung or moved about were becoming more prominent. Meanwhile, the wall behind the main sculptural image of the Buddha in the golden hall, which during the Koryo dynasty had been adorned with murals, was now increasingly covered by hanging scroll paintings.

    Strict rules had to be observed while painting images of the Buddha and Bodhisattva. Painters, usually monks, had to prepare themselves mentally and spiritually before the project began, and to sustain this intensity until completion. Two monks were always present while painting was in progress: one performing the continuous recitation of the Buddha's name ( yombul), and the other keeping an eye on iconography. Once the medium was ready, the master painter, who was also the project director, drew or outlined the image. Monk-painters, who were selected by the master, filled in the colors. Buddhist paintings produced during the Choson dynasty were often accompanied by the title, year, place, and the name of the monastery, as well as by the names of the painters and donors.

    Because Buddhist paintings of this period were often sponsored by women of the gentry (yangban) class, or by ordinary people, such works were not as luxurious as those from the Koryo era, which were produced under court patronage. In the Choson period, solid and sober qualities were emphasized over the elegant and ethereal, thus making the deity's mercy and compassion — attributes central to the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism — more accessible to common people.

    Young novices learned to copy and draw the deities in a specific order. Buddhist guardians such as the Guardian King of the West (Fig.1) are represented as warrior-deities, with fearsome expressions on their faces: the fiercer the appearance, the more protective power they were believed to possess. Stylistically, the images of these guardians belong to the late Choson dynasty. It was during this period that Buddhist painting adopted Korean folk-painting techniques, including the tendency to cover large areas with saturated, unmodulated colors, and the use of flat, stylized forms with no sense of mass or volume.

    [missing figure]
    Fig. 1 Guardian King of the West

    Although the Mountain Spirit (Fig.2) seems to belong in this category, he is atypical in being an indigenous Korean deity, who has been incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon. Intriguingly, he is sometimes rendered as an old Confucian sage, a Buddhist saint, a Daoist immortal (as here), or as Tangun, the legendary founder of ancient Korea, who according to Korean folk belief entered into the mountain and became a mountain-spirit at the end of his reign.

    [missing figure]
    Fig. 2 Mountain Spirit

    Portraits of eminent monks ( chinyong) occupied a special place in Korean Buddhist painting. After the introduction of Buddhism, the images of eminent monks most likely became objects of veneration, much as ancestral portraits had been since earlier times. This change was motivated in part by the teachings of the son (zen), meditative school of Buddhism which emphasized direct transmission of knowledge from teacher to disciple, rather than through the written sutras.[5] Once this movement took root, portraits of eminent monks began to occupy a place of importance comparable to that of previously occupied only by Buddhist sutras or scriptures.

    In portraits of monks, as in other portrait paintings, efforts were directed towards recording the monks' outward appearance as well as capturing their spirit and inner achievements. While these portraits could be considered as an expression of respect and reverence for the monks' teaching, in the context of the son school they also represented the teachers themselves, on whom disciples depended not only for guidance, but also for enlightenment. To their disciples, these portraits were the objects of deep affection and veneration.

    The Choson dynasty's repression of Buddhism has been well documented. The Choson court abolished a large number of monasteries, leaving only 242 in the entire nation, and prohibited monks and nuns from entering the capital city. They also ordered the confiscation of monasteries' tax-free land and slaves, prohibited further ordinations, and demanded corvée labor from monks for construction of roads, as well as city and defense walls.[6] Korean Buddhism did not flourish under these severely repressive policies, as it had during previous dynasties.

    The fire of Buddhism, however, was not completely extinguished. Many of the monks who played a crucial role in resisting the Choson dynasty's severe policies had fought valiantly against the Japanese invading forces in 1592 and 1597. Thanks to their valor in battle, these monks were not open to criticism from the Confucian scholars who came to power under the Choson, for shunning their responsibilities to family, society, and nation. Two monks in particular, Sosan Taesa, Hyujong (1520 - 1604), and Samyong Taesa, Yujong (1544 - 1610), were nationally honored for leading monk-warriors to defend the country during the crises of 1592 and 1597 respectively. On the order of the court their portraits were painted and placed in special halls at selected monasteries, where monk-superintendents were assigned to care for the images.[7]

    Undoubtedly the most visibly vital area of Buddhist painting today is the tanch'ong tradition. Tanch'ong, meaning "red and blue," originally referred to all paintings done in bright colors. Now, however, it has come to refer exclusively to the decorative embellishment buildings with patterns and designs in dazzling colors. This tradition has been kept alive by dedicated monk-painters such who specialize in restoring and decorating important buildings in the tanch'ong tradition, in order to make them appear as beautiful as the teachings of Buddha and as magnificent as his land.

    As in other genres of Buddhist painting, decorating a building involves a team of monk-painters. The master painter is responsible for choosing and creating designs, patterns, and colors for each post, beam, and rafter, so as to make the embellishment of the building appear harmonious.

    Courtly Painting

    Ever since the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC - 668), Korea has retained skilled painters in the service of its court and aristocracy. Especially during the Koryo dynasty (918 - 1392), both monk-painters and professionals were employed for court-sponsored Buddhist painting projects.

    The court's Bureau of Painting hired skilled painters and trained young art students. In order to become a court painter, the aspiring candidate had to pass a test which until the late Choson dynasty was divided into four categories: bamboo, landscape, figures, birds, and feathers; and flowers and grass. Although court painters were considered mere craftsmen in Choson society, and thus members of the chung'in (middle) class, they were well educated and talented, and some advanced to become magistrates ( hyongam) of small towns. The Bureau produced a number of excellent artists who played key roles in the development of Korean painting during this period.

    Court painters had to satisfy the very varied demands of the court and aristocracy in their work. Their repertoire included paintings which served didactic and moralistic purposes; decorative paintings; paintings recording rituals and ceremonies; commemorative paintings recording gatherings of elder statesmen; portrait paintings; topographical paintings; New Year's paintings; paintings of longevity symbols and farming; and maps, as well as Buddhist religious paintings. For the court painters, it was most prestigious to be selected to paint the portraits of kings, especially the reigning ruler. The reward for this service came in the form of material gifts or a civil service assignment (though usually no higher than the post of magistrate).

    Another theme which received a great deal of attention from the court and the gentry was that of scholars' accouterments, called ch'aekkori or ch'aekkado in Korean. Ch'aekkori paintings always included books, brushes, ink sticks, ink stones, ancient bronzes and ceramics, scroll, and so on, which were dear to the scholars and could be found in their studies. Such paintings were popular among ordinary people, and were always painted in colors; as a result, they have generally been considered as folk art. However, large folding screens decorated with scholars' accouterments were also painted by many court painters, who adapted Western techniques of linear perspective and modeling to create an illusion of space mass, and volume. According to Yi Kyusang (1729 - 1799), there was no gentry household without a ch'aekkori painting during the eighteenth century.[9]

    Folk Painting

    From the eighteenth century onward there was an increasing demand for folk paintings using vibrant colors. Merchants in the Kwangt'onggyo area of Seoul carried a wide range of such works in their stores. The most popular items were folding screens depicting "Peonies," "Farming," "Diamond Mountains," "One Hundred Boys," "The Banquet of the Queen Mother of the West," "Guo Ziyi's Banquet," "Nine Cloud Dream," and "Xiao and Xiang Rivers." Vertical paintings for the doors and walls were also popular, and commonly depicted roosters, dogs, dragons, haetae (a fire guardian) with tigers; a carp swimming upstream; the ten longevity symbols; Monk Songjin with Eight Fairies, a scene from the Nine Cloud Dream novel; prunus, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo; heavenly kings; and door guardians.[11] These colorful works were not painted by court painters belonging to the Bureau of Painting, but by local or itinerant painters, who added a sense of freshness and vitality to their work.

    The lotus and peony are the most frequently used decorative floral motifs in Korean folk art. The most well-known images are found on oversized folding screens. Highly-stylized blossoms are arranged vertically on each panel, and composition and color scheme are generally repeated without variation.

    The lotus is the subject matter of one such folding screen (Fig. 3). Compared to the palette for other folk paintings, however, the lotus flowers are painted with much softer colors. Although the viewpoints vary, including a bird's-eye view, side views, and others, the panels are joined into a continuous and unified pictorial surface, which conveys the impression of a pond. Though the lotus had its beginning in Korea as a Buddhist symbol of purity, when it is painted with birds, fish, and other water creatures, as in this screen, it has an additional and more worldly symbolism of affection, loyalty, and fecundity. The peony screens were generally used at court, for wedding ceremonies and ancestral rites, while lotus screens were used for the wedding and birthday ceremonies of common people.

    [missing figure]
    Fig. 3 Lotuses

    The folding screen as a painting format began in China. It was in Korea, however, that it reached its full development. By the twelfth century, Chinese folding screens had become lavish furnishings, made with luxurious lacquered wood, carved with designs, and inlaid with gemstones, and had ceased to serve as a major painting format. Korean screens, however, continued to serve their original purpose.

    In the West, dragon and tiger paintings are the best known examples of Korean folk painting. The Dragon Amid Clouds and Tiger with Magpies (Figs. 4 and 5) are typical examples. They first appeared in pictorial art as the directional deities, with the dragon representing the eastern direction, and the tiger the west. They later took on additional significance, as beneficent and protective animal deities. Because the dragon is believed to divide its time between the sky and the ocean, it has been the subject of worship by farmers during a drought, and by fishermen seeking calm waters and an abundant catch. The tiger's ferocious strength is believed to be powerful enough to ward off all evil influences.

    [missing figure]
    Fig. 4 Tiger with Magpies
    [missing figure]
    Fig. 5 Dragon Amid Clouds

    The most remarkable characteristics of Korean folk paintings are their dynamic composition, the use of bold colors and simplified patterns, and the energetic and whimsical visualization of their forms, without much concern for reality. These paintings perhaps best reflect the vitality and optimism of Koreans, who never let go of their hopes and aspirations for happiness and well-being.

    Dr. Kim is Curator of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The exhibit Hopes and Aspirations, Decorative Painting of Korea, which she organized, will be in residence at the University of Michigan Gallery of Art from September 18 to November 14, 1998. The following text is adapted from Dr. Kim's introductory article in the exhibition catalogue.


      1. Ahn Hwi-joon, Hoehwasa, pp. 36–44; Yim Yŏngju, Tanch’ong (Red and Blue), Seoul: Taewŏnsa, 1991, pp. 19–24. Tamjing worked on murals at the Horyuji temple in Nara in 610; Insaraa went over to Japan in 463; and Prince Ajwa painted in the seventeenth century the portrait of Japanese prince Shotoku Taishi of the Asuka Period.

      2. The chart below explains the relationship between five colors, elements, directions, season, and animals:

        colors elements directions seasons animals
        blue tree east spring dragon
        red fire south summer phoenix
        yellow earth center
        white metal west autumn tiger
        black water north winter tortoise/snake
      3. Mun Myŏngdac, “Koryŏ Pulhwa ŭi Chosŏn Baegŏng gwa Naeyong” (Production Background and Content of the Koryŏ Buddhist Painting), Yi Tongju, ed., Koryŏ Pulhwa (Buddhist Painting of the Koryŏ Dynasty), Han’guk ŭi Mi, 7, Seoul: Chung’ang Ilbosa, 1981, pp. 207–216.

      4. Yu Mari, “Chosŏnjo ŭi T’aenghwa (Buddhist Painting of the Chosŏn Dynasty), Chosŏn Pulhwa (Buddhist Painting of the Chosŏn Dynasty), Myŏngdae, ed. Han’guk’s ŭi Mi, 16, Seoul: Chung’ang Ilbosa, 1984, pp. 188–197.

      5. During the Unified Sillas dynast (668–935)return to text

      6. Ki-baik Lee, A New History of Korea, tr. Edward W. Wagner with Edward J. Shultz, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: 1984, pp. 199–200.return to text

      7. Han’guk Minjok Munhwa Taebeakgwa Sajŏn (Encyclopedia of Korean Culture), Sŏngham-si: Han’guk Chosŏn ngsin Munhwa Yŏnguwŏn (The Academy of Korean Studies), 1991, vol. 17, 530–531; vol. 25, 715–717.return to text

      8. Yi Wŏnbok, op. cit.; Kay Black, “Court Style Ch’aekkŏri,” Kumja Paik Kim, Hopes and Aspirations: Decorative Painting of Korea, Exhibition catalogue, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1998, pp.

      9. Yi Kyusang, Ilmongjip; Yi Wŏnbok, op. cit.return to text

      10. Cho Ja-yong (Chayong) and Kim Chul-soon (Ch’ŏlsun), Minhwa (Folk Painting), Seoul: Yegyŏng Sanŏpsa, 1989, vols I and II; Kim Ch’ŏlsun, Minhwa (Folk Painting), Han’guk ŭi Mi, 8, Seoul: Chungang Ilbo-sa, 1978.

      11. Kim T’aegon, Han’guk Musokga [Shaman Songs of Korea], Seoul: Chipmundang, pp. 96–97; Yu Hongjun & Yi T’aeho, Munjado (Painting of Ideographs), Seoul: Taewŏnsa, 1993, pp. 13–17.return to text

      12. Richard Rutt, Korean Works and Days, Seoul: Korea Branch, Royal Asiatic Society, 1964, p. 28. Rutt states that even as late as 1956 and 1957, people of Anjung, for instance, pasted the characters for dragon and tiger on their gates believing that “the dragon, representing life and growth, brings the five blessings (longevity, riches, harmony, virtue, finishing the allotted span), while the tiger chases away the three disasters: thieves, fire and ghosts.”