For those of us who did not grow up using a brush to do our schoolwork, the appreciation of Oriental brushwork in painting and calligraphy may seem like a fine art in itself.
There are many books and manuals on Oriental painting, including the classic ''Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting,'' known as ''The Way of Chinese Painting'' in English. Kwo Wa-Dei, however, a Chinese scholar, teacher, and artist who has been working in the United States for more than two decades, thinks most previous books in English do not sufficiently clarify the aesthetics or the relationship between calligraphy and painting. He has written this book to provide a compact guide that will permit Westerners to enter into Chinese paintings almost as if they were the artists.
He gives a good idea of how the Chinese judge their own art. He says it helps to be able to classify a piece correctly, to evaluate its quality of line and composition while following the movements of the brush. He then proceeds to instruct us in this classification and analysis.
Readers who follow his directions for manipulating the brush will have an even fuller understanding than those who just read the book, but even that gives quite an insight into what ''The Mustard Seed Garden'' sometimes dodges by saying, ''It can only be perceived, but cannot be conveyed by words.'' Granted, the whole point of painting is to convey that which cannot be conveyed by words, but when painting and writing are so intertwined as they are in Chinese art, it is worth a try to put words to the ineffable.
The book's sections on history and aesthetics bring in the philosophic background and criteria, mainly Buddhist grafted onto Taoist, behind the art. The work involves a way of life and a search for essence, with the results evident in the brushwork.
Kwo Wa-Dei explains that a springing, resilient force behind the brush is necessary to keep the line ''alive.'' Using both words and pictures, he illustrates how artists make the brush dance. He also takes issue with the classic Six Methods of painting. He argues that the classic first method of lively spirit, or Chi Yuen, is a result, not really a method. And he insists that the last of the Six Methods, tracing, should also be dropped, since it leads to sterile work.
Dr. Kwo goes on to explain what distinguishes Ya (that which is elegant, noble, refined) from Su (that which is vulgar, ostentatious, artificial), quoting a famous 18th-century artist's thoughts on who is unfit to paint. These unworthy artists include ''those who have lost their child-like heart; those who are chasing money and profit; those who want to flatter others and those who are lazy and not hard workers. . . .''
This useful book has chronological charts of periods, calligraphic styles, and dominant painting subjects, plus a list of major terms in English and Chinese, a bibliography, and an index.