Freehand brushwork is one of the traditional methods of brushwork expression in Chinese painting. Using abbreviated and willful brushwork, the artist suggests graphically the meaning and character of the object and its shape. The chief aim is to give rein to the artist’s subjective state and mood. It stresses flexibility in brushwork, unrestrained by unimportant details and rejecting naturalistic effects (in contrast with meticulous painting). This style of painting, while seemingly coarse and whimsical, is in fact highly conscious of, and strictly consistent with, standards of artistic creation. Besides demanding close observation and experience of natural objects prior to painting, such as that the various forms within the picture will be laid out appropriately, it also demands solid technical proficiency in order that the artistic intent be formed in imagination before taking shape in painting. Freehand brushwork is divided into greater freehand and lesser freehand, with the former often employing the ink-splashing technique. It had a significant influence on the production of operas and the development of acting techniques in later ages. The freehand style in Chinese-style opera is shown through consciously artificial, stylized motions, accompanied by singing and dancing, to present images artistically on the stage.
By applying washes without lines, the Buddhist monk Zhongren painted plum blossoms which looked like florid shadows, thus creating a distinctive style of his own. This is what is meant by freehand brushwork! (Xia Wenyan: The Precious Mirror of Painting)
People describe paintings of vegetables, fruits, plants, and flowers painted according to the artist’s whim, with dots here and there, “freehand brushwork,” whereas they see paintings in the detailed style as “naturalistic drawings.” (Fang Xun: On Painting in the Quiet Mountain Studio)