Complementing Xie Zhiliu's (1910–1997) assiduous study of the old masters was a profound interest in nature. He traveled to scenic areas throughout China, making sketches of flowers, plants, and the landscape. These drawings are often annotated with comments regarding the specificities of a particular site or the colors to use in the final painting, as well as suggestions on how to improve the composition. A large number of these sketches, including those of West Lake in Hangzhou and Mount Tianmu in Zhejiang province, come from a single early sketchbook that Xie carried with him as he traveled.
Xie usually sketched in pencil but occasionally brushed over his sketches with ink to create a clearer, more finished model for a final composition, thus simplifying and reinterpreting nature in the same way that he reworked earlier pictorial models.