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The ink brushes of the painters Chen Shizeng (1876–1923), Liu Kuiling (1885–1967), and Gao Jianfu (1879–1951) were employed as tools of the nation in early twentieth-century China. Yet the expression of a radical idealism about the new republic in their ink paintings was tempered early on by a tentative and self-conscious exploration of new ways of seeing. By synthesizing a “universal” scientific gaze with their idiosyncratically trained vision as artists, they created pictures that encouraged their viewers to cross the boundaries and binaries that would come to define the discourse about guohua, or “national painting”: East versus West, oil versus ink, modernity versus tradition, painting versus graphic arts, and elite versus folk. This article explores that extended moment of synthesis and experimentation. It argues that it was through the scientific gaze of these brush-and-ink artists that idealism and learning came to cooperate, and through their paintings that possibilities for news ways of seeing the nation emerged.