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13. An artist’s daily homework November 26, 2007

Posted by kentneo in Art.

Hua Jia means artist, Re Li is daily homework. The daily homework of an artist.


Quite a number of my friends have asked me, “how do you do homework?” [what do you do for practice?], Do you sketch everyday, do you do on sight sketches? Or do you paint the “plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemums”? My answer is “none of the above”, then how does an artist do his daily homework?


I buy pieces and pieces of “pi zi” (skin paper?), this is the type of paper that children use to make kites out of, it is a type of Tang Shan rough paper with a lot of imbedded fibres, each sheet is just nice in size and is nice and squarish. I use Chinese ink and do landscapes, specifically I practice, “line, dots and wrinkles”.


According to the classical method of daily practice is like this, “when one practices everyday, the unfamiliar becomes familiar and it is from familiarity that then comes innovation”. Heavens can bestow you with talent and the heavens can give you knowledge and wisdom, this part can’t be forced. But as Edison said, it is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration is very true, there are a lot of smart people but without practice, there is no way they will find “the way”. If you have had talent since young, but not hardworking and not keep practicing, you would lose the talent. So, although calligraphy and painting are minor “daos”, one cannot learn the skill and then not practice. No matter whether it is “wen-dao” [scholarly] or “wu-dao” [weaponry], both require constant practice. Although we now live to quite an old age and there comes a time when our brains are less absorbent, we still need to practice everyday.


We can all remember the time when we were young and had to do “homework” (the daily schoolwork, when I was small, everyday we had to write pages of calligraphy and date the pages), my happiest moment was when their were rewards when I finished… the yummy dumplings we would get to eat, what fulfillment!!! All the way into my 50’s and 60’s I still wake up early, clean up, do some morning exercise, bathe, have breakfast, read some papers and then do my “homework” and real work. Although Confucius did say naps are a waste of time (like rotten wood that cannot be carved on), from a health perspective, the weather in Nanyang is very different from Lu Guo (Shandong) are very different, in such hot weather, its better to take a nap and feel refreshed to work until dinner time, a short rest and early to bed. Once this is habitual, it will not feel like a chore.


Homework, according to traditional Chinese artists are different, from person to person but one must first choose a style as the start of the foundation (Wu Changsuo (1844 – 1927) chose “Shi Guwen”, Chi Baishi’s (1864 – 1957) strength in “da zhuan”, Xu Beihong’s (1895 –1953) strength in “Han Pai”, with every brush stroke they make, we can observe the power/strength, “li” that goes into it, which is why they are famous, all from continuous practice. To learn to paint, one has to first learn to write Chinese calligraphy well, this is a methodology and not a secret).


But I can only speak for myself, my background foundation is from landscapes. In Chinese paintings, landscapes are not actually drawn from what an actual landscape looks like but from what the “heart” interprets the landscape to be, especially in “yi” [emotion and idea, not the form] type of landscapes. I admire Ni Zan (1301-1374) and Mi Fu’s (1051 – 1157) landscapes, with their advanced ink techniques of producing light colored ink representing mist and water sprays. But landscapes can also have very masculine and thick characteristics, for that style, you would have to learn from Fan Kuan (active 1023 – 1031) or Xia Gui (active early 13th century).


The most important thing in landscapes is the representation of “mo yuen” or the effects of the ink. (So apart from likeness, realism or form, there still has to be “yi” or meaning/emotion, in a painting, one need not know the start of the painting, which direction the path in the painting is leading to, this is “wu jing” [no ending] or “yi qui”, the pleasure of yi, the more you observe the painting the more you find the emotion and meaning and thus the more you will like it).


Simply put, the foundation of landscape paintings is in the “writing” of calligraphy. If you understand the foundation then you can tell the difference in the strokes whether the effect is coming from the brush or the effect from the ink. (ie you can tell whether the artist is good enough, Some have good brush technique but no ink technique, some have ink technique but no brush technique, some have no ink nor brush technique, others have too much brush and ink technique, all these do not pass muster).


The next important thing is, in the background of the landscape, so in order to enjoy a landscape painting, (a good landscape, one can look at it for days, months and years without getting tired of it), this is to “read” a painting. The reader of the painting is not only enjoying the landscapes beauty but also admiring every stroke, every dot and every wrinkle in the landscape. Was there a bad stroke? is the “yuin wei” together? With a bad stroke, the painting could not have been done by a professional artist. If there isn’t enough “yuin wei”, the painting is not top quality.


According to the traditional method of evaluating paintings, there are four categories, (1) “Shen Ping”, a God like quality, (2) “Yi Ping”, a gentle lovely quality (3) “Zhen Ping”, a realistic quality, (4) “Neng Ping”, a capable quality. If the landscape painting looks like the original landscape, that is only the level of “Neng Ping”. If it is beautiful, it is the level of “Zhen Ping”, If there isn’t “qi” in the painting, it is “Yi Ping”. If the painting has all the qualities of good brush strokes, ink control and the additional x-factor, that is “Shen Ping”. If you have the ability to appreciate this, there is endless enjoyment for you in this area and you can achieve a type of immortal state. In terms of human enjoyment, this is one area where one can be inspired and happy.


I can actually stay at home and not leave the house for art keeps me happy. There is no other way but from constant practice do I get this fulfillment. I hope that my readers will attain a similar level of joy. Try going to a stationary shop and find some paper and the calligraphy that you like and try to fill your own calligraphy exercise book. Don’t cut corners! Observe whether the colors are beautiful, but also observe whether it was easy to put brush to paper. As you fill your exercise book, you should study every stroke you make, as it is from this practice that your calligraphy will take on a god like quality, once you get the hang of this, how does every line, every dot and every wrinkle look to you? Do you now understand what goes into every stroke? No sighing when you are doing this! Be at peace and just try with your brush to put it onto paper, your body will adjust its weight, on the “shen zi” (rice paper that has been starched) surface will show the pressure and effect of the brush, ink and paper. Again, from traditional dialogue of ink, there are 5 tones in black ink. In Chinese paintings, the foundation/origins is not to have colored paintings.


The steps from getting from a black and white landscape to a colored landscape are to (1) use the “Nan Song style” of a black and white sketch background, then (2) put in the green base for creating depth in landscapes (qian jiang sansui), (3) add on color, (4) “jing bi san sui” for creating the parts with light and (5) add another layer of color, outline and then you have Li Sixun’s (651 – 716) “Bei Song” style. So to paint from the Nan Song to the Bei Song is like evolution of Chinese landscape painting taking place, I will elaborate on this topic another time. If you have the interest to explore this further, you can see these steps from famous paintings, just take a closer “read” of the painting and try to copy it yourself [with the above steps in mind]. 


I learnt painting from my father and from the styles of Dong Qichang (1555 – 1636), Bada (1626 – 1705), Huang Gongwang (1269 – 1354), so let me elaborate on how they use their brush. From their time till today, everyone studies Chinese landscape ink paintings like a fashionable thing to do, one should look up artists from Shitao (1642 – 1718) to Bada, especially since in recent years, Qi Baishi (1864 – 1957) uses Bada’s style and has added the element of color, many more artists follow Bada’s free hand style to innovate, to know Bada and Zhong Yao’s “Li kai” calligraphy as foundation, then learn Dong Qichang (other names, Dong Xiangguan, Dong Xuenzhai, he first distinguished between the Nan Song and Bei Song artists and had read a lot of paintings) landscape styles, which is simple but is inspirational, using dots, lines and wrinkle methods.


The earliest innovator in landscapes is still the “Mi Family method”. Ever since Mifu’s “Dami” [big dots], which have changed landscapes evolution into many other styles, is mainly his contribution. Those who like calligraphy, can take this path of daily practice as “homework”. Whether to put in color is up to you, because if you use the “Mi Family method”, the incredible thing is actually in the fact that black ink has five colors/tones. Apart from using the “Mi Family method”, I sometimes use Huang Gongwang’s methods as his “lines, dots and wrinkles” strokes are thick and have a stable feel and can be seen I his most commonly known painting is “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” (sorry for not elaborating on this painting further).


I came to Malaya in 1956, at that time I got to know several people from the Selangor Association including, Mr. Yang Binfong, Mr. Yang Bangyi, Mr. Fan Yuzhuo, some Indian people and some British as friends. How quickly 20 years has passed. Last year Mr. Yang Bangyi helped me to take photo’s of my paintings. In appreciation, I took from my book case, a painting that was part of my daily homework and titled it “Dwelling in the deep mountains” to give to him. Just the other day I bumped into him on the street, he seemed very happy and said, “I have got a new life”. I knew he did watercolor paintings and was quite good at it, he said he now paints with Chinese ink. Because his health was not so good last year and he couldn’t paint and now he is able to paint again with ink, it was like a new lease of life for him. The happiness he felt was something money could never buy, motivation comes from interest and he was able to adapt from watercolor the ink method and gave new meaning to his own paintings.


I have always considered that watercolors and the ink method are from the same abilities and should not be viewed differently, they can even be developed together but the common foundation should still calligraphy. Western watercolors and eastern ink method can be considered the same family, watercolors can be the foundation to expand into ink methods and artists who do this will find that their skills will be much better, artists who have a foundation in ink methods and expand into water colors will find their art much grander. Art does not distinguish between east and west, old and new, artists should be able to crossover because originally there are no lines, no differences in skin color, nor positions, these are all foolish viewpoints that are all man-made, that produces the perception of having enemies, we should awake from this and understand that we belong to one big family, everyone tries to make a living and to seek happiness. Why make nuclear and gas weapons as people are striving to just feed themselves, and so as we struggle for survival, do not forget to do “daily homework”!


How do you explain “yuin”



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