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20. Happy children painting November 26, 2007

Posted by kentneo in Art.

Er denotes children, Xi is happiness and Tu is painting, happy children paintings


I have two Chinese chops/stamps that are rather different, one has a saying, “kind people have longevity” and another is “innocent like a child”. The former stamp I use on paintings that have to do with longevity and the latter stamp I use when I paint “er xi tu”. Let’s talk about “er xi” paintings this time.


Most people know that apart from writing and sketching, my style of calligraphy resembles a cloud, clouds start from the bottom and then ascent forming cloud (ears) twirls. My calligraphy is similar, I write it upside down, [thus forming the calligraphy towards the audience], my friends have called this “chu yun shu” (calligraphy emerging from the clouds). Many people have asked me about my paintings of children and the calligraphy I attach with these paintings. When I do “er xi tu”, I feel like I have reverted to my childhood, I feel incomparable happiness because it is this time when one is truly oneself and not pretending and is a wonderful natural state. This state is one without worries, a constant state of amusement.


Ever since I was six years old, I learnt calligraphy and schooling from my father, I realized the older I got the more my handwriting became standardized and I thought my handwriting rather sterile looking. Later when I joined society, I wrote even more, my handwriting was rather like over practiced. When I worked as a journalist, I was writing day and night and my handwriting was far from its original childlike state. I felt like there was a “need” for something and I then befriended a lot of children. In Shanghai, I spent all my money on being around children and started to notice the way they write and there seems to be so much happiness imbedded in their handwriting, which is an expression / embodiment of the “innocence of the child”. After discovering that, I felt that I had a new way of looking at calligraphy, the people around me later pointed out that I seemed to have “found the right path” again. Looking carefully at the way children construct words, I realized how difficult it would be to get that child like innocent in writing. Then I suddenly had a thought, what if I turned the paper upside down and write from a different perspective. I took my brush out, I remembered the way my father taught me calligraphy and I then quietened my thoughts, I could use “liu li” or “kuang cao” (mad cursive) to try this method out, I was engrossed for hours. Till today I use this “chu yun shu” method whenever I put the titles on my paintings. The method isn’t all that special but from practice one can achieve something that seems extraordinary, it is like the oil seller that pours oil from his ladle everyday, at some point he is able to skillfully pour it thru the small hole in the Chinese coin.


In constructing a word, we can see the “innocence of a child’s” work, if you compare how they write the word for “an” (peace, silence) with an adult, you can see that children write the top part (roof) as rather big, and the bottom (woman) as rather small, as if they are drawing a hat for the character. Adults write the top part (roof) as rather small and the bottom (woman) as rather big.


In another example, the word for “zi” (child), children tend to write it like the Arabic numeral “3” both the curves are equal in size, they do not realize that the bottom is actually a hook and not a curve. The stroke that crosses the character is always drawn exactly in the middle. Adults write the same character as it is printed. Children seem to not think of how the character looks better but that what seems more accurate for them and a line in the middle is the more accurate rendition.


The third example, the word “kou” (mouth) is a square box. We are taught that this box takes 3 steps to construct, first the horizontal left line, then the vertical line on top connected to the horizontal line on the right side, then closing the box from left to right. Children just draw a box without lifting their pencil and that’s that.


We can see that “tu hua wenzi” (pictorial characters) are squarish and are pictures, but from the viewpoint of a child, they do not distinguish [abstract] pictures but merely see shapes. As Chinese painting and calligraphy originate from the same root, it is quite interesting to note this difference between children and adults.


A lot of Chinese characters are very similar to “gu bei” (ancient shells or old signs), you can check this from “jin shi xue” (gold rock book?) and compare your own brush strokes to understand more deeply about “wenzi”. In my quest to find the “innocence of children” I feel like the topic is endless, even when I am old, I would not finish this research but this learning energizes me and I still stay up late at night to learn as much as I can. Later, with my skill in “chu yun shu”, I did some charitable work, the writing was rather bad but I comforted myself, slowly this method became a habit and that is how I use this method for writing the titles on my paintings. My scholarly friends have said, “guei chui lai ce” [an essay by Tao Yuan Ming, a scholar that did not want to serve the government], there is a sentence, “yun wu xin yi chu xiu” (the cloud refuses to leave the mountains).


I use this return to the “innocence of a child” method when I am feeling tired from painting, I will choose a topic that involves painting children, then I paint what comes to mind and feel myself melting with the topic and a sensation of returning to my childhood. Usually I will just title these paintings “er xi” (children at play).


The children I draw usually have their arms and legs like they are dancing or moving around, sometimes I feel their movement and I myself have to put my brush down, get up and jump around a bit, relax my shoulders, stretch, sometimes I just forget where I am or who I am and look like I have gone mad! (all artists seem weird to outsiders is because for a moment they have “lost” themselves). I think at that point I was happier than an immortal / fairy, although they don’t exist, in real life, this type of happiness is definitely achievable.


How many of these paintings of “er xi” have I done? I don’t have a total number, I haven’t kept the drafts. I only remember I that I collected a few hundred types of children playing all sorts of games. Then I did a set of 100 children at play and did them in scrolls according to the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter. Every set is a season, there were 10 groups of children, each doing an activity, in each group there were 10 children. Once can view them as a big group or as a smaller group and in each season they are doing activities related to that season. I’ll talk more about this set if I get the opportunity another time.


For those who like to paint, you should try this topic and you can add really bright colors if you like. If you are older, you can do one of these paintings for someone younger, if you are younger, try doing it for someone in your family that is older. The children you draw can be as realistic as you want or as abstract as long as they are drawn to be lively. If you think that is hard, try using a youngster at home or your neighbor’s kid as a model. See what they are playing and use that as the topic of your painting, I hope you do forget yourself in the process and achieve the “innocence of a child”, for there is immense happiness in that activity.


Bada Shanren has a stamp that is inscripted, “I feel like an immortal”, when he paints the paintings that are most meaningful to him, he uses that stamp. From his experience and he lived to 80 or 90, he could walk up mountains quite quickly and his brush strokes were just as impressive because he lived in his art. If you find art books on Bada Shanren, I highly suggest you read them for he has inspired an entire generation of artists.


I took out one “er xi tu”, the topic was of a play wedding. In the old days, when couples got married, the ceremony included paying respect by bowing three times, the first time is to the heavens, the second time is to one’s parents/elders and the third time is for the couple to face each other and bow to each other. This was the set of fixed customs for relationships among people you knew. Unlike today, the modern custom seems quite mysterious, from getting married in disco’s, just announcing it in the papers, jump on a scooter and “we’re married” seems to be the norm or “we don’t need / want to get married”, what’s the use of discussing the old respectful bowing ceremony? Everything today is about computers and technology, is this the end of culture as we know it?


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