Yesterday, Faith Puleston of Herdecke, Westphalia, Germany, put me onto an eleventh century Chinese landscape painters’ biographical collection from the Northern Sung periods. By a Western calendar, we’re talking 969-1279AD.
“In an era when painting was a form of meditation (and still is for many) and therefore a spiritual occupation,” wrote Faith, “the observation of instructions was probably a matter of course. What do you think about ‘The Twelve Things to Avoid in Painting'”?
To avoid is a crowded, ill-arranged composition
Far and near not clearly distinguished
Mountains without Ch’i, the pulse of life
Water with no indication of its source
Scenes lacking any places made inaccessible by nature
Paths with no indication of beginning and end
Stones and rocks with only one face
Trees with fewer than four main branches
Figures unnaturally distorted
Buildings and pavilions inappropriately placed
Atmospheric effects of mist and clearness neglected
Color applied without method
I’m guilty on all counts, Faith. Thanks for that. Apart from the formalized rigidity of it all, nothing much has changed, has it? For “stones and rocks with only one face” I’m going to suffer indefinitely in a wet Chinese dungeon. Also, I’m rather fond of “paths with no indication of beginning or end.” Aren’t you?
And what about Ch’i? I know for sure I often forget to put it into my mountains. Ch’i (generally spelled “qi”) means “energy flow.” It’s the life process that sustains living beings in many Asian belief systems. One of the earliest conceptions of Chinese thinking, it has influenced Asian medicine, meditation, feng-shui, martial arts and many Eastern and Western philosophies. When it comes to painting mountains, an artist might think of the force and spirit within the monument. In painter talk — the flow of the glacier, the lie of the snow, the tumble of rocks, the slide of the scree and the majesty of the mist all contrive an anthropomorphic power within. As a matter of fact, I’d like to talk about some of this stuff with Confucius. Being part of the often dishonoured Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Creative Folks, maybe he’ll be in the dungeon too.
Esoterica: Ill-arranged compositions are, of course, a matter of cultural norm. That being said, the spaciousness and paucity of a lot of Asian art has had an effect on Western painting, particularly the Moderns. Traditionally complex and cluttered Renaissance compositions bumbling with voluptuous pulchritude offered a mind-bending challenge to painterly technicians. In the meantime, and for the previous thousand years, bearded sages on the other side of the world followed directions and meditated with the help of a Sumi brush on rice paper. A pass through a few contemporary galleries shows many Western artists now turning East.
East meets West
by Martha Faires, Charlotte, NC, USA
I recently read Arthur Wesley Dow’s Composition: Understanding Line, Notan, and Color, which, as the title suggests, promotes some concepts from Oriental art. When I mentioned the book to my artist son, a sculptor, he was a little wary, thinking it might stress only simplicity and ying and yang. But it was much more (no mention of such things as ying and yang or qi). Dow used a lot of design ideas from Japan to illustrate concepts from the best of oriental design without belittling more traditionally Western ideas. Having studied under the strict discipline of Chinese watercolor painting in Taiwan and loving the traditional art of my Carolina heritage, I found the book a real lift in putting the two loves together.
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Unraveling the poetry of the soul
by Georgianne Fastaia, San Francisco, CA, USA
Recently, a mother at my daughter’s preschool said to me, “I saw your paintings. They’re so sad.”
I thought, They are of people… of course they are sad. My joys are equal only to my capacity for sorrow. In this deep well are the waters in which I swim to meet a shining and vibrating light, my constant companion through long nights. The job of the artist is to translate with conviction and clarity the inchoate longings we all feel for that which is authentic and true: to unravel the poetry of the soul.
“Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see — and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!” (Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night)
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Distortion of figures
by Kathy Legg, Lethbridge, AB, Canada
The rule about “figures unnaturally distorted” struck me as ironic, having last year viewed the thousand or so works on offer from all over Southeast Asia at a huge art show in Hong Kong. It seems the Chinese artists, especially, are currently very keen on figure distortion, especially facial distortion and enormously exaggerated emotional expression with a striking (and also ironic) coldness in the rendering. The old rules probably had some merit, if my reaction to the current offerings is anything to go by. I was intrigued.
Breaking the rules
by Dorenda Watson, Columbus, OH, USA
I have a belief that, when beginning the process of painting, you must learn all of the rules (and practice them diligently)… but to be successful at painting… you must then break them. I know that one of my students is ready to move on when they begin fighting me on all of the “rules” of painting that I initially teach them. It is at this point that they are ready to begin their journey as a true artist… and I must let them go without suggestion or interference and allow this growth of mind-set and independent thinking and style. How else can one stand out among the thousands upon thousands of artists that exist without this straying from the conventional?
“Rules” are just the starting point of the learning process.
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‘Qi’ in a world free of rules
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
The one thing I love most in painting is that there are no rules. Technique, by my definition, is a few simple methods to keep your painting glued to the canvas for centuries without cracking, discoloring or falling off. The other rules are general principles of picture making, composition, color harmonies etc. The wonder of it all is that for every rule there is someone who has broken it successfully and whose work is great partly for that reason.
As for “qi” if we call it “life force” it is the key to everything. It is the underlying quality which makes every masterpiece, from Rembrandt to Rothko, great. When the artist puts his “qi” into the inanimate elements of paint we see greatness.
Wisdom of Lu Ch’ai
by Charles Peck, Punta Gorda, Florida, USA
Your letter brought to mind some sayings of an old Chinese brush man that have stuck with me since I first read them. I always mention them to my private lesson Art student/clients because they have kept growing in meaning. They are sort of like that old saying “Draw like you paint, paint like you draw,” which I thought was some kind of inscrutable Art Koan when I first heard it but now seems to sum up all serious thought on actual Art production. Here are a few of Lu Ch’ai’s sayings:
“You must learn first to observe the rules faithfully; afterwards, modify them according to your intelligence and capacity. The end of all method is to seem to have no method.”
“Among those who study painting, some strive for an elaborate effect and others prefer the simple. Neither complexity in itself nor simplicity is enough.”
“Some aim to be deft, others to be laboriously careful. Neither dexterity nor conscientiousness is enough.”
“Some set great value on method, while others pride themselves on dispensing with method.”
“To be without method is deplorable, but to depend entirely on method is worse.”
(Lu Ch’ai (Wang Kai) 17th century Master of Chinese brush painting)
The How and Why of Chinese Painting
by Charlene Lau Ahier, Paris, France
Eastern philosophy as it applies to painting can hardly be summed up, let alone judged by a list of “Twelve Things to Avoid in Painting.” The following is an excerpt from Diana Kan’s book on The How and Why of Chinese Painting, and provides an overview:
“Chinese painting is much more than meets the eye. Of course, the pictorial content of the composition can be easily read, but unless its inner and symbolic meanings are recognized, the whole painting will have been only partially seen and partially enjoyed. Underlying the apparent simplicity and harmony of the composition, and the aura of serenity, there is first of all a philosophy, one that sees a unifying pattern of life in all forms. This unity is based on the belief that the forces of nature oppose and equalize each other so that, despite fluctuation and change, there is always an overall balance and continuity…
“The consequences of these philosophical thoughts are many. The artist must express both the pervasive spirit of vitality and renewal and the eternal harmony and order implicit in nature. Therefore, the painter finds in every natural form, no matter how insignificant, a sense of loftiness and purpose; he celebrates the simplest things on earth as representing continuing life. This attitude is evidenced in all aspects of painting — choice of subject matter, simplicity of composition, and manner of execution — and it is part of the continuum of Chinese painting.
“Art in China has evolved from centuries-old beliefs and traditions. It does not exist for art’s sake alone but is an outgrowth of living. The early gentlemen painters were in fact distinguished scholars and literati, who turned to art as an adjunct to their other careers. They had the cultural background for mature, philosophical thought, and their artistic sensibilities had been heightened by long nurturing of an appreciation for beauty and harmony…
“These early poet painters were intoxicated with the immensity and harmony of the universe. It was a universe in which every natural form was kin and each individual form had the power to communicate not only its own essence (li) but that of life itself (Ch’i). To transmit this quality of life, the brush itself must be infused with spirit. ..Without the quality of Ch’i, without a sense of vitality in handling the brush, the painting will be lifeless, regardless of correct technique. The intangibles of insight and feeling are still fundamental to the artist; perfection in brushwork cannot be achieved without them.” ( Diana Kan)
As in Western painting, a certain grasp of technique or, as you say, “formalized rigidity” is required by an artist to produce artwork with any sort of merit. Perhaps it is more worthwhile to consider as guiding principles, however, the Six Canons of Chinese painting, referred to by Ms. Kan in her book:
The Six Canons
1. Ch’i-yun sheng-tung: Spiritual quality generates rhythmic vitality.
2. Ku-fa yung-pi: Use the brush to create structure (bone manner).
3. Ying-wu hsiang-hsing: To establish the form, write its likeness.
4. Sui-lei fu-ts’ai: Apply colour in accordance with nature.
5. Ching-ying wei-chi: Plan the design with each element in its proper place.
6. Ch’uan-i mo hsieh: Study by copying the old masters.
Of course, it would be difficult (and perhaps fruitless) to critique a painting based on these guidelines if it was not painted with this philosophy in mind. At the root of this philosophy is a belief that the virtues of the artist himself are transferred to the subjects he paints (if the artist considers humility in life style more desirable than self-seeking). “Whatever the form or tone, the stroke has spiritual as well as physical dimension and content. A brushstroke is the artist’s touch, the artist’s will, exercised on paper, and according to his skill and concept, the stroke will be intoxicating and life-enhancing or dull and flat.” (Diana Kan)
The Western world has always prized originality and nonconformity, but I find some of the most powerful images in the western world to be Byzantine icons, which were created in accordance with very strict rules and an abiding belief in Christian theology. The heights of artistic achievement have only ever been achieved, in my humble opinion, where there exists a higher purpose.
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The power of mystery
by Deby Adair, Australia
In reference to ‘Ancient Chinese guidance’… firstly, I must say that I really do love traditional Chinese Art, however, in my opinion, in this day and age the list of rules outlined in the letter might calcify, squash and rigidify the need for budding artists to learn to do their own thing, therefore stifling freedom of expression or simply creating a kind of artistic laziness.
When those rules were thought of, it was a different world; a world where form, style and order needed to conform because the purpose of art was seen as a means to soothe the senses. And, conforming would have been a way to ‘hold’ society together in a world riddled with chaos; often feudal, war-torn and difficult to control; conformity gave a sense of security.
We still live in a world of chaos, we’re still out of all sorts of control, however we understand that art can speak to us, stand up for us, educate, challenge, broaden and amaze us. We have expanded our comprehension of where art takes us. There is a place for rules and a place for tossing them aside. We are very blessed if we live in countries where we have the choice… there are still places on this planet where art is seen as a transgression against the state of the nation!
Although everything has its rules, I have to say that often what isn’t in a piece of art, is what can make it wonderful. The onlooker’s imagination can then choose to explore.
Like music and writing which are often enhanced by the ‘pause,’ what remains unpainted… can be a real treat. However it can also depend on what the piece of art needs to represent.
I too, am fond of pathways that leave me wondering. Mystery is always captivating! Not only to the onlooker, but to the artist… it’s nice to know there is choice to put the pencil or paintbrush wherever you want that day, with no one looking over your shoulder to check you haven’t digressed from all those rules.
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The value of ‘qi’
by Lisa Chakrabarti, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Taken out of context, some of those 12 rules are stultifying. However, consider that China was (and still is) a huge bureaucracy. Chinese ink was the definitive form of painting, encompassing calligraphy as well as pictorial representation of landscapes, flowers, etc. Talented artists were revered and enormous value of appreciation associated with their ‘four treasures of the study’ (ink, paper, brush, inkstone). This extended to other ‘toys’ such as elaborate brush pots, brush washers, water droppers, ink rests, scholar’s stones, paperweights. Brush painting accoutrements enjoyed almost a cult status that survives to the present. The Chinese put rules on everything, and painting was no exception. But the painters who developed their own remarkable styles and created their own rules were the most admired, while ‘hacks’ dismissed. The overarching ‘rule’ that cannot be ignored is concerned with ‘qi’. As you mentioned, it is an element common to Asian cultures. Qi isn’t something that gets mechanically put into a painting; qi is what flows through the artist. Qi is the life/energy force that flows through everything. It is the flow itself that is most important — one certainly doesn’t want the absence of qi, or blockage of qi. Understanding and working with qi can be a lifelong endeavour.
by Patricia Peterson, New York, NY, USA
I was shocked at how blithely you responded to this extraordinary meditative “Twelve Things to Avoid in Painting” since it set out neatly concepts you mention at times in your letters. It reminds me of my perception that over time, as noted in history, mankind has been going to hell in a hand-basket. I remember feeling this quite strongly viewing the objects in the King Tut exhibit which honored the time and materials used to create art not only easy on the eye, but the mind, heart and soul as opposed to a contemporary plastic pickled shark sold for millions to view in a museum. This is not entirely different from eating a cookie instead of oatmeal for breakfast — both do the trick but we deny the quality of how it affects us in ways we may not want to consider down the road. We burn oil or manufacture it into plastic rather than allow it to stay where it might become coal and eventually, diamonds. The advice provided is clear and addresses artists who love the potential of sharing a wonderful perception of what is remarkable in our world and life, if only with one’s self. Instead of the king, we now have the media ruling us, telling us what to consume and common to patriarchy, historically we all bow to what we are told to do without complaint, faithfully watching TV, and all that is told on a computer whether the source is clear or not. High motivations to achieve demand more of us as individuals to contemplate what we are saying and how it could be more articulately expressed and which part of others we are communicating with. A landscape can be like a photo or express an experience, feeling or a sense of peace. I would like to think this has to do with the amount of time invested in development of one’s art rather than an inability to acknowledge we are made of more than flesh and bones and that we’re passing through for a quick 70 plus years. In ancient Egypt, the average lifetime was closer to 30 years and they seemed to cram in more sensitivity and awareness of the preciousness of life, energy and magic than can be found on the remarkable existence of a screen of any size. They lived large, with concepts of their place in the universe as opposed to the flashing entertainment of a hand-held device to “know what is going on this moment” most of which is of no consequence to us personally. We all still see birds yet there is no comprehension of the cause of some birds’ changing groupings in flight and we use electricity despite not knowing how it works — isn’t that magic wondrous? Ch’i, indeed.
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Interlocking Reflections 2
acrylic painting 36 x 36 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Josephina DiSalvo of Carlsbad, CA, USA, who wrote, ” You have given me much food for thought. I have been thinking about visiting a Buddhist Monastery.”
And also Ling Li who wrote, “Chinese art started being less rigid about thirty years ago. Look out, we are now the new innovators.”
And also Suzanne Kelley Clark who wrote, ” A good source for the Canons of Chinese art is Chinese Art by Judith and Arthur Hart Burling, Bonanza Books, 1953. (53-10705)”
And also Gretchen Markle of Metchosin, BC, Canada, who wrote, “My favourite thing to avoid is “scenes lacking any places made inaccessible by nature.” This is probably because I firmly believe that we need places that are made inaccessible to us by nature, if only to remind us that we are not lords of this earth.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Ancient Chinese guidance…