In the beginning


Dear Artist,

An old Chinese proverb says, “Do not grasp the brush before the spirit and the thoughts are concentrated.” This part of the creative process — the beginning part — needs to be handled with the same sort of attention as given to the later stroking. This is where you envision the potential; this is where you sort out the variables for the dish you are about to concoct. Why go for the same automatic cold rice, when almond gai-ding or egg foo-yong could be in the wok?


“Return of Zhang-Qian”
In 1970, Zhang and his classmates were sent to a forced labor camp in the remote countryside, where he laboured for 4 years, and creating art was prohibited. In 1974, Hongnian returned to Beijing to become the youngest artist ever to be appointed to the Beijing Art Academy.

A list of creative ingredients is valuable. Every artist needs his or her own, and they ought to be reassessed regularly. I’m not saying this is anyway near definitive but right now I’m playing with extenders, texture gels, glazes, giant brushes, wire brushes, combs, plastic scrapers, sponges, little rollers, linen rags. The mere thought of these tools and media when projected onto a blank canvas widens the range of possibilities. With retooling, the compositions, motifs, and passages change as the mind morphs with them. The possibility of possibilities turns jobs into adventures. Having said that, the thoughtful and intelligent elimination of variables works too. How to simplify; how to have form follow function. The architect’s job holds its own joy — and while results and outcomes can’t be too finely predicted in a creative process, the payoff is that desire and resolve are better honed in this zone.


“Deja Vu”
oil painting by HongNian Zhang

Thinking things out in advance also leads to economy and freshness in the production zone. You empower yourself to be casual and fluent. Unpleasant over-workings and compositional boo-boos have a better chance of being avoided. And hey, it’s not always easy. But the idea of all this early thinking and visualizing is to make later activities both more professional and a little easier. And best of all it helps your finished product to look like it was all so easy. And that makes everybody else crazy. And that’s the idea.


Still life in oil by HongNian Zhang

Best regards,


PS: “Easy is right. Begin right and you will be easy. Continue easy and you are right. The right way to go easy is to forget the right way, and forget that the going is easy.” (Chuang Tzu)

This letter was originally published as “In the beginning” on September 3, 2002.



Hongnian Zhang was one of five students from China chosen in 1984 by the Central Art Academy for their Master Degree program.

HongNian Zhang published “The Chinese Contemporary Distinguished Oil Painter” in 1991 and in 2000, along with his artist wife Lois Woolley, “The Yin Yang of Painting: A Contemporary Master Reveals the Secrets of Painting Found in Ancient Chinese Philosophy.”

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“The heart of a human being is no different than the soul of heaven and earth. In your practice always keep in your thoughts the interaction of heaven and earth, water and fire, yin and yang.” (Morihei Ueshiba)



  1. “The pretty initial position, which falls short of completeness is not to be valued….except as a stimulus for further raves.”

    Richard Diebenkorn
    “Notes to myself upon starting a new painting”

  2. Exactly what I needed this morning, thank you! As I was reading, the image I was hunting for days jumped into my consciousness! I used to be impatient with myself for the time spent incubating – Zhang reminded me so clearly that that is the beginning. Some can jump in and start painting , I “stew”, and that is my way to joy.

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Painting is my passion and joy.  My process is intuitive, though informed by good composition and design principles.  I paint what I remember, or think about, or feel, or just what comes off my hands to the brush to the canvas.  Texture and color are of primary importance to me.  I typically choose my support, texture it, select my palette, and go.  There is nothing more satisfying to me than watching paint run and move.  I love the surprises. I experiment and learn constantly.  It is a remarkable journey.  One I am pleased to share with you.


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