Past Programs & Events > The Characteristics of Oriental Ink Painting
5 October 2008

The Characteristics of Oriental Ink Painting

“If there is no water, no ink and no brush, that is not Chinese ink painting.”Li Chi-Mao


The Characteristics of Oriental Ink Painting

Soka Gakkai Malaysia (SGM) and Kuala Lumpur City Art Gallery jointly organised “The World of Li Chi-Mao’s Ink Paintings” exhibition at Wisma Kebudayaan SGM from October 5 to 12, 2008. On the day of the opening, Prof Li Chi-Mao delivered the art talk “The Characteristic of Oriental Ink Painting.” The talk was moderated by Prof Chung Chen Sun, the then director of Modern Design & Art College in Yunnan University of Finance and Economics.

Li Chi-Mao (1925-2019) whose birth name was Li Yuntai, was born in Anhui Province, China. When he was 10 years old, Prof Li studied fine arts under the tutelage of reputable artist Lu Hua-Shi. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, he followed Chinese troops to Taiwan in 1949. In 1952, he was admitted to the Fine Arts Department of the School for Political Warfare Officers (also known as Fu Hsing Kang College). He was diligent in sketching and observing people’s life, which helped him to precisely capture the essence of human figures and the actions of animals. With such determination, his artworks presented the strength and richness in local traditions and customs, forming a unique humanism custom. This has injected a diversified element and created a new history in the development of art in Taiwan.

Prof Li taught at the Fu Hsing Kang College and National Taiwan College of Arts. He was conferred as professor emeritus by National Taiwan University of Arts, permanent visiting professor by Dankook University, South Korea, and visiting professor, department of Fine Arts, San Jose State University in the United States. He made a great contribution to the education of art.

Art is Life, Life is Art

Prof Li started off the talk by introducing common terms in ink painting. Ink painting was termed as “Chinese painting” a century ago and recognised as “Chinese ink painting” later in the twenty-first century. “Modern Chinese ink painting” and “International ink painting” are the terms used by the media and younger generation today. In these modern days, the term “Oriental ink painting” is widely adopted in various regions. Prof Li reiterated that regardless of any factor, the fundamental of the Chinese culture originated thousands of years ago is unchangeable.

From the conspectus of art: art is life and life is art, Prof Li further discussed the idea in detail. Artists should discover art in daily life, advancing and transforming the lives with creativity. He emphasised that the inspiration of art should originate from our daily life. However, as the element of creativity comes from daily life, it resulted in two extremes in society today – the conflict occurred between the younger generation which leans towards westernisation and the older generation who preserves the traditional mindset. The confusion was reflected and can be seen in the form of art. On the surface, the creativity in Chinese ink painting relies on the control of the brush, ink and water, but the one leading behind the scenes is the people’s minds.

Prof Li explained with a metaphor: while drawing landscape painting, we draw Mount Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), Ali Mountain (Alishan). The sea of clouds is beautifully depicted. However, if the figure is wearing the dresses of the Tang Dynasty, the artwork would show the effect of incongruence. With another example, if the actors of the Beijing opera were wearing briefs or swimming costumes to perform, the audience would be detached from both the visual and auditory sense in this situation. Prof Li mentioned that there has been an off-track phenomenon in today’s Chinese ink painting work. This sign of deviation is mainly caused by the modernisation of the economy and advancement of technology which has disrupted artists’ mindset from the conceptual, content and creativity perspectives. Under the manipulation of international consortium and the influence of westernisation, the phenomena emerges endlessly where the younger generation is seeking a shortcut, deprecating and detaching the basic tradition of Chinese ink painting in order to show the conspicuous and be different. Prof Li prompted once again that creativity in Chinese ink painting is to cultivate thoughts. The artist should create artworks based on his mind and heart, not ingratiating him with society. Hence, to bridge traditional and modern thinking, education in art plays an important role in upholding the standard and its spirit. Prof Li also mentioned and praised Malaysia for putting great emphasis on the tradition of Chinese ink painting and the virtue in preserving the ethnicity, diligence and persistence is well succeeded.

Tradition is the most beautiful food for thoughts in life and art. It cannot be damaged.

The Ten Characteristics of Oriental Ink Painting

In an era with a variety of contemporary art mediums, Prof Li emphasised the importance of imparting and inheriting the brush and ink which are essential tools in Chinese ink painting. No matter how advanced it is going to be with the development of technology that will transform society, we must continue to use brush and ink to produce Chinese ink paintings. This is because the brush, ink and water are inseparable tools in Chinese ink painting. Since ancient times, based on their personal thoughts, artists use the brush, ink and water to create their artwork and developed the three phases of ink painting – “drawing object base on the appearance of the object,” followed by “drawing objects infused with their emotions,” and finally, followed by the highest state of “drawing without references and based on their heart.”

Then, Prof Li shared his ten personal opinions on the characteristics of Oriental ink painting.

The first point is the drawing paper. One must master the use of paper regardless of its shape and size. There is no difference between big and small in art, only the good and bad. The key is how one is going to compose the subject on paper.

The second point, the pictures must preserve the spirit of Oriental culture.

The third point is composition. If the work is totally objective, it will look like a photograph; if the work is entirely subjective, the artist is disregarding the outside world. The artist must plan and layout the work from both the subjective and objective dimensions. Then, only it is considered as art.

The fourth point, the characteristic of the ink and water is unchangeable. The artist must have conceptions in mind before putting brush to paper. Once the artist presses down the first stroke, it forms a permanent stroke.

The fifth point, between Chinese calligraphy and Chinese ink painting which is more important? The art of calligraphy and ink painting is inseparable, same goes with poetry, calligraphy and ink painting. There should not be a sequence of finished drawing then writing the poem on the work. One should paint from the perspective of calligraphy during his creative process of Chinese ink painting, and merge the unique line of calligraphy and ink painting to present the core value of the work. This is the original meaning of “calligraphy and painting grow from the same soil.”

The sixth point, Chinese ink painting should be drawn on Chinese rice paper (Xuanzhi).

The seventh point, adhering to the artwork as “Chinese ink painting.”

The eighth point is the subject. One should breakthrough from the traditional rules in setting the subject. As Qi Baishi once said, “I own what I have seen.” The artist can depict everything that he has seen in daily life.

The ninth point, Oriental ink painting is not colourful and this is the core characteristic. Black and white is the essence of Oriental ink painting.

The tenth point, are Chinese calligraphy or poems required in a painting? Inscribing Chinese calligraphy functions as a subsidy in filling up the space of the painting. The integration of Chinese calligraphy, poetry and ink painting should convey the state of the art, but it is not necessary to inscribe classical poems. Contemporary art belongs to this era, let the drawing speak for itself. Lastly, one must use a seal with a signature in Chinese characters, not signing it in English.

After that, Prof Li shared his sincere suggestions about the future development of Chinese ink painting in Asia:

First, if you acknowledge that you are Chinese and decide to venture into Chinese ink painting, you must adhere to the standard and stand firm to expand and develop the art of Oriental ink painting. Or else, with the development and adoption of new technologies, Chinese ink painting will slowly be westernised.

Second, the advancement of Chinese ink painting is closely related to a country’s directions and its education system. Hence, the art must begin from elementary and high schools.

Lastly, Prof Li ended his 90-minute talk with a poem that reads “When you are slightly drunk from drinking, when the flowers are blooming halfway, that is the life of art. That is also the art of life.”

Li Chi-Mao