Chinese Ink Painting: Dialogue between Ancient Traditions and a New Generation of Artists

On 17/02/2014 by Site Default

My article will focus on the contemporary significance of traditional Chinese ink and wash painting and the challenges facing the renewal of traditional materials and tools, form and content. In the context of the recent International Art Critics Association Congress, held in Kosice, Bratislava,, in September, 2013, the conference theme, ‘White Places’ and ‘Black Holes’ in the global distribution of contemporary art—and its uneven reception– will be treated here metaphorically. I will investigate ways of stimulating a meaningful dialogue between ‘white places’ and ‘black holes, in the context of Chinese ink painting.

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Ink painting, showing all the gradations between white and black, has a long history in China, as a time-honored treasure that is emblematic of China’s independence from western art. However, since the mid-19th century, Chinese ink painting, and the strength of its theoretical underpinnings, has gradually declined, in relation to the steady growth in popularity of European painting. Also, the glories of the past have scarcely anything fresh to offer when the time comes to turn over a new page. Therefore, traditional ink art is becoming increasingly marginalized.

Right: Bada Sharen (Zhu Da, 1626-1705) ,Birds and Ducks, Set of four hanging scrolls; ink on satin

However, ink art is no more reliant on a particular era, or time-frame, than Chinese characters, and both have shown that they have the capacity to outstrip the limitations of history and regional tradition. The unique expressive force of ink art is capable of shaping lyrical visual images. Therefore, it is an open artistic language, and can also be applied to contemporary reality, even when there is tremendous pressure for change.

lingmin Fullscreen capture 12182013 90346 AMHow should contemporary ink artists paint, and with what tools, materials and methods, if they are to revivify the form, for the needs of contemporary appreciation? Both artists’ and audiences’ knowledge and understanding of contemporary Chinese ink painting seems to be developing into a ‘white place’. We doubt whether we should still maintain the orthodoxy of “brush and ink”, and still honor the traditional skills. If we get rid of traditional media and tools, how can we keep the DNA and spiritual properties of a traditional Chinese art form intact?

Left: Liang Kai (c.1140-1210), Immortal in Splashed Ink, Song Dynasty Hanging scroll, ink on paper

The weight of tradition and pressure of changes both creates many white spaces for development. At the same time, however, a black hole is gradually opening up, in the analysis and evaluation of the theory of contemporary ink and wash. The challenge forces us to come closer the ‘black holes’, and to see what there may be beyond them, in terms, not only of the traditional values for now, but of new inspiration and a new set of norms and criteria for contemporary appreciation.

The dialogue in Chinese Ink painting between ‘White Places’ and ‘Black Holes encourages us to find out what is the core heritage of traditional Chinese ink that can still serve contemporary needs, and also what elements of the traditional heritage are of contemporary significance.

Ma Yüan (c. 1160–65 – 1225), Plum Blossoms by Moonlight (Southern Song dynasty)

Firstly, line is the basic essence of ink painting. Traditional ink painting focused on simple lines, to achieve not only the ideal form, but also a sense of live movement. The basic materials and tools of traditional ink painting (known in Chinese as ‘the four treasures to be studied’) could be usurped by contemporary materials and tools, but aesthetic taste, in respect of line has also become contentious. Line is the effective vehicle for visual expression. It not only gives meaning to concrete images, by providing objects with an outline, but also serves both to trace the distinction between what is, and what is not, and to suggest the constant flux between the seen and the unseen.

A second essential element of ink painting is the ink tone that is intended to highlight the lines and increase the effect of space and volume, at the same time as heightening the poetic effect and creating an imaginative space. The ink not only enhances the sense of space, but also substitutes for color. When we have ink, it means we have five colors, according to the old saying. The amount of ink determines the kind of plasticity and atmosphere. The diffusion of the ink heightens the expressivity of the individual object and transfers aesthetic appreciation onto an abstract plane.

Thirdly, there is the relation between solids and voids. Voids, in classical times, implied there was mystery in emptiness. Voids not only say more than the solids can signify, but they lend depth to a picture, by suggesting an association between non presence and the openness of the virtual imagination. In the Song dynasty, the vastness of nature was not conveyed by a multitude of solids, but by the quality of the voids. No wonder an old Qing master said: “If the empty places are right, the whole body is alive; the more such places there are, the less boring the whole thing becomes.”

There are three key issues that derive from the traditional treasures. They could be applied to contemporary ink painting, and even to all the areas of contemporary ink painting that are currently undergoing unprecedented change. No matter how great the changes are, in terms of the content and form of works in ink, the tools and materials that are used, and the aesthetic criteria applied to the spiritual expression of ink painting, three treasures from the black hole deserve to be dug out, as a means of filling in the white spaces, and used to stimulate people to think about what our heritage is, and what contemporary significance it may have.One of elements of contemporary significance is the abstract quality of ink painting, because line and ink tone perform the function of generalizing, and abstracting, the processes involved, in creating the work. In today’s urban society, line and ink tone retain their expressive power, and are still able to address the complex manifestations of contemporary life。

Shen Fan, Landscape – Commemorating Huang Binghong (2006), Light and Audio Installation, curtain wall of neon tubes.

Shen Fan‘s Landscape- Commemorating Huang Binghong” (fig. 1) is a good case in point. It is a light and sound Installation. The whole picture is composed of 2,520 neon tubes, which light up one after another, accompanied by a single traditional musical note until it attains its maximum brightness at the end of seven hours. Huang Binghong demonstrated complete mastery of line, in his later practice of landscape painting. Shen Fan, on the other hand, refines these short lines and outlines, and renders them differently, in the form of hand-bent neon lighting strips. Using neon strip lights as his principal medium, he creates a new kind of landscape portraiture that is the product of a two-way communication between tradition and modernity. This use of new media, such as sound and light tubes, in the place of ink and paper, represents something of a breakthrough. Although the aesthetic experience is very different from that of traditional ink paintings, it shows the new charm of the contemporary use of line.

Two examples from Qiu Deshu’s ‘Fissuring Series’ (1980-present), mixed media.

Another example is Qiu Deshu’s Fissuring Series (fig 2), which he has worked on from 1980 until now. His line is created by tearing paper into pieces, and then adding more paper, and painting it over with acrylics, to form uneven, fractured lines. The end result looks like the jagged sides of mountains that somehow still remain standing. Beyond that, his aesthetic reflects not only his artistic language, but also creates a pictorial field with the “cracks” that he feels are symbolic of the society and his life’s journey. Although he has abandoned the use of a brush, in favor of presenting a unique variety of “line” by tearing paper, his expression of the landscape is closely related to classical images, though in a contemporary language.

The second element of contemporary significance is poetic vision, because the combination of line and ink, solid and void creates a special dynamic vitality, not only in the way in which it brings out the characteristic features of objects, with a beautifully free movement, but also gives visual form to the virtual imagination – thereby, going beyond the real object to what might be termed a picture in a poem, and a poem in a picture.

Cai Xiaosong, 54 pieces ink installation work, ‘Planet,’ exhibited at 54th Venice Biennale, 2011.

Cai Xiao Song’s work, Planet (fig 3), is formed by fifty-four, attractively large, ink silk scroll paintings. The artist displays a starry sky encapsulated by planets in an independent space, shining with blue lights which echo each other. He introduces us to a poetic world that is imbued with the past, present and future, and leads people on to form an imaginative image of the universe for themselves.

Wang Tiande, Water+ Ink No 11 (2010)

Wang Tiande’s painting usually has two layers- one is traditional landscape, executed in ink and water; the other, a separate layer, burned with a smoldering incense stick, as in, Water+Ink No. 11 (fig 4). He applies both water and fire to his semi-transparent paper, so that ink and scorch marks from the incense stick can be superimposed on one another. Two layers of painting create the gap between solid and void and enable us to read this poetic scene as a traditional Chinese painting.

The third element of contemporary significance is plasticity, because line and ink, solid and void are the most basic forms of artistic language, although they allow for a high degree of variation. Artists responding to the elements of plasticity have been able to form their own style and create a rich emotional and personal aesthetic.

Chen Jiaren, 3D ink and water painting, ‘Tian Zhu’, at the Millennium Monument Museum in Beijing 2013.

Chen Jiaren’s recent work, Tian Zhu ( fig 5), is a 6 meters-high revolving pillar, with four pillars around it, representing the four seasons, and twelve shorter pillars, representing ancient Chinese chronographs and solar terms. This is a creative breakthrough, which requires no frames on the walls; Chen Jiaren explores his visions of heaven and earth with the aid of these pillars, which reflect a complete world and his own battles in life.

The young artist, Jing Shenjia’s, work, Trace (fig 6), is covered with P.C. keyboards. At first sight, it looks as if it is a collage of keyboards, but when you view it in the distance; you see that behind the keyboards there is a prototype of landscape painting of ‘Fuchun Resort’, by Huang Gongwang. The artist doesn’t use any brush or ink, but presents a contemporary landscape with a legacy of tradition.

Jing ShenJia, Trace (2012), 6m×1.5m, keyboards, Iron board.

No matter whether it is Shen Fan’s neon tubes, or Cai Xiaosong’s planets, or Chen Jiaren’s spinning pillars, or Jing Shenjia’s keyboards, or whether it is Qiu Deshu’s fractured line or Wang Tiande’s two layers of painting, with holes burnt through them; and no matter what all these artists want to express in their abstract art or poetic vision, or free plasticity – they all contribute to setting up a relation between traditional and contemporary art and explaining how the traditional legacy can be made more meaningful to the contemporary.

All these artists are making a great contribution to challenging the new media and forms; they are involved in seeking to renew traditional styles and investigate ways of stimulating a meaningful dialogue with contemporary Western forms of expression. What we are still missing now from the black hole are the elements of contemporary discovery, and the criteria for evolution and theoretical achievement.

Now artists need, not only to describe metropolitan skyscrapers and contemporary people’s demeanor, or their attitude to the changed environment they inhabit; they need, more importantly, to communicate their new visual experience of our social vision and new aesthetic reflections. Ancient landscape painters didn’t copy from reality, but were adept at renderings of the mountains and water, birds and flowers, by exercising their imagination in much the same way as they expressed their emotional identification with social issues and their ways of thinking about the world. Now how is contemporary ink art to explore present-day society?

Poet and artist, Wang Wei, author of ‘Formulas for Landscapes’ (8th century).

Many artists have tried to bring us fresh inspiration and new thinking from their experiments, and a few of them have succeeded. Most of them are focus on an innovative use of tools and materials. They challenge new media to show the relationship with the traditional heritage, but few artists explore new experiences of our society, as a way of inspiring people‘s appreciation. In classical times, there were the Six Canons of Chinese Painting by Xie He (fifth Century A. D); Wang Wei’sFormulas for Landscape (Eighth Century, A.D), see left; Zhang Yenyuan’s Record of Famous Painting up to A. D 841 (ninth century A.D), etc. Now why we are in white places is because no one writes on connoisseurship like Mifu (eleventh century A.D.), and enlightening remarks on painting, like Shi Tao (seventeenth century A.D). For more than 100 years the white places have been barren, and there is no soil in which contemporary theory and appreciation can develop. Faced with the black hole, we wonder how much classical theory could still be of use to us now, and how we may draw on these resources, to create a fresh version, with our new life. The dialogue between white places and black holes challenges our artists and theorists to turn over a new page in the development of contemporary ink art.

By Lingmin, Contributing Writer


Chen Hanxing & Xiang Liping, The End of the Brush and Ink Era: Chinese Landscape, Shanghai Education Press, Shanghai, 2011.

Zhou Jiyin, Chinese theory On Painting, Jiangshu Fine Arts Press, Nanjing, 2005.

Jerome Silbergeld, Chinese Painting Style: Media, Methods and Principle of Form, University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 1982.

George Rowley, Principles of Chinese Painting, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1947.

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