Though Chinese painting has much in common with Western painting from an aesthetic point of view, it still possesses its unique national character.
Chinese traditional painting seldom follows the convention of central focus perspective or realistic portrayal, but gives the painter freedom on artistic conception, structural composition and method of expression so as to better express his subjective feelings. Chinese painting has absorbed the best of many forms of art, like poetry, calligraphy, painting, and seal engraving.
Take Mr. Qi Baishi (1863-1957), a great master painter for example. Mr. Qi was a skillful poet, painter, calligrapher and seal-cutter. Qi, a native of Hunan Province, injected his ink painting with typical Chinese farmers' tastes---simple, pure, and humorous. All this made him an artistic giant of the 20th century.
Chinese often consider a good painting a good poem, and vice versa. Hence the expression " painting in poetry and poetry in painting". In the past, many great artists were also great poets and the calligraphers. The inscriptions and seal on the paintings not only can help us to understand the painter's ideas and emotions, but also provide decorative beauty to the painting.
Pines, bamboo and plum blossoms are " bosom friends in winter". The three plants were meant to embody the qualities of people who were upright and showed rectitude. They became favorite objects for Chinese painters. Chinese painting is a combination in the same picture of the arts of poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal-engraving. They were indispensable elements that supplement and enrich each other in contributing to the beauty of the whole picture.
Chinese paintings can be divided into four categories according to its format: murals, screens, scrolls, and albums and fans. In addition, they are frequently mounted against exquisite backgrounds to enhance their aesthetic effect.
In terms of technique, Chinese painting can be divided into two broad categories: paintings minutely executed in a realistic style and those which employ freehand brushwork.
Classified according to subject matter, they can be divided into paintings of figures, landscapes, buildings, flowers, birds, animals, insects and fish. The brush techniques so much emphasized in Chinese painting include not only line drawing (goufa), but also stylized expressions of shade and texture (cunfa), the dotting method (dianfa) and the application of color (ranfa).
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate Chinese paintings without a profound knowledge about different styles characteristic of the different historical periods.
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907A.D.), the culture flourished with the development of the economy. Painting was elegant in style, reflecting the general prosperity of the golden age of Chinese feudal society. The paintings of Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), however, favored abstract, implied meanings rather than direct expressions. Painting skills matured considerably, and the realistic style was in full blossom. The Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) witnessed the flourish of the expressionist school and many painters indulged in painting solely for their own personal pleasure. The painters of Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) took painting as a vehicle to express their interests and feelings. They painted with a vigorous boldness, caring little for meticulous refinement. Gradually, Chinese painting became artistically" perfect " during the Qing Dynasty.
However," perfection" sometimes causes stagnation or even retrogression in art creation. That was why vigorous Chinese painting almost became stereotyped for a long period in the 19th century.
At the beginning of the 20th century, some painters from Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Beijing started to challenge the old tradition of Chinese painting by introducing new art concepts from the West and establishing art school to train artists. The joint efforts were paid off. Most of these pioneer painters later became the backbone of New China's Art, which was founded in 1949. And some are still active even today.
The ink painting has conducted certain reforms earlier this century, which may fall into two types.
One reform was to get rid of the morbid psychology of self-admiration that some scholar painters in feudal China harbored, and established a healthy style. In this respect, Qi Baishi stood high above his contemporaries.
Qi's favorite subjects included flowers, insects, birds, landscapes and human figures. He not only studied the skills of his forerunners such as Xu Wei, Zhu Da, Yuan Ji and Wu Changshuo but also carefully observed the objects that he sketched.
Outwardly he seemed to be very casual, but the flowers and birds that blossomed and flew from his brush all possessed the kind of characteristics they should have. With fluent lines and bright colours, he created a world full of life and rhythm.
The second type of reform was to accept Western art concepts and techniques and combine them with the good tradition of Chinese painting. The pioneers tried to create a brand new national painting form on the basis of the existing form.
One of the representatives in this bold experiment was Xu Beihong (1895-1953), who served in his lifetime as president of the Central Fine Arts Institute and chairman of the Chinese Artists Association.
Xu was most famous for his painting of horses. With a solid foundation in Chinese painting, he borrowed the best techniques from Western painting. In his paintings of human figures or animals, he was most accurate in the depiction of both spirit and form.
Xu's works demonstrated not only his strong personality and creative spirit but also his patriotism, his sympathy with the working class, and his deep hatred for all evils.
Good paintings require good materials. The materials used in Chinese painting are writing brushes, ink sticks and slabs, and paper and silk.