An Ancient Chinese Angle

posted in: Blog, Uncategorized | 7

In the sixth century, as the Roman Empire collapsed China was cultivating its arts with Imperial support.  Xie He had just compiled a comprehensive collection of  Chinese artists which included a criteria for making and judging paintings. His instructions advised reliance on Chi, or breath resonance  or, finding the artist’s spirit within the execution of the work as well as standard European criteria like: near vs. far, appropriate coloring, careful observation of shapes, and their arrangement or design.

By the late 12th century  the counsel of other painting masters like Kuo Hsi had already been added. Hsi added the principle of substance vs. absence to the criteria.  Here a mountain or outlined territory or object should be set against empty space to give it a feeling of location in space.

Other masters like Ma Yuan were experimenting with new compositional ideas . since moving from continuous scrolls to a much smaller format  and self-contained fan size.   With the new small format Ma Yuan tried running his design diagonally. The composition appears rooted in a corner and fans out (example1).

Example 1. Ma Yuan 1190, Scholar in contemplation using the corner based composition,

At this time along with smaller formats came another change. Intimate subjects  with minutely observed  flora and  fauna versus sweeping landscapes appeared within the fan shape (example 2). These new images were easily fitted to collectors’ albums. The imagery shares the idea of the isolated close-up with much later  European botanical illustrations.

Example 2.  Unknown artist from the late 12th century with an intimate view of sparrows and plum blossoms, ink on silk,

Fast forward to the mid 20th century and we find artists like Andrew Wyeth (example 3) also painting intimate nature views with improvisational  compositions some of which were placed on a bias like  Ma Yuan’s work . Ancient Romans had also painted intimate scenes of birds and garden imagery and later, in the 1500s Albrecht Durer created his close-ups of a piece of nature.

Example 3. Andrew Wyeth watercolor of  close-up of a small waterfall.

As I work with familiar themes I  recast them  by retrofitting  Ma Yuan’s  Corner Design.    I also bring  the viewer into close proximity with my subject matter.  Like Durer and Wyeth, I place my point of view down low, close to the ground. This enhances the sensation of intimacy with nature.  Both of my examples presented here use Ma Yuan’s “From the Corner”  composition with the dominant angle running on a diagonal.  Example 6 uses a slower interrupted diagonal while example 8 uses an interrupted arcing diagonal.

Example 4. Vinca on a Spring Hillside, step one, oil on Dibond,

Example 5. Vinca on a Spring Hillside, step two,

Example 6. Vinca on a Spring Hilllside, step three, present state,

Example 8 also uses the notion of expanding bands of light and dark beginning with the bright sunlit grasses within dark shadows. The image expands from the dark lower left corner then rises and expands to the opposite corner. The fronds of the grasses extend the energy and outward direction of the image.

Example 7.  Sunspots on Long Meadow Grass, step one, oil on Dibond,

Example 8. Sunspots on Long Meadow Grass, step two, present state,

If you find yourself in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the next few weeks I invite you to visit and exhibit of new works of mine and a collaborative work with Max Dunlop at the Lily Pad Gallery West at 215 North Broadway in Milwaukee,414 509 5756.

7 Responses

  1. Katrina Weber

    Thank you once again for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I appreciate how you tie art from all different times and places to your and other contemporary work (as you also did in the PBS series, which I thoroughly enjoyed). I also am very interested to see some of the stages your pieces go through, showing such amazing transformations.
    I am signed up for your Huntsville workshop and am ever so eager. I hope that you will bring some of your work with you. I have not seen many paintings done on metal, but I suspect that they probably suffer more than most other paintings from only being seen as photographs (ie, the camera probably doesn’t do them justice).
    I’m sure the Museum folks will take good care of you, but if I can be helpful in any way, don’t hesitate to call on me. Our landscape is not very dramatic, but I can point you to a few of my favorite plein air spots if you are staying here any extra time.
    Thanks again, and see you in May!

  2. Patricia Scanlan

    Vinca on a Spring Hillside transplants one instantly into the woods and flowers. It is so refreshing. Amazing.

  3. Mary Ellen Bornak

    What interesting observations of East-West melding.
    Thank you!

  4. Sarah Meyerhoff

    Love this design concept “from the corner”
    I think I have been trying this subconsciously. Need to “fan out” more!

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