I have written about the benefits of small plein air painting and how and why it can help improve color observation skills. Suppose you are totally convinced and would like to give it a try or you simply love to paint outdoors, what should you bring? Sure, you can probably load as much gear as you want into your car if you’re driving. But what about plein air painting during your travel or hiking? Over the years, I have traveled extensively and painted wherever I go. The gear I carry with me are pretty much the same. I have listed them below in case you’re interested. Please note that this supply list is specific for small plein air paintings ( 5 x 7 inches). However, my supplies are pretty similar for medium size plein air paintings. The only difference is that I will use an easel instead of a paint box and larger size canvas boards.
List of supplies
Small paint box, paintbrushes, palette knife, easel, masking tape and of course, oil colors – these are all indispensable.
These are the oil colors that I usually use for mini-landscapes.
The brands shown here are Rembrandt, Winsor & Newton and Old Holland.
In order from right to left: Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Lemon, Perm Yellow, Medium Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Cadmium Red Light, Permanent Red Deep, Alizarin Crimson Lake Extra, Permanent Mauve, Ivory Black, Outremer Violet, Ultramarine Deep, Severe Blue, Prussian Green, Oxide of Chromium, Talens Green Light and Stilde GrainBrown.
How the oil colors are laid out on the palette.
Brown is sometimes squeezed in between Raw Sienna and Cadmium Red.
Mini-landscapes often use up to 5 to 6 brushes per painting. The red round-tip brush on the far right uses badger hair while the blue brush next to it uses mink. The small flat brush on the far left is made from badger hair while the one with the silver stem uses nylon. The third brush from the right is a flagged tip pig’s bristle brush (it’s become blunted through much use.)
The painting medium I usually use is similar to sesame oil. It dries slightly quicker than linseed oil and if you leave it on a windowsill it becomes more transparent over time (sun bleaching.)
Left: Talens; Right: Driebergen. Both are produced in the Netherlands.
Two panels can be fitted into the easel, one on top of the other. Small widgets separate the two so the oil colors don’t interfere with each other.
Oil painting canvas glued onto thin plywood with PVC glue.
For information on video lessons on plein air painting, please click here.
I’ve been meaning to write about my friendship with Chen Yifei for a number of years. I put off putting pen to paper however because he had just passed away and it may give the impression of trying to ride on his coattails. Now is a slightly better time to write about it.
Chen Yi-Fei was a household name towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. Red Flag, a Communist Party magazine published by the central government, took the unprecedented step of including his portrait in gouache of Jin Xunhuaas a full-color insert. The painting was an ode to the heroism of Jin Xunhua, an educated youth sent to the countryside. Jin had become a martyr saving timber at a forestry station during mountain floods. Later on, Chen worked with Wei Jinshan and others on a number of original large oil paintings such as Take the Presidential Palace. For a while, his fame surpassed that of the “Four Kings” in Guangdong Province.
Taking the Presidential Palace, oil on canvas, Chen Yifei and Wei Jingshan
In 1977, I went to Shanghai to view the “Exhibition of French Country Landscape Paintings.” Before I set off, Liang Junli, a good friend and fellow student at the affiliated high school took me to meet Peng Ning. They had studied at the Beijing Film Academy together. Peng’s father was a general who passed away before the Cultural Revolution. At the time, Peng and Bai Hua were working together on the movie script for Unrequited Love so he was a long-term guest at the Yingbin Hotel in Guangzhou. Peng Ning knew Chen Yifei so he recommended me to his friend Xue Jing from the Department of Directing at Shanghai Film Academy and told me to look up Xue in Shanghai. Peng Ning was a tall man with the forthright attitude typical of Northerners. He was really enthusiastic about the script, and even showed off some of the plot and lines on the spot. The political atmosphere at the time meant such “scar” literaturereally took some courage. When Unrequited Lovewas released, all the accolades seemed to have gone to Bai Hua with little attention given to Peng Ning. (Unrequited Lovewas originally titled The Road Stretches Away; Peng Ning passed away about a decade ago in his sixties.)
I went to meet with Xue Jing once I arrived in Shanghai. Xue had a very youthful face and was always smiling. He first took me to see Zhao Dan but Zhao wasn’t home, so I only met his wife Huang Zhongying. He then took me to Bai Yang’s house, a small two-story villa with its own courtyard. The building was looking a little abandoned and desolate by then. Bai Yang and Zhao Dan were both famous actors. Her movies River of My Love and Mistress Xiang Linpractically defined the Chinese movies of the Forties and Fifties. The Bai Yang I met was a kind old lady whose every gesture and every smile felt so cultured. Such cultural sophistication was something new to a props artist from a grassroots theater troupe like me.
I don’t remember which street Chen’s house was in though I recall going up to the second floor. There were two groups of guests that night. The group that arrived before us was the Xinjiang oil painter Ghazi Ahrned and two other youths. When it was our turn, we just chatted in general and I suspect neither side left much of an impression on each other that night.
A year later, an exhibition of Romanian artists was held in Beijing and Shanghai. The exhibition featured Nicolae Grigorescuand Corneliu Bababoth of whom were great masters whose fame and popularity had already reached as far as China. Yu Zesheng had just graduated from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and had been assigned to a post back in Zhaoqing so we went off to Shanghai together. When we boarded the train in Guangzhou, we just happened to share the carriage with painters from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts including Tang Xiaoming, Lin Yong, Chen Yanning, Wang Yujue, and Wu Qizhong. It was a gathering of crème de la crème of contemporary Chinese artists. When the train arrived in Hangzhou, they got off to visit the Zhejiang Academy of Art. They naturally took us along with them to see the “Legacy of Pan Tianshou Exhibition” and seminar… We got back on the train to continue our journey to Shanghai the next day.
The delegation of top painters from Guangzhou Academy were naturally given “special treatment” once they reached Shanghai. They were personally welcomed at the station by Chen Yifei. Chen was the deputy director of Shanghai’s Office of Oil Paintings and Sculptures by that time. He was shaking hands with everyone when he realized that I was in the group too! I hastily explained to him that I just happened to be on the same train as the others (they were all fellow students and old friends I knew well though). When we walked out of the train station, Chen greeted the others then came over to chat with me, much to the surprise of others from the Guangzhou Academy: How come Yim Muukun knows Chen Yifei so well? There was a lot of surprised murmuring and his enthusiasm surprised me as well. After he settled the delegation in at Heping Hotel, Chen turned me to say: “Come and have dinner at my place tonight. Just you and me.” He then gave me the address and instructions on what bus to take.
When I arrived at his house that evening as agreed, his wife was already cooking away in the small kitchen downstairs and dinner was soon ready: I was invited to sit at the small round table in the kitchen. Mrs. Chen had cooked a few dishes herself and they looked quite appetizing. I was about to invite her to take a seat when she said that she had eaten already and went upstairs, leaving me with Chen Yifei. He filled a small glass with liquor and said that this was one of the rare occasions that he invited a guest to eat at his home. I naturally appreciated the high regard he had of me. As the conversation went on, I asked him in a round-about manner why I was treated so differently on this visit. Chen seemed to have expected this and said when Xue Jing brought me here last year, he thought I was just an ordinary regional or prefectural-grade art cadre from Guangdong. At the end of last year (or in early 1979), he saw my new oil painting Warrior Songon the inside cover of Guangdong Literature & Art (the monthly publication of the Guangdong Provincial Writers’ Association) and realized that I “had an exceptional talent for painting.” He then expressed his sincere apology to me for his poor hospitality last time. I was greatly moved by his gesture and we began corresponding by mail.
During this visit to Shanghai, Chen took time from his busy schedule to introduce me to Cheng Shifa and Zhu Qichuan. He even asked Master Zhu to paint me a few gourds and a length of gnarled vine. I was also taken to visit a few young painters in Shanghai as well.
I don’t remember which month it was but at the start of 1980 I received a telegram that Chen Yifei sent from Shanghai asking me to meet him at Baiyun Airport in Guangzhou. When I picked Chen up from the airport, I learned that he had also sent a telegraph toChen Yanning. Yanning was away on business so I was the only one there. I used the few “coupons” (only coupons paid for with foreign currency were accepted at large hotels or for high-end imported consumer goods in China at the time) I had to secure a room for him at Dong Fang Hotel Guangzhou. I already knew from last year that he was going to the U.S. and he asked me if I wanted to sit for the exam for the first Master’s degree class to be offered by the Department of Oil Painting at the Central Art Academy after the Cultural Revolution. He said he knew Ye Jianying’sfamily so could help me out there. After he put his luggage away and freshened up, Chen ordered two servings of coffee, toast and fried eggs. From the way he ate, I noticed that Westerners used the back of the fork when eating fried eggs, and it made me realize with a start that his Shanghai background was totally different from a small country boy like me. Chen told me that the only way to get to America was to go from Shenzhen Port to Luofu. He then crossed over to Hong Kong and flew from there to America. He also said that he was going to make some money by painting a portrait or two in Hong Kong. One thing he said at the time really left a strong impression on me:
“There is no way that this ball ain’t going to bounce in America!”
Chen did indeed bounce in America. He already told me in Guangzhou that he knew Armand Hammer, the CEO of Occidental Petroleum, and Hammer had promised to help. His first exhibition in America was indeed held at the “Hammer Gallery” in New York.
I accompanied him to the platform for the Shenzhen-Guangdong express train the next day and waved him goodbye.
In September 1980 my application to travel to Taiwan to take care of my father’s funeral was approved. When I reached Hong Kong on a one-way permit, I got back in contact with Chen Yifei in America once more. He also sent me a Form I-20 for applying to the Art Student League of New York. The U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong did not give me a visa unfortunately. Shortly afterwards, he asked me to help him auction a large ink painting of plum blossoms by Wang Zhen, the “White Dragon Hermit”, a famous painter from Shanghai during the early Republican years. The auction was conducted through Sotheby’s in Hong Kong and the painting was sold for 14,000 HKD which I wired to him in full. We lost contact after that probably because he was so busy.
Our next meeting was at the Art Taipei expo in the fall of 1996 when his exhibition area ended up right next to mine. His exhibits were large thick oil paintings of women in cheongsam holding a fan and ordinary people in Tibet. My exhibit was Night Waves on the Channel from my “Crossing of Taiwan Forefathers” series. Both of us had changed somewhat at our reunion in Taipei sixteen years later. The two of us – one from Shanghai and one from Hunan – continued to follow two distinct paths in life. He invited me to visit his personal exhibition that will be held at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing at the end of the year. I went and saw a beautiful violinist in a black dress performing in the foyer, a constant stream of senior figures from art circles, celebrities and high-ranking officials coming up to him to express their congratulations… I just stood there quietly looking at the paintings and also at Chen Yifei as he moved around among the social elite.
Chen Yifei and Yim Mau-Kun at 1996 International Art Expo in Taipei
I am best known as an oil painter. But before I took the path down oil painting, I spent considerable time practicing Chinese ink painting. My experience with the East and West art systems over the years have yielded some interesting observations, one of them being similarities in principles between Chinese landscape paintings and Cubism pioneered by Picasso.
The East and West are two distinct art systems. How then are Song-Yuan Dynasty landscapes related to Picasso and Cubism? Though they seem completely different at first, unusual associations emerge when we subject both to careful study and appreciation.
The principle of Western Cubism is to take the external features of the subject as perceived from different angles then piece or assemble them together to create an artwork different from the actual subject. Picasso believed that artistic works can only be considered “creative” if they are different to what appears in nature. Almost all modern schools of art embrace this principle. An extension of this principle has produced a wide variety of new styles and artworks.
In China, great masters such as Li Sixun (李思訓) of the Early Tang Dynasty, Jing Hao (荊浩) and Guan Tong (關仝) of the Five Dynasties, Dong Yuan (董源) and Juran (巨然) of the Southern Tang Dynasty, Li Cheng (李成), Fan Kuan (范寬), Ma Yuan (馬遠) and Xia Gui (夏圭) of the Northern/Southern Song Dynasties as well as Huang Gongwan (黃公望) and Wang Meng continued to explore the boundaries of landscaping over time. The path of “learning from nature, exploration and creation” they found eventually grew into the Chinese landscape painting system. The brushes of the masters not only captured the majestic mountain ranges, high mountains and rushing rivers, unusual peaks and deep valleys of the north but also the winding rivers, green forests and misty sights of the south (Jiangnan). They may all differ in their outlines, shading techniques and brushwork but the same principles in composition and layout are followed throughout the entire Chinese landscape painting system. In other words, each scene is not limited to just one perspective. The landscape is a combination of observations made from the level distance, high distance and deep distance. It is not merely a copy of the scenery as seen through the camera lens either. Instead, the painting consists of real-world scenery that has been recreated within the mind of the painter. Such an approach has many similarities with the techniques of Cubism used by Picasso. Generations of artists have embraced this principle of not being bound by the actual scenery. Master Shi Tao (石濤) perfectly summarized this approach when he said “the painting of all unusual peaks serves as a rough draft.”
Whenever I visit the National Palace Museum in Taipei and stand in front of the painting Travelers Among Mountains and Streams by Fan Kuan, I am always moved by how the majestic mountains that rise from the ground, the waterfall plummets from up high, as well as the ancient woods and buildings. I could almost hear the mountain spring and the travelers’ chatter! The landscape painters of China created landscape paintings inspired by nature that becomes something more. The result is a unique sense of interest and aesthetic value in Chinese landscape paintings.
Something interesting emerges when we compare Song-Yuan Dynasty landscapes and the works of Picasso side by side. We see that neither present the actual subject of direct observation. Instead, a creative treatment has been applied. Their impact on the audience is completely different though: Most people don’t understand Picasso’s paintings. They may understand the principles of Cubism but may find it challenging to relate to it. Chinese landscapes produce a different response – we continue to believe what we see is real and can imagine ourselves “living, traveling and playing” within the painting. There is nothing jarring or discomfiting about the collage. Maybe this goes back to the philosophical difference between the West and the East – individuality and harmony. This difference between Eastern and Western arts is quite thought-provoking.
I was a student at the Affiliated High School of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1960s. When I first saw the drawings of the human form that Prof. Guo Shaogang (郭紹綱) brought back after studying in the Soviet Union as an exchange student, I was absolutely stunned! In the summer of that same year, I traveled to Beijing and visited the Xu Beihong Memorial Hall where I saw many of the original drawings made by the great master. Drawing has been my lifelong passion ever since. In the 1990s, I visited Europe and the U.S. There I gave particular attention to the drawings of Da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, Ingres, Degas and Van Gough in the major art museums. I recently flew all the way to Russia to admire the great paintings by Chistyakov, Repin, Serov and Vrubel as well as the collection of the Repin Academy of Fine Arts. I feel as if I had followed in the foot steps of the great masters in taking cruise down the long river of drawing. The sights along the river are breathtaking to behold.
I moved to Hong Kong twenty years ago then settled down in Taipei a few years after that. Due to popular demand and to make a living, I opened my teaching studio and became an educator. My work in art education over the years meant I accumulated many drawings and made some progress. Confucius was right when he said: “Isn’t there not joy in learning?” I at least enjoyed the exploration of drawing. In continuing to re-examine and think about Realist painting and the teaching of drawing over the years, I gained a better idea of my path in art and enriched my own mind as well.
I will briefly outline some challenges that I often come across for discussion.
The legacy of Western Realist painting.
It was not until the Italian Renaissance Period that Western painting evolved beyond two-dimensions with its planes and lines into the three-dimensions with solids, light and shadow that now characterize Western painting. This painting system was developed through the exploration of many artists and represents the cultural knowledge accumulated by mankind. In other words, it is not inborn knowledge. It must be taught and studied in a systematic manner. It cannot be easily obtained through so-called “genius” alone.
For traditional Western painting this conclusion still holds true. The emergence of the Modernist school as well as the Impressionist efforts to develop human color perception from the 19thCentury onwards led to drawing being neglected at one point in European and American art education. Leaving the modern schools aside, drawing continues to be fundamental to Realist painting. It is in fact of the utmost importance because it solves all problems related to form outside of the color factors. Artists interested in Realism should keep this in mind.
Proportions, perspective, blocks and spaces are the essential elements of drawing. We study the relationship between these elements and explore how they fit together to define the bulk of objects and how they occupy space; we delve into the forms of art that give shape to this state such as lines, colors and brushwork. Applying all of the above to the depiction of structure and texture as well as expressions and psychology during the drawing of the human anatomy and characters represent an important topic in the study of drawing.
Brutus, 28.7 x 21.6 inches, charcoal pencil on paper
Is sense or sensibility the more important during drawing?
The Russian art educator Chistyakov said that drawing is about sense though this mainly applies to color. Sense, analysis and comprehension are emphasized in drawing because ignorance of perspective and anatomy often leads to vacuity and weak compositions. Drawing is an art however so sensibility cannot be ignored either and must be applied throughout the drawing process. One must draw and sculpt. Making a study does not mean being “pedantic” about every detail. It is impossible for a “pedantic” artist to create oil paintings that feel like a painting and speak to the emotions.
I’ve seen with my own eyes how most visitors to art museums and galleries around the world still prefer paintings in the Realist style. They understand this kind of painting. One must admit to a great decline in the standard of Realist painting today. There are many factors at work and one of them is the over-use of the camera. The camera has been a boon to Realist painting in the West since it was invented in the mid-19thCentury. It provides painters with a very useful tool for recording ephemeral images and details. On the other hand, it often hampers the development of the painter’s own imagination and observation skills. The reliance of many people on the camera resulted in a flood of images that look like photographs. Such paintings are filled with unnecessary details. Like “a king who no longer bothers with morning audiences”, painters no longer bothered with plein-air painting. What a tragic state of affairs.
A return to plein-air painting is the only way to correct this malaise of our time. Traditional drawing was based on plein-air painting of actual objects and the expression of three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional canvas. This is quite different from transferring a flat photograph to another flat plane. Drawing also eliminates the color factor to maintain a certain distance from the actual object. Plein-air drawing is therefore a good way to avoid falling into the trap of photo realistic paintings. Even if a camera must be used, the visual information provided by the photograph must be carefully screened. Don’t let the photograph take over and make you its “slave.”
But a drawing can look like a photo, you say. Yes, painting a good likeness does not by itself solve the problem. It must be an artistic likeness that has aesthetic value. This brings up the question of descriptiveness versus expressiveness. The core of descriptiveness is the “artistic rhythm.” There can be no art without rhythm. Rhythm is change – contrast and unity. In painting, rhythm takes the form of layers on a plane and all the different forms of brush work. One must be able to sense all the different textures in the subject in order to translate an actual object to the drawing paper or canvas – the conversion of living reality to artistic reality is necessary to breathe life into what is being described in the image. The painting ability of each person is mainly expressed through their mastery of form and sensitivity to rhythm. The training of both senses and skills is essential. The expression of rhythm is what truly separates craftsman from painter.
Form and structure, mass and space, brush work and rhythm are all there to capture and shape the artistic image. Artistic image is the carrier of our thoughts and emotions. It is also the goal of artistic pursuits. When we look at the history of art in the East and West, the greatest artworks have all won renown and enduring fame through their vivid and thought-provoking artistic image. The shaping of the artistic image takes more than just skill and technique. It takes a sincere and sensitive heart – the sophistication and inspiration of a true artist. This is something that even the best art education cannot provide. It is something that we must cultivate and learn for ourselves.
Woman with Left Hand in the Back, 39.4 x 25.6 inches, charcoal on canvas
The short text above is but a brief discussion of my own personal thoughts on Western Realist drawing. It is only a basic discussion and does not go into the amount of depth that I would like. The description next to the painting mentions the background and my thoughts. Some mention the principles of drawing and painting techniques in passing as well. As this is not a text book a dissection of each is not practical. I do hope that by increasing the reader’s understanding I can make it more approachable and make the book more interesting to read.
In a movie, there are ninety minutes to two hours to tell a story which usually includes setup, confrontation, climax and resolution. In an ad, there are thirty seconds to catch the audience’s attention and hopefully persuade them to take some action with what marketers call reason to believe (RTB). But how do you tell a story in a painting that has merely a few seconds to catch someone’s attention so that he/she will stop and explore further.
Inspiration of subject matter depends on one’s cultural background, education and life experience.
It could be a book you read, a folk story in your culture, or something you observed in life. But there is a lot more to think about after selecting a subject. For example, who is in the painting? What are they doing? When and where is this taking place? Why are the people doing what they are doing? What is the relationship between these people? I think of the artist as the screen writer, director, stage designer, costume designer and make-up artist all in one and that he has to select a scene from the movie or the play to put on the canvas. And selecting that scene is a journey in itself.
A painting I’m currently working on is Battle of Changde. The source of inspiration is from childhood experience. I grew up next to the Battle of Changde Memorial in the city of Changde, Hunan province in Central China. The memorial was built to commemorate the Chinese soldiers who participated in the Battle of Changde in 1943, one of the major campaigns in the Second Sino-Japanese War during the Second World War. According to Bai Congxi‘s memoirs, a total of 160,000 Japanese troops and 210,000 Chinese troops participated in the battle. The battle saw heavy casualties on both sides. The Japanese began their offensive on November 2, 1943. Changde was guarded by the Chinese 57th Division from the 74th Corps. The division’s 8,000 troops, in spite of being overwhelmingly outnumbered by the Japanese invading troops, stubbornly held on to the city for eleven days and nights. When the Chinese reinforcement finally arrived, there were 100 survivors in the 57th division and all were wounded. The city of Changde fell to the Japanese control on December 6 and was retaken by the Chinese on December 13 after intense house-to-house fighting.
Battle of Changde Memorial in Changde, Hunan Province, China
Growing up right next to the Battle of Changde Memorial, I have always wanted to do a painting about the Battle of Changde and the people who sacrificed their lives defending the country. However, figuring exactly how took a number of years and a few iterations.
Battle of Changde 2011 pencil study
Battle of Changde 2011 color study
In the early pencil studies, I depicted a battle field with heavy fighting. Then I thought it was a bit boring and didn’t tell the story I wanted to tell fully. True, there was heavy fighting and lots of casualties. The same goes for any battle in a major war. How is this one different from other battles? So in the latest composition, I focus on the battle drawing to an end. The few remaining Chinese soldiers are still fighting in the defense of Changde. They are wounded and exhausted. There are dead bodies everywhere on the battle field. There are Japanese troops making a charge in the distance. It’s evening and the sun coming out from the clouds, shining on the city wall, bathing everything in red. And I leave you to interpret what the sunshine means. Here is a video on the inspiration for the sunset.
Battle of Changde 2018 pencil study
Battle of Changde 2019 color study
Inspiration for Battle of Changde narrative painting - YouTube
I’m currently working on the color study of the painting before working on the full size canvas. I will share the final painting once I finish it. It’s going to take a while. To be continued…
We sometimes get inquiries about drawing supplies my father Yim Mau-Kun uses for his pencil and charcoal drawings. Since I’m visiting Taiwan for the holidays, I took the opportunity to take a stock of his drawing supplies.
Erasers and blenders
Pictured here are different types of erasers and blenders that my father uses. From left to right:
1 eraser pencils to create highlights
2 regular rubber eraser
3 and 4 Iken Art Char brand paste eraser
5 tissue paper for blending
6 homemade paper blender made of xuan paper (paper used for traditional Chinese ink painting)
On the left are General brand charcoal pencils. My father only uses HB, 2B and 4B.
On the right are Staedtler brand pencils. My father uses HB – 5B.
For charcoal drawings, he uses Iken Art Char charcoal sticks for details and Nitram baton charcoal sticks for background.
For pencil and charcoal pencil drawings, he uses Fabriano paper. I know, I know, it’s water color paper and I did ask my father why. He said it’s more sturdy and can stand up to being abraded by erasers.
For charcoal drawings, he uses French brand MBM drawing paper because of its capability of pulling charcoal to its surface. He also occasionally uses the back of pastel paper and once uses canvas for a charcoal drawing.
In addition to the drawing tools, one thing I noticed when editing demonstration videos is the frequency and time that my father uses for sharpening his pencils when he is doing a drawing. For editing purposes, it’s all edited out (well, nobody wants to see an artist sharpening his pencils in a demonstration video, they want to see the demonstration), but apparently it’s something very important that he frequently stops to briefly sharpen his pencils in the middle of a drawing demonstration.
When I visited his teaching studio, I also noticed a pencil sharpening station.
There is a Chinese saying, “If one wants to do his job well, he must sharpen his tools” which is perfectly applicable to sharpening drawing pencils for a drawing.
Another tip is that my father says the pencil must be held at a 45 degree, not too high, not too low.
Lastly, we’re offering 25% off for our online video lessons. The offer is valid until January 2, 2019. Enter code “Happy2019” during check out.
Miners’ Lament is the latest narrative painting that I finished. The inspiration for Miners’ Lament goes back all the way to my time in China.
Prior to 1980, I worked at Zhaoqing in Guangdong where there was a medium-sized coal mine outside of the city –Ma’an Coal Mine. I went on two painting trips to the mines and also went down to the mine shaft on two occasions, so I knew about the miners’ hardships from personal experience.
Fast forward to 1997. When I came back to Taiwan from my Northwest painting trip in 1997, I saw plein air paintings of a coal mine in Taipei’s suburbs by my student Liu Ming-yen and was impressed by them. I visited Jiufen and Pingxi (two coal mines near Taipei) with Liu Ming-yen and my wife. While touring the coal mine museum, I had a look inside the small coal mine that was about to close. All of a sudden, I gazed back at the tunnel entrance and could see the scene in the draft before my eyes.
The topic of mine disasters is a common one all around the world. It also hints at the inevitability of humanity’s tragic destiny. For me as an artist, most importantly, when I emerged from the mine I suddenly discovered a very powerful composition, as well as a sense of continuing to move forward despite knowing what fate had in store. After that, I made many trips to Jiufen and Houtong to experience and get a feel for the mining areas.
Since concept inception, it took me nearly twenty years to complete this oil painting. I didn’t dwell on the expressions of the miners as they emerged from the tunnel entrance after the mining disaster. I wanted the audience to focus on the “family members waiting at the mine entrance.” The anxiety and hope in the faces of the miners’ families expressed the heart-rending nature of the tragedy.
After countless drafts and paintings, I eventually came up with the silhouette making its way to the tunnel entrance – the silhouette of a miner. How many mining disasters big and small had this silhouette endured? The bent back, covered in rock and coal dust, was the product of the heavy burden it had borne. It represented a life filled with perseverance as well as futility. He knows that once the mining disaster has been cleared away, he will have to go down that dangerous mine shaft again into the darkness under the ground in order to feed his family.
This was the silhouette that I found after many attempts and changes. It is not only the silhouette of a miner but also countless farmers and coolies! To eventually give shape to this image at the entrance to the mining disaster made my visits to the mines worthwhile.
The painting and its theme may seem a bit depressing for the holiday season when we are reflecting on 2018 and looking forward to 2019. But I thought maybe we can look at the painting from another angle, there is light at the end of the tunnel for whatever we have been working on. So with this note, happy holidays and best wishes for your endeavors in painting and other areas of your life.
It seems that classical bust study is no longer offered in art programs and still life is the common entry level drawing class is drawing classes are offered at all. I seem to have lived under a rock for I have practiced drawing, including cast drawing, alongside my students for more than three decades.
Why do cast drawing? The clean and clear appearance of classical busts makes easier to study light, value and form. Classical bust study used to be an indispensable part of formal art education in ateliers and art academies prior to the rise of modernism. My solid training in classical bust study has benefited me throughout my painting career.
In 1978, after the Cultural Revolution, I visited alumni at the Guangzhou Fine Arts Academy. I ran into a retired art professor in the school. He asked me, “Mau-Kun Yim, you were the President of Academic Affairs of the Student Association. Do you have any theories why your class has so many outstanding graduates?” (There were more than ten renowned artists from my class such as Chen Yanning (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chen_Yanning), 張紹城，招熾挺, I replied, “Maybe it was because there was no education reform at the time, and we spent a solid four years on classical bust studies?”
Step 1 – Block in
Classical bust study is the foundation of drawing. Its clean and clear state makes it easier to study light and value.
First, evaluate the position of the sculpture from every direction. Use reference lines to establish the positions of its top, middle and bottom areas. Find the center point of the sculpture (around the core shadow area under the chin), then locate the mid-point of the sculpture head (around the eyes). Divide the forehead into thirds, as well as the area between the eyebrows and the nose, and from the nose to the chin. Finally, block in the hair, mustache, chest, and base.
The most important point is to use straight lines at different angles to define or cut out the shapes. Omit curves and simplify the subject. This is the key to grasping the shape of the sculpture.
Step 2 – Planar analysis
When focusing on the facial features, distinguish between the front and sides of the face. Mark the lines at the eyes and the mouth, and then find the midline of the sculpture, located halfway between the eyebrows. After the line is drawn, the side closer to you will appear larger due to perspective. Then draw the different dimensions of the nose, its front, sides and base. Position the rest of the facial features in relations to the nose. Pay attention to the bone structures that create shadows and curves, such as the brow bone, nasal bone, cheekbone, temporal bone and mandible. Also, locate the areas where large differences in value occur.
The process may seem very abstract, but it is a key step to adopting a three-dimensional viewpoint on a piece of two-dimensional paper.
Step 3 – Add value
All objects have light, middle, and dark values when exposed to light. The block-in should include not only block-in of key parts of the plaster cast but also the dark areas. In this case, it would be the side planes of the nose, cheeks, and forehead.
The trick is to not make the ark areas too dark. Instead, I use the middle value to block in at this stage so I can easily make revisions to the shape, position, and size at later stages. Once the dark value is fixed, you’ll have difficulty changing it, so for now, keep the dark areas lighter than you want them in the final drawing.
The dark value areas should be treated as a whole at this stage. Create general, big blocks and leave out the details. In this respect, drawing works in the same way as sculpting. It is not necessary (nor is it possible) for a sculptor to carve small details during early stages.
Step 4 – Continue to add value
Further define the dark areas, moving up from the back of the head to the hair, chest, and base and down to the background. These efforts create harmony, focus, depth, and, as a result, aesthetic beauty for the drawing.
It is extremely important to develop the skill to examine all parts of the drawing as a whole and not be tied down by the details. Otherwise, you may tend to see the tree but missing the forest.
Step 5 – Re-examine perspectives
When a drawing looks inaccurate in shape, it’s often due to inaccuracy in perspectives. For example, in this drawing if Homer’s right forehead, cheek, eye and beard were any wider, the drawing would become too flat and lose its three-dimensional feel. It is important to note that the face only looks symmetrical when viewed from the front. When the sculpture’s angle is titled due to perspective, the facial features are no longer symmetrical.
Step 6 – Create details
Drawing details requires you to observe carefully and analyze thoroughly in order to accurately represent the transition in value and edges in a small area. A few things to keep in mind: First, in light areas, pay attention to transition in physical surface and form; in dark areas, pay attention to transition in value and soft edges. Second, avoid making the drawing overly smooth. Reserve the feel of “facets” in the drawing.
Step 7 – Finish up
Lastly, I reinforced the dark areas even more, including the core shadow and some borders of the plaster cast shadows. This adds to the weight and strength of the plaster cast sculpture, making the dark areas seem slightly airy.
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For another post on classical bust study (cast drawing), please click here.
Renowned novelist Louis Cha Leung Yung (better known by his pen name Jin Yong) passed away on October 30, 2018 at the age of 94. According to Wikipedia, he was the best selling Chinese author by the time of his death. More than 100 million of his books have been sold worldwide, not including unknown copies of pirated versions. News of Jin Yong brought me back to the time when I was an illustrator for the Young Companion magazine in Hong Kong in the 1980s.
Death of Romance illustration part 1
An issue of the Young Companion art magazine featured an interview with Jin Yong and I was asked to do an illustration for the cover. I looked over the photo of Jin Yong and thought a little commonplace so I made a line drawing instead. The editor-in-chief and art editor both loved the result and it became one of the unique covers of Young Companion.
The Young Companion was a very famous art magazine in Shanghai during the 1930’s and 1940’s. The art magazine was revived by the heir in Hong Kong during the early 1980’s. At the recommendation of the magazine’s art editor Chen Xiuming, the editor-in-chief Chen Peishen asked me to be the illustrator for the magazine’s short stories.
The authors of Young Companion short stories were the finest in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Most of the stories were based on the society in Taiwan and Hong Kong at the time, making it relatively easy to find the right reference and perspectives. Interestingly enough, I acquired a brush pen by chance and it created lines similar to design drawings and Chinese paintings. I loved that brush and used it to create more than twenty drawings. For some of the illustrations I even went to the trouble of making plein-air sketches. Most of the compositions were the products of the imagination but even today they have their own unique qualities. Looking at the drawings now, I am still amazed by my imagination back then.
This is the second post about sketching. In the previous post, we talked about the importance of sketching. In this post, we will talk about how to sketch and strengthen your sketching skills. One of the blog readers asked how to sketch a subject in action. The short answer is relying on your memory and leaving out details. The long answer is below. I have also included a few sketches done in Hong Kong recording daily life such as my mother cooking, people in a fast food restaurant and people on a subway training ride. These are all examples of sketching subjects in action.
How to sketch well?
Painting is art and culture as well as a type of skill. All skills follow the convention that “practice makes perfection”. Without practice, how can you become good at something? Diligence and training may be old-school but that doesn’t mean they do not work.
In the traditional opera community, they often say: “Martial arts must be practiced constantly and songs must be sung frequently”. Diligent practice is therefore the key. What about diligent practice without giving it proper thought? That does not work either. As Confucius once said: “Knowledge without thought leads to confusion, thought without knowledge leads to danger”. If we are curious and respectful of the lives that we try to capture, if we can then practice diligently and think constantly about improvements, we will naturally get better.
Is faster the better in sketching? Not always! I’ve seen many private studios in the West, Hong Kong and Taiwan where the time allowed for nude sketches is so short that the paintings come out looking like wild scrawls. Many people spend years sketching in studios and make little progress. As they made no improvement, they decide that they simply don’t have the talent. Talent may of course be a factor but I think that in most cases they were going too fast. As they say, “nine of ten accidents are due to speeding” so my advice is: If you want to sketch well, “sketch slowly”. First, try to get the proportions right, capture the key features and make everything as simple as possible. Slowing down will avoid misshapen proportions and too much detail. Sketching should be relatively fast but is not all about speed. Start slow, then gradually speed up.
Start with a draft, using pale, light lines to define the areas, proportions, dynamics and trends before putting pencil to paper. Do not draw any details at this point. Once the draft is ready, work outwards from the key parts such as the head and hands.
Sketches can be a little angular like Vrubel or be a little more curvaceous like Menzel. If you are new to sketching however, using more straight lines will make capturing relative proportions and dynamics easier. This technique is often used at the Soviet Academy of Arts during sketching classes. Straight lines may seem a little less sophisticated but the main features and proportions will remain true. Curved lines may seem more lively but can run wild like a mustang in unskilled hands.
When you start practicing sketching, avoid adding value. Dispense with backgrounds altogether as well. With lines, what matters is the edges of shapes. Get this right then the rest can be ignored or reduced.
Value should be used where it can convey volume and height differences.
Use for key features such as the head and hands.
Use value for clothing texture.
Use value for large blocks of black, gray and white.
Use value to convey the texture of the subject.
Use value where it can create strokes like Chinese paintings.
Sketch on Subway 3
Rely on memory
When sketching, observe the subject as a whole. Don’t approach the subject too closely to avoid distorting the perspective. Slightly narrow your eyes when observing and do not fix on a point. Don’t glance up at the subject with every line. You should instead, draw a small area for each glance. This is a process of rapid observation and memorization. In other words, half of the work in sketching depends on memory. This is a part of the sketching technique and also what makes it click. Many people don’t understand this so they look up with every stroke and still haven’t mastered sketching after a lifetime of trying.
High quality sketches require a certain level of drawing ability and knowledge of the anatomy. A solid foundation in drawing is required to produce sophisticated figure sketches because every line and stroke in sketching is based upon the shape and textures of the form. It must also be supported by artistic sophistication.
It is very important to understand the growth patterns of the human skeleton and muscles as well as the lengths and relative proportions of key body parts. For the skeleton and muscle, draw from books on anatomy while copying and memorizing the names of each part. This is the only way to understand the details and create lifelike drawings.
In the past, sketches were used to record everyday images and also as drafts. Advances in technology and the availability of photographic equipment meant that this recording function has almost been replaced completely. Sketching however does not reproduce an object completely. It is a highly sophisticated and inclusive form of drawing that has its own artistic merits. When we look at the most representative sketches of the great masters, we find that they were just as memorable as the masterpieces! In classical literature, the Yuan Dynasty xiaolingand Tang Dynasty quatrains all had a timeless and minimalist sense of beauty. Like them, sketches are “exquisite poetry” that can be appreciated in their own right. The emergence and proliferation of cameras have in fact reinforced the irreplaceable nature of sketching due to its ability to condense and reflect the creator’s personal ability, aesthetic experience and personality.
For a diligent practitioner, sketching is like a chronology. Repin is reputed to have more than twenty boxes filled with sketches! Unfortunately, one of his daughters sold most of it in Eastern Europe during World War I so nothing has been heard of them for the last seventy or eighty years. I don’t have many sketches and I still sketch on and off to this very day. The early sketches were lost during the Cultural Revolution and while I treasure my later sketches, few are satisfying. To me however, each drawing represents my friends and relatives in those years and the people I met in those times… Whenever I open my old folios, my thoughts fly back to those bygone years. The people and events recorded in these sketches are therefore a record of my own life. To me, these “images” feel far more direct than written records and are taken far more to heart.