Aesthetic basis

The aesthetic basis of the Chinese fine art is deeply affected by the philosophy of Chinese Buddhism and Taoist and Confucian ideas. Chinese landscape painting was born in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), which is also the flourishing period of the Taosim thought. The central belief of Taoism is mentalism. As a result, the aesthetic basis of Chinese landscape painting is manifestation rather than reappearance. Shaw (1988, p.183) mentioned the impact of Chinese tradition philosophy on landscape paintings in his article. He stated that:

“The landscape painting tradition has long been admired as one of the greatest cultural achievements of the Chinese people. The remarkable landscapes of the Sung Period (960-1127 A.D.) and thereafter inspire awe and fascination with the cultural genius that produced them. It is generally assumed that these masterpieces are the result of a cross-fertilization of Buddhism and Taoism on Chinese soil, a hybridization that flourished in the fabulous mountain scenery of the Middle Kingdom. Beyond the assumption that such paintings embody both Buddhist and Taoist ideals, little attention has been given to documenting the developments that let to this world-admired genre. What abounds instead are aphoristic assertions of “the Taoist love of nature” or of “broad, misty vistas expressing the Buddhist principle of emptiness.”

In Chinese landscape paintings, painters always embed their personal feelings and emotions into the image, rather than just depict the details and exact appearance of the object. As a result, viewers can see a lot of white spaces and broad strokes on Chinese landscape paintings. Da-Wei (1990, p.72) stated that “Areas of the white paper – voids – are always to be found in Chinese painting and calligraphy. They are not unfinished, empty, or yet-to-be-filled-up spaces. For, these voids are not actually empty. In fact, they are an integral part of a painting or calligraphy.”  The painters will think it can inspire viewers to think and imagine. It is worth mentioning the way how most Chinese artists make a drawing.

“The Chinese artist does not paint his subject while observing it; he may walk in the woods, looking at the trees and mountains, and then return to his studio to paint what his mind’s eye remember. He sees with his spirit or, as the Chinese say, his ‘heart-mind'” (Cameron, p.21).

In comparison, western paintings are affected by the faith of christianism. In the field of western art, God is the creator of the beauty and the world and painters always seek the trace of God’s presence in the details of the naturalistic environment (MacGregor 2000). As a result, western painters always think the expression of the realistic natural scene is kind of contribution to the God. And by doing so, people can get much closer to the God (Stone 1987). Most of western painters have their own way to produce ideal works. As an award-winning Australian painter, William Robinson’s strategy is to shorten the distance between viewers and painting and make viewers to be involved into his paintings.

“I want to move away from observing the picture as some sort of representation. I want to sweep the observer down the gullies and up into the sky. The observer is drawn into the landscape – not physically, but as a sort of connection with memory. The painting reminds us of experience we might have had when walking in the bush … I am only presenting personal experience to be shared, but I would like to give some clues that may help the observer to experience the picture. These works are the outcome of my own experience and they are totally to do with feelings and walking over the landscape. Such pictures cannot be understood if they are not felt physically” (cited in Muecke 2004).

Technique of expression

  1. Composition

The use of stroke and line are the main expression methods for Chinese landscape painters to compose the general structure of a picture. Lines and strokes are vigorous and have a strong expressive force in Chinese paintings so that many Chinese artists use them to depict the particular scenes in their minds. In terms of the technique, a conventional method in landscape painting is to classify all the natural elements into the part of host and guests in order to reach the balance of the composition.

“In Chinese art, the major form in a composition is referred to as the “host,” and the “guests” play a secondary role, mainly to balance that major point of interest. However, the guests are not insignificant; on the contrary, they are necessary, as essential as the leaves are to a flower.

In a landscape, the mountain form would be the host, whereas a cascade, trees, a hut, travellers, would all be considered as the guests, the subordinate objects. In a composition, the first step is to decide where, in the picture plane, to plant the host, which often will be the action line; then, where the rest of the forms, which carry lesser weight, should be arranged to balance or render contrast to the main form.” (Da-Wei 1990, p.69)

When drawing a painting, Chinese painters always imagine the scenes as particular symbols such as dragons, human beings or some symbolic objects. This typical eastern style of expression reflects the thought of Taosim which address the harmonious relationship between human beings and cosmos. Sullivan (1962, p.1) explained the natural scenes in the eyes of Chinese artists that

“To the Chinese all mountains are sacred, hallowed by a tradition that goes back centuries before the Buddhists and Taoists built their first temples on the hillsides. They are sacred because, since remote times, the Chinese have held that the cosmic forces, the energy, harmony, and ceaseless renewal of the universe, are in some way made manifest in them. In popular belief the mountain is the body of the cosmic being, the rocks its bones, the water the blood that gushes through its veins, the trees and grasses its hair, the clouds and mists the vapour of its breath – the cosmic breath, or cloud-breath, which is the visible manifestation of the very essence of life.”

Here is a video made by Henry Li, who is the owner of an online Chinese painting company that called  Blue Heron Art Company. He introduced the concept of Dragon Vein that most Chinese painters use it to construct the main composition of a drawing.

Dragon Vein concept – The fundamental concept in Chinese landscape painting

In western landscape painting, the principle of expression is to create the realistic scene as much as possible. So usually painters will objectively depict color, appearance and the relationship between the light and the shadow in order to let viewers to feel they are surrounded by the environment and atmosphere that painter created.

Ballestar and Vigue (2002, p.233), in their book Practical Guide to Painting, mentioned that western paintings emphasize details of the nature and introduced the techniques that western artists often used to compose a picture.

“In painting landscapes, the artist usually emphasizes the random wildness of nature and its sporadically scattered elements. But paintings based on nature can have very patterned foregrounds, skies, and horizons. The artists recognizes the relationships between color and light, patterns and textures and incorporating them into the wildest of settings…to create depth in a painting, background elements are usually painted with loose, undefined brushstrokes that result in amorphous shapes. In choosing background colors, a similar process is followed. Even if the same hue is needed in both the foreground and the background, to create depth the color should be a neutral color in the background and a purer version in the foreground. The treatment of details also follows this principle, more defined in the foreground and imperceptible in the distance.”

Figure 3 shows that the painter use different colors and sizes to present trees mountain and grass and also he use light and shadow on the surface of the river in order to give a realistic look.

Figure 3:Walt Curlee, Wildflowers Mountains River western original western landscape oil painting,1999

2. The use of color

While in Chinese landscape paintings, the color are mainly black and white. Instead of painting the details, Chinese painters always simplify the complex landscape nature and only show a general overview of landscape to observers through the use of ink and brush. Jinhui, Guoming and Qunsheng introduced the manner and process of applying color in Chinese paintings (n.d., p.1).

“The ink used in Chinese painting has been traditionally regarded as ‘colors’ to represent tones and simple shading if blended with different amount of water, and diffusion of Xuan paper makes brush stroke exhibit numerous visual effects distinct from any other art medium in response to brush movements.”

Figure 4 shows that the painter uses black and a little bit green and red to depict the trees and leaf. The mountains are depicted in black and the rivers and falls are depicted in white. So generally speaking, the use of color in Chinese landscape painting is simple so that it makes the viewers to have more space to think on the art work.

Fifure 4: Yang Zhi , Horizontal Chinese Landscape Painting of Waterfall Scenery, 1979

The use of color is very rich in western landscape painting. Painters use different colors so that all these paintings are painted in a way that people usually look at in their daily life. In early times, the color is very fantasy as the topics of western paintings are mainly associated with religion. Most painters awared that simply depicting religious-themed subjects can hardly express their perception and awareness to the world and then they start to observe and depict the natural scenery in actual life. Consequently, western painters brought lively and actual colors to their drawings, which made western landscape paintings to have strong visual impact compared with Chinese landscape paintings.

“Painting a landscape is an exercise of chromatic richness. In no other theme does such a range of hues come together. The landscape palette is rich and brilliant. The time of day, the amount of sunlight, and the density of the air determine whether the artist chooses vibrant colors or more neutral, balanced ones… to paint a landscape, an artist must understand nature and be able to emphasize the senses of color, light, sound and smell that all humans experience. Even though only visual effects can be represented pictorially, the artist’s other play a part in the spirit and atmosphere of a painting. Because of the strength of light and color, landscapes constitute the best subject for learning to fully value hues.” (Ballestar and Vigue 2002, p.205)

Figure 5 shows that the natural environment in ancient western paintings is the minor part while the religious subjects are the main section.

Figure 5: Raphael, An Allegory, 1504

3. Perspective

Most of Chinese landscape painters use flattened perspective. As a result, when you look at a Chinese landscape painting, there is no certain point to guide u and you might feel confused when you first look at it. The lack of perspective gives viewers so much space to think and imagine. The reason is that painters always believe that everyone has their own perspective and opinion to art.

“The Chinese concept of perspective, unlike the scientific view of the West, is an idealistic or suprarealistic approach, so that one can depict more than can be seen with the naked eye. The composition is in a ladder of planes, or two-dimensional or flat perspective.” (Da-Wei 1990, p.70)

Unlike Chinese landscape painting, the perspective in western landscape painting is totally different. As western painters try to create a real view of what they see, a variety of perspectives and technique of expression are applied. William Robinson (cited in Muecke 2004, p.73) introduced the function of the variety perspective in western paintings and stated that the use of multiview point can help painters to create a photographic environment.

“Because the paintings are the result of experience, they are not ‘instant’ of time any more than they are instant of place…the observer and painter are included in the picture as traveller, in the same way we would walk around a landscape. The development of a multiview point requires much explanation, but all I seem to return to are the fuges of Bach. They begin with a subject, this is repeated in other subjects and answered in various voices. They are interconnected with sequences and layer on layer of key modulation. They can be inverted, augmented, diminished and partial or fragmented. Similarly, my paintings have a subject with movement throughout and use visual inversions, augmentations or their equivalent based on physical feeling for the landscape.”


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