August 15 1982: Su Miao with Ink
Huang Yao had a weekly column called Moyuan Suibi in the Nanyang Siang Pao, a newspaper in Malaysia.
A few issues ago I wrote about the topic of “bai miao”. “Bai miao” seems to have become an official term for ink fine line drawing in the world of Chinese painting. In actual fact, “bai miao” is another name for “su miao” (which means to sketch or outline with ink). “Su Miao” seems to be one of the most basic of Western drawing techniques. To sum it all up, “bai miao” is a technique that makes use of “lines” to create outlines. The earliest form of “bai miao” is the “floating silk outline” (originated by Gu Kaizhi). Sketching techniques in the West employ both the use of charcoal and pencil. Everyone, from Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Miller, Rembrandt, to the more recent Picasso and Matisse, started out with sketching as a foundation, before going on to explore oil painting or watercolor painting. The styles evolved according to the painter's thoughts and moods, bringing on different movements, ranging from abstractionism, impressionism to Fauvism; they went from “figurative” to “deformed art”; from “realism” to “abstract art”, including “dada art” and “pop art”. All of these were built on a good foundation of “outlines” and “sketches”. “To build a building of ten thousand feet high, one starts by laying the foundation”. If the foundation is not strong, the building would tilt or collapse. Calligraphy seems like such a minor art, but it is still an art that requires a great deal of skills. And all “skills” require “lengthy training” before one can see the results, and one definitely cannot do without foundation training. You may say that there is much similarities between Western and Eastern art, since all paintings are either black and white or colored. However, the East is special because we have ink and brush, and the “ink painting” that we can be proud of, so we need to work harder and let this art shine.
“Ink painting” is the treasure of Chinese painting. Its foundation is “calligraphy”. If you skip doing “calligraphy” and go straight to painting, you would be merely “neglecting the essentials and chasing the end result”. How so? Because “a weak hand” will result in “a painting with nothing right” and “a painting with nothing worth looking at”. What does that mean? Usually, when people look at paintings, they tend to only say a few nice things about it to please the painter. The comments are usually like the following. “Oh look! This painting is so life-like.” “This is painted so well, the scenery in this painting is breathtaking!” “It's not easy to paint the beauty so realistically”... Compliments like these actually make the artist feel rather awkward, because they feel unworthy of such praises, but to reject is not polite. To appreciate Chinese paintings, whether it is a landscape painting, a portrait, a painting of birds, flowers, insects or grass, the main thing you should do is to appreciate the “ink and brush (lines and dots)”. To have “only the brush and without the ink” is not good. To have “only the ink and without the brush” is not good either. To qualify as a good painting, it has to have both “ink and brush”. When you master both ink and brush, that is when you create a good painting. But it is only when both ink and brush reach a divine state, that a good painting will last. It is really not about being beautiful, or realistic; and it doesn't matter how detailed the painting is. Therefore, the critics can be very strict. Paintings that seem good at a glance might be deemed “ordinary” because of a single weak stroke. On the other hand, some paintings might have a very common subject, but with a elegant enough use of the “ink and brush”, the painting will then be classified as “extraordinary”. Take the example of New Year paintings from Yangliuqing, the Taohuawu, Zhuxianzhen. Although this is a subject that has been explored many times, these paintings are still being regarded as “precious artworks” by collectors. This is because they are like “primitive tribal young girls who untainted by society” - but can also be with deep touching bashfulness and sorrow – rather than heavily-made up noisy city women who flirt loudly. Where, then, is the beauty in that?
Eastern paintings are brilliant because they share the same root as calligraphy. Therefore, to critique the depth of a painting, you need to look into 1) calligraphy, 2) literature, 3) philosophy. A work that only flaunts its techniques but expresses no meaning will have little impact. On the other hand, a work with meaning but show poor technique is often known as an “literati painting”. That is the difference between an artist's work and a literati's work.
Now, let us go back to discussing “su miao in ink painting”. The structure of an “ink-painting”, as I mentioned earlier, is as follows: one must master making the 1) dot, 2) line, 3) smudge. These three points should be practiced and mastered. There are no shortcuts. All three points are techniques in “calligraphy”. I have discussed “dots” and “lines” in the previous issues, so we are left with “smudge”. To “smudge” is to “shade”, 就是西洋畫「素描」中畫「陰面」but in Chinese painting we call the technique “smudge”. “Smudge” is further divided into “burnt ink smudge” and “wet ink smudge” (But there are more than 10 different techniques of “smudging” for painting of the stones in the art of landscape painting, all of them invented by painters from the past. There are many names to be mentioned, so I shall not elaborate in this article. This will be discussed in future). Now, let us talk about the method of “smudge”. When you use a “line” to create an outline, the shaded parts (the parts that do not face the sun) are “smudged” according to how light or dark it is. 只要用直線，分輕重而皴 For dark shadows, simply apply more force; for the light shadows, paint lightly. If you are using light ink, and feel that it is not dark enough, then you may apply another layer of “smudge”. Therefore, one should not start on too dark a shade. The amount of “water”, the amount of “force” and the thickness of the “layers” are all elements that you need to decide on, but don't be “unsure” in your strokes. Be firm, use the center-tip of the brush and your strokes will be full of strength and “vigor”.
The training and application of “vigor” and “firmness” all come from “calligraphy”. (The famous painter Wu Chang Shuo started with stone-drum scripts; Qi Bai Shi started with “da xiang”; Xu Bei Hong also wrote Han Tablet inscriptions....) So you will have to practice everyday. This is the same logic as practicing the horse-stance position everyday (in Chinese marshall art training). The brush for “strength” in the “center-tip” should be the “weasel's hair brush”, because the tip of this brush has good elasticity. All painters should have in their arsenal three “long tipped weasel's hair” brushes, one each for large script, medium and small script.
Chinese painting is about expressing the painter's “consciousness of the objects and scenery” around him. That is why Westerners often cannot understand Chinese paintings, believing our landscape paintings to be far less realistic than those of the West. They think that the Chinese are incapable of creating a realistic landscape painting, or that our skills are simply not suited for the depicting of landscapes. This is a very big misconception. Westerners often think that they can also create the Chinese “landscape paintings”. They would usually paint a few mountains, add in a “pagoda” and a “boat”, paint a flock of birds flying in the sky, and then they would call it a “landscape painting”. That is why Westerners cannot differentiate one landscape painting from another. Moreover, the beauty of a landscape painting is in its “brush and ink” techniques. Today, in general young overseas Chinese do not like to learn the Chinese language or read in Chinese. They regard Chinese characters as an outdated writing. But the fact is that the Chinese characters are the most elegant writing in the world. It began its life as pictograms, and it evolved through history from “oracle bone script”, “Chinese bronze inscriptions”, “seal script”, “clerical script”, “regular script”, “cursive script” to “wild cursive script” (Japan is spending a lot of time and effort at the moment researching on this script); each of these script has reached the highest level of artistic and philosophical sophistication. Each character has been tried and tested and polished over time. It is unthinkable that their descendents nowadays would neglect essentials and attend to trifles, without proper understanding should dismiss it and change it, turning a beauty into a blind, crippled woman. If Cang Jie hears about this, he and Emperor Huang would both be thoroughly heartbroken in the other world.
I've been in Malaysia for more than 30 years. 30 years ago, I was in Bangkok, at Rama V Road, near a cinema. This was a stretch of old Thailand city wall (I wonder if it's still there). It was where I painted the scene using “ink painting” techniques. I chanced upon the photo of it among a pile of other photos, which is what inspired this topic. Friends who are interested in “ink painting” can take into consideration my points above and try them out on Xuan paper, and find out for themselves if it is the same as life sketch and watercolor painting of the West. Art is precious in that it is centered on truth. There is no distinction between the East or the West, ancient or modern, just as human beings should not be divided by color. It is most important to live happily, and art can bring us pure beauty. In the four seas all of us are brothers.