SHAO Zejiong rarely travels but surprisingly he has produced a series of landscape paintings filled with mountains, waters, clouds and mists.
Recently the Shanghai artist has been invited by the China Art Museum to deliver lectures on how to appreciate Chinese ink-wash paintings.
“Today, some people think traditional ink-wash painting is a cliché, but I don’t think so. They say that because they know nothing about traditional painting," he says.
For Shao, the charm of traditional ink-wash painting lies in the beauty of aesthetics, the techniques and the personality of the painter.
Born in 1975 in Shanghai, Shao now teaches at Shanghai Normal University. He learned to paint as a boy when his peers were playing basketball and football.
“I am fated for ink-wash painting, because I was an introvert. I didn’t like to play with others ... (I) just wanted to be with myself,” he recalls. “Painting was perfect for me.”
Shao entered at the Middle School attached to the Fine Arts College of Shanghai University. He majored in ink-wash painting at the same university.
“I also learned sketching and oil painting, but ink-wash painting was always fascinating to me,” he notes.
Shao says an exceptional traditional ink-wash painting contains humanity, calligraphy, great techniques and literature. He believes the history provides “nutrition” but he adds fresh “oxygen” into his work.
“Much of my inspiration comes from masterpieces created in the Tang (AD 618-907), Song (960-1279), Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties,” he says.
The ancient paintings of the literati demanded considerable attainments beyond mere painting.
Sometimes an artist back then was also a poet, calligrapher and philosopher at the same time.
“The charm in these paintings cannot be easily accomplished without a solid understanding of history and technical skills,” Shao says. “The more you see and read, the more you like this ancient art genre.”
But he never copies these masterpieces.
“With aesthetics developing in modern times, I need to absorb what they created, refer to it and interpret it in my own way,” he says.
Shao’s impressionistic hues and carefully designed tableau draw on some Western techniques.
“I added some Western-style water -soluble pigment colors into the traditional hues that reflect a radiant feel when mixed with ink,” he says. “My tableau is also different in the arrangement. For example, I referred to some angles that David Hockney used in his work.”
Shao stresses that traditional ink-wash painting should fuse modern aesthetics to survive.
Shao’s mother died last year after battling uremia for 29 years ago. As the only child in the family, he took care of her as much as possible — physically and spiritually.
“Now you understand why it was not possible for me to travel over the past years. I couldn’t leave her alone at home,” he says.
The only way to release his pain and frustration was spending time on rice paper with his brush.
“My studio is a perfect refuge to escape all the temptations of an urban, materialistic life,” he says.
Q: How can common people get interested in traditional ink-wash painting?
A: I suggest they start by learning to appreciate the paintings created in the Song and Yuan dynasties, because traditional ink-wash painting reached its climax during that era.
My suggestion would be to begin with a tour of Shanghai Museum. Once the interest kicks in, then you can read more books on history or some particular artists.
Viewing and studying can be a circle. Of course, it can’t be acquired fast and will need a long period of time.
Q: For those who want to learn ink-wash painting, what should they start with?
A: Copying the masterpieces. The more you copy, the more you will know your brush.
However, it is better if you can find a teacher to give you some guidance.
Q: You created many landscape paintings that you say were close to your heart. Why?
A: In traditional ink-wash painting, the nature in your mind sometimes is bigger than the actual scene. For example, Wu Hufan (1894-1968), a landscape painting master, never traveled for his sketches.
I have copied many works from the masters. All the mountains, rivers and trees are in my mind, so I don’t need to see the real thing. What I paint is the “spiritual” landscape.
Q: What kind of message you hope the viewers will find in your works?
A: Elegance, beauty and imagination.
Q: You had a strong emotional bond with your mother. It must have been hard looking after her for so many years. Did you ever complain about life?
A: Yes, it’s very hard. My wife and I even decided not to have a child because of the pressures. But I am the kind of person who easily accepts what life endows me.
Q: Are you a defender of traditional culture?
A: Oh, no. I like coffee and Western music. When I paint, I often listen to Western music or songs. The reason is simple: There is no disturbance as I don’t understand English.
Q: You teach at Shanghai Normal University. What do you think of today’s young art students?
A: Their basic skills are not good enough and their emotion toward art is not profound.
I think the young generation is growing up in an era with an explosion of information. There are too many temptations — unlike our time.
But their advantage also lies in the information. It is easy for them to find what they want to see and learn on the Internet. They have a bigger vision than us. I do hope some of them would “stand high and aim far.”