The Infinite Palette
Modern Chinese Painting

Preface by K.Y. Ng

"The five colours are deeply enchanting" - a quotation from the Classic of Morality compiled over two thousand years ago tells us how our ancestors were obsessed with the wonders of colours. Indubitably, colour is one of the sources of pleasure from mankind's sensuous realm.

The last hundred years have witnessed a fantastic revival of colours in Chinese painting after centuries of restriction to a severe palette of blacks and ochres. A whole gamut of brilliant colours have bloomed with unprecedented pageantry marking the rise of a new epoch in the history of Chinese art.

The emergence of successive art movements in the 20th century has given Chinese painters more freedom and inspiration to experiment with different artistic ideas. While some artists prefer to stay with the traditional palette, taking in as much or as little innovative elements as they like, others have chosen to abandon completely the old styles and to put on a radical new look. Wu Hufan and He Tianjian were known for their inheritance of the blue-and-green colouring technique; Huang Binhong and Qian Shoutie for their light reddish-brown and pale-green landscapes; Yu Fei'an for his revival of the fine-line and heavy colour works of flower-and-bird initiated by the Song academy painters. Qi Baishi and Cui Zifan were noted for infusing ink, cinnabar red, aniline red and azurite blue pigments to work out sharp colour contrasts; Lin Fengmian and Wu Guanzhong for their introduction of the Western palette; Zhang Daqian for his successful assimilation of the stylistic essence of the past masters and in his late years, the fantastic creation of the "splashed-colour" style in a vigorous and freehand manner. In the metropolis of Hong Kong where Chinese and Western cultures interact, Luis Chan and Jackson Yu have tried oil painting techniques on Chinese paintings while senior masters like Chen Shuren and Zhao Shao'ang vest their works of the Lingnan School with a Japanese flavour. Their experiments with different colouring techniques have proven to be successful in bringing Chinese painting to a new spectrum.

Contemporary painters from Mainland China , Hong Kong and Taiwan enjoy infinite freedom in the use of ink and colour. Through a wide range of technical devices and styles including both abstract and realistic, they inject freshness, creating a new style. This has rendered Chinese painting a modernity and visual attraction for a wider and more appreciative audience.

Compared with their predecessors, contemporary Chinese painters have a much larger variety of pigments to choose from. In addition to the conventional selection of mineral and vegetative pigments such as cinnabar, ochre, azurite blue, malachite green and gamboge yellow, there are also imported colours, watercolours, oils and acrylics etc to make up a rich repertory of hues. For examples, Luis Chan and Jackson Yu are fond of the charming effects of acrylics, Xiao Shufang is particularly interested in English- made watercolours. Nancy Woo uses gouache imported from Germany while Zhao Chunxiang incorporates oils and acrylics in his works. With the efforts of all these artists, it is foreseeable that the palette of Chinese painting will be an "infinite" one which validates to the statement of the renowned master Lu Yanshao: "With the introduction of Western colours, the palette of Chinese painting has been much enriched. Why should painters still be restricted to the conventional pigments of ochre and indigo? I take the liberty to create a style that is neither old nor new, neither ancient nor contemporary."

"Breadth and essence is created by applying colour in accordance with subjects; spirit is engendered through the merging of colours and ink." It is anticipated that Chinese painting will see a broader and deeper vision as its colouring techniques and styles further develop in the days to come.

"The Infinite Palette - Modern Chinese Painting" is our fifth thematic exhibition which aims at exploring the new trends and transformations in modern Chinese painting. The best representative works by selected artists from the 20th century have been collectively displayed to reveal their pursuits and accomplishments in the use of colours in Chinese painting. I would like to express my sincere thanks to Mr. Lee Yun-won, Head of the Fine Arts Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Mr. Tong Kam-tang who have spent much time to write academic articles for our exhibition catalogue. Special thanks are also due to those who have given valuable advice and assistance. I would also like to thank Mr. Yip Man-yam, highly regarded seal-carver and calligrapher, for writing the exhibition title in his fine calligraphy. Lastly, may I take this chance to invite viewers and critics to give suggestions and comments on our present show.


K. Y. Ng 1993


We have made our artists' biography at the last section of this catalogue a brief one because detailed information of these renowned artists can easily be found in most artists dictionaries. However, in the course of compiling the biographies we noticed that different figures were given by different sources regarding the year of birth or death of some of the artists. Moreover, errors have been found in the birth year of a few artists provided in our earlier publication, In the Literati Tradition - 19th and 20th Century Chinese Paintings. Corrections have been made according to information provided by Kao Mayching's Twentieth-Century Chinese Painting. For example, Qi Baishi was born in 1864 and died in 1957, Zhu Qizhan was born in 1892 and Zhao Shao'ang 1905.

Preface by K.Y. Ng
The Palette of Chinese Painting
The Palette of Twentieth-Century Chinese Painting
Online Catalogue