The Infinite Palette
Modern Chinese Painting

The Palette of Twentieth-Century Chinese Painting

I. Historical Survey

The 20th century has been an epoch of tremendous changes for Chinese painting. The addition of Western art and culture brought significant influences, especially a new gamut of colours to the works of most artists. A close look into twentieth-century Chinese painting to find out how its palette has evolved would surely provide us with a better insight into this subject as a whole.

Richly coloured paintings in the early stage of historical China were seen from archaeological findings of the pre-Han dynasties. The brilliant silk paintings from the Han (206BC-AD200) tomb of Mawangdui and the extant works of the Jin (265-420) painter Gu Kaizhi have further proved the predominance of exuberant colours up to the 4th century. Theories of colour application were also put forward by aesthetes, including the famous saying, "Colour the objects as they appear to be naturally" by Xie He of the Southern Dynasties (420-589). Early Tang (618-907) paintings were still heavily coloured but significant changes were noted towards mid-Tang when Wu Daozi chose to adorn his works in a more subtle way. Artists began to explore the fascinating monochrome world with numerous shades created by ink alone.

By the turn of the 10th century, ink, sometimes supplemented by a little colour, was widely accepted by literati as the most elegant media to present landscapes; brush and ink were always considered an integral whole. The following few centuries had actually witnessed a steady decline of coloured works which gradually gave way to ink paintings, particularly in the scope of landscapes. Southern Song (1127-1279) artists such as Ma Yuan, Xia Gui, Liang Kai and the monk Muxi were most proficient in manipulating ink landscape which became the mainstream of literati painting. It was in the Yuan period (1211-1368) that ink works reached their zenith of development, creating an impact that remained vital throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties, vesting literati painting with the necessary characteristics that distinguished it from the brilliantly coloured works produced by the academy painters.

The followings might help to explain the critical changes that took place after the 10th century:

  1. With the prevalence of Confucius, Daoist and Buddhist thoughts, literati had learned to cherish internal placidness and spiritual extrication which, to their delight, could be achieved through painting with ink. Since it was believed that simplicity could bring them closer to nature, unnecessary complications including a rich palette were considered tedious and vulgar. The elaborate procedures in preparing traditional colour pigments were obviously unwelcome.

  2. The easier accessibility of paper and improved quality of ink after the Five Dynasties (907-960) had made ink painting much more feasible and economical compared with heavily coloured works using expensive mineral colours which needed elaborate preparations. More subtle pigments extracted from plants obtainable at a lower cost became substitutes when- ever colour was needed.

Chinese painting continued to be shrouded in a monochrome or nearly- monochrome world until the end of the 19th century when China , now weak in national power, was intruded relentlessly by Western culture. Out of introspection and a sense of inferiority, artists of the following century allowed themselves to take in Western elements; many had gone to study abroad and brought back what they had learned to affect a significant impact in the painting of modern China . The palette of Chinese painting, after being neglected for nearly a millennium, once again blooms with infinite hues. The causes are noted as follows:

  1. The prime importance of colour in Western painting, analysis of colour as a scientific subject and Western art lessons in schools have brought people more knowledge about colour and its application.

  2. The boundary between literati and professional artists is no longer obvious. Little opposition has been raised against colourful creations.

  3. The change in political view has elevated the social status of the peasants, raising with it the status of richly decorated folk art.

  4. Ink painting seems to have reached the limit of its development after centuries of dominance and it is time for the pendulum to swing back to the long-neglected world of chromatic exuberance.

  5. Ready-to-use colour pigments first available in Suzhou at the end of the 18th century saved the artists much effort from the complicated procedures in the preparation of pigments. Some were glued and made into the form of water soluble sticks or cakes while others with synthetic material added, were packed in aluminium tubes. Later, the introduction of West- ern oriented watercolour, poster colour and acrylics etc at inexpensive prices offered artists more choices and sometimes they were used as substitute for traditional pigments.

  6. Highly developed communication of all sorts have brought arts from all over the world within easy reach, compelling the artists to open up new horizons.

It is against such a backdrop that the palette of twentieth-century Chinese painting put on a more variegated look.


II. Prepaaration and Application of Pigments

The critique of coloured painting should be based on three criteria, namely the preparation and application of pigments, the choice of palette and the technique of colouring. Detailed records of how the first criterion could be met are found in Qing publications such as Wang Gai's (1645-c.1710) Jieziyuan huazhuan (Painting Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden ), Zou Yigui's (1688-1772) Xiaoshan huapu (Painting Manual of Xiaoshan) and Ze Lang's (c.1800) Huishi zuoyan (Miscellany of Painting). The mineral particles have to be carefully sieved, ground, and rinsed with the clearest spring or well water, blended with the finest glue, stirred well with colouring agents and decocted patiently until they become thick enough for use. It is said that pigments so prepared would remain bright and hold fast to the painting for centuries. The brilliance of some extant works have proven that our ancient ancestors have already acquired a very high standard in the preparation and application of pigments. Therefore, despite the popularity of ink painting during the Yuan and Ming dynasties, coloured works were still much favoured by professional artists and academy painters.

Yu Fei'an, an artist who had devoted much of his time to the study of colours in Chinese painting and wrote the significant book, Zhongguohua yanse de yanjiu (Study of Colours in Chinese Painting), pointed out that artists should make the effort to learn all the complicated procedures of preparing pigments despite the popularity of ready-to-use ones; lacking such knowledge would weaken the brightness and durability of the pigments on the painting. Yu had learned this from artisan painters and his concern was in fact typical of traditional artists who wished their works to survive for ages in the best condition. A number of modern artists who actually began their life as artisan painters are also experts in the processing of pigments. Compared with other inexperienced artists or those who returned from abroad, the colours on their works are obviously better toned and brighter.

In the course of its development, the palette of Chinese painting has in fact taken in many foreign elements such as the gamboge yellow of Malaysia, Mohammedan blue of Central Asia, the blue of Tibet and India, and the totally soluble aniline red which is said to be best for flower petals and the cheeks of ladies. Recently, the poster colour of titanium white has been widely adopted in substitute for the coarser and less durable traditional lead white to obtain a more snowy tone. Unfortunately, not all foreign pigments are congruous to the style of Chinese painting, especially when used improperly. They darken easily and the preservatives in the fixatives might affect the hues of the painting as well as the durability of the paper. As for acrylic colour, felt pen and air brush, more problems may arise.

To strengthen and lengthen the adhesion of pigments on ancient Chinese painting involved a great deal of patience and procedures including repeated application of thin layers of colour, baking, and the adding of a film of alum solution as a fixative when necessary. It was also the concern of the ancient Western artists to prolong the life of the pigments on their works. However, modern artists sacrifice preservation of their work for individualism and improvisation. The thickness of the colour, particularly poster colour, and the traditional practice of rolling up paintings accelerates flaking. This has laid a worldwide burden on the restoration department of most museums.


III. Choice of Palette

Chinese painting with its images built up mainly by lines requires a palette that is distinct from that of Western painting. Regardless whether the painting is executed wholly in ink, lightly tinted or heavily coloured, what ancient artists adored was a palette of tranquil elegance rather than a gaudy assembly of dazzling colours; colours had to be thin in layer but vital in strength; thick accumulations would result in a dull and dry painting and therefore should be avoided; different hues and shades coming together in perfect harmony was the goal.

As far as the palette is concerned, paintings of twentieth-century China can broadly be classified into two groups, one greatly influenced by Western or Japanese art and the other typically Chinese, drawing nutrition from folk art and art of the minority tribes. Of course, many paintings are influenced by both. Among the first group are the paintings of Li Keran with the effects of side light, contrary light and shadows proficiently manifested; Yu Chengyao with fascinating interaction of light and colour brimming in his landscapes; Zhu Qizhan and Liu Haisu (b.1896) with variegated colours and expressive strokes inherited from Impressionism; Ding Yanyong with images built up mainly by sharp and contrasting primary colours suggesting the impact of the Fauvist master Matisse (1896-1954) although his delineation and ink painting technique reveals more influence by the early Qing painter Zhu Da (1624 or 1626-1705); Wu Guanzhong with abstract treatment of dots, lines and blocks obviously inspired by late stage Fauvism; Zhao Chunxiang with also large blocks of sharp colours revealing a similar influence. Besides all these, graphic art is widely applied to the overall design of the paintings.

The flourishing of different schools of Western art in Japan in the early decades of this century attracted many Chinese artists, one of which being Gao Jianfu who later returned to China to establish the Lingnan School of Painting. Besides bringing in the realistic treatment and perspective of Western art, their paintings also carried Japanese touches to look more stylized and decorative. Post-war Japanese painting has evolved from outlining to boneless depiction, from monochrome to multi-coloured works, and from single application to repeated coating with mineral pigments. Their impact on modern Chinese painting, especially on fine-lined works, is remarkably significant. They share the common characteristics of having scrupulous depictions, overlapping colour wash covering the entire painting surface, a mystic atmosphere and a charming style, all of which are much sneered at by traditional Chinese painters.

As for the second group of artists, while some prefer to adhere closely to traditional practice, the others have chosen to make considerable innovations. Among them are Peng Ximing whose unique way of handling colour wash is in fact developed from that of the Qing master Shitao (1642-c.1718), and Rao Zongyi whose technique of fusing ink, water and colour is highly original. Their palette is never too rich, but distinctive. The works of some other artists reveal the strong impact of folk art and the art of minority tribes; golden paint has been lavishly applied to create a scene of resplendence. Another characteristic of modern Chinese painting is the popularity of the colour red, largely for political reasons.


IV. Technique of Colouring

The technique of colouring has never been too complicated in traditional Chinese painting especially where freehand style is concerned. Techniques borrowed from that of ink painting have been widely adapted to freehand works and basically, the intensity of the colour is determined by the amount of water added. Sometimes, the brush will lay down more than one colour in one single sweep to create special colouring effect, or the ground is washed with water first and then layers of colour are applied to it. Gongbi (fine-lined style) works involve a comparatively greater variety of colouring techniques which can broadly be classified into two groups: first is mono tone and the other showing different shadings.

Group one:

  1. Flat washing - apply evenly washes of mineral-based colour to the required area.

  2. Space filling - to fill the space between the images evenly with mineral- based bodycolour. There are special terms like "blue filling" (using azurite), "green filling" (using malachite) and "gold filling" etc. The result is highly decorative.

  3. Background coating - to coat the background evenly with grey to enrich the hues of the painting. It is usually used on thin painting paper or silk.

  4. Wash coating - to coat the required areas with even colour washes with a transparent vegetative pigment.

  5. Superimposed outlining - to frame the ink-drawn outlines with colour lines, sometimes done with gold paint.

Group two:

  1. Thinning wash - to thin out a patch of colour to create a gradated effect, which is often used to produce the ground colour.

  2. Contrasting wash - to set off an image by backing it with colour wash that thins out gradually to the surroundings.

  3. Circling wash - to thin out a spot of colour with circling movements; used mainly on small areas like the cheeks of human figures.

  4. Fusing wash - to dab a colour on top of another while the one underneath is nearly dry so as to enrich the variety of hues.

Among all the above, "flat washing", "wash coating", "superimposed outlining" and "thinning wash" are most commonly found in traditional Chinese paintings and many ancient masterpieces were in fact produced by no more than these four techniques. "Colour blotting", "water blotting", "colour intrusion", "water intrusion" and "white powder intrusion" appeared in ancient works but they were never popular. Others such as blowing and sprinkling colour to obtain special visual effects were also much sneered at by ancient painters who considered that using too perfect a technique would degrade them to the level of artisans. The late Qing painters Ju Chao (1811-1865) and Ju Lian were bold enough to frequently employ the techniques of "water intrusion" and "colour intrusion" in order to imbue their works with individuality. Later such techniques were to reach their culmination when further manifested by Gao Jianfu who merged them with Western and Japanese elements and established the Lingnan School of Painting. Chen Zhifo (1896-1962) who returned from Japan was especially eminent in employing the Japanese blotting techniques to express the variegated colours of the tree trunks. All these skills have been widely adopted by twentieth-century Chinese artists particularly those who excelled in painting birds and flowers.

Influenced by the great variety of techniques and expressions of Western art, artists of traditional Chinese painting began to seek every means of bringing more vitality to their works. In addition to the above mentioned colouring techniques, they also adopted from modern watercolour the methods of wet in wet, sediment, wash, gluing, waxing, sprinkling of water and salt etc; from prints the methods of filtering, frottage and impression etc; from oil painting the method of dripping, sprinkling, throwing and flowing etc; along with many other means including the use of the air brush.

The unscrupulous employment of different types of colouring techniques has invited applause as well as censure. While the pros find it highly innovative and appreciable, the cons see such transplanting of foreign techniques as mere superficiality. Undoubtedly, some artists have made remarkable achievements by being innovative and the most prominent among them is Zhang Daqian whose "colour splash" has been held in different levels of esteem by both the traditional and avant-garde artists. His works are said to be extremely original and successful in merging the techniques of "outlining", "boneless depiction" and "ink splash" taken from traditional works with the "colour splash" method commonly employed in abstract Western art. Still, they retain all the essence of Chinese painting despite the presence of Western elements, which, according to Zhang Daqian, is extremely difficult to combine; only the most talented and assiduous are eligible to reach this goal. In fact, Zhang's colour splash is a culmination of his life long endeavour in the mastery of colours, particularly, evidenced in the painstaking replication of Dunhuang mural paintings in heavily coloured fine-line style.

Colour splash is also found in other contemporary works but often the colour and the ink refuse to blend together due to deficiency in the mastery of colours. Zhang Daqian's works remain the most distinguished among this group of paintings. Also, his works are often adorned with traditional scenic elements such as trees, grass and houses built up by solid lines against patches of ink and colour revealing the unique temperament of Chinese painting.

The Qing scholar Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715) stated, "The way colours should be used is similar to that of ink. The essence of a painting lies in its artistic concept, lacking of which would make the colours look superfluous and incongruous. The vitality of a painting comes from the spirit of the artist rather than the variety of colours used. By understanding the intimate relationship of light and shade through close observation of nature, he knows how to handle the colours, working out the most appropriate tints to obtain the best effect." Probably, Zhang Daqian's colour splash is an excellent exemplification of Wang's theory.


V. Conclusion

The revival of polychromatic paintings in twentieth-century China has given birth to numerous splendid works but occasionally, some artists have become lost in the sea of rich colours. The Qing painter Ze Lang once said: "To the most vulgar eyes, the more brilliant the colours are, the better the painting is; ink works are sneered at. At the other extreme, only ink paintings are considered elegant while coloured works are all vulgar. In fact, coloured works can also be elegant while ink paintings can be vulgar too. It depends entirely on the temperament of the artist." It is very necessary for contemporary artists to find an equilibrium between the two, to see colours as inexorable in this kaleidoscopic world and ink as a source of tranquility in our bustling surroundings.

Most twentieth-century Chinese artists have the prejudice that the limited palette of traditional Chinese painting is insufficient to meet the need of modern works; Western chromatology and pigments should be adapted to enlarge the gamut of colours used. In fact, aside from the most commonly used indigo, gamboge, umber, cinnabar, azurite blue and malachite green, our ancestors had many more colours to choose from. Yu Fei'an recorded in his book. Study of Colours in Chinese Painting, a number of colours which are no longer in use today. Laboratory analysis on ancient wall paintings have also proven that the palette of traditional Chinese painting was far richer than expected. For instance, over a dozen kinds of white were prepared from chalk, talcum, mica, plaster, calcite, kaoline, calcium and magnesium carbonate, dolomite, oxalic calcium, quartz and lead etc. In Traditional Chinese Colours published in Tokyo, Wang Dingli and Wang Wei listed 320 colours, over 110 of which were used in painting. Surely, there are many more to explore in the palette of Chinese painting if artists are willing to do so.

Since most tubed pigments are prepared from kaolin which is prone to acidic corrosion, there is an urgent need in reviving the traditional mineral pigments which are noted for their purity, lustre, solidity, elegance, permanence of hues, resistance to light, and acid and alkaline corrosion. Headed by Wang Dingli, professor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, the Secondary Division of the Academy has successfully produced a number of them. Now the variety of mineral pigments available in the market has increased to over forty. Definitely, this is to have a positive influence on the development of the palette of Chinese painting.

While traditional Chinese mineral pigments like azurite blue and malachite green only have four different shades, those currently produced in Japan offer as many as fifteen tints for each colour. Synthetic mineral pigments which have undergone high temperature processing are also made in Japan and sold at low prices. As far as mineral pigments are concerned, Japanese artists have over a thousand colours to choose from. Caskets with assorted packs of colour tubes or cakes are also available for general practice and they contribute much to the popularization of these pigments. Chinese artists who are interested in employing foreign media can take Japanese mineral pigments into careful consideration as they are prepared in the same way as those used in traditional Chinese paintings and are therefore more lasting.

For most Chinese paintings, colour does not serve the purpose of realistic representation. The technique of colouring is of secondary importance to the spirit of the painting and the self-expression of the artist. Without these prime elements, even the richest and most brilliant palette would not make the painting a masterpiece.


Tong Kam-tang

Condensed translation from the original Chinese article.


Biography of Tong Kam-tang

Mr. Tong Kam-tang has been with the Fine Arts Department, CUHK in the production and management of curriculum materials since his graduation from this department in 1982. In 1991, he was conferred M.Phil, degree and is now a Ph.D. candidate of Chinese art history. An experienced instructor in Chinese painting, Mr. Tong has been teaching 'The Colour of Chinese Painting" and 'The Four-Gentlemen Painting" for the Department of Extra-mural Studies, CUHK since 1984 and presented a series of four lectures on 'The Colour of Chinese Painting" at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1989.

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