How Chinese Brush Painting Avoided the Gatekeepers of Fine Art

Golden Mountain Temple Painting by Ning Yeh featured in his book an Album of Chinese Brush Painting: 80 Paintings and Ideas. This is an incredibly rare, out of print book and we plan to release some exciting news related to this book on Friday along with a full video book review.

Originally Published: June 8, 2021

The History of Spontaneous Style Chinese Painting

During various ancient Chinese Dynasties, there existed painters who were primarily interested in painting as a way to explore there emotions and their ideas. They resisted being held to the literal physical appearance of their subjects and even reveled in representations that showed awkwardness. This eventually was acknowledged as a unique style of Chinese Brush Painting and was referred to with various names like: Spontaneous style, Xieyi (寫意) style, wenrenhua (文人畫), and Literati painting. Consequently it was embraced by generations of painters and became an acknowledged form of Chinese fine art with its own masters and history.

The Gatekeepers of Art

I have noticed a common theme amongst adults who have chosen to study a form of fine art. Often times they encounter a gatekeeper who seems to be testing their fortitude and the strength of their desire to study art. The gatekeeper meets the art students curiosity with discouraging statements like "who do you think you are to be studying art?" The more talented the student, often times the more intense the discouragement.

How Spontaneous Style Painters Avoided the Gatekeeper

When I hear about the early pioneers of spontaneous style painting, I think, this is exactly the kind of example that those of us who choose to study art as adults need. 

The early spontaneous style painters were not hand-picked as talented children for prestigious jobs as painters inside the emperor's court. They were often people retiring from other vocations like teaching or the military and were painting as a way to explore ideas, emotions and creative expression. I can almost imagine them offering the statements that we have come to use to describe the art form in response to the art gatekeepers of their time.

I imagine the conversation going something like this:
Gatekeeper: "Bamboo doesn't look like that!"
Painter: "It's not supposed to, I leave that to the professional painter's in the Emperor's Court, this is my idea of the spirit of bamboo. It is the embodiment of strength through flexibility. The spirit of the perfect gentleman."

Opening the Forbidden City

When I think about the potential impact that the attitude of the early Chinese Brush Painters has on the world of art, I think about when they opened the Forbidden City for the first time.

Just like crowds of tourists enthusiastically pouring into a place that was once reserved for only the Emperor and the culturally elite members of his court, I imagine generations of artists, emboldened by the attitude of the original spontaneous style Chinese painters, invading the world of art. By realizing how the freedom embodied by a Chinese brush and a piece of rice paper can help you sidestep the gatekeepers, you are free to make art even before you are confident enough to call yourself an artist.

You can do it and we are here to help you every step of the way!

See Ning Yeh's Red Album: 80 Paintings and Ideas

Artist improvement

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