Artist Daiwei Sun Demonstrates Chinese Landscape Painting
By Kelsey Larson
Mountains curved, trees stretched, and birds fluttered on the delicate paintings lining the walls of the Office of International Students and Scholars as Daiwei Sun, a master Chinese painter, prepared an art demonstration this last Friday. Daiwei Sun is known for his “mountain and water” paintings, traditional Chinese landscapes with characteristically jagged mountains, sweeping trees, and occasional delicate human figures or buildings incorporated within. In contrast, the paintings on the wall were amateur works, made by the dozen or so individuals who crowded around to watch as Daiwei Sun painted and discussed his art, which hangs in the Chinese National Art Gallery and other prestigious galleries across the world.
Daiwei’s painting demonstrated the incredible variety of techniques Chinese artists must master to create varied landscapes from simple black ink. The motions of his brush were not always the smooth fluidity that I had expected, given the coherence of his final works. To texture a mountain slope, he moved his brush in a sharp jitter across the paper. Sometimes, his brush hung heavy and dripping as he brushed a restless sky; sometimes it dotted leaves into place with barely enough ink to make a mark. He painted a bridge and boat into existence with the finest of his brushes and made a lake with the broadest. “Black ink can have five different colors depending on the amount of water,” he explained. “You must master when to use what color, and with what motion to apply it.”
The core of his artistic advice, however, was practice. Daiwei Sun explained that “the core difference between a Chinese painting and a Western one is that in the Western one there are layers and layers of paint, so a mistake can be covered over in a later layer. In a Chinese one, though, you have one sheet and one layer of paint, so if you make a single mistake, it cannot be a masterwork.” To achieve the level of flawlessness needed to make a masterwork requires dedication, with Daiwei citing 20 years as the shortest period of practice before an artist can make a worthwhile painting. “That practice is why, even though a painting takes me an hour to make, a good one is worth so much,” he explained.
Daiwei suggested that the main way an artist should practice is through copying the paintings of others, which did not go down well with some audience members. “Isn’t that like stealing?” one asked. He shook his head. For Daiwei, relentlessly practicing is how one learns, especially picking a particular artist and copying them. He likened it to the relationship between a student and a mentor: a student needs to absorb the lessons of the teacher and keep trying to copy as precisely as possible until they gain enough skill to design pieces of their own. And no matter how precise the copy tries to be, “the artist will always brings some of themselves and their own habits into the painting. It will always be different and a little bit theirs.”
Nonetheless, the overall atmosphere was relaxed and excited as the OIS’s group of amateur calligraphers learned from the master. One long-time student of Chinese painting, Antje Goldflam, explained, “This isn’t the first time that Daiwei Sun has come here. Our group has been meeting for five years and learning how to paint, and our teacher Xinxing Cao is good friends with Daiwei.” This community of painters includes international students and lecturers and their spouses, who hail from Russia, Japan, China, and Germany, among other places. Antje had not picked up a brush in 20 years until she met the Chinese painting group through the OIS. Even many of the Chinese OIS students and spouses present had not actually learned calligraphy until they joined the group: as one woman explained, “painting like this is not really taught much in schools in China. I never had the time, but I am glad I could learn to paint now!”
Overall, the group came away from the presentation thoughtful and inspired. After the two hours, a mountain range stood out on the parchment in front of the group. With no references or guides, Daiwei had created an elegant, curling landscape carefully balancing man and nature, delicate and bold, with careful reference to the rules of composition. “Western and Eastern paintings are the same in one way,” Daiwei explained. “You begin by learning rules, and you learn them until they are a part of you and you make something freely that is yours.”
Kelsey Larson ’16 is an Economics major in Silliman college. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.