Notebook, 1993-

Preface - Way - Principle - Idea - Method - Synthesis - References

[Wong, Wucius. The Tao of Chinese Landscape Painting, Principles & Methods. New York: Design Press. 1991.]


Part Three

I N D E X:

Position and Direction
Weight and Equilibrium
Activity and Emptiness

Change and Continuity
The Spreading Force
Linear Developments
Rhythmic Iterations

Objectification and Personification

Geometrization and Dissection
Dislocation and Amalgamation
Distortion and Transfiguration

T E X T - [NOTE: The visuals from the original text are not yet provided]
To create a painting, an artist needs the vocabulary of landscape at his command, but he must start with an idea. Idea, or i in Chinese, occurs first in the artist's mind-heart, prior to his applying the brush, and guides the brush throughout the process of picturemaking. The exact meaning of i, however, has never been defined clearly in Chinese art theories, although it always holds a high place in those theories.

Primarily idea underlies the conception of a painting. Why a painting is painted could be related to a number of reasons. For instance, an artist might start to paint simply for the love of painting, with no self-conscious aim. Painting serves as a form of relaxation for the artist, or as a natural manifestation of his search for communion with Tao.

Aim implies a specific purpose, a message for communication to a viewer, a meaning to be conveyed, a destination to be reached. But an art-related aim is sometimes beyond verbal description. Art should be understood on its own terms, not created to illustrate something, not even the something identified as an aim. Thus, idea can, but does not have to, point to an aim, and it does not have to emerge from the artist's consciousness. An artist could feel inspired at a certain point without knowing why.

Nevertheless, even without a definable, self-conscious aim, the act of painting reflects an intention of the artist: to do a painting. An artist possesses the ability to visualize. Pure visualization is faithful rendition of the subject matter, incorporating all that is observed in the objective reality. This process requires no preexistent idea, but it still requires the artist to select techniques, and to make decisions with regard to the subject matter, angle of view, distance, size, scale, and general pictorial organization.

Creating a Chinese landscape painting is more than pure visualization as just described. The ultimate aim here is to achieve individual expression, allowing a scene to convey originality in one or more of its aspects. Originality might refer to the artist's unique selection and treatment of subject matter, or his unusual way of shaping forms, featuring certain visual characteristics. It might indicate specific response to stimulants in the environment, personal fantasies, imagination, an attitude toward life and the universe, or unprecedented rhythmic effects and pictorial organization. Most important, originality stems from idea.

The Chinese artist sees idea as a kind of inner vision formed in the mind-heart, and also as a way of externalizing this vision from the mind-heart. Idea thus represents the determining factor in a painting, with the resultant form serving as vehicle for the idea. As early as the third century A.D., metaphysicist Wang Pi stated this position toward idea:

With the idea accomplished, the form can be forgotten

Of course, this represented an extreme attitude, and it led to the development of a style of painting called hsieh-i [Fig. 297]. Hsieh means write and i means idea, and the combined term means literally writing out the idea, using unrestrained brushtrokes with ink play in a style of near-abstraction.

In any case, idea as inner vision involves all the elements taking shape within the artist. As the Confucian sage Mencius wrote around the fourth century B.C.:

All things, all matter, are ready in oneÍs self.

[p. 73] This idea was later expressed by artists and art essayists as having the mountains and valleys inside oneÍs chest. These mountains and valleys are the ingredients for a specially conceived ching, or scene, which is also called i-ching [Fig. 298], or idea-scene, referring to the pictorial realization of the inner vision.

Connecting i to hsiang, or form, yields i-hsiang [Fig. 299], or idea-form. Adding i to chiang, or craft, yields i-chiang [Fig. 300], or idea-craft. These two terms, often used in art essays, may help to explain a bit further what idea means to the Chinese artist.

Idea-form refers to form shaped with an idea, somewhat equivalent to the Western term image. An idea-form does not exist in the environment, nor does it constitute objective reality. It is something originating within the imagination of the artist, expressed as form in a painting to be seen by a viewer. In this sense, it is a subjective form, although the creator might not wish to emphasize any degree of subjectivity.

Idea-craft refers to the artistic craft in pictorial presentation and organization of forms. It involves composition, but also implies original artistic thinking in generating and directing rhythms, in structuring space and time, in establishing harmony and order, and in the attainment of integrated wholeness.

Idea-forms come from the artist's inner vision. Under the guidance of the artist's idea-craft they are expressed in terms of brush marks and arranged pictorially as a composition. The final result is an idea-scene.

Idea-scene is permeated with the artist's feelings, with emotions producing a specific mood. Mood reveals the state of the mind-heart. Its manifestation is not limited to the idea-forms, but carries over to the idea-craft. Not something concrete that can be directly pointed out, mood dwells abstractly in relationships, implications, and associations, all of which affect the viewer.

Whether the artist's idea inclines to idea-form, idea-craft, or idea-scene does not really matter, since any one of these can become a guiding force in the painting process. Sparked by the idea, the artist might immerse himself completely in the act of painting, fusing himself with the brush marks and the images, and losing himself in the rhythmic movements, to the extent that he could forget all about his existence as a person.

He remains the creator, however. His realized idea becomes a tangible piece of art, a work whose style reflects its creator's personality. The artist responds to the objective reality, but his work can go well beyond it. If he chooses, he can proceed to break through the commonly accepted limit of recognizability by effecting reorganizations, distortions, transformations, or abstractions. The artist can undertake whatever departures his unrestrained ideas suggest. [p. 74]

Idea-form coming out of the artist's mind-heart occupies space in a painting. Its spatial relationship to the artist determines its shape and size, and this relationship must be interpreted later by the viewer, who relates himself or herself to the idea-form in a similar way. What the artist chooses to represent as idea-form is subject matter. Subject matter can comprise a range of things, or subjects, which exist in the material world, either seen directly or recalled by the artist. Each subject has content, defined by what the subject is, what it means to the artist, and what it implies to the viewer.

Thus, a painting represents the sum total of all the idea-forms, and the idea forms represent a range of subjects, in varying degrees of clarity and significance. Among the various subjects one main subject with a specific content may stand out, and that becomes the theme. The subject is taken from the material world with three-dimensional space, but the idea-form exists only in the two-dimensional space of a painting, where volume and depth are illusions. Any subject in the material world can be seen differently from different angles and distances, under different kinds of illumination, in different weathers, climates, times of day, and seasons of the year. An idea-form in a finished painting remains unchanged physically, in shape, size, color, texture, position, direction, and interrelationship to other idea-forms.

Converting a subject into an idea-form, the artist has to view it inside his mind-heart from an imaginary angle and distance to determine the shape. Sung Dynasty art essayist Shen K'uo described this process around the eleventh century:

The method for landscape painting is to see everything small with a big eye, as if we are looking at a miniature rock garden.

In most cases, the subject of a Chinese landscape painting is a mountain, or an entire mountain range, covering an immense area of space, from thousands of feet to hundreds of miles. To establish an idea-scene, the artist must show the subject in a small scale, which means presenting it as it would be viewed from very far away. He may wish to include streams and waterfalls, tracing them among the mountain folds, and may have to look down from above to grasp their full lengths. If the artist observes the subject at eye-level, even a small tree or rock in the foreground could be obtrusive.

The artist's eye, therefore, is as big as the sky, looking down at a slanting angle so that the subject appears in a recognizable shape. Closer elements should be slightly larger than those in the distance, to suggest an effect of spatial recession. Tilted forward, the ground plane provides a large scope of vision, with the horizon shifted towards the upper edge of the painting, probably remaining undefined [Figs 301, 302]. [p. 75]

Distance. With miniaturization of the scale of the subjects, pictorial space becomes expansive. The artist manipulates distance to achieve specific spatial effects, first established by Kuo Hsi in his famous treatise on landscape painting:

Mountain has three distances. Looking at the top of a mountain from its base shows distance stressing its height. Looking at the back of a mountain from its front shows distance stressing its depth. Looking at the mountain beyond from a mountain close by shows distance stressing its leveled broadness.

The Chinese artist's way of viewing is not from a fixed point. Instead, height, depth, and broadness, the three dimensions of space, guide the artist to explore different viewpoints. Stressing height, the artist views a mountain along a vertical axis. This means he sees the mountain with changeable viewpoints, probably starting with a lower position and gradually moving to a higher one [Fig. 303]. The viewing angle is from above, for the mountain top is not out of sight. The moving viewpoint helps to elevate the height of the mountain to a commanding presence.

Depicting the mountain folds, and in particular tracing the concave formation of the valley, the artist develops distance stressing depth. He achieves this effect with a lot of overlapping, with slopes interwoven in a zigzag manner. Elements sometimes exposed and sometime hidden, sometimes clear and sometimes vague, suggest an unending journey for the viewer [Fig. 304].

Walking on a river bank or lake shore and looking across to the other side, or standing on one edge of a relatively flat land formation looking to the other edge, with a wide stretch of water or plain dividing the foreground and the background, the artist finds a distance stressing leveled broadness. Arrangement of these elements conveys clarity and separateness [Fig 305].

Distance stressing height exerts a forwardly compelling force on the viewer, or an upwardly soaring energy that lifts the viewer's attention towards the sky. Space in this case is usually dominated by a prominent mountain mass, which commands immediate attention and produces an effect of grandeur [Fig. 306]

Distance stressing depth tends to absorb the viewer into the remotest parts of the scene. Space opens up with numerous winds and turns, often varied and unexpected [Fig. 307]. The effect is one of seclusion, even mystery.

Of these views, distance stressing leveled broadness is closest to the experience of eye-level viewing, with foreground objects given more emphasis in height. The ground plane remains tilted, with the horizon shifted higher up, to allow the generally level surface in the main part of the painting to exhibit its uncluttered expansiveness [Fig. 308]. The wide open space often leads to a sense of isolation or solitariness when human presence is not introduced to the scene.

An artist can combine two or three expressions of distance in a single landscape. Next to a mountain of great height he might place a valley, creating the illusion of immense depth [Fig 309]. He might fill a broad plain with streams winding back to distant hills [Fig 310]. Or he might illustrate a panoramic scene with different expressions of space in different parts [Fig. 311]. [p. 303]

Format. The edges of a painting surface inevitably confine the pictorial space. In most cases, the edges run in straight lines, forming a square or rectangle with four right angles, but edges can also be curved. The dimensions and shapes of the edges, and their proportions, define the format for the painting. The artist chooses the format, and the format provides a frame of reference for the space.

Very different from those used in Western painting, the formats of Chinese painting generally relate to the practice that paintings are not meant for decorating walls but for occasional viewing pleasures and easy storage. The most common format is a vertical scroll, which has a small bar at the top end with a device for hanging, and a round rod at the bottom. The rod weighs down the painting, giving it a flattened surface, and facilitates rolling when the painting is taken down and stored. Between the bar and the rod hangs the painting, usually mounted with silk borders. A vertical scroll tends to be narrow and long, exaggerating the painting's verticality [Fig 312].

In contrast to the vertical scroll, the horizontal handscroll keeps the entire painting rolled on a short round rod. With the rod to the left and a short bar to the right, the painting begins at the bar. As the viewer unrolls the left side from the rod, the right side loosely wraps up the bar, so that the painting is viewed in a sequential manner and in sections [Fig 313]. The viewer then rolls up the handscroll again and stores it away. The handscroll may be a foot high or less, but when stretched fully it can measure ten feet in length and beyond. The artist's friends, collectors, and later scholars sometimes further extend the length with colophons.

Album leaves are another popular format. Each album leaf in a set can be separate and folded bilaterally, displaying a painting on one side and calligraphy on the other [Fig. 314]. Album leaves can be mounted, linked in an accordion fold with hard covers, and then encased. They are generally squarish in shape, slightly vertical or horizontal in orientation, and of an intimate size, measuring a few inches to slightly more than a foot.

Chinese painters also work on fans, which are either round [Figs 315, 316] or in an arc shape [Fig 317]. Rather than actually using the painted fans, collectors remount them in the format of album leaves to be treasured.

For very large paintings artists use a series of vertical scrolls. With the scrolls hung adjacently, the idea-forms extend from one scroll to the next so that the separate paintings appear as one. This idea applies to screens, composed of several sections, as well. Screens serve a practical as well as a decorative purpose, however, and Chinese artists of scholarly inclination seldom employ this format for pictorial expression. [p. 79]

Shape and Size. Within the pictorial space, the artist relates and contrasts shapes in terms of size, position, direction, weight, and equilibrium. The notion of shape must be understood on two levels. First, each brush mark, whether a dot or a line, has its own intrinsic shape. Second, a number of brush marks joined or otherwise interrelated constitute a shape, which may represent a subject derived from nature. Shape is defined by exterior edges. Edges of a brush mark as a shape are made by the natural spreading effects of ink. Edges of a represented subject as a shape, however, are articulated with contour lines that tend to enclose the part recognized as mass, distinguishing it from the surrounding void.

The space seen as mass becomes an identifiable idea-form. The edges of this idea-form and of other idea-forms in the vicinity also shape the space seen as void, also idea-form, which actually represents either water or the atmospheric elements. Thus in a very strict sense, void is always something, and it does have a shape. Both mass and void may extend right to the edges of a painting, which provide a clear indication of what is inside and what is outside the painting surface.

Viewed abstractly, a painting is a composite of positive and negative shapes fitting together tightly, somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle. Shapes appear well defined when the edges are sharp and clear; only vaguely defined when the edges are fading tones and textures. No gaps exist between shapes, since gaps become shapes in themselves.

A shape composed of a single brush mark is far less complicated than a shape as idea-form, which can have intricate edges, fine details, and an infinite number of components. As a shape within shapes, a mark may lack individual significance. An area of diverse shapes with similar tones and textures, but without distinct edges, can act as one general shape in a composition.

To establish clarity or enhance dramatic effects, the artist juxtaposes contrasting shapes, with roundness versus angularity [Fig 328], smoothness versus cragginess [Fig 319], simplicity versus complexity [Fig 320], and linearity versus voluminosity [Fig 321]

Each shape has a size, actually measurable on the painting surface and regarded as large or small with reference to the dimensions of the format. A prominent idea-form--a shape occupying a wide area of space--could become the dominant element in a composition. It is called chu, or host [Fig. 322]. All the other elements then become pin, or guests [Fig 323]. The host need not be the largest shape, but it must be located conspicuously [Fig. 324]. Around it, shapes compete for attention as points of interest, or as focal points with varying degrees of visual distinction. A main point of interest may be associated with the host or be independent of the host, such as a small figure, boat, stream, or waterfall in the landscape [Fig. 325]. [p. 81]

Position and Direction. The spatial position of a shape can be defined in terms of its relationship to the edges of the painting, to the picture plane, and in other shapes. An artist can take actual measurements on the painting to determine position, but this is rarely done unless a strict geometry is being incorporated into the composition. In most cases, an artist starts with an idea, or more specifically an idea-craft, in positioning the shapes as the initial steps toward a composition.

Relating a shape to the edges of a painting, the artist establishes a top/bottom or high/low position, a left/right position, or a central/corner position. The artist usually positions the host element first, then places the various points of interest, and finally locates all the guest elements. The position occupied by the host element determines considerably how space is organized with the host element normally providing the main mass of positive space. With this main mass given a top position, the upper part of the painting becomes an area of special pictorial emphasis, its voids generally relegated to the lower part. In this way, the composition best expresses distance stressing height [Fig. 326]. If the mass lies near the bottom, however, the composition best expresses distance stressing depth [Fig 327]. A centrally located main mass has a vignetted effect [Fig 328], whereas a mass adjacent to an edge or corner effects strong spatial contrast with positive and negative areas [Fig. 329].

Positions of shapes are also judged as front or back, close-by or far away. Because of the small scale of the elements, idea-forms as shapes representing nature remain behind the picture plane, but some seem near and some seem distant, depending on their sizes, positions, tones, and detail treatments, as well as their interrelationships.

As shapes overlap one another, fore-and-behind relationships are established. A series of overlapping shapes with progressively decreasing sizes stretches the illusion of spatial depth [Fig 330].

Positioning a number of shapes requires grouping and dividing, since shapes are very rarely distributed evenly in space. They may be brought closely together, loosely associated, or scattered, with shapes forming entirely separate groups. Traditional Chinese landscape painters sometimes compose with the concept of three layers and two sections. The three layers consist of ground, trees, and mountains. Of the two sections, the lower contains detailed scenic elements, with the massive mountain as the upper section. Water, mist, or clouds divide the scene naturally through the interplay of mass and void [Figs 331, 332].

An idea-form, as a shape representing some aspect of nature, should be positioned without obvious deviation from that aspect's physical properties and the laws of gravity. Given these determining factors, its direction can be vertically, horizontally, or obliquely oriented. The artist can rotate a three-dimensional subject from back to front inside his mind-heart to obtain the most desirable shape for his idea-form. He can tilt the shape slightly to emphasize its precariousness or to make unusual intrusions into space [Fig 333]. He can arrange a group of shapes sequentially along a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal path, to develop dramatic spatial progression or recession [Figs 334-336]. [p. 84]

Weight and Equilibrium. Shapes in space have weight implications, which can be seen in two different aspects. An idea-form as shape has a physical weight, pertaining to what the shape represents. A mountain is a heavy land mass; clouds are almost weightless. The same idea-form has a pictorial weight, depending on its tonal and textural treatment, and its degree of complexity.

The earth's gravity exerts a pull on all the elements of nature, which somehow attain equilibrium. Anything with a physical weight seeks a final stage of stability, of support and balance. Thus, to represent nature a mountain cannot be tilted to the point of falling, unless this unnatural effect is the special intention of the artist.

Pictorial weight has nothing to do with gravity, but relates to visual prominence. This is the effect of brush marks, whose degree of darkness and density accounts for heaviness and lightness of the shapes they constitute. A supposedly heavy subject can have a light pictorial weight, if treated scantily with brush marks or suggested faintly with diluted ink. In most paintings, trees as accentuations carry heavier pictorial weights than the mountains [Fig 337], for artists attribute appropriate pictorial weights to various subjects in order to achieve equilibrium.

Equilibrium refers to the condition in which all the shapes are interrelated harmoniously. A painting contains idea-forms as shapes at rest or in motion, each with a different pictorial weight. To achieve equilibrium, an artist should not curb movements, but direct them as natural flows to interact with one another, and should counter-balance a heavy weight near one edge of a painting with a much lighter weight near another edge [Fig 338].

Equilibrium can be static or dynamic. A mountain with a wide base and an upward-pointing top qualifies as a stable shape, expressing static equilibrium. Mist or clouds veiling part of a land formation redistribute pictorial weights and introduce dynamic equilibrium into a composition [Fig 339]. [p. 88]

Activity and Emptiness. Weight also refers to activity and emptiness in the treatment of space. Space is charged with activity where brush marks occur. Space displays emptiness in the gaps of brush marks or when brush marks are completely absent. Emptiness does not always imply negative space or void; it denotes only the exposure of blank paper surface.

A brush line can enclose space completely or incompletely, marking off an area of confinement or semiconfinement. Such an enclosure usually represents mass, with void outside the confined space [Fig 340]. The confined space may be treated with scanty brush marks that leave most of the area untouched, so it shows considerable emptiness. The unconfined void may then be treated with a dark ink wash showing no distinct brush marks. The confined space, barely activated, provides enough information to affirm that it is mass and not void, but its pictorial weight is extremely light. The unconfined space, however dark, is no mass at all, but could carry strong pictorial weight in the painting [Fig 341]. Thus, void in this particular case is not emptiness, since it has been treated with an ink wash and no longer reflects the original paper surface. An ink wash without brush marks introduces minimal activity, unless the wash leaves a discernible shape along the edge.

A play of mass and void, activity and emptiness, which are not clearly defined, can produce interesting effects. For instance, large areas of emptiness representing mass, juxtaposed with small areas of void, which may also be emptiness, create intriguing spatial ambiguity and interchangeability, allowing different interpretations by a viewer [Fig 343].




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