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August 15, 2016

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The amazing art of "Inside Painting"

SNUFF, the smokeless tobacco made from pulverized tobacco leaves, inspired an interesting art form during the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China.

Snuff is believed to have originated with the aboriginal people of Brazil in the 15th century. European explorers brought it back to their home ports and later introduced it into China.

Here, the snuff powder was preserved in traditional narrow-necked medicine bottles that were decorated with elaborate designs. On the inside of a glass or crystal bottle, artists with extremely thin brushes painted pictures in a technique that came to be known as nei hua (内画), or “inside painting.”

Painted snuff bottles are keenly sought by international art connoisseurs and collectors, but they’re no longer used to store snuff because the tobacco powder could easily damage the paintings.

Over time, the painted snuff bottles became an art form that challenged younger generations of artists. Zhang Yexing, 26, is an inheritor of the tradition. A native of Hebei Province, he now works as a folk artist in Shanghai’s Yuyuan Garden.

Zhang became fascinated with “inside painting” at a young age, watching his two uncles who were masters of the art form. He first tried his hand painting inside a bottle when he was 10.

The “paintbrush” he used was a coated wire 20 centimeters long, with the hair of a Chinese ink brush fixed to its tip by rosin or wax, forming an “L” angle. The mouth of the snuff bottle was only one centimeter in diameter.

“I found it too difficult to paint that way because I couldn’t control the brush at all,” Zhang says.

But that didn’t stop him from pursuing his passion. After graduating from middle school, he enrolled in a Hebei school specializing in nei hua. It was run by a master of the art named Wang Ziyong.

In his first few months there, Zhang spent six hours a day drawing straight lines and circles on the inside of the bottles to discipline his hands to be steady and deft. It was all very frustrating.

“Sometimes I wanted to smash a bottle because I couldn’t get it right,” Zhang says.

Slowly his patience and perseverance paid off. He still remembers the first time he successfully drew a peony inside a bottle.

“Words can’t describe the ecstasy I felt,” he says.

For a beginner, inside painting is best practiced on smaller bottles of about five centimeters in height.

“The shorter the distance from the tip of the brush to the mouth of the bottle, the easier it is to control the brush because all snuff bottles have very narrow necks,” he says.

Zhang studied under master Wang for a year.

Traditionally, the most common motif of inside painting is landscape, painted with ink and color pigments in the style of a Chinese painting. It’s also Zhang’s favorite.

In a sense, the painting has to be done “backward” to form the proper image from the outside.

“Instead of starting with the background color first, that becomes the last step,” Zhang says. “Paint on glass takes much longer to dry than on paper.”

For that reason, most modern-day nei hua artwork uses oil paints instead of ink or pigments in the background coloring because they don’t disturb what’s already painted. In addition, oil offers bolder colors.

In Chinese painting, detailed figures are painted with what is called the gongbi (literally “detailed strokes”) technique, while the ink-and-wash painting technique is applied to shape the landscape. Both represent special challenges to “inside painters.”

One has to be extremely careful in gongbi painting, while painting with ink requires highly developed skills to control the brush and effect delicate shades.

“You always have to determine the right amount of ink and the right touch of the brush,” Zhang notes.

For him, it’s not unusual to paint only one centimeter in one or two hours because the solution for the next brush could take half an hour to work out.

“Painting on such limited space means a brush is easily missed,” he says. “But one millimeter of a missed brush could destroy the entire painting.”

Small wonder that it has taken Zhang up to a year to finish some works.

“I paint only when I’m in the right mood and feel inspired,” he says. “I never adhere to a schedule. Inside painting should never be done in a rush.”

At his stand in the Yuyuan Garden, prices for the painted bottles range from 100 yuan (US$16) to 1,000 yuan, but some of his best works, painted in crystal bottles, could fetch tens of thousands of yuan.

Zhang says his income is stable, but he’s not likely to become wealthy from his craft.

His uncle Zhu Xide says Zhang is one of the few young artists in the trade today, and he brings rare talent to the traditional art.

“His paintings are not stiff lines on glass, but delicate strokes painted with ease and aesthetic understanding,” Zhu says. “It takes only two to three years to master the basics, but a lifetime to become a true artist at it.”

A master of the art himself, Zhu, 44, owns a nei hua studio and showroom in the Shanghai Souvenirs Shopping Center on the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall. Dozens of modern and ancient masterpieces of inside painting are on display there.

“Less is more,” Zhu says of his art. “When I started out, all I thought about was getting all the details right, but now it’s more about painting with the heart.”


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