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October 21, 2013

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Splash ink painting surges in value

Splashing a bowl of water and several bowls of ink on rice paper can, surprisingly, lead to a unique and valued piece of Chinese art.

Po mo (泼墨), or splash ink painting, may sound unbelievable, especially for Westerners, as it relies totally on the chance interplay of water and ink on rice paper, sometimes with a little brushwork.

Po mo, which appeared as early as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), refers to the technique in which the painter first splashes ink onto thin silk or a wall, then goes on to create the painting using different techniques but based on the ink marks.

Tang Dynasty artist Wang Qia is credited with being the father of the art genre.

It is said that one night, Wang was very drunk after a banquet. But he was so excited that he poured some ink onto silk, and then, guided by the ink marks, used brushwork, as well as his feet and hands according to some historical sources, making the marks into mountains, clouds and rocks.

Using such weird drunken behavior in conjuring up a kind of new artistic style was not welcomed by the mainstream at the time. Although many of Wang’s peers were curious about his ink-splashing renderings, they didn’t take them seriously.

Given the influence of a society that almost worshipped the literati and scholars, techniques of subtle brushwork were considered more important than an occasional mischievous act, no matter how creative.

It didn’t matter how hard Wang’s admirers or successors tried to gain respectability for the new genre in the following centuries, splash ink paintings were never dominant until the emergence of master Zhang Daqian (1899-1983).

The meeting of Zhang — one of the most legendary and prestigious artists in 20th-century China — with Pablo Picasso in Nice, France, in 1956 was viewed as a summit between the preeminent masters of Eastern and Western arts.

At the age of 57, Zhang steered his art in the direction of colored splash ink paintings.

The master fused skills inherited from Wang with the Western light-and-shade effect on rice paper. Today, the art created by Zhang is coveted at auctions around the world.

Zhang unseated Picasso in the No. 1 spot on Artprice’s annual ranking of artists sorted by their auction prices, based on analysis of 2011 numbers, reported last week.

Zhang became the world’s best-selling artist due to his grand total of US$506.7 million in 2011 auction sales.

Zhang’s colored splash ink paintings have had the unintended effect of inhibiting many from further development of splash ink painting, but not Wang Jian’er.

Unlike master Zhang’s semi-abstract colored splash ink works, Wang’s painting is totally abstract.

Abstract paintings without the support of dynamic colors might appear weak.

But the shapes that appear on Wang’s rice paper have a distant and empty feeling that immediately evokes the imagination of viewers.

“I am interested in the pure relationship between water and ink, the fluidity and the melting effect,” he says.

It is surprising to hear that Wang doesn’t move the rice paper during the whole process — the flowing of water and ink is all done through splashing.

“Yes, I know you would ask,” he says with a smile. “Master Zhang (Daqian) once had two assistants who would move the rice paper to enhance the flow of water, ink and colors. Once Zhang found the best effect he wanted to achieve, he would immediately ask the assistants to stop moving. But that was his way of splashing. Everyone has his own knack.”

In his 60s, the Shanghai-born artist’s splash ink paintings are collected by museums and collectors including the Macau government and National Art Museum of China in Beijing.

Wang says he was happy when his paintings started to sell at auction fairly early in his career. “Early in 1986, one of my paintings was auctioned at the Sotheby’s in New York for several thousand US dollars.”

Now his paintings may sell for tens of thousands of US dollars.

Wang says the critical thing in splash ink painting is that the rice paper is always in a saturated condition,

“I seldom use a brush to control the whole tableau,” he says. “Everything is done through a bowl of water and several bowls of ink with different shades.

“In my eyes, splashing ink stands for the Chinese way of luxury. A luxury might come from the simplest and easy-to-get thing, but the creativity in expressing it and making it your own is the brain,” the artist adds.

Based on a solid knowledge of traditional ink-wash paintings, Wang began to engage in splash ink painting in 1981.

“Remember this, the movement of ink always flows from the part with more water to the part with less,” he says. “The movement of ink with different shades, for me, is spontaneous. Sometimes I have to use an air blower to dry some particular part on the rice-paper for fixing. Everything should be completed within an hour or two.”

Besides absorbing the “nutritious elements” of ancient Chinese art, Wang also draws a lot from modern Western art. On closer inspection, Wang’s splash ink paintings are filled with movement, similar to a cloud moving across a gloomy sky.

But even after countless experiments and practice, Wang says a quality splash ink piece is not so easy to obtain.

“The reason is simple. Everything is on the move, and you have to be fast both in hands and eyes to adjust,” he says. “Splash ink painting is quite demanding in terms of one’s understanding of traditional Chinese art, one’s ability in ink wash paintings and one’s ability to coordinate both hands and eyes.”

When asked whether he has any requirements for the water he uses, like whether it must be pure water or mineral water, Wang chuckles.

“Any water is fine,” he says. “The fun in creating a splash ink painting is that you can never predict the final result. Sometimes it provides a surprise, but sometimes you will be disappointed. I know you are curious to see how I pour the water and ink on the rice paper. But sorry, this is my secret, and I never let anyone else stand beside me when I am working.”

Wang recalls about 15 years ago, a professor from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing paid a visit to him and wanted to see how he created his work. “But I turned him down. I just told him: It’s one bowl of water and several bowls of ink. Try it yourself!”



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