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The Appeal of Ethereal Colours

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“A unique characteristic of Chinese paintings is the use of white space—the function of this emptiness is to accentuate the main colour.”
—Xiu Yitang

There’s an immersing sense of serenity found in an ancient Chinese brush painting. Through idyllic landscapes, masters rendered the world as an enchanting place, offering a momentary escape and a source of calm and inspiration to the viewer.

Poetry and beauty aside, there’s a simplicity and authenticity to these artworks, achieved through the artists’ insightful approach to nature and colour. It’s through this that audiences come to appreciate not only the impeccable strokes and brilliant use of hues but also the profound meaning and inner peace the paintings bring.

In this issue, Chinese artist Xiu Yitang reveals how he applies centuries-old techniques and approaches to colour his paintings, while also incorporating his own style and aesthetic.

Gazing Towards Reunion by Xiu Yitang.

The subtlety and calm emblematic of ancient Chinese brush painting invites its audience to view their world from an ethereal perspective. What are your thoughts on this and what role does colour play in achieving it?
There is a deeply rooted Taoist philosophy that says, “the Tao (the Way) follows nature.” In my painting Gazing Towards Reunion, I followed these principles and used colours we see in nature, such as mineral blue, green, and red as my primary colour scheme.

The work depicts a divine being in heaven. To differentiate heaven from the mortal world, I used a layered landscape and empty space to illustrate the nature of heavenly realms. I also used rich yet pure colours to accentuate elegance and otherworldliness in the hope of imbuing the painting with an ethereal effect.

Unlike the typical traditional Chinese brush painting, you use a lot of contrast in your work. What is the rationale behind this approach?
There’s always a dominant colour in my paintings, and the secondary colours are juxtaposed to have it stand out. This is what gives the painting its beauty and clarity; it’s like a song that balances the main melody with the accompanying harmonies.

Even with black and white ink paintings, the contours and highlights have to be clear. Otherwise, the painting appears dull. In such cases, the painting becomes difficult to understand—it’s like listening to people who don’t enunciate their words.

Heavenly Music by Xiu Yitang.

A unique characteristic of Chinese paintings is the use of white space, and the function of this emptiness is to accentuate the main colour. For example, in my painting, Heavenly Music, the sky and mist below the mountains are considered the highlights, while the blue-green mountains, rocks, and trees are the contours; the latter is where the painting’s main colour is found.

Although the colours I use are bright and bold, when placed strategically against the white space they look clean and transparent. They’re just like the echo of heavenly music reverberating throughout the mountains.

Your paintings also seem brighter and more colourful when compared with traditional Chinese brush paintings. Why did you take this route?
Chinese painting went through shifts in preferences and trends throughout the centuries. For instance, after the Song and Yuan dynasties, the colours became increasingly lighter. Black and white ink paintings also became more popular, although bright colours were still largely used to depict divine figures in temple murals.

I personally think the heavenly world should be shown as resplendent and glorious, and only bright colours can capture that divine feeling.

Zhang Guolao by Xiu Yitang.

Can you tell us about the techniques you use to achieve these results?
I experimented with some new techniques, such as adjusting the light effects. In my recent painting, Zhang Guolao, I used colours and contrasts between light and dark to emphasize the boundless radiance of the heavens.

I did something similar with my work Laozi Writes the Tao Te Ching. The painting’s composition is made up of two different worlds appearing in the same space. Laozi is writing his work, Tao Te Ching, in the real world, yet mentally he’s in a higher, more divine world.

Laozi Writes the Tao Te Ching by Xiu Yitang.

This is precisely what the state of “oneness of heaven and man” should be. While the colours adhere to the classic style, the contrast between the main colour and the background is enhanced.

I also experiment with realistic three-dimensional art, an approach that wasn’t used in ancient paintings. For example, I used golden yellow to illustrate flowing energy, thus emphasizing Laozi’s divinity in a more dynamic, multi-dimensional way.

How do you decide which colour to use in your paintings?
I apply different colours to connote certain meanings. For example, my painting, Monkey King, mainly uses red, green, and white, which were colours widely used in ancient China.

Monkey King by Xiu Yitang.

Red represents the Monkey King’s bold and courageous personality; white stands for wisdom and vastness; green means tranquillity. The contrasting shades of jade green and red-yellow—one cool, the other warm—creates a yin and yang effect, making the painting look more coordinated and balanced.

How do you balance tradition with innovation?
Creating something new doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re starting from nothing—you must still adhere to the principles of natural laws, as well as to long-established tenets. If you don’t follow these, you can’t create masterpieces that will stand the test of time.

Traditional Chinese paintings have their own set of techniques and requirements. These principles are sacred and can’t be changed. Having said that, within this framework there are ways to enhance the painting through techniques and styles that elevate its meaning and message.

When it comes to painting the celebrated Monkey King, the character’s figure and colours are well-established and respected by Chinese artists. My approach to painting him is to stay faithful to established traits while also injecting my creativity and interpretation to achieve a more realistic depiction.

In my painting Monkey King, I try to emphasize the character’s loyalty and bravery, similar to how he is depicted in Buddhist cave paintings.


This story is from Magnifissance Issue 117

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