Classic Paintings that Nourish the Heart
How Chinese artist Yirong Zhang gained inspiration from the past
“A person’s literacy comes from the constant pursuit of knowledge. The more you learn, the more you enrich yourself, and the humbler you become.”
Yirong Zhang’s pure and elegant ink paintings make viewers feel the delicate and tranquil beauty of nature. Crossing the boundaries between Eastern and Western art, they echo the ink paintings of the Song and Yuan dynasties while also featuring the light, shadow, and texture of Western sketches.
“For me, painting is a pure art form. Like a flower blooming, it follows the season and comes naturally,” Zhang says.
Since 2011, Zhang has held annual art exhibitions around the world. Her works have been collected by the Houston Museum of Art, bringing her critical acclaim. Yet her artistic career began much earlier.
A childhood calling
Zhang was born in Shaanxi Province, China. Her father and grandfather built statues in temples in northern Shaanxi, which allowed Zhang to connect with authentic traditional Chinese ink painting at an early age.
“I studied Chinese painting with my father since I was a child, training with traditional methods. I also followed him to paint murals in monasteries and Taoist temples,” Zhang says.
However, Zhang chose to study literature instead of painting for her undergraduate and graduate degrees. Looking back, she is grateful for that decision.
“A person’s literacy comes from the constant pursuit of knowledge. The more you learn, the more you enrich yourself, and the humbler you become. When you realize your own insignificance in front of the grand universe, you don’t want to limit yourself to the field of painting,” Zhang says.
Yet Zhang’s heart still sought the beauty of artistry. After graduation, fate led her to concentrate on her first passion, painting. “I really love painting from the bottom of my heart,” she says.
The depth of Chinese ink painting
Zhang has absorbed the painting skills and cultural legacy of various Chinese dynasties and incorporated them into her art. She especially loves the murals of the Tang and Song Dynasties, the ink paintings of the Song and Yuan Dynasties, Daoist and Buddhist art, and traditional flower ink paintings.
Today, Zhang specializes in ink painting, depicting colourful subjects like flowers and butterflies but chooses to portray them in what she believes to be their purest form—black and white.
“I hope that the viewer can directly experience the work, not just be attracted by the drawing technique. The purer it is, the more likely it is to achieve this effect.
Wang Wei, a great poet and painter in the Tang Dynasty in China, once said, “Ink painting requires the most advanced skills.”
Although limited in its colour palette (blank ink and white space), Chinese ink painting nonetheless leads to complex works that connect with viewers in profound ways.
By varying the ink density, the skilled artist produces tonality and shading that unlocks the imagination and gives viewers the impression of seeing texture, colour, and even extraordinary worlds that go beyond the physical experience.
Zhang’s paintings have certain similarities to Western sketches, yet she believes they resonate with audiences mainly because of the universal values they express.
“At the core of traditional Chinese painting is spirituality which provides the inner meaning of this art form,” Zhang says.
“Traditional Chinese painting is not just about the act of the painting; rather, it’s about a deeper connection to the nature of the universe that brings inner peace to the viewer.”
Restoring a Northern Song Dynasty mural
In 2017, by invitation of Xing Hua Temple in Gaoping, Shaanxi Province, Zhang made a large (200 × 260 cm) ink painting on silk of Shakyamuni’s Teachings, the only surviving mural from the Northern Song Dynasty.
The painting took several months to finish. Since the original mural was damaged significantly, Zhang spent a lot of time researching the missing content, including Song Dynasty costumes, characters, and architecture.
Zhang’s final rendition of Shakyamuni’s Teachings is the same size as the mural in Xing Hua Temple, and it features a large number of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, monks, and other disciples. Each figure is painted in a rich variety of shades and has its own distinct character and expression.
In addition to the human and divine figures, Zhang also paid attention to details of architecture, clothing, jewellery, and religious items of worship. Each item is complex and meticulous, displaying the artist’s fine skill.
“For me, works of any size require a deep state of concentration. But I’d always hoped to have the opportunity to paint a mural, and this work fulfilled my wishes. I believe it can express detachment and tranquillity through its pure lines.”
Zhang says the most challenging part of painting this work on silk was expressing the figures and objects with lines of different densities and thicknesses. During this complicated process, there was no room for mistakes.
“After a few months of painting, I felt a connection beyond time and space with the artist who made the murals (thousands of years ago),” Zhang says.
“My work is a tribute to the classics, which makes me feel their greatness even more. It’s my honour to be able to paint such work.”