In Pursuit of True Art
Classical painter Chen Xiaoping infuses Eastern philosophy with Western realism painting.
“A painting with good technique but no high moral meaning is merely a decorative piece. The value of art lies in its pursuit of authentic beauty.”
Every four years, New York-based broadcaster NTDTV hosts its International Figure Painting Competition, attracting entries from some of the world’s best artists, and leading a revival of realism oil painting and divine themes in art.
The competition invites artists to “submit figure paintings that convey traditional values, and positive ideals such as beauty, compassion, and righteousness.” Chinese-born painter Chen Xiaoping has won gold twice in the NTDTV competition (in 2009 and 2011) and has recently returned as a judge.
An acclaimed artist, Chen’s paintings have been exhibited in more than 200 cities worldwide as part of The Art of Zhen, Shan, Ren (Truth, Compassion, Forbearance) art exhibition, and have touched audiences with their beauty, dignity, and grace. Chen herself emanates these qualities, demonstrating the humility, artistic understanding, and continuous pursuit of perfection characteristic of a classical painter.
Chen recently shared with us how she progressed from being a traditional Chinese painter to mastering Western oil painting techniques. She also talked about the technical and spiritual qualities necessary to win NTDTV’s prestigious figure painting competition.
Journey from the East
While Chen is known today for her exquisite Western-style oil paintings, her artistic journey began at the age of 10 with traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy. It’s a passion she still carries with her. “The feel of using a brush to paint the smooth lines in Chinese painting is something I deeply enjoy,” she says.
Achieving the ease and confidence characteristic of Chinese brush paintings requires diligent hard work. The painter and the paintbrush aspire to become one body, like the swordsman becomes one with his sword. By the time Chen immigrated to North America in 2001, she was already recognized as an outstanding artist in traditional Chinese painting.
According to her, Chinese culture and its various art forms follow the philosophy of the Tao school, as represented by the circle of yin and yang.
“In many ways, Chinese culture is round,” Chen says. “For example, in classical Chinese dance, before you move left you must first move right; before you move upwards you must first move downwards. This is very similar to the brushstrokes of Chinese calligraphy and painting. Especially in calligraphy, at the end of each stroke, your brush must go back the way it came in order to wrap up the stroke.”
In harmony with the universe
Chen became drawn to Western realism painting when she realized that she needed a more vivid medium to express the images she wanted to represent.
Her journey toward this transition started in 1998, in Saipan, when her family started to practice Falun Dafa, a traditional cultivation practice in the Buddhist school. The practice combines slow-moving exercises with meditation and a philosophy of living in harmony with the universe.
While Chen was drawn to the practice’s principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance, she felt young and full of energy and didn’t feel compelled to practice the exercises.
“Then one day my father was playing the videos of Falun Dafa’s founder, Master Li Hongzhi. I saw Master Li teaching the exercises and performing mudras (meditation hand gestures),” Chen says.
This immediately led her to reflect on an early lesson. “When I was a child, my first fine arts teacher asked me to copy the famous Dunhuang murals. When I saw Master performing mudras, I thought, ‘Aren’t these the gestures of the Buddhas in those cave murals?’ I found them beautiful, and that’s when the wish to practice Falun Dafa awoke within me.”
Chen and her family often practiced the exercises on Saipan’s beautiful beaches, feeling the gentle ocean breeze on their skin and listening to the sound of the waves.
“One day, a beautiful image appeared in my mind; it was inspired by the concept of sanhua juding (three flowers gathering above the head), a meditative state described in Zhuan Falun, the main book of Falun Dafa, which represents one’s cultivation level. I had a great desire to paint the image in my mind,” she says.
Chen realized she had to learn Western oil painting techniques in order to capture the vividness of that image. That’s how her first oil painting In Harmony (2004) came to be.
The work depicts a young woman meditating on the shore of a blue sea. Above her head are three spiralling flowers with columns of light above them stretching far into the sky. Four cherubs play happily amid the columns.
“Conceptualizing the painting’s layout was a challenge because the three columns above her head could easily appear oppressive and heavy.
That’s why I decided to use these adorable cherubs to remove the heaviness and enliven the composition,” Chen says.
Cherubs, known as cultivated infants in Chinese culture, are pure beings from heaven, most familiar in the West from the paintings of Renaissance artist Raphael.
In Chen’s work, the sea surrounding the meditating woman is calm and vast, reflecting the heart of a spiritual follower who has let go of negative thoughts and emotions. The scene captures the joy of spiritual elevation and hints at the otherworldly phenomena present when someone achieves a state of true harmony and tranquillity.
The purpose of art
According to Chen, the most important aspect of classical painting is the artist’s intent—the values and messages the painting aims to pass on to the viewer.
A successful realism painting demonstrates an exceptional understanding of technique, including mastery of proportion, shape, perspective, light and shadow, and colour, she says. Yet while the development of these techniques requires innate talent and rigorous training, the deeper meaning of the painting originates in the artist’s heart.
“Artists were once highly respected. Later on, art education began to increasingly neglect students’ basic training, allowing them to paint at will. A few random brushstrokes without any technique or deeper meaning can now be called a work of art. This diminishes the value of artists as a whole; these days, anyone can be called an artist,” Chen says.
The falling aesthetic standards of society troubled Chen deeply until 2008 when the arrival of the NTDTV International Figure Painting Competition and its requirement for realism oil painting gave her hope.
“Some artists have told me that the world is currently experiencing a famine of creativity. Even if artists have the techniques, they may not know how to choose a subject. I think participating in this competition is an opportunity for them,” Chen says.
NTDTV’s competition gives broad guidelines for entrants, requiring them to create their own concepts. This forces artists to ask themselves difficult questions about the subject and what they genuinely want to communicate to the viewer.
“The goal of the competition is to display pure authenticity, pure goodness, and pure beauty,” Chen says. “Artists will find that participating in this competition is similar to being cast into a furnace to be remoulded. Anything that doesn’t meet the principles of pure authenticity, pure goodness, and pure beauty will slough off, and what’s left will be golden and dazzling.”
In judging the entrants to NTDTV’s competition, Chen will follow two important criteria.
“Technique is very important, of course. To be chosen, the use of colour, highlighting and shading, and perspective will have to be accurate, not misshapen or exaggerated,” she says.
In order to gain the highest award, however, the painting must have a deeper meaning.
“A painting with good technique but no high moral meaning is merely a decorative piece. The value of art lies in its pursuit of authentic beauty. Only by meeting this standard can a painting win the highest award,” she says.