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Jeweled Canvas of Glue-Colour Paintings

Taiwanese artist Huang Hung-chi infuses Western realism techniques with Eastern aesthetics in his glue-colour paintings.

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“The last thing my teacher ever said to me was, ‘You must paint with your full heart. That’s the basic respect you should have for every viewer of your work.”
—Huang Hung-chi, master of glue-colour bird paintings

A unique and complex art form dating back many centuries, distemper painting is an art form that creates decorative images with glue-based paints. Typically made with ingredients derived from animals or vegetables, the glue acts as a water-soluble binder that sticks to powdered mineral pigments. The result is a beautiful, translucent paint that glides easily over a surface and leaves a rich finish, offering a more intense colouration than watercolours.

Distemper painting stems from the classic heavy-colour (zhongcai) style of painting popular in ancient China. These artworks were characterized by a fine, precise definition and the layering of pigmented hues, resulting in vivid impressions. Having risen to prominence in the Tang Dynasty, the practice of zhongcai waned in China during the centuries that followed the Song Dynasty, over 300 years later.

Despite this shift, the art form survived. After transitioning to Japan, where it was adopted and developed, zhongcai finally found its way to Taiwan, where it flourished into a unique style of glue-colour painting.

The term ‘glue-colour painting’ was coined in the 1970s by the late Taiwanese artist Lin Chih-chu. Widely regarded as the nation’s founding father of distemper painting, his use of the medium fostered the rise of an influential and culturally significant art form in the nation.

Taiwanese glue-colour painting combines the tranquil essence of Eastern art’s harmonious aesthetics with Western realism techniques, such as the play of light and shadow. Unlike free-flowing ink paintings, glue-colour artworks are meticulously crafted with exquisite details and lifelike effects, while the lightweight texture of the paint differs from the thicker, denser effects produced by oil painting.

In Huang’s painting Macaques with Full Harvest, delicate brushstrokes depict the soft fur of the macaque monkeys.

Lessons from a master

Before master painter Lin Chih-chu formally accepted Huang Hung-chi as his student, Huang had to agree to three strict conditions. First, he was not allowed to participate in any painting associations while Lin was still alive. He couldn’t enter any art competitions and was also forbidden to host exhibitions showing his work. While these rules may seem somewhat austere, their aim was to have Huang dedicate himself solely to his art and his art alone.

“My teacher wanted to cultivate me as a professional painter. He said that if I were to participate in a competition, who would dare not give me an award as Lin Chih-chu’s student? So, what would be the point of winning that award?” Huang says. “Moreover, glue-colour painting requires a very quiet and anchored heart. I wouldn’t be able to achieve excellence if I was focusing my attention on society and fame.”

Lin’s methods worked. Now a successful artist in his own right, Huang has been creating glue-colour paintings for over 20 years. When asked which of his artworks he holds most dear, he says, “Blue-Bellied Pheasant, which was recognized by my teacher after nearly 10 years of practicing.”

Blue-Bellied Pheasant, Huang Hung-chi’s most memorable painting, was the first work approved by his teacher, Chih-chu.

Huang’s Blue-Bellied Pheasant looks as striking and impressive today as it did when it was first painted. The work depicts a pheasant with splendid sapphire-hued plumage poised under a fruit tree laden with peaches, its leafy branches appearing to sway in the breeze.

Upon looking at the painting from different angles, one discerns the rich gloss of the glue-paint, which makes the feathers appear even more lustrous, as though they’re illuminated by the sun. Caught mid-motion, the bird glances backwards, one foot raised in the middle of a step as if it’s about to turn around and look curiously at the viewer.

With its delicate detailing and sophisticated technique, the painting is undeniably impressive. But it begs the question, why was this the only one of Huang’s artworks to impress the strict Lin Chih-chu?

The artist explains: “My teacher treated each of my paintings with an artisanal heart and a rigorous attitude. Throughout the creative process, if there was ever one tiny bit that I didn’t do right, Lin would catch it and tell me to tear it up and start again. It wasn’t until I made this painting, 10 years later, that he formally recognized my skill as a glue-colour painter.”

Although Lin passed away in 2008, Huang continues to adhere to the spirit of his training, approaching each new painting with meticulous artistic discipline.

Huangi’s painting Deep Affection showcases unique materials and techniques, particularly in its vivid portrayal of colourful birds and flowers.

Labour of love

Unlike oil or ink paintings, which use ready-made pigments, distemper paintings require the artist to prepare his own paints, a time-consuming process that requires both patience and experience.

First, Huang must heat the glue (coagulated glue from Japan). “It must be boiled at precisely 60 °C, before being filtered and adjusted to produce the desired viscosity,” he says.

Next, he must grind the paint pigments. Since the thickness of the granules will affect the shade and texture of the colour, this stage can be particularly arduous because very fine pigment powders are needed.

“Sometimes I have to grind the pigment from morning to noon; it takes a long time, and that’s before I’ve even started painting,” Huang says.

He then blends the pigments with glue to create a translucent quality. After daubing it on a surface, he must leave the paint to dry completely before the next layer is applied. It may take as many as ten layers or more to produce the desired colour and texture, with each previous layer visible under the next.

As the layers accumulate, subtle changes in tone and lustre will be discernible. This is especially true of the fine powder pigments that Huang prefers. Produced from the grinding of coloured stones, these pigments produce a sumptuous gloss with the luxurious sheen of tiny jewels.

Well-executed distemper paintings require a vast amount of skill. While the colour of each new layer may be different, the layers still need to be applied in the correct order; the glue viscosity must also be right. Unlike opaque oil paints, which can be blurred to conceal mistakes, the transparent nature of glue-colour paints requires perfect applications with each and every layer. If an error occurs at any stage, the artist’s precious efforts will be wasted, and he will have to start again from the beginning.

“When my teacher painted, he always drafted a plan first and then followed the intended steps. It’s a form of self-discipline,” Huang says. “Additionally, the cost of failure is expensive. The adjusted glue will gradually lose moisture. When it dries to the point where it can no longer be used, the precious mineral powder will also be wasted.”

Such a demanding and lengthy process means that it’s nearly impossible to produce a high volume of paintings quickly. “I can only complete two to four paintings a year. My teacher painted for a whole lifetime, and he only left about 200 works,” Huang says.

In Huang’s painting Entanglement, a brightly coloured bird stands atop a delicate pink flower, creating a lively scene that embodies the beauty and vibrancy of nature.

Eastern inspirations

Though they share the vibrant colours and realistic techniques typically employed in Western oil paintings, Taiwanese glue-colour compositions also encapsulate the ethereal serenity characteristic of Eastern aesthetics. Motifs such as flowers, fish, birds, and animals—all depicted in Huang’s paintings—are exquisitely portrayed in vivid shades. Objects are often displayed in their most natural form against an empty backdrop, the contrast creating a sense of ease and joy in viewers.

“The core spirit of my art stems from my respect for the person who will look at my painting, as well as the subject being painted,” Huang says. “This respect is the reason why my viewers feel immersed within the painting.”

Huang’s paintings are rooted in the Taoist concept of balance between nature and humanity. He believes the works lead viewers to experience a subliminal feeling of calm, thereby reaching the realm of harmony talked about in Taoist philosophy.

Huang’s painting Carp features freely swimming carp depicted using realistic Western painting techniques that also embody the simplicity and use of space commonly found in traditional Eastern art.

“During the long, step-by-step creative process, my emotions will be infused into my painting, layer by layer, ultimately moving those who will see it,” Huang says. “The last thing my teacher ever said to me was, ‘You must paint with your full heart. That’s the basic respect you should have for every viewer of your work.”

Huang says that this attitude is essential to being an effective glue-colour artist, “You must have this attitude and spirit—your heart must reach that level of tranquillity.”

Huang hopes to find a suitable protégée to whom he can pass his shimmering glue-colour painting techniques. This was also the wish of his mentor, who maintained that the standard of selecting a pupil should lie in the quality of his or her character, rather than skill.

“Lin Chih-chu told me that if a person didn’t have good morals, I wouldn’t be able to teach them, no matter how much talent they had,” Huang says.

While this idea seems simple in principle, the reality is more difficult. After so many years, Huang has yet to find his long-awaited apprentice. However, he remains optimistic. He himself met Lin quite by chance at the beginning of his artistic career. Perhaps a student of his own will appear unexpectedly out of the blue one day and take up the mantle of this time-honoured craft.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 119

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