Taking photos on your phone is so accessible and easy today, you may wonder if oil painting still has a place in our modern world. But Chinese realist painter Zhang Liang believes photography will never replace the classical art form of realistic painting, as the medium adds other dimensions to a piece.
“Just like calligraphy, computer writing is very advanced, but it can’t make Wang Xizhi’s Lanting Xu,” Zhang says, referring to one of the most famous calligraphy works from the Jin Dynasty in the 4th century, Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion, noted for its beautiful aesthetic fused with deep, transcendent sentiments.
“At any time, solid basic skills and traditional aesthetic principles fundamentally determine the depth and weight of the creation. Modernism emphasizes concepts but does not care about materials and basic skills.”
Interestingly, many of Zhang’s classical art students are university students studying animation and film. It seems these modern art forms still revere classical composition and accurate drawing skills.
“Perhaps the Western painting world has discarded some traditional perspectives, but these classical techniques still continue in the film industry,” he says.
But Zhang isn’t simply preserving classical realism—he’s adding his own understanding to this timeless art form.
In classical Chinese art, like the freehand brushwork of Chinese paintings, the focus is on the internal expression and symbolism of the work. By contrast, traditional Western art focuses first on form. Zhang combines the realist form of Western painting with the inner symbolism of Chinese art, providing a newfound meaning and depth.
“When you represent the realist expression of Western oil painting in subtle space and then use freehand brushwork to convey wisdom of Oriental culture, it is a new thing,” he says.
Building on a legacy
Zhang, now in his 30s, started learning painting at the age of 12. When he was in the sixth grade, an art teacher visited his school to recruit new art students. Each student paired up with another, sat face to face, and drew each other.
“When I was halfway through, the teacher came over and asked me if I had learned drawing before. I said, ‘No.’ He then recruited me on the spot,” Zhang says.
Zhang’s skill progressed so quickly, he was disqualified at a competition. The judge said he didn’t believe it was a 12-year-old’s painting, and that he must have been helped by his teacher.
To this day, Zhang feels great gratitude towards his first teacher, Liang Wenxue, who recognized his ability and guided him through the wide-open doors of the art world.
Later on, Zhang would continue his studies abroad and be impacted by famed realist painter Leng Jun.
“I think he is the most outstanding realistic portrait painter of today,” Zhang says. He describes Leng Jun’s works as extremely detailed and fine, but not tedious; they also feel free and easy, full of human spirit. “This is exactly a combination of Western realistic oil paintings and Chinese traditional culture.”
Studying Leng Jun’s paintings helped Zhang develop his own approach to art. Through Western realistic oil painting techniques, Zhang expresses the core ideas of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism from Chinese culture. He unveils his own beliefs and inner world through still-life objects, integrating the quietude of Zen and the harmony of opposite forces, or yin and yang.
Zhang’s approach is difficult, and tests his wisdom. He is, quite literally, harmonizing opposite forms in practice. He must be focused equally on material detail and invisible spirit and sentiment.
Zhang’s work, “Peaches,” illustrates his artistic perspective. Forming a triangle, five peaches float on a piece of denim in the background. The composition of the triangle is stable but suggests a trace of uneasiness. Zhang says that this painting reflects his true state of mind after immigrating to North America. Also, he chose the title because in Chinese, the word “peach” sounds like the words “prosperity” and “escape,” giving the work a dualistic nature.
“I think anyone who comes to an unfamiliar country will have a sense of insecurity,” he says. “The original meaning of the title is to describe prosperity, but later it has the meaning of escaping. I think that success in life is a kind of power, but knowing how to take a step back is also a sign of wisdom. This is how I use Western form to express Eastern philosophy and connect it with real life.”
The spirit is in all things
During a session, Zhang picked out two peaches from a group of four, and started painting them. After one week, he had finished painting the two peaches. He then put all four pieces of fruit in a bag to refrigerate them, in case he needed to work on the painting later.
He said to the peaches, like coaxing children, “Don’t go bad. I’m painting you. How lucky you are!” A month and a half later, he wanted to revise the painting and took out the peaches. Something strange and miraculous had occurred.
“The two peaches I hadn’t painted before were rotten, but the two that I had painted were still fresh, and the colours barely changed,” he says. He concluded that everything is tied to the spirit. From that point on, he often communicates with his fruit.
“I seldom mention this to others, probably because they would think it was my imagination,” he says. “But I think the reason for this is appreciation. When you really appreciate an object from deep inside, it will really bloom for you. And the abandoned will quickly wither. This is the magic of life.”
Not only should we use this principle in life, but it’s Zhang’s starting point with his art. He treats people or objects with an unbiased perspective, understands that all lives are precious, and sees their glowing qualities. He combines that reverence with a careful, harmonious composition so that his paintings convey depth and an almost tangible spirit.
Through his artistic medium, Zhang has also learned about life, seeing beauty in the creation process, and being in tune, and content, with its dual nature.
“Don’t be disturbed by fortune or misfortune; be relaxed no matter how flowers bloom and wilt. Take life naturally, whether clouds flow high or low,” he says.