“I create antiquity (自我作古).” – Liu Zhiji (刘知己) (661-721 AD)
As recently as fifteen years ago, it was difficult to get sight of even a coarse, black-and-white image of many of the old works. Often, they were printed either in rare and very specialised catalogues, or as illustrative plates in academic texts on art history.
Things are different now, with high-resolution digital images readily available. Nonetheless, my foundation could be said to have been built on copying just those small, grainy photographs.
A few years ago, I had the good fortune of seeing one of the originals in a museum. I was surprised; it was actually rendered in a much finer brush than I had previously imagined, and tiny gold flecks embedded in the paper gave it an unexpectedly courtly air.
On reflection, I realised that being forced to paint from those imprecise representations had in itself been a discipline of the mind, which ultimately contributed to shaping my aesthetics. The lack of detail had necessitated abbreviation, nuance, spontaneity and improvisation, all (felicitously) defining traits of my chosen school.
It is difficult to reduce into words, but it is quite one thing to be presented with a vaguely abstract image and declare, “I shall paint in a like manner”, and to be conditioned to it without realising it. People will say, “such-and-such a master progressed from precision to suggestion, what an expression of refined understanding”, but isn’t a lot of that, whatever the pursuit, just a process of paring down, or working around the limitations of circumstance.
Someone once told me, “copy all of an artist’s work slavishly and the best you will ever achieve is a perfect imitation”. Someone else said, “people don’t ask, ‘who did Muxi (牧溪) (circa. the 1200s）(circa. 1210-1270 AD) (together with Liangkai (梁楷) (circa. the late 11 to the early 1200s ) and Yujian (玉涧) (circa. the 1200s), the most representative of the Chinese monk-painters) paint like’. They say, ‘so-and-so painted like Mu Xi'”.