Informed by Culture
The figurative watercolors of Liu Yunsheng reflect the Tibetan way of life
Igraduated from the department of oil painting at Shandong Arts Academy in 1963. The same year, I was assigned to an enclosed military unit on the Qinghai Prairie (3,500 meters above sea level) and engaged in work completely unrelated to painting. One day I encountered Tibetans. Wow! I was so shocked and impressed. Ever since then, I developed a love to paint Tibetans. However, due to the military regulations, I was prohibited to paint, which left me with an everlasting regret. After 35 years of service in the unit, I finally retired at the age of 61. I started painting figures in watercolor. What figure should I draw? Of course, the first, the most exciting and touching impression of my encounter with Tibetans 35 years ago was calling me. Since then, I have gone to Tibet, Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu to collect resource materials 24 times. I live with Tibetan people together in their home, which gives me opportunities to develop an insightful understanding about their culture and to collect creative materials. The Tibetan compatriots and their lives that have been imprinted in my heart since my early age have become the central motif of my artistic creation.
My Artistic Conception of Painting Tibetan People
I believe that regardless of the rich and the poor, all ethnic groups have their unique cultures and national spirits, which are something great and worthy of pride. Therefore, I never direct my works into drama or preach. I just pursue to express their unsophisticated, original human nature. I never try to capture novelty but just pursue the original scene of their labor for survival, the thickness and the transparency of the air on the
plateau, the meaning of the sunlight and people’s needs. I like the simplicity and goodness of the Tibetan people. I like their bold and unconstrained natures as well as their splendid traditional culture. So I chose Tibetans as the lifelong motif of my watercolor figure painting.
My Understanding and Practice of Painting Figures in Watercolor
Painting good figurative works in watercolor is difficult, but it is also what intrigues people to learn. The unique artistic appeal of a good figure painting in watercolor is irreplaceable. In my opinion, to paint figurative works in watercolor well, one should pay attentions to two points: technique and character modeling. Required techniques include the contrast and the coordination of warm and cold tones, transparency and sedimentation, methods of finishing in one and multiple levels, use of water, prevention of dirtiness and grease, etc. Character modeling should focus on the issues of structure, style, texture, background and inner emotions. The motif of my painting is Tibetans who live on the roof of the world— 4,000 meters above sea level in strong ultraviolet beams and harsh climates. In order to reflect
the distinct uniqueness of Tibetans and their environment, I go to collect resource materials in winter. However, because the weather is too cold to paint on location, I have to use my camera to capture a large quantity of scenes that include images and plots of men and women, young and old, rivers, grasslands, mountains, tents, streets, villages, eagles, cattle…everything, and then I return to the studio for re-creation of the scene. The use and treatment of light is an important element in my watercolor creation. In particular, the light treatment on the hair of the character takes a lot of mental and physical efforts. First, use masking liquid before spreading colors to carefully protect the bright parts of hair strands as well as other bright parts of the rest of the body. After the colors dry, remove all the masking liquid using a small oil paint brush (the tip has to be cut off with a certain length) with water to carefully sort out the strength of contrast and the priority of gradients. At the end, we can make multiple adjustments with complementary colors to finally have the hairs look radiant with rich levels and vivid liveness. Here, we need to pay attention to the rhythmic changes of lights and contrasts with the surrounding colors. Do not touch the bright parts during the process of spreading colors. Only at the final stage of finishing can we add colors to adjust according to the needs. The adjustments have to focus on subtle nuance under the premise of retaining the original brightness of the paper. Skillful styling and color knowledge are required for watercolor figure painting. To convey the inner world of a character, the express of soul and emotion are especially important. Besides the posture, hands and feet, clothes, and jewelry that represent emotion and gender of a character, the key point lies in the portrayal of the image, especially the portrayal of eyes and mouth. The eyes are the window to the soul. To make a good portrayal of eyes is difficult indeed. A bit of inaccuracy and neglect can change the emotion of a character, which may ruin the pre-setting theme of the entire work. Before painting eyes, I normally have the surrounding structure and areas around eyes painted already. With an accurate structural position, following up with careful depictions of wonderful details of the eyes, a successful finishing touch is bound to happen.
Child in the West I, watercolor on paper, 62 x 54 cm (24 x 21")The inspiration of this work is derived from Yushu, Qinghai. The child’s unkempt hair and condensed eyes show dreams of the future. This is also a portrayal of my childhood. I used a grey tone to express his depressed mood.
Red Apples, watercolor on paper, 60 x 45 cm (24 x 18")The inspiration of this work is derived from Gannan. In order to express innocent children,I simplified the clothes and the background. I adopt the traditional Chinese painting philosophy to draw only two or three strokes, which implies that more comes from the less. Though only the hands and the head are depicted, the painting also feels complete and unified
Two Sisters, watercolor on paper, 75½ x 54 cm (30 x 21")The inspiration of this work is derived from the prayer wheel room in the Tibetan area in Sichuan. Strong sunshine, typical Tibetan costumes and cute and innocent children catch my eyes, reminding me of my childhood. The purple hue reflects the warmth of the mortal world.