Why do I paint?

Arnold Chang

I paint traditional-style Chinese landscapes in ink–sometimes with the addition ofcolor–on paper. I have chosen this particular subject matter, medium, and style for a variety of reasons. I am attracted to the intellectual sophistication of the art form, and I am drawn to the technical challenges posed by the medium of brush and ink on absorbent paper. On a deeper level, Chinese painting for me represents a connection with my ethnic roots and is an expression of my personal identity. 

 

If I were to track the path that my interest in Chinese painting has led me I would plot a course that in fact runs parallel with my entire adult life; many of the most important choices in my life–relating to education, career, friendships, and even place of residence–have been directly influenced by my love of Chinese painting and my desire to learn more about it. The reasons for the specific artistic choices I have made are thus rather complicated. The answer to the more basic question: “Why do I paint?’ is, on the other hand, quite simple. 

 

For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed drawing and painting. When I was a young boy I liked to sit on the floor and scribble with crayons on newsprint paper. I could sit for hours and just draw. I was unaware of the passage of time and was lost in my own private world, where thoughts and feelings were translated effortlessly into lines, shapes, and colors. It was a calm place, and I was in a state of total concentration and complete relaxation. I was completely alone but not lonely. This place felt like home to me. 

 

As I grew up life became increasingly complicated. There were family and friends to deal with, school work, and other worldly problems. From time to time, however, I would retreat to that secure realm that I had discovered as a child. As a teenager, during summer vacations on Fire Island, I would begin my days off from work by rising with the sun and loading up a red wagon with oil paints and canvas. I wandered along in the quiet morning until I found a secluded spot with a good view. I set to work and hoped to find my way back to that quiet place inside. 

 

During my Senior year in High School, I began to learn Chinese calligraphy from an old man named Wang Jiyuan. I wanted to learn Chinese painting, but he told me that I had to learn calligraphy first. I didn’t know the language at all, so initially I feltthat the process of learning calligraphy was a waste of time and I couldn’t wait to start painting. After a few weeks, however, I started getting into it. The discipline of copying Chinese characters over and over again, even though they were just meaningless lines to me, was almost hypnotic but somehow comforting. I practiced for several hours each day, without having any idea what I was writing. I had traded in my crayons for a writing brush, but somehow the internal experience was the same.  

 

I began college as a Studio Art major, which means I was trying to be an artist. I didn’t get much out of the program and after my Freshman year I switched my major to East Asian Studies and Chinese Language. I do remember, however, frequently going to the painting studio late at night, when almost everyone else was partying or sleeping, and setting up my canvas, squeezing out some acrylics, and brushing away. I loved the act of painting but I hated the instructors’ critiques, which struck me ascompletely subjective, overly negative, and sometimes even mean-spirited. I went back to the Chinese writing brush but I was now determined to make sense out of those meaningless lines. I set out to learn both the Chinese language and the language of Chinese art. 

 

In graduate school I studied art history in order to familiarize myself with art-historical methodology and to be able to provide an historical framework for Chinese painting. I did very little painting at this time but I immersed myself in the Chinese painting tradition. After receiving my master’s degree I decided to pursue my study of Chinese painting technique and I moved to New York to learn painting and connoisseurship with C. C. Wang. Mr. Wang taught me aesthetic theory as well as brushwork technique and he encouraged me to learn directly from the old masters instead of imitating the work of any contemporary artist. He taught me to see the timeless quality of paintings made by the great masters and he inspired me to set my sights high. 

I have been painting in the Chinese manner for more than a quarter of a century. In addition, my knowledge of ancient and modern Chinese paintings has allowed me to make a living–first as a specialist at Sotheby’s, later as a private dealer–while continuing to learn about all aspects of the field. I have not had to compromise my own art and have been able to progress at my own pace. 

 

I am familiar with all periods and schools of Chinese painting but in my ownwork I have focused on landscape. The Song masters captured brilliantly the majesty, and power of Nature. Northern Song monumental landscapes are literally breathtaking. The intimate, poetic visions of the Southern Song masters convey another aspect of Nature’s beauty. For me, however, the works of the Four Great Masters of the Yuan dynasty (Ni Zan, Huang Gongwang, Wang Meng, and Wu Zhen), as well as Zhao Mengfu, represent an even greater artistic accomplishment. These Yuan masters used the medium of brush and ink to give form to internal realities. They manifested man’s inner nature symbolically, through the depiction of Nature’s physical forms.Yuan dynasty landscape painting, at its best, is a pictorial record of man’s efforts to investigate and explore his own inner nature. It is an art of introspection, reflection, contemplation, and meditation. 

 

For me, the process of painting, like the practice of Chinese calligraphy, is a conduit to achieving a state of consciousness that is characterized by intenseconcentration and total relaxation. For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed drawing and painting. When I was a young boy I liked to sit on the floor and scribble with crayons on newsprint paper. I could sit for hours and just draw. I was unaware of the passage of time and was lost in my own private world, where thoughts and feelings were translated effortlessly into lines, shapes, and colors. I was completely alone but not lonely. Through Chinese painting I have rediscovered that world and it still feelslike home to me. 

 

Chinese painting has provided me a focus for my energies and has helped me to integrate the various facets of my personality--the intellectual, spiritual, and psychological. Most importantly, Chinese painting has been my Fortress of Solitude, a safe haven where the child within me continues to find peace through the simple act of drawing.