Chinese Ink Painting: From Ancient Tradition to Contemporary Style

Chinese Ink Painting: From Ancient Tradition to Contemporary Style

One of the oldest artistic traditions in the world, Chinese painting first started around 6000 years ago, used as basic decoration on pottery and lacquerware. It is referred to in Chinese as ‘guóhuà’, meaning ‘native painting’ to differentiate it from Western styles now also popular in China and is closely related to Chinese calligraphy. Both forms of art use brushes dipped in black ink or coloured pigments applied to silk or paper, with the focus very much on the technique and skill of the artist.

Guo Xi, Early SpringWith the introduction of Buddhism to China in the 1st century AD, painting developed into religious murals in temples and on tomb walls. Subjects moved on further to include figures, prominent particularly during the Tang dynasty (581 - 907), and landscapes painted on silk. From this early period of imperial China, painting and calligraphy were considered the highest forms of art, practised by aristocrats and the gentry classes, who had the leisure time to concentrate on such scholarly pursuits.

Chinese Brush PaintingLandscape painting in particular reached further heights during the Song dynasty (960 – 1279) with the prominence of ‘shanshui’ (literally ‘mountain water’) paintings. These normally monochromatic landscapes were fairly sparse, with the focus being on capturing the atmosphere or ‘rhythm’ of nature and the artist’s conception and emotions, rather than presenting a realistic image. In this way it was similar to the much later Impressionist movement in the West. Painting was closely linked to the Taoist philosophy of the time, with huge, sweeping, mountains and rivers representing the vastness of the cosmos compared to mankind.

Portraits and more intimate studies of flora and fauna were also popular, but landscape painting was the most revered. A standard method of presentation developed which continued for centuries, with more detailed and intricate scenes shown in the foreground with less defined backgrounds of mountains rising out mist and clouds. This practice was taught by masters to their apprentices by rote, with the student copying specific techniques and movements to until they become second nature.

The Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) saw a more narrative approach to painting, with a wider range of colours that the more traditional monochrome and studies on more simple intimate subjects such as flower blossom or birds. The Qing dynasty saw a movement away from traditional Chinese painting, with some schools turning against traditional rules and instead using less rigid brushwork to express themselves more freely. The 19th and 20th centuries saw an increasing exposure to Western art, leading to some artists experimenting with a combination of western and Chinese styles.

Traditional ink painting suffered during the Cultural Revolution, with art schools forced to close and many artworks destroyed as part of the ‘Four Olds’ campaign, which sought to eliminate Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, art schools re-emerged. Chinese artists again started techniques and methods, taking traditional ink painting in new, bold directions with more contemporary styles and subjects.

Mirror Lake, Liu Yitong

Mirror Lake, Liu Yitong

Shimu now offers artwork by two highly acclaimed Chinese artists, both of whom provide excellent examples of contemporary Chinese ink painting. Shi Rongqiang has recently exhibited at the 2019 London Art Fair. His paintings use traditional ink painting techniques but in a more modern style, as he seeks to portray human emotions through the birds and animals presented in his paintings.

Liu Yitong is found of the ‘Ink Phantom’ School of Chinese ink painting. Again, he uses traditional techniques and his subjects are often landscapes of mountains, lakes and trees, but his style is more dreamlike, with subtle colours and impressionistic presentation. Liu recently held a solo exhibition at the British Museum in London and you can view further details on the Xinhua News at

Main image: 'Spring Morning in the Han Palace' by Qiu Ying (1494 - 1592)
Top right image: 'Early Spring' by Guo Xi (1020 - 1090)

Sources and further reading:


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Irene Black - April 25, 2019

Pop – Up a good idea, hopefully you can do more in various parts of UK. I`d just come to look!

Best wishes.

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