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Every Day, Good Day

Story by Wendy Wan November 19th, 2016

Contrary to what many people may expect, growing up in China, I had never received any formal training on Chinese art or art in general. My whole world of art was built in western culture and even the first time I heard about Chinese art was in the states . However, as my knowledge of eastern ideas awakens, I find myself in a cultural identity limbo, between eastern and western traditions and how to or not to integrate them. Therefore, this project was designed to be an exploration for me to go back and look at Chinese art for the first time, and a beginning of configuring my cultural identity.

Generally, the heart of what most Chinese scholars sees as distinctive about Chinese painting tradition is the depiction of partly imagined likenesses, not strictly realistic ones. As the painter Zhang Zao wrote in 8th century, “One should learn from nature and paint the image in one’s mind.” Moreover, eastern artists tend to pay more attention to interior sensibility such as the first principle of ancient Chinese aesthetics — Qi Yun —-which may be translated as “breath - resonance”. In contrast, Western/European aesthetics, as defined by centuries of Renaissance aesthetic tradition, has more emphasis on perceptual appearance(seeing) and objectification.

Thus, in order to negotiate this demand of interior and exterior, I planned to two sets of paintings every day, short term and long term. The short term one is to start a new landscape of pony pasture painted from the same spot every day. The long term one consists of 3 self-portraits in my studio that will be picked up according to the lighting situation ——sunny, rainy, or nighttime—— and rework on them every day. I gave myself up to 4 hours to do the landscape due to the lighting changes. In these two sets, landscape and self-portraits are, in that order, my interior and exterior self-portraits. Landscape as self-portrait has been a big part of Chinese painting tradition especially through “shanshui” (literally meaning mountain and water), which artists often utilize to express their spirituality. Meanwhile, literal self-portrait is a traditional western genre and has an interesting absence in Chinese painting traditions. Also, this concept of dailiness is actually from Zen Buddhism, a traditional eastern idea, and I practice it through oil painting, a traditional western media, as my attempt to integrate the two different cultures.

The title of this project Day by Day, Good Day comes from part of a quote shared by the influential ninth-century Chinese Zen master, Yunmen Wenyan, from the book, Bi-Yan-Lu(Blue Cliff Record), which is a collection of one hundred aphorisms that help people move towards a mystical experience of unity and “awakening” in life. In Zen Buddhism, the way to this awakening is daily practice, and the goal is to do the same thing, the normal thing, the everyday thing, as if for the first time; Zen Buddhists believe that when you are completely present to “chop wood and carry water,” you start to see that things are constantly changing, and to observe them without judgment and allow ourselves to completely “being” in the world. Hence, this title is also to hope that my daily actions of oil painting will accumulate into a personal “awakening” of constructing identity, letting actions define it rather than anticipating a specific outcome, struggle, or resolution.

However, the actual painting process greatly deviated from the plan. I did not, in fact I could not intentionally design the way I painted every day ---- the feelings at that moment took over. I was looking at some artists like John Sargent, trying to learn some degree of realism, but nothing that led my mind during painting.

40 Days of the river and Shan-shui

Maybe coincidental, maybe it was rooted in my blood, many paintings in my series exhibit greatly correspond to sone Chinese traditional painting aesthetics, especially Shan-shui----a traditional Chinese landscape painting style whose prominent art form involves mountains, rivers and often waterfalls. Majority of my paintings contain significant amount of green and blue, which is shared by one of the most famous Chinese landscape piece ---- A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains created by the painting master Wang Ximeng in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Wang Ximeng’s style was mainly influenced by the blue and green landscape painting technique that General Li Sixun and his son Li Zhaodao invented in the flourishing period of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). This type of painting belongs to blue-green Shan-shui(literally meaning blue-green mountain and water) genre, which is a Chinese landscape painting style . It tends to refer a "ancient style" rather than modern ones. The main colour of the painting are blues and greens. It's a said this style was first formulated by Li Sixun, a general, politician and famous painter in Tang Dynasty.

A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains


Moreover, for some days, my landscape paintings turn out to be more like drawings due to the use of lines and the use of neutral colors like burnt umber and raw sienna. Those paintings look like ink-andwash Shan-shui, which is another branch of Shan-shui apart from blue-green. Ink-andwash Shan-shuia is a style of traditional Chinese painting that involves or depicts scenery or natural landscapes, using a brush and ink rather than more conventional paints. I certainly did not make the coincidences on purpose and as little as my intention meant for my paintings, when people look at them, these might be some assumptions they would easily come to due to my background.

INCOMPLETENESS AND 40 day of the river

The incompleteness is a topic near universal relevance, concerning when and how works of art are completed, as well as circumstances in which they are left unfinished. The kind of incompleteness I am talking about in this section is the “seemingly unfinished”, which engages an aesthetic called “non finito” in Italian.There are generally three reasons causing this type of incompleteness, accidental, intentional and the unexpected outcome of the complex working of the artist’s mind. The accidental one happens when artworks get interrupted by artist’s death, so I won’t elaborate much in this paper. The intentional one comes from the subjective nature of completeness——A work is complete only when the artist says it’s complete. The last one results from the ever-changing nature of an artist’s mind, and it is the one that resonates the most to my summer work. I started the project with a determined mind to finish it with as much perfection as I can approach. However, neither my landscape series or self-portrait can be seen as quite complete.

As for the landscapes, it has more seemingly incompleteness than the self portraits. I had limited time to paint at the river due to the lighting change and I moved on to a new canvas every day. I hung up my paintings in grid every day after I finished them chronologically. For the first few days, the desire of finishing the work made me overly anxious, and the project started to deviate from why I wanted to begin this project. What’s worse, going down to the river became an incredible pressure for me. Every second at the river was carried with fear ——the fear of failing to portray everything. My paintings became a average generalization with no focal point——when I see my painting, my eyes don’t know where to go. When thinking of a painting, most people expect most of the canvas to be filled if not all, and so do I. I want to capture what I see completely but painting plain air challenges that in a way that it gives you no border of seeing—-you can see as far as your eyes go and as much details as you can which sometimes distract you from the big picture. At the same time, I only had at most 4 hours to paint outside every day due to the lighting change. In order to fill the canvas in 4 hours, I could not go into great detail and my painting became very general. This got worse and worse every single day. All my doubts on whether I could paint burst out and I started to think maybe my drawing technique was not good enough or maybe I just don't have the eyes for painting. I felt like I could’t paint anymore. I wanted to quit. So I went to the river as it was my last time . I did not care about making a perfect painting anymore. I was just there. It was just me and the river. By the time i had to leave, only a third of the canvas is filled. As usual, I went back and hung it up. For the first time after so many days, I felt something in my painting. I felt a connection, between me and the river. I felt I was there. I was’t there to paint. I was just there. And it was my river, the rive that no one else can see the same. I was completely present to the moment. This shift in my painting really got me thinking ——why do most of us crave for completion? Why do we always see completion as one of the necessary qualities of a work? If we abandoned this conventional idea of completion, would things turn out better and people merrier while doing it, like what happened to the painting? Surely life is tick tocking and we all feel the urge to rush through for the fear of losing time. I am not against fast pace and efficiency. But how much of you really are there when completing it? Maybe to be human is to slow down, is to take your time, and to be totally present to the moment so that you get the worth of every second.

Incompleteness and self-portraits

However, the degree of incompletion obvious in the landscapes did not show up in my self-portraits. However, I do not see them as complete subjectively as I feel the need to keep working on them till it would be able to invoke my feeling when I look at it.

Therefore, the self-portraits brings up another question about completeness——when to decide if it is complete. Knowing when to stop is crucial to painters. Diligence may lead to over achievement which leaves viewers less room for active vision and imagination. Ancient Greek painter Apelles was known for “knew when to take his hand away from a picture”. As for me, I reworked on the same self-portraits every day so my painting process involves a certain degree of uncertainty and painting over some of my best work.

For example, I gessoed over one of my portraits to complete white. After a summer of working on it, I still did not see anything new in it, so I abandoned, more precisely —-destroyed it. Gesso is water-based white paint and it should not be used to paint over oil-painted surface for archival reasons. I reached a total negation or maybe a total cover-up in this portrait. I cannot really say that I wiped out any of my effort. It is still there, still on the painting. It is just underneath the white gesso. It feels more like hiding rather than negating. It’s the fear. It is the fear of not being able paint to a decent level of satisfaction. When I think of a successful portrait, I expect it to reveal personalities, emotions of the person as well as to interact with viewers as they fell how the person feels. But at the same time, I also fear revealing too much of myself.

Total Negation




The night before my summer research physically ended, the painting was without all the bright orange patterns on the top. It was the best looking one out of the three visually —— it looked most realistic and like me. But somehow, a part of me just didn't feel right. This self-portrait is a frontal view which gives viewers a full exposure of myself and while I was painting, I looked directly at myself in the mirror too. At the last moment, I added bright orange pattern which is a great contrast to the light blue background on top of the self-portrait. This change makes the portrait underneath seems dirty due to the high purity of the orange and blue, and it distract the focal point from the face to the meaningless pattern. It was my best portrait of the three. I achieved something, but I destroyed it the night before my research ended. In fact, this happens every day. The painting process was going badly every day as it took me forever to make a bit progress and once I made it I always paint it over. Or maybe I should say 99% of the time I make it get worse, and the other 1% of the time I make some great process and then I demolish it again.

What I wanted to do and the only thing that interests me is to put on canvas what I see. But it is simply impossible to paint a portrait. The more one works on a painting, the more impossible it becomes to finish it. With this amount of frustration, I still kept painting. I did not know what kept me going and I still don’t. But I remember how badly it was going for me every single day and I told myself there was no point of continuing anymore. Shall I give up? Maybe I should. That question replays on my head like a thousand times every day. If only I could accomplish one thing like even just doing an eye, for once, I would maybe have a chance to rest.

However, this frustration seems to help me stay on painting. I always feel the urge to just paint a little bit more. One out of ten times, I would get some tiny progress, but ten out of ten times, I demolish it again and want to work even more to get it back. Painting seems like a timeless thing to me. There really isn't a fixed way that yo could define a painting as complete. Completeness in painting is highly subjective. Rembrandt is said to have responded that: “A work is complete if the master’s intentions have been realized”, and Matisse claimed that a work is finished “when it represents my emotion very precisely and when I feel like there is nothing more to be added”. I am by no means any close to being a master, which only makes my work even less possible to achieve completeness. I wonder why knowing something is impossible did not stop me from keeping doing it. When I was young, I had the feeling that people could do anything they want if they try hard enough. Now I realize that maybe I cannot. I cannot do nothing. But I am still curious, curious about how far I can go, and that desire is what kept me working.