In spite of the intense and scorching heat of August, Wei Zhijian's art house shows a serene atmosphere where two apprentices are writing and painting. A feisty black kitten frolics about, reflecting the leisurely atmosphere of the house. Prior to starting the Shanghan Rock Color Painting Art House in 2015, Wei had served in a public-sector organization for over a decade. She has experimented with paintbrushes since her teenage years and gradually began rock color painting after specializing in traditional landscape painting and realistic paintings in 2000.
Rock color painting, a reinvented ancient artistic form in Chinese art history, has opened a whole new world for Wei Zhijian and her apprentices. Step by step, they are trying to find ways to adapt this classic technique to modern times.
In the summer of 2014 - 12 years since she first started to study rock color painting, Wei and her students were invited to paint a mural for the Shuofa Hall (Hall of Buddha Dharma Interpretation) of Wenshu Monastery. Using pulverized rock as the pigment, they created marvelous patterns on wall. Dark cyan clouds, vermilion ribbon bands and marble-white moonlight, all embodied the superb painting techniques and use of colors typical of ancient Chinese murals.
After the Tang and Song Dynasties, scholars painted pictures with ink to express their inner worlds. Before the Tang and Song Dynasties, colors played a more important role in Chinese painting. The use of natural pigments traces back to Neolithic colored pottery, while the murals of Dunhuang, are one of the most prestigious heritages in Wei's opinion.
Today's rock color painters have the technique of using Chinese colors in Dunhuang murals. Wei believes that the natural pigments of Dunhuang mural paintings perfectly conform to the oriental philosophy of metempsychosis and the oneness of man and nature. Usually, Wei likes to paint Buddha and murals for temples. At the beginning of their study, her students have to facsimile Dunhuang murals. This is an experience of recapturing the ancient techniques, or to some extent, redeeming the colors as the way they once were.
The exhibition of Dunhuang's mural paintings held by Chengdu Museum in the beginning of this year created much of a stir. According to Wei, valuable legacies of murals using natural pigments, outside Dunhuang, are still seen in Central China, such as Yongle Palace and Fahai Temple. She also mentioned that the mural paintings of Guanyin Temple in Xinjin County, Chengdu. They are still gorgeous and incredible as ever, and 600 years of weathering hasn't been able to extinguish their dim yet aesthetic glow. Wei wishes to reconstruct ancient murals with ancient techniques. By doing so, she expects to display the murals of Guanyin Temple in exhibition hall to attract more attention. "We intend to apply for a grant to make a replica of the mural paintings of Guanyin Temple......It is really a pity if these murals fade away."
The use of colors in ancient China was not only seen in Buddhist murals. Although paintings with exact delineation and enriched colors, rock paintings, silk paintings and lacquer paintings adopt natural mineral pigments in the same way as modern rock color painting does, they are different from the latter. After the Tang and Song Dynasties, landscape paintings flourished with more emphasis on the inner life and spirit of scholars. Hues paid more attention to materials and techniques. It's said that "overemphasis on the shape buried the use of colors in Chinese paintings." Fortunately, Japanese envoys of the Tang Dynasty introduced the use of colors into Japan, passing it down to this day from generation to generation.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a group of Chinese painters returned to China after studying in Japan. "We realized that China is the birthplace of mineral pigments in Japan and would like to bring them back," Wei said. In 2002, Wei studied rock color painting in Renmin University of China under the mentorship of Wang Xiongfei, an early pioneer of China's rock color painting once studied in Japan. "The modern rock color paintings, compared with the ancient ones, have shifted to creating heavy-color pigment and technique innovation. Such paintings required tiny powdery material. Now, with different particle sizes, more hues and chromatic indexes are added to rock color paintings."
Dedicated to painting for many years, Wei holds an integrated view of Chinese art. She believes that ink painting is indeed a high realm of expression. But the more she paints, the more bored she feels. Through rock color painting, she can find numerous possibilities.
"It is pretty fun!" When it comes to practice, Wei can talk all day. "Materials like red sand and ochre can be easily found outdoors in Sichuan, such as Xichang, Panzhihua and Ya'an. Take a rock for example," "if we are lucky, it can be made into two different colors." "There are also gem-grade pigments which are usually more expensive." "Some of the materials we use have heavy crystal particles, enriching the colors in the paintings. The rock colors in the under painting could bring out unexpected amazing effects."
On the easels, the base boards of the paintings made by Wei's apprentices are still wet. Some of them are like flowing water and some like clouds floating in the sky. "Anything goes in rock color paintings - perspectives, lights and shadows, sketches, ink paintings, watercolors or realistic paintings." "Rock color paintings are all-inclusive, so they have promising prospects."
This May, the first Sichuan rock color painting exhibition was launched at the Sichuan Art Museum. Wei organized local painters, school teachers and students to participate in the exhibition. Regardless of the styles that these exhibits may adopt, whether abstract and modern or minimalist romantic, Wei stresses the importance of one thing – painting the works with native materials. In front of a Buddha painting of the Grottos of Danling, she sighed with delight, "The red sandstones in this painting are all from Danling. That's a good sign, isn't it?"