East Meets West, Part 2 | Chinese Master Pastelists and the Future of the Medium

In last week’s post, I shared an overview of the week that I and nine other international pastel artists spent in Suzhou, China, for the 1st China (Suzhou) Biennial International Pastel Art Exhibition and Symposium. The last day of the trip was reserved for the opening ceremonies of the exhibition and was to concluded with a gathering of the 20 invited pastel master artists for a symposium on pastel. As we entered the lobby of the hotel for transport to the exhibit that morning, we were greeted by many of the Chinese master pastelists for the first time. They had graciously come with signed copies of books and catalogs which contained their works. It was a treat to see the beauty that they had been creating for decades in the medium of pastel. After reviewing the books, I was reminded of how little I had known about the Russian Impressionist painters until after the demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent opening of communication with the West. Here were these amazing Chinese artists, many in their late seventies and eighties, whom I had never heard of before.


Artists Alan Flattmann, Jimmy Wright and Richard McKinley at the Suzhou exhibition opening.

Upon entering the exhibition, I quickly scanned the paintings on display and was instantly impressed with the diversity and yet similarity of techniques and styles exemplified by the paintings representing the East and West. Some were large, others small; some bold, others delicate; some romantic, others jarring. It was the same diversity I often see when jurying a national exhibition in the United States. While the subject matter may have represented our diversity, the aesthetics were similar.


Chinese Master Hang Mingshi and Jimmy Wright introduce the respective artists representing the East and West at the opening ceremonies of the Suzhou exhibition.

The ceremony to hail the opening of the exhibition was well attended and a standing-room-only crowd amassed to hear the local officials, organizers, and eminent art masters share their combined enthusiasm for the event. After adjourning, we again had an opportunity to view the exhibition, take numerous photographs recording the event, and sign many exhibition catalogs. Artists were connected with their paintings. Handshakes and eye contact translated our mutual admiration.


Richard McKinley stands with artist Gwenneth Barth-White, who had the pleasure of representing both France and the United States at the event.

After a brief rest and luncheon banquet (Have I mentioned the fabulous foods we experienced?), we were taken to the symposium location. The 10 international pastelists were seated along one side of a table and the Chinese artists on the other. The event opened with a presentation by Pastel Society of America President Jimmy Wright. Jimmy presented a wonderful history of pastel in America from its inception to the present day masters of the medium. This was followed by a presentation from one of the Chinese pastelists on his portrait and figurative works. Upon completion, the Chinese moderator began the symposium and the Spanish delegation started what became a sincere roundtable of the West thanking its Chinese hosts for the opportunity to have experienced what the East had to offer in pastel. When the microphone returned to the moderator, the tone of the dialogue shifted as he asked a very valid question, “What and where is the new in pastel from the West?” Whether lost in translation or not, the question created a lot of passion among the Western representatives. As a back and forth ensued, other Chinese masters became engaged. It became clear to us that the question was not just aimed at the West, but also to those in the East who worked in a more traditional manner. As thoughts were exchanged, it became very evident that while some may have disagreed with the notion of the “new” in art and others were pushing for its promotion, we universally agreed that the future of pastel lies in the hands of the youth. It is for all of us to enthusiastically promote the merits of pastel as a viable painting medium across cultural boundaries and for the youth to do with it what they will. The medium is on the world stage now and in the hands of the next generation!

As I began my long trip home, I reflected on the events in China. Personally, I was deeply touched by the university art students and Chinese Master Hang Mingshi. His dedication to fine art and his enthusiasm for sharing with subsequent generations was infectious. After the symposium on the final day, I was very pleased to have had the opportunity, with the considerable help of a translator, to interact with many of the other master Chinese pastel artists. As one master mentioned, “We may have trouble with spoken communication, but the visual communication through our artwork is universally understood.” They have known of us and now we know of them. Pastel will be all the better for the exchange.


The official photo of the exhibiting artists, sponsors, organizers, and government representatives in front of the Hang Mingshi Pastel Art Museum which hosted the exhibition.






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