Cheng-Khee Chee Explains Watercolor Traditions

This Q&A by Cheng-Khee Chee first appeared in the Ask the Experts column of the April 2015 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

Q. How do Western and Eastern watercolor traditions and techniques differ?

Cheng-Khee Chee’s Answer:

A work of art represents the expression of an artist, and creativity is strongly influenced by the artist’s cultural and geographical background and the materials he or she uses. Art historians have analyzed and compared the characteristics of Western and Eastern watercolor techniques, and I’ve summarized their findings in the table Artistic Traditions From East to West (below). Since the two oldest artistic traditions representative of the East and West are those of China and Europe, historians generally use the term “East” to refer to China and other Far Eastern countries, such as Japan and Korea, and the term “West” to refer to refer to Europe.

 

Artistic Traditions From East to West

East-West-Art-Traditions.jpg

 

Traditional Chinese or other Far Eastern painting emphasizes ideas, spiritual qualities, brushwork and ink tone. Eastern artists paint on exquisite, thin, unsized (uncoated, thus absorbent) paper or silk. On such a surface, making changes is difficult; therefore, the work must be executed with speed and spontaneity. The brushwork is extremely important because it’s influenced by Chinese calligraphy. Although intended as a means of communication, Chinese calligraphy has become a pure abstract expressionist art form, due to the subtle interaction of sensitive brushwork and rice paper. Calligraphers who make the most “honest” marks transmit their feelings directly from their hearts through the brush to the sensitive rice paper; thus, Chinese calligraphy is as important an art form as painting is.

The traditional Western watercolor painting emphasizes reality and physical likeness through chiaroscuro techniques, attention to light and color, and a single perspective as observed in life or en plein air. The typical surface for Western watercolors is sized, heavy cotton or linen watercolor paper; as a result, artists can either paint wet-into-wet or gradually build layers of paint by glazing. Making changes is relatively easy.

Jesuit missionaries introduced Western-style watercolor painting to China as early as the 19th century. In 1911, the Republic of China was established, and the May Fourth Movement, representing, among other things, a cultural and social departure from traditional Chinese ideas, followed in 1919. The younger generation was eagerly looking to the West for inspiration. The new Chinese educational system was modeled after that of the West, and Western-style watercolor painting was incorporated into the Chinese curriculum. As a consequence, when Chinese artists paint Western-style watercolors, they use Western materials and techniques, but it’s also natural for them to incorporate Eastern elements. —Cheng-Khee Chee

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