Capturing the Spirit of Your Subject

“I want, in my portraits, for the eyes to look at you,” says Z. L. Feng. “People’s faces are like landscapes: You have to make the proportions right, joining the parts together to convey the soul.” The artist recounts the moment that was his inspiration: “While I was hiking in the Himalayas of Tibet, there was a strong wind, so strong that it blew the hat off my head and lifted up my hair. I couldn’t catch the moment in paint right there, but I was so impressed with that moment that I remembered it later, in my studio.”

Rather than paint a self-portrait, Feng transposed his experience of the mountain wind onto a Tibetan he encountered by chance. “I did a number of quick (10 or 15 minute), not very detailed, sketches on site—talking to the man as he posed. He liked posing. Through sketching, I wanted to get a sense of his personality. In addition, I took photographs of him at different angles. I even shot him with a video camera, because I like to show my students what the model actually looked like so they can realize that the resulting painting isn’t 100 percent faithful to the truth. The artist has license to change what’s there.”

In the studio, Feng worked on cold-pressed Lana paper—starting with a 4-inch flat sable brush, then switching to a 2-inch and a 1-inch and finally using a rigger for the finest details. “I started with a quick sketch right on the paper, then I started washing in the face. I worked wet-into-wet, because I like that effect. When the paper was still partly wet, I did the background and the hair. In some areas I left the paper white and let the colors drip (I work on an easel) in Mountain Wind. Formerly an assistant professor at Shanghai Teachers University, Feng decided to come to this country in 1986; now an associate professor at Radford University in Virginia, he says, “I feel as if I’m uniting the Eastern and Western traditions. I teach studio classes in traditional technique and experimental watercolor, and I like to introduce my students to top watercolor artists. My students have new ideas and a sense that there are no restrictions. I tell them, ‘I don’t want you only to learn from me. I want to learn from you.’ “

“I like to quote Andrew Wyeth, ‘There are no weak mediums, just weak artists,’ ” says Donald Clegg. “Wyeth is still one of my favorites. I don’t give a damn about his subject matter; I love his compositions.” The National Watercolor Society awarded Clegg signature membership in 1999. He makes his home and tends his garden in Spokane, Washington.

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