An ongoing exchange of exercises, ideas and thoughts on art - drawing from a deeper involvement in the Chinese ink painting tradition & Chinese media with Hugh Moss - The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat.


12.07.23 (Hugh)
May I suggest a little exercise?  

Take strips of the heavier cloud-dragon paper, cut them into rectangles of similar size, smal or as big as you like, and then leave the flat base of the long side, and do some scissorwor on the rest to resemble mountain ranges, mountain brushrests, strange stones, whatever, but all suitable as brush-rests at this initial stage.

Now, you have the shapes, forget reality completely.  Turn over to the side with the roughe threads at the surface, and start randomly weathering the paper, any colours you like, try some more wet, some wait for them to dry, whatever you feel like.  But the crucial part is to cut yourself off from reality entirely, forget anything except confidence in marking the
paper.  You are no longer trying to paint a mountain, the mountain is already there in the shape, leaving you free to just dance with the medium.

Start with pale washes of whatever you like, but use a biggish brush and a lot of sideways dance.  Let the brush do the work, that's why it is called 'brushwork'. Whatever pigment you use for the first layer, do a bit on each of the images you’ve prepared, as this will give you a longer time on the first exercise of letting go of reality and just delighting in the process, of letting the medium dance with you rather than being led by you. You’ll find that by the time you get to the 8 th piece, you will be much freer in marking the paper.

The brushwork involved can be using the side brush, sliding the brush, twisting it as you go letting the hairs separate as they will – don’t be afraid to get rough with it – and movin slowly and quickly alternately to vary the markings that seep through. You can even load a big brush with different intensities of colour, so wet the brush first, then then lay one side into pale grey the other into a colour, then dance with it and see what happens.  Don't think about it, the only purpose of the dance is the dance. Just do it and try to remember not to ‘draw’ not to outline some image you have in mind, this stage is just texturing.  

CONFIDENCE  - that's what it is all about, so even if you don't think you earned it, or can' do it, or have the wrong coloured socks on for the job, ignore all that and whatever you do, do it with the utter confidence of a master.  Anything done with confidence will work eventually, however many changes the painting may go through as you follow the adventure. When you pick up a brush in Chinese painting, you are an adventure tourist, out to discover the world, the outside world of reality, and the inner world of the self. Once you get into the inner languages, confidence unites them in all timeless art.

When dry, turn them over and see what you have.  Then turn them back and do several more layers from the side you started on until you have overlapping patterns of lines bleeds and, overall, energy.  Each time you add a layer with utter confidence it will work - you don't have to make the eventual image realistic, you just have to make it exciting in all the languages.  They'll know what is intended, from the shape so you don't have to bother with the reality of the World of Red Dust – as the Chinese characterise everyday life. When you've done this enough times and the other side is offering serious possibilities for interpretation, start - but only once dry - on that side.

Fig. 1 shows the first stage of several layers on the rough side of the paper, fig. 2, the othe side, and you will see that you can really do whatever you like on the rough side of this thicker paper and it will come through fine as long as it was confidently applied. I’ve flipped one image so the shape is the same, but of course when you turn over the rough side, it would be the opposite shape with the pointy bit on the left.

Once you start to work on the smoother side of the paper, work from paler washes to darke ones in order to just separate forms and tickle out of the random images what you begin to see, but not yet with solid, dark lines – that is more difficult. You can leave an image at any stage, as even at the point of fig. 2 with nothing from the smooth side, it works as an image on a mountain brushrest.But if you do add, at this stage the game is still formal, and you are adding pale layers to integrate the patterns seeping through the paper with the patterns you add, so that each layer becomes more complex and more interesting. Each time you add a
pattern in a different wash, you base it on the rhythm of the previous layers, don't forget you are dancing, and your partner is the medium at this stage - you can dance with the audience later, for eternity in fact, which is what great art does, it dances with eternity. But in fact it does infinitely more, because creative response to experience, the kernel of evolving consciousness, is a conduit between our two ways of knowing, the full bandwidth of consciousness, it also grants access to the Dao, which is beyond intellectual definition but can be directly experienced.

If your confidence evaporates, always remember not to be afraid of the medium! A common problem with creative people is fear of blowing it once it seems to be going well! Once something is coming along nicely, one can tighten up, and start worrying about it, but remember, it is just a dance, and if you tread on your partner’s foot by mistake, it doesn’t matter – your partner here doesn’t feel the pain and can’t judge you, so it doesn’t matter how well or badly you dance as long as you do it confidently. With Chinese media you can keep on layering, getting darker and darker, as long as you mix pigments with water for transparency until you get to any eventual black ink.

Fig. 3 is several sheets from an album of images of such mountain brushrests, where I kept it very simple, and just added stands and left the mountains themselves with only the random back-painted markings.

The eight images were interspersed with pages of text, and then bound as an album. Don’t be afraid to leaves things simple, if it is working! The stands were also very simple here, just blocks of ‘wood’ in black to suggest wood rather than stone, and textured from the back again with probably just two or three layers – I think I texture a whole sheet of paper and then cut out the stands to fit the stones, which left them looking less contrived. In art the audience appreciates something obvious and explicable, particularly if still getting the hang of it, but the serious aesthetes in the audience, the once who will define the response to any artist’s work eventually, will want to reach past the surface meaning into the inner languages where the profundity is expressed, and profundity doesn’t have to be complicated – nor explicable in precise terms. The other advantage of keeping it simple is that without being skilled at the process as yet, you can still stop short of revealing that fact while producing a confident work of art. In this case the simplicity of the images is offset by further layers of meaning in the text, and the way it is written in calligraphic blocks between the stones, and in the seals, another lexical and formal element. So you might also consider adding layers of text and include the poetic meaning of such text as you choose to add. I just gave a lecture to the Zeng Fanzhi foundation on the Three Perfections of the Chinese ink-painting tradition - painting poetry and calligraphy - which is being made ready to send out at present, so I’ll add that later.

This process of rearranging simplicity into a complex work of art is great fun, and by having to order the results on another piece of paper, then mount it appropriately, you introduce a sculptural element to art form. You just keep re-arranging the elements until you are satisfied, a formal game which is both entertaining, creative and a very useful part of the learning process.

10.08.2023 (Katharine)

During the final week of my internship at an international gallery in Pedder Building Hong Kong in 2016, I was tasked to organise the gallery’s library and archive. I stumbled upon The Art of Understanding Art: A New Perspective, a book that offers a completely original and refreshing approach to understanding art, as the title suggests so bluntly. Of course, I was intrigued and ordered a copy when I returned to London later that autumn.

In the very turbulent summer of 2019, I decided to return to Hong Kong. Despite my bittersweet homecoming, I made new friendships and rekindled old ones and settled into Hong Kong a little more as I moved into my first studio. The events in 2019 and the pandemic subsequently signalled new waves of immigration and I departed once again not long after receiving my second vaccination.

After a busy year and a half, I was in Hong Kong to visit my parents and it was intended to be a two-week reunion before I caught myself spinning in the feelings wheel. Coincidentally, my friends Alex and Emma were also in town and they kindly invited me to a Chinese ink workshop at Hugh Moss's studio in the Southern District. I’ve previously visited the Master’s studio when Alex and Emma welcomed their first born. At the same point I discovered I was standing in Hugh’s studio, the author of the book I ordered several years back when Alex showed me a copy in the studio library.

This time, I brought my friend Maia with me, as she had recently begun experimenting with ink. Not knowing what to expect, we rocked up at the studio on a breezy Sunday afternoon.

We looked at many handscrolls and ink paintings by modern and contemporary artists such as Fang Zhao Ling, Liu Guo Song, Liu Dan, Ho Huai Shuo, some commissioned by the Master and others acquired. I am foreign to Chinese ink and have very limited knowledge about Chinese art history, let alone Chinese traditional painting. This was my first real introduction into Chinese art and Chinese aesthetic concepts. I felt so shaken to my core, I must confess I have not picked up my oil paintbrush in months.

Scholars enjoyed handscrolls as a means to escape from their mundane concerns, while I am clearly not one myself, the physical act of unrolling a handscroll and the experience of viewing it one section at a time has proven to be transformative.

We viewed the handscrolls together and jumped between a few at the same time, they revealed not only the scholar-artist’s nature or character, but also ask questions about the process-based approach in Eastern Art, and why readers (du hua - to read a painting) are encouraged to participate in the process through adding poetic responses and seals to the artwork itself. We were confronted with new expressive dimensions: our understanding of creative freedom between two distinct world views and how they point to the same goal through their respective truths.

Given the complexities of Hong Kong, the coming entries are by no means my attempt to learn, unlearn and relearn of all the skills and academic knowledge one acquires along the way, having immersed myself in the spirit of Western art while I plunge deeper into the world of Chinese Art and literati culture.

Many thanks to my supportive parents, I was afforded the opportunity to take painting classes outside of school. Despite the fact that I grew up in Hong Kong and attended local schools, my early training was mostly Western, with a heavy focus on Modern Art. My first art teachers are a couple who moved from Guangzhou in the early 90s. The wife adored Caran d’Ache so much, she secured a dealership with the Swiss label and made sure all of us share the same level of enthusiasm through various purchases. In fact, I still use the same set of wax pastels, oil pastels and water-soluble colour pencils. My first lesson began with a wax pastel copy of Degas’s Dancers in Blue (1897), Caran D’ache’s light blue remains my favourite blue from the Swiss label - the top-quality blue from childhood as I call it.

I grew up near a promenade towards the western end of Des Voeux Road West, a time well before it became a place for friendly brunches and the influx of expatriates. We moved between neighbourhoods on the island but we always stayed close to the ocean.

As a family, we travelled frequently. My mom has a great affinity for Switzerland, regarding it as one of the most beautiful countries, perhaps second to her favourite, New Zealand. I suspect it is for that reason, I am particularly drawn to mountains, caves, and the ocean.  

I have attempted to make paintings of landscapes with varying degrees of success in the past. I say paintings of landscapes because I am well aware of landscape painting as a highly well-established genre and I do not intend to become a landscape painter. Landscape painting developed into a distinctive genre in the late 8th Century in traditional China while it did not emerge as an independent genre in the Western tradition until the late 16th Century.

Some Chinese paintings are made in the literati style and some are made in gong-bi. At school, we were taught the importance of calligraphy and correct stroke orders. I would turn calligraphy homework into paint by numbers every time without fail, not to mention the calligraphy brush pens I purchased over the years. Chinese calligraphy embodies important aspects of the country’s intellectual and artistic heritage. Calligraphy is not only considered a visual art form but a reflection of one’s wisdom, refinement and cultivation.

Calligraphy is not to be mistaken for mere writing, the expressive potential and the subtle nuances of different strokes are traces of one’s personality. A sense of wonder is conveyed by written words - literacy and writing are held in high esteem in traditional China.

Creative elites in China pursued the ‘Three Perfections’ - painting, poetry and calligraphy. Art and literature are completely intertwined and a huge part of a scholar-artist’s social life centered around these refined pastimes. Inkstand, brush, ink and paper are known as the Four Treasures of the Study. Unlike in the West, painting is considered secondary to Calligraphy until the eleventh century.

I primarily work with oil paint and had stopped working with water-based mediums and pencil as I consider them less impactful than the former.

When I moved into my first studio in East London, I was disappointed to find that oil paint was unwelcome for the smell typically associated with the medium and the only other painter in my shared unit used watercolour. Little did I know, the magic of watercolour is slowing creeping back into my life. Recently, I’ve started to draw again as a way to reconnect with my childhood artistic self and to strip away prejudices about working with paper.

My dad is no mountain trekker but he would always try to book sightseeing tours that include stops at mountains like Mount Titlis, The Jungfrau and Matterhorn and sometimes hire out a helicopter when offered. In hindsight, I see the strong appeal in fully immersing oneself in the incredible sights of mighty mountain peaks and the adrenaline rush which I now associate with the symbolic meaning of mountains - a prominent theme in Chinese painting.

In July, I had the privilege to visit the Master at his retreat in Sussex. It was a 15th century Tudor Hall house on the borders of Kent. I did not know where to start looking as I entered, in fact I felt odd sensations of being pulled and in and out of a dream world. Above the fireplace in the living room hangs the plaque inscribed by Wu Chang Shuo with the calligraphy words Shui Song Shi Shan Fang (The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat) that Hugh has adopted as the estate’s title and the studio name that he works under.

Hugh toured me around the retreat and it became apparent to me that the retreat was as much as a space to live in and a place to dream. He moved beyond academic interests to becoming actively involved through dealing and later picking up the paint brush himself, the different transitions ultimately created this magical place that commands our full imaginative powers. Aside from the obvious display of his beautiful collection of marble panels, Chinese ink paintings, scholar rocks, snuff bottles, walking staves, Chinese furniture and more, the retreat paints a powerful dual portrait: belonging to two places at once. After the tour, Hugh gave me a brief tutorial on Chinese ink painting basics and gave me xuan paper to bring home and experiment with.

I came away deeply moved and inspired by my day out in the countryside. It felt like something was ignited within me. The visit prompted me to reconsider what is acceptable and what is not within the surface of painting and if format matters at all. The point is not to revive a traditional medium or the distinctions between Western and Eastern approaches but the infinite possibilities that radical creative freedom brings.

Pigeonholed categories will continue to give rise to situations like our historical counterparts and so-called critical and commercial success have little to do with painters’ commitment to painting and their true capabilities. To inspect the world from unrestricted, shifting points of view like the figure that appears repeatedly in handscrolls. Simply put, the world is your oyster.

Art is this undeniable link that has enabled me to connect with my friends and loved ones and has brought me to stranger places in this world. The ink workshop became a special bond between me and Maia that we would not have otherwise gained, albeit our very different outlook on art and life. Looking back, my gallery internship that was intended to pass time in Hong Kong unknowingly shaped my artistic growth in the years that followed. Art changed my life, need I say more?

Here are images of my preliminary attempts at using Chinese ink - a fun exercise suggested by Hugh. Even though I made a fatal mistake by painting on the glass so colours did not show very well, I got a lot out of using the Chinese brush. Unlike holding a pen, the Chinese way of holding a brush is deceptively disciplined, requiring more use of the elbow and wrist to manipulate the tip of the brush, allowing for more room to achieve a wider range of brush marks - somewhat similar to playing louder notes on the piano without the pedal.

During the pandemic, I observed a heavy focus on non-white art, where the identity and ethics become a foreground part of the work and ‘suddenly’ we have a foothold in the art world. In today’s world, the organic relationship between the artist and their medium is overshadowed by political and socio-economic concerns.

The greater attention being given to Asian artists was disconcerting. The division feels unnecessary and superficial given the globalised world that we live in.

My experience significantly differs from the diaspora community, however it is difficult not to draw a connection between the different cultural and racial powers that continues to engage and question their respective rich heritage while being confronted with cultural, economic and political realities.

Hong Kong was unreasonably labelled a ‘cultural desert’ for the lack of art and culture enrichment. After many years of anticipation, M+ Museum had finally opened its doors in 2021 since its inception in 2007, although facing a drastically different set of challenges as Asia’s first global museum dedicated to visual culture.

In my constant ruminations about how one moves through the world, the value of pride in one’s cultural heritage remains inarticulate for me. Without discernible reasons, there is a negotiation at work in my pieces. After a decade, webs of cross-cultural dialogues finally began to form for me and it feels like the world has opened up like never before. As this ongoing series of exercises, ideas and thoughts progresses, I hope it builds into a meaningful exchange for us in exploring the depths of Chinese Art while roaming freely between the rushes of urban life and the otherworldly landscapes in the space of infinity.