Charcoal Paintings Truer to Life Than Photos

June 4, 2019
By Gu WentongEditor: Wei Xuanyi
Charcoal paintings [tanjinghua.com]

 

Do you believe one may use charcoal and a paint brush to create paintings that are truer to life than photos? If you take the time to examine exquisite charcoal paintings, you will no doubt be impressed by the artists' skills. Many of the paintings are of high artistic and practical value.

Historical Development

Charcoal was a key component of cave drawings, with examples dating back at least 28,000 years. Charcoal drawings on cave walls were the first recorded art and visual record of man. Charcoal has transcended man's history. Nowadays, it is still a popular medium for painting.

Before the technology of photography was introduced to China during the 1840s, many Chinese employed artists to paint portraits for themselves or their friends or relatives, to keep memories of their loved ones. Charcoal portraits, which are a genre of portraits, originated during the late Qing Dynasty (1840-1911), at roughly the same time that Western paintings were introduced to China.

As charcoal paintings grew in popularity with average people during the 1930s, crafts people, in different regions of the country, established studios to create the paintings for residents. To attract customers, many studios hung their masterpieces (including charcoal portraits of film stars) on their studio walls, or displayed the works in the display windows in front of the studios.

After the People's Republic of Chin a w as founded, in 1949, many studios displayed charcoal portraits of national, provincial or municipal model workers in and/or outside their studios, to attract customers. Interesting enough, quite a few studios displayed the portrait of Qi Baishi (1864-1957, an influential Chinese painter), who had a long beard, to show the artistic charm of their works.

The artworks were hugely popular in China during the 1980s and 1990s. However, as the photography and computer painting technologies became increasingly popular among Chinese, the art form began to wane. Despite the odds, artisans have dedicated their lives to inheriting the traditional cultural heritage and promoting development of the traditional craft.

Painting Realistically

When you marvel at the unique beauty of charcoal paintings, you might not be aware of how much effort craftspeople devoted to making the items. Creating the paintings involves several complicated procedures. Take the creation of a charcoal portrait as an example. First, a craftsman observes and measures the precise distance between the eyes, nose and mouth (of the figure in the photo provided by a customer). That is crucial to capturing an accurate likeness of the figure. Then, the craftsman carefully establishes the position of the head on the page and plots the proportions of the face.

When the craftsman is happy with the placement and proportions of the head, he dips painting brushes in powdered charcoal and begins to outline the features of the face in more detail. Accurate observation is the key to achieving a good likeness in a portrait. Building up the tones and details of the face requires a cautious, step-by-step approach. Drawing details with a charcoal pencil is much the same as using an ordinary pencil. However, the craftsman has to paint in a more restrained manner, so he will not overwork his painting as he uses dark charcoal pigments to paint. The craftsman also has to sharpen his charcoal pencil more often, to capture intricate details. After that, the craftsman sprays a fixative agent (gummy liquid sprayed on a drawing to prevent blurring) on his painting to prevent smudging. Finally, he frames the item.

Jing Jizu is an inheritor of the craft of creating charcoal paintings. The one meter-plus-high charcoal portrait of Mei Lanfang (1894- 1961, a notable Peking opera artist), hangs on the studio's wall. The painting is one of the works that has given Jing the greatest satisfaction.

Jing began learning, from Jing Chu (his father, who was a well-known painter in Zhoushan), how to paint portraits when he was a little boy. He began making portraits for residents when he was 15 years old. In 1997, he established a studio. As a result of his constant, painstaking efforts to improve his craft-making skills during the past several decades, he has become a skilled craftsman.

Creating a charcoal portrait is time consuming, and the work requires tremendous patience. However, Jing has never given up on his pursuit of artistic perfection. With his enthusiasm for beautiful things, and his persevering effort to improve his artistic skills, he has created many charcoal paintings that have captured their "vigorous vitality" during the past several decades.

Despite his advanced age, Jing takes delight in promoting the traditional craft. "My biggest wish is to pass on my craft-making skills to more young people. I also hope more people will understand the beauty of the art form," says Jing.

 

(Women of China)

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