Ming Zhang

Yongli Tang, Dream of Dunhuang (Series): Memories of Childhood, 136 x 136cm, 1998 (Copyright: The artist)

Innovation in Chinese Meticulous Figure Painting

A quick review of traditional Chinese Meticulous figure works


Chinese traditional painting could be broadly partitioned by the style into Meticulous and Freestyle. In China, Meticulous is also called “Gongbi” which literally means “tidy”. Traditional meticulous painting is a careful and realistic technique that incorporates the most intricate details and vivid color to describe narrative screens, often featuring figures.


One of the earliest meticulous paintings was made over 2000 years ago during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220 AD). At that time, both the political stability and affluent life provided an environment which would nurture a significant development in creating meticulous painting.


Traditional Chinese meticulous figure painting reached its heyday of popularity in traditional Chinese culture during Tang Dynasty (7th-9th Century). At that time, it was all the rage for Chinese royalty to collect and commission meticulous works. Then, due to the rise of freehand painting, the creating of meticulous figure painting had been gradually declining during Song and Yuan Dynasties (9th -13th century).  It only appeared in the folk murals and folk art. The development of meticulous painting had been almost stopped until 1980.


When China was beginning to reform and to open up in the 1980s, all ranges of society have significantly changed and a plenty of foreign culture have come, which leads to a profound impact on Chinese art. At this time, it was extremely difficult for meticulous figure creating, as a traditional characterization, to reflect the social reality and modern aesthetic tastes and to manifest its vitality.

  • Ming Zhang
    Ming Zhang

    The importance of the series entitled by "Dream of Dunhuang"


    The Dunhuang Dreams series from the 1990s marked the emergence of a new opportunity for meticulous figure painting. After his in-depth study of the Dunhuang murals and his many field trips, Yongli Tang drew inspiration, adhered to the core of traditional painting and incorporated the expressive strengths of Western painting to achieve a bold innovation in artistic expression.

    In the creating of meticulous figure paintings, there are three crucial ingredients, including the use of line, modeling and coloring.


    Modeling and Line

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    Fig. 2: Part of painting of hairpin ladies in the Tang Dynasty (Zhou Fang [active late 8th–early 9th century] Ladies Wearing Flowers in Their Hair, handscroll, ink and color on silk, 46 x 180 cm. Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang province, China - copyright: public domain / Wiki Commons)

    Fig.3: Part of childhood memories (copyright: the artist)


    Line is the most basic language of Chinese painting, and Chinese painting is concerned with the use of frames and calligraphy and focused on the expression of the structure and rhythm of the object's form, instead of the shading and the in-depth of the object. The series of works is mainly presented by the use of line in the traditional painting while the shading and the linear perspective of the sketch is enlighteningly integrated in the form of relief.  The series Dream of Dunhuang innovatively uses linear sketches to portray and shape exaggerated figures, with extreme variations between lines. The spirit of the lines fits the mood created by the picture, while the light and dark faces are integrated to provide a detailed portrayal of the main figure. The juxtaposition of realistic and extracted Dunhuang symbols, modern and ancient figures, temporal and spatial wholeness, and a conceptual form of expression are harmoniously presented in the picture, and the modeling has both traditional cultural roots and modernity.


    Dunhuang murals have undergone thousands of years of natural and man-made changes in color, with some peeling and mutilating. It looks like a rich, deep, ancient palette that allows the viewer to achieve a secondary aesthetic pleasure. Being in the sacred, quiet rock cave, the soul is purified, and the individual remains in the flow of the years, achieving spiritual transcendence.


    In order to pursue the sense of history in Dunhuang murals, Yongli Tang used Black and White as the main colors and interspersed with azurite, stone green, earth red and other traditional colors for embellishment. The color of cooked brown was used to present the figures’ skin. The author could not be confined with the realistic object so that he exaggerated color changes to highlight the subjective emotional orientation of the picture.

    In the series of works, virtual dyeing method was innovatively applied to highlight the freehand of the picture.  Dyeing high places or low places could be switched freely according to needs, and dyeing is not limited by the line, which presents a vague sense of void.  In addition to the traditional color setting techniques, for example, flat painting, rendering and over-dyeing, the author developed the method of shedding. The thick painting and shedding methods set off each other. To be more precise, the author piled up degummed white powder on the base color, then chafed and patted, with some of the white powder falling off naturally. The rest was blended with the base color.  The use of large areas of white color does not cause the picture to be chalky. During the painting process the shedding of white color is like the painting of the freehand work. With the controlled brushwork, there are uncontrollable and accidental factors, which gives the mottled and dappled left on the murals by the years. The thickness, light and dark, cold and warm of the white color is presented in an exceptionally subtle way, creating a harmonious and quiet relationship between religious culture and modern beliefs.

    Material Texture

    Stable social and cultural environment made the painting language of meticulous painting was solely and smoothly developed for quite a long time. In the late 1980s, political, economic and cultural changes leaded to the activation of the painting community and the reflection on tradition. New painting materials were triggered a change in creative thinking.


    In his artistic practice, Tang Yongli discovered the texture beauty of the materials and used it in the painting process: mineral colors have a sense of luster, strong covering power, and can be repeatedly modified; the watercolor is rich and delicate; the shedding effect of degummed white powder reproduces the oxidation and wind erosion of mural; the layering of these colors gives the picture a sufficient sense of history and ethereal inspiration. Tang Yongli uses this as an opportunity for a new language, to expand and to strengthen it, as well as to form a new language paradigm. The beauty of the material texture becomes part of the creation and an aspect of the work to be tasted. The author chooses colored silk as the bearer, which is tough and can be used in a variety of techniques such as thick painting, shedding and reverse painting, and pigments such as ink, mineral color, lithopone powder and watercolor are used.


    Classical meticulous painting can only do addition, not subtraction. The use of these material techniques breaks the border of the painting on silk. It also allows us to add and subtract freely and to change a single direction to a multi-directional expression (i.e., highly realizing self-consciousness).  The expression of the free state of mind, workmanship, painting, color, texture and other factors become a new organism.


    The series of Dunhuang Dream presents the interaction of multiple factors, scholarly artistic interrogation and the creation of diffuse imagery, as well as the attribution and transmission of spirit. It opens artistic horizons for the modern development of meticulous painting. The development of Chinese contemporary art has always been to move forward with the review and inheriting of history. They find visual art resources to reinterpret, redevelop and re-create them with a contemporary view, thinking and aesthetics, which will form a dynamic and growing tradition.