Altered thinking: transmit by copying

Something special seemed appropriate to mark my 100th blog post. I had long thought a large wall scroll depicting the four gentlemen—bamboo, orchid, plum and mum—would be a suitable achievement.


This little three-fold  panel created for a display case at an art show is the closest I’ve come to painting all Four Gentlemen in one composition.

With the occasional prod from Bird Woman and frequent questions from new members in my two art groups, I determined it was time to expound on one of the most puzzling principles of Oriental brush painting: it is okay to copy, in fact you should endeavor to copy!

Of all the ancient wisdom passed down from master painters of old, the concept of ‘learning by copying’ can be troubling to the western mind. It is so ‘not right’ to take the creative work of another and try to replicate it or worse yet, present the results as your own!

East vs. west on copycat thinking:

But in oriental painting there are some subtle considerations to this trusted maxim for learning by ‘copying’. Even among westerners there has been some recognition that the work of another may provide great inspiration to alter, redefine, or transform an idea. A contemporary London-based author/artist, Nick Bantock, captured the essence in his book The Trickster’s Hat, a Mischievous Apprenticeship in Creativity:

To copy another person’s work without trying to understand and reinvent it is plagiarism.  But to imbibe it, reconstitute it, and breathe a fresh life into it, that’s different.  That’s how we learn and grow. The Impressionists were strongly influenced by Japanese woodcuts, the Cubists by African masks; everywhere you look though the history of art there are artists learning from others by observation and interpretation.

Author Kris Schiermeier in Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement (2013)  devotes several pages to an essay titled Imitation or Innovation?  Therein he explores how much Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh drew from his knowledge of Japanese iris paintings. Re-invention it was for sure.

The oriental tradition of copying in painting and calligraphy was a method aimed at the formulation of personal style. Exact replicas were not seen as the goal, instead artists copied in order to gain techniques and to probe the essential qualities of a past master’s style. Direct copying through grid, pounce, and tracing techniques was also done to preserve and transmit the work of masters. Tracings and rubbings became major pedagogical sources for artistic training and workshop practice. Calligraphy copybooks and painting manuals were thus created to provide standard models for teaching, the most famous of which is our beloved Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting. (For more on those old methods of transferring knowledge see this essay.)

Where it all began: canon six:

Most instructional books that do address the reasoning for ‘learning by copying’ cite a very old set of principles. Fifth century writer, Chinese art historian, and critic Xie Hie summarized six elements that define a painting. All six canons are worth looking at, but it is the sixth one that challenges the western mind.   Here are all six:

  1. “Spirit Resonance”, or vitality, which refers to the flow of energy that encompasses theme, work, and artist. Xie He said that without Spirit Resonance, there was no need to look further.
  2. “Bone Method”, or the way of using the brush, refers not only to texture and brush stroke, but to the close link between handwriting and personality. In his day, the art of calligraphy was inseparable from painting.
  3. “Correspondence to the Object”, or the depicting of form, which would include shape and line.
  4. “Suitability to Type”, or the application of color, including layers, value, and tone.
  5. “Division and Planning”, or placing and arrangement, corresponding to composition, space, and depth.
  6. “Transmission by Copying”, or the copying of models, not from life only but also from the works of antiquity.

My online hunting sometimes leads to treasures such as this 1949 book that is more theory than art instruction.  The original owner’s annotations were also insightful as she studied in China for several years.

While various CBP books devote a few paragraphs to the concept of copying as a traditional route to learning, my library has at least one that tackles the issue in a full chapter. Kai-Yu Hsu and Catherine Wu take it on in chapter five of their Magic of the Brush with “The importance of copying”.

They note that even the Mustard Seed Garden Manual urged “basic design should be according to tradition”.

Hsu and Wu assert that for calligraphy characters basically possess definite forms, and westerners understand that using those symbols is not much different than our own ways of printing and writing. We do acknowledge that scrolls filled with meticulously executed calligraphy are works of art, but the western equivalent of fine penmanship has never reached quite the same stature.

For painting, however, Hsu and Wu write “copying a model constitutes the process of learning the master’s vocabulary—how to paint a tree, a rock, a flower, etc. It is also a process of learning how the master looked at things. Copying enables the student to share the master’s optical experience as well as his technique of capturing this very optical experience.”

In short, they maintain  “in copying a master work the student is sharing the master’s mind”. One needs to be reminded that traditional Chinese brush painters do not paint with the real object in front of them; rather, they observe objects and then in the quiet space of a studio recall the experience and record it on paper. They seek to recreate the optical experience from the mind’s eye. Hsu and Wu liken the process to that of a musical performance: while a later pianist may play the same famous composition, his interpretation of it on the instrument constitutes an original art of his own.

Friends of the brush, paint on! (The subtleties as I see ‘em)

So yes, there is much to be learned by trying to emulate another’s work. And if you take the work of an acclaimed master as your subject matter, then you do indeed get drawn into his methods and meanings. BUT there are limitations. For centuries Chinese brush painters have also acknowledged their mentors through the time-honored manner of inscribing ‘in the manner of….’ on their work. We should do the same.  In the painting style known as gongbi, it is allowable to trace the outline of a subject from an instructional book  because the artistry is in the layering and toning you give to your creation. It is NOT okay to trace the shape of a composition painted in the outline  method of the xieyi style, and then add your brushwork for the details.  The result is NOT gongbi and it is NOT your creation. You can of course at any time work up a sketch with pencil and eraser until you are satisfied with it, and then place it under your paper while you establish faint outlines for the objects. That is all YOUR work; you can’t plagiarize yourself by definition.

It is extremely challenging to study another’s work and practice to the extent that you can actually execute a composition that truly resembles the original. Knowing the Chinese love of puzzles, I can see that in some circles that would be subject material for ‘salon’ entertainment!

Being able to paint such that your work could widely fool art historians and critics would mean an accomplishment of sorts, for sure, BUT presenting your work to be the works of those you copied would indeed be fraudulent. Just as in western society, passing off a creation as the work of another for financial gain in China is deemed fraudulent. There have a been a few painters who have indeed gone that route, the best-known in recent times being the great master lotus painter, Chang Da-Chien. He allegedly also explored ink and paper composition to assist in his presentations.

In some discussion of Da-Chien’s artistry the point is made that such skill level is only seen once every 500 years. Having worked diligently for several years now, only occasionally stumbling on one perfect bamboo leaf, or one amazing bird’s claw, flower petal, horse tail, etc. I know for sure that ‘learning by copying’ has great merit. In practice, it is far more challenging than most people can imagine to actually achieve a true likeness of a master’s work. So, my friends, therein lies the rub!

Now back to my bamboo painting…. one leaf at a time.

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