Though it continues to be popular, there hasn’t been any proper education about painting for a number of generations. Those few young people who can raise their thumbs off the touchpad long enough to hold a brush flounder with gimmicks and concepts.
If you doubt this, take a look at what can be accomplished by someone who has had the benefit of training and experience.
Bi Yuan Cheng was born in 1957 in China’s Jinan province. His father was interested in art and encouraged him to draw from the age of five. At 11, he was mentored by a professor of art and for years he worked with his pencil all week and presented his work for criticism on the weekend. Note: he was learning to draw. He mastered simple forms, shading and all sorts of ways to render texture. It was hard work, but that work had to be accomplished before the “fun” of colour was allowed.
Moving on to ZiangXi Art University, his rigorous training continued. His dedicated practice with colour theory stood him in good stead and he ranked high in the frequent competitions in the school and region. Upon graduation, he worked with site design and architecture, but mostly as a sculptor, eventually winning contracts for major civic works. In addition, he created numerous large-scale murals. Though he was one among many in China, I can’t think of another artist in Canada so well equipped.
Arriving in Edmonton in 1990, Bi completed 50 murals in Alberta. Since his recent move to White Rock, he has “retired” to a highly productive career making smaller paintings. The Western Canadian landscape is his sole subject now, and his paintings have an advanced Group of Seven flavour. Beyond that, his Chinese background provides him with immense traditional resources for painting rocks, water and mist. I sat with him last week and discussed his brilliant technique.
While almost every western painting is plotted on the vanishing-point perspective system, Bi arranges his planes like stage sets with empty, mystic spaces between. He told me that in western perspective, the farther elements become smaller, but in his paintings they don’t. His compositions are haunting, or immense.
He begins each work with a mid-toned ground, often fading this colour across the picture plane. The subtle richness of these colours bears close study. Years of practice with a pencil gave him a keen eye for tonal gradations and his ability to convey depth from background to foreground is sublime. With the exception of the talented Robert Genn, these are not phrases that often come to mind as I review other painters.
The dazzling confidence with which Bi inscribes the foregrounds is a result of an inherent understanding of Chinese calligraphy. No matter what the subject — rock, trees, snow — he “writes” it with the brush tip. The ability to convey organic form at any scale, whether a pebble or a mountain range, is essential to Chinese painting. And his years of sculptural work, carving and moulding clay, have provided him with a powerful sense of form. The resulting paintings breathe confidence and a contained strength.
The paintings could never be mistaken for anything derived from a photograph. While his subjects may appear “realistic,” a glance at his colour choices will tell you that his paintings are artistic inventions concocted from a blend of memory, imagination and experience. Dark indigo tree trunks, searing scarlet leaves and soft blue snow shadows set off a sun-warmed misty distance the colour of champagne. Bi told me that he had an excellent education in colour, but I think that colourists like him are born, not made.
For an artist with such training and experience, even large canvases can be painted with ease. Bi recently delivered a show to the Stephen Lowe Gallery in Calgary and has spent the past three months creating a new collection for the Avenue Gallery. I mention that as further evidence of how productive a proper professional painter can be. He seems to pour forth beauty as a bird sings.
Undoubtedly there will be those who say that Bi just manufactures living room-friendly decorative art without a thought to the gritty realities of life in the 21st century. That may be so, but for those thousands of artists in Victoria who would like to paint beautiful canvases evoking the harmonies of our natural world, the paintings of Bi Yuan Cheng eloquently demonstrate what is possible.
Bi Yuan Cheng at The Avenue Gallery, 2184 Oak Bay Ave., call 250-598-2184 or go to theavenuegallery.com.