A young artist revives traditional painting technique
By Li Xiaoyang  ·  2022-06-20  ·   Source: NO.25 JUNE 23, 2022
Lian Yang in her Beijing art studio (COURTESY PHOTO)

Dunhuang, an oasis of culture surrounded by the vast sands of the Gobi Desert, served as a refuge for ancient weary Silk Road travelers 1,000 years ago. Carved into the cliffs high above the Dachuan River, the Mogao Grottoes southeast of this city in Gansu Province comprise the largest, most richly endowed, and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art in the world, inspiring young artists to this very day.

Inside the grottoes, murals painted with mineral pigments have stood the test of time, still shining bright and brilliant. To carry forward this painting technique, Lian Yang (pseudonym), an artist in her 30s known widely by this name, started from scratch, determined to make the traditional art increasingly known among younger generations. 

She was born in Dazhou, Sichuan Province, thousands of kilometers from Dunhuang. Following her graduation from Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2008, she set up her own art studio in the capital and became a full-time artist in 2012. She once worked solely on ink and digital painting, but soon realized she was starting to feel creatively stumped. Around that time, she first learned about mineral color painting, which struck a creative chord with her and eventually became the focus of her ensuing career.

The traditional Chinese painting technique was commonly used before the Tang Dynasty (618-907), mainly on murals, screens and statues. According to Lian Yang, mineral color painting had been transferred over from China to Japan during the Tang. Since then, Japanese artists have attached great importance to the art. However, the skill gradually faded from the central Chinese artistic landscape after the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when literati ink painting boomed.

To gain more mineral color painting know-how, Lian Yang began to study the frescoes and ancient architecture of Dunhuang. Since there were no related majors in China a decade ago, she opted to pursue her further studies in the field at Japan's Tama Art University in 2014. After that, she returned to Beijing and has been using the technique to paint figures from Chinese mythology ever since.

"I want to pour more of my own ideas into creations and find an artistic expression that cannot be easily replaced with modern technologies, although the costs of handmade art are higher and it requires more time than digital creation. To preserve traditional culture, it is not only vital to inherit the ancient skills, but to give them a modern makeover," Lian Yang told Beijing Review.

A mineral artwork by Lian Yang for hanfu brand Shisanyu in October 2021 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Bringing beauty back 

In her 20s, Lian Yang studied digital design and specialized in ink paintings of dragons. One of her creations, named Long Si, won her the Special Jury Prize at the 13th Barcelona International Comic Festival in 2012. Despite her achievements, she left her comfort zone, traveling to Dunhuang and Tibet Autonomous Region to research local mineral color art. Over the past years, researchers at Gansu's Dunhuang Academy have been copying the frescoes and collecting their data for digital preservation. Lian Yang hopes to be one of the contributors carrying forward the traditional skill in her own way.

She shifted to figure painting by drawing inspiration from traditional culture, including ancient classics such as The Classic of Mountains and Seas, but also tea ceremonies and Buddhist sutras. The figures have modern faces, as they refer to either character descriptions in novels or the appearances of real people.

Mineral color art is a time-consuming creative process. According to Lian Yang, it consists of a great many procedures. She will spread out the linen paper, a replica of that during Tang times, on a wooden board, then grind minerals and precious stones into a very fine powder and boil this "concentrate" into pigment. She then first creates a base layer and then "overlays," as she calls it, this one with other colors. She will continue to blot, shade and coat until she's satisfied with the result.

"Mineral painting comes in a variety of colors, and the pigments are environmentally friendly. These artworks can be kept intact for hundreds of years, as long as they don't get soaked or exposed to sunlight for long periods," Lian Yang said.

As she explained already, mineral art features multiple color layers, different from oil and watercolor paintings where pigments are rendered and mixed. The canvas thickens during the creative process, which makes the result visually three-dimensional—when viewed up close.

Some colors in mineral art cannot be created simply by mixing the pigments. To paint something green, Lian Yang first paints a layer of yellow and when this has dried, then adds on a blue hue to gradually make it look green.

Mineral color paintings that are created with mineral grains also require a larger canvas to fully showcase the details. "I once created a painting of 8 square meters. It's a slow process, just like it takes a long time for researchers to restore the Dunhuang murals," she said.

As a modern artist, Lian Yang does not limit herself by strictly following tradition. She has cooperated with the operator of mobile game King of Glory, creating works in Dunhuang fresco style. Her creative exertions for Shisanyu, an emerging brand of traditional Chinese hanfu dress, have also gained much popularity among younger audiences.

She frequently posts short videos covering the creative process of mineral color artworks across different Chinese social media, attracting many millennials and Gen Zs alike. In the videos, her mineral color works decorated with gold or silver foil shimmer stunningly in the light, their coarse mineral grains still visible to the naked eye.

One of her videos raked in more than 6 million views on Bilibili, a hugely popular video-sharing platform, and gained over 20 million online views in total. Many hope to order her works when they're still in the draft phase.

Modern promo methods 

Lian Yang has become somewhat of an expert on minerals and likes to pick up colorful stones when walking around outside. She grinds them up and turns them into pigments.

To promote the art among more people, Lian Yang first started delivering live-stream courses in 2015 and hosted several exchange events in her studio over the past few years. "More and more people are joining our mineral art 'movement'," she said.

Riding the China Chic tide, a term referring to the rise of China's native fashion trends, traditional art needs commercialization to further develop. Lian Yang hopes mineral art can be integrated into movies, online games and even the metaverse, an integrated network of 3D virtual worlds, for further preservation. And booming inspiration.

"Without the support of market demand and application scenarios, a culture that has been replicated in, but not merged with, modern times is still likely to fade into oblivion. The commercialization and wide application of mineral color paintings will encourage more creators to engage in and inject new vitality into the longstanding craft," Lian Yang said.

(Print Edition Title: Mineral Magnificence) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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