Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sun Wanling, Traditional Chinese Painter

In his official photograph, Sun Wanling’s face is serene and noble, with deep brown eyes, and a well-cut chin and nose. His long black hair swept back from his brow, dressed in a traditional Chinese shirt with an embroidered Mandarin collar and frog closings, he fits Western hopes for the Chinese man who will greet them as they stumble from the tour bus.

Sun Wanling, September 2012
It’s a very amusing photo—almost unrecognizable to anyone who has met and worked with Wanling (his familiar name; Sun is the family name) at the Anderson Center artists' colony in Red Wing Minnesota this month. His face is infinitely mobile within the range of wryness and laughter; his whippet thin body moves between Tai Chi and break dance with the élan of a comedian. He is never without his camera, the dance partner whom he dips, bows and twirls in an endless ballet scored by shutter and zoom lens.

Sun Wanling is a traditional Chinese painter, trained specifically in brush painting of animals and plants. At first, I found it difficult to believe that a man so constantly in motion, so loose and amenable at the drop of a hat to any American experience, could be a master of this venerable art form. In many museums I’ve stood breathless among these exquisite, enchanting jewels of natural observation. They are slow and careful, I think, made without revision, with complete focus, in a state of mind that must be like grace.

Potter at Red Wing Pottery forming pots at Sun
Wanling's request
Red Wing is home to several potteries, being located in an area of fine clays. I accompanied Wanling one day to the famous Red Wing Pottery, whose owner, Scott Gillmer, had invited him to paint pots. Wanling brought sketches of Chinese forms, which a potter set out to produce for painting at a later date, so Wanling took up for decoration several small vessels in the pottery’s traditional German heritage shapes. For him, this was an interesting opportunity, to work with ceramic forms novel to him.

With Scott Gillmer, owner of
Red Wing Pottery
Sun Wanling, Chinese vase completed
in China
There were several limitations for him, the greatest of which was that the only color available was blue. He always uses red for the stamp with which he signs his work, but he shrugged this off and went to work. He simply took up a pot, examined it all around, then dipped one of his three brushes in a plate of colored slip and he painted. He worked swiftly and surely, as if the designs poured from his hand, as when one releases sugar in a steady flow from one's filled palm. His eyes were focused on his work, and his face was immobile until he finished, when he broke into victorious smiles and stood back for Scott, the potter, and me to see his work. Suddenly, he was the maestro; he was the beaming school child; he was happy with his work, his whole body transformed. 

The unfired pots showed the traces of blue slip only faintly, but Sun Wanling's fresh designs were nevertheless clear and animated and miraculous to all of us. Though the pots were very small by his standards, he adapted well and his imagination shone. On a bowl with an oscillating pattern raked into its rim, Wanling painted diving fish, thereby turning the rim into ocean waves with playful fish swimming beneath.

Fish beneath the waves.

Sun Wanling, Chinese vessel, painted
in China
 At Shandong Polytechnic University in Jinan, where he is Director of the Chinese Painting and Calligraphy Institute, Sun Wanling is also a member of the Purple Sand Institute. Purple sand (pounded from a multicolored mineral) is the basis for extremely prized clay used for pots and caddies that yield perfectly brewed tea. Where he paints on porcelain, he carves purple sand with the same finesse that he paints, but with tools and a medium even less forgiving. His purple sand vessels command high prices all over Asia.

Sun Wanling, purple sand tea caddy with painted carving

One day Sun Wanling and his most hospitable and enthusiastic stateside hostess, Yanmei Jiang, sat down with me to discuss the specifics of his work in the context of traditional Chinese painting. Wanling had brought gifts of his catalogues as well as many digital images, so it was a tremendous learning opportunity for me.

Since his work is primarily ink on paper, I asked if Sun Wanling distinguished between drawing and painting, as we in the West do. This question resulted in a history lesson in Chinese painting and its two streams, one of which is a realistic, full-color painting tradition more like ours, which aspires to recreate reality and is related to a scientific world view. The brush tradition departed from that in the seventh or eighth century, the first having come to be associated with the official and royal worlds. Brush painting, using only ink, aspires to reveal the soul, and became a communication of the literati. Wang Wei, the famous poet of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), is considered the father of brush painting. In tribute to Wang Wei, Su Dongpo, a statesman and poet during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), declared, “There’s poetry in painting, and painting in poetry.” This is the goal to which traditional painters have aspired since.
Poetry of a high order: Unity of nature painting and calligraphy

In brush painting, you will always see calligraphy, one of painting’s four essential elements: the painting, the artist’s seal, the poem, and calligraphy. How, I wondered, do I distinguish the calligraphy from the poem itself? In response, Wanling pointed me back to Su Dongpo: “There’s poetry in the painting, and painting in the poetry,” is to be taken literally: The entire image, with all its elements, is the poem. There is nothing that limits poetry to language, although when there is verbal poetry, the words are the painter’s, produced as spontaneously as the images. But in every painting, the artist is the poet: there isn’t a distinction between the roles.

When I had watched Sun Wanling at Red Wing Stoneware, I was very impressed by the naturalism and personality of each animal that he painted. As we looked through images of his paintings, this observation was reinforced over and over. No two birds of the same species looked alike and each radiated personality. Nothing appeared stock; every iteration was fresh and alive, as if the bird, the duck, the fish were a beloved pet, lovingly observed just at the instant. There is an inventory of plants and animals the traditional artist paints, each with symbolic association. How, after twenty years as an artist with twenty years of prior training, can he continue to animate every single one? This alone seems like an astonishing display of his heart and skill.

But before dinner one day during our first week, the other three of us had to hunt for Wanling to be sure he came to eat. We found him outside among the giant oaks with computer paper and ballpoint pen, completely absorbed in filling sheets with sketches of leaping squirrels. The drawings were amusing and fresh, but accurate too—just like the squirrels I’ve seen in his work. He has also, during his month here, taken literally thousands of photographs of nature—not only of the squirrels, but all kinds of birds, including the many bald eagles that live along the neighboring Mississippi River. His momentary awareness of nature is hawk-like; no animal movement, no rustle of the grasses, no beauty of sunset or September’s changing colors escapes his eye or camera. It is from years of exquisitely trained observation that the twinkle of curiosity comes to the eye of Sun Wanling’s bluebird.

Against this absorbing naturalism, the traditional painter places his flora and fauna in the least Western of landscape perspectives. The extended forms of long or tall and narrow papers allow the painter multiple focal points without regard for literal distances or measurements; the relationships of feeling and symbols are what count. The attenuated papers also reflect an aesthetic that permeates a cultural worldview of which fine art is only one aspect. Horizontal paintings allow for a long, swooping arc to enter from the top right and cross toward the right, where it always stops, blocked by vertical lines of calligraphy or other design elements. As we looked through several images in which this was borne out, Wanling sprang from his chair to execute Tai Chi movements that were exactly the same, the comprehensive, circular spanning of the arm, brought to the center of the body and arrested. “The circle!” he told me, smiling.
"Tai Chi." Circle-based composition using the bamboo branch.

As we discussed the paintings I had chosen for their appeal to me, or for questions they raised, Sun Wanling began each specific discussion with a diagram of the composition’s central thrusts—of branches, grasses, the directions of a fish’s glide, the inclination of bird or dragonfly wings. Composition is clearly primary—the viewer feels it at once—but after years of training it must become part of the poetic instinct. Sun Wanling paints horizontal papers as long as extended dining tables, but explained that earlier poets who made monumental paintings worked with their paper scrolled, painting only a small patch at a time. Yet they were able to execute grand and graceful compositions.

I love the painting to the left, of the fishes swimming by the bank of some body of water. Sun Wanling explained that in this style of painting, sky, air, and water are represented by no more than blank paper; nor are horizons represented. So the ambiguity that I feel about the placement of the fish is quite natural in a tradition in which perspectives aren't fixed, as they are for Westerners. 

What's more, what Sun Wanling has painted—and this he burst upon me to the greatest delight of both—is a mere fragment of a landscape that encompasses the whole world. He took my pen and showed me the house on the land above the river with its ground that sloped down to this rock. We saw the village on the other side of the river and the mountains behind. And it didn't take all that long for our imaginations to complete the circle and stop before our hearts and eyes, in Red Wing, Minnesota, where we could see ourselves in the painting too. 
Point well made! Viewers: You are in this picture. It is a fragment of the world we all inhabit; our eyes, imaginations, and responses are part of what completes the circle. 

A traditional Chinese painter, Wanling told me, has four treasures in his studio. He has his brushes, his ink, his paper, and his ink stone on which he grinds his colors. Of himself, the most important thing he brings is his calmness. Sun Wanling achieves this by grinding ink on his stone. He grinds it very slowly, in a circular motion. He told me that it, “puts his heart in a peaceful state.” 

The vivid spontaneity and life of Sun Wanling’s painting come from the source of all artistic life, through deep discipline so profoundly integrated into his heart and mind that they can be commanded in an instant. Sun Wanling is the camera’s snap, and the bird, and the brushstroke; he is the still, integrated embodiment of ancient tradition, and the diving squirrel that always gets the nut.


  1. Beautifully written piece that not only drew me in, but expressively quantified the extraordinary talents of the artist.
    [Tony Gregson - Japan]

  2. Nice pictures. Love the details and coloring in the first one. chinese painting.