Have you heard of these artists? They topped Picasso in 2011

I just read Felix Salmon’s article about the artists that topped art auction sales globally in 2011, and the list reads like this:

  1. Zhang Daqian, $506.7 million
  2. Qi Bashi, $445.1 million
  3. Andy Warhol, $324.8 million
  4. Pablo Picasso, $311.6 million
  5. Xu Beihong, $212.9 million

When you look at the pretty UK- (and maybe French-) focused OCA course material (in terms of artists suggested for research etc) – my question is this: Do you know any of the 3 Chinese artists on this list? I am ashamed to say I didn’t and I kind of should have, currently living in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Zone.

Here’s a quick overview:

Zhang Daqian. Splashed-color Landscape. 1965. Hanging scroll; ink and color on paper. 60.3 x 95.9 cm. Inscribed by the artist. Source: MET.

Zhang Daqian (also spelled Chang Dai-chien) (1899-1983, Chinese painter)

  • through his long life he had a vast output initially in a traditional Chinese style, later impressionist and expressionist
  • his ability to shift style and carry it out to the most meticulous detail made him a master forger as well, according to wiki article
  • he left China in 1948 and went to Brazil, later California, before finally settling in Taipei
  • during the time he lived in South and North America he came into contact and was influence by Abstract Expressionism (see MET article), but just like Picasso always left the link to the natural world intact
  • the landscape picture seen above is a good example for Zhang Daqian’s expressive merging of abstract expressionism with Chinese traditional landscape painting >> a fantastic dramatic weather impression, I feel
  • and again, there is a lot of contrast in the broad Itten sense: there is a strong colour purity contrast between the almost fluorescent looking blue and green while the remaining landscape is largely held in highly muted greys; broad planes of indicated colours are contrasted with finely rendered ink details on the mountain slopes; dark vs light; watercolour bleeding vs firm colour patches

Qi Bashi. Wistaria: Spring color. Source

Qi Bashi (1864-1957, Chinese painter)

  • uninfluenced by Western painting of his time Qi Bashi is known for “traditional” Chinese ink paintings, however with his own style: a loose brushstroke, highly abstracted, focus on big shapes/forms, bold splashes of red and pink colour among monocromatic blacks and greys
  • plants and animals feature heavily in his paintings, but then , they do much more in Chinese art than in Western art
  • his picture Eagle standing on a pine tree was sold for 425.5 million yuan ($65.5 million) in 2011, one of the most expensive paintings ever sold at an auction (source)

Xu Beihong. Three farmers cultivating their land with an ox. 150 by 250 cm. Source

Xu Beihong (1895-1953, Chinese painter)

  • Mostly known for his “traditional” Chinese ink paintings, often featuring horses and birds
  • studied in Paris right after World War I (1919) where he became accomplished in Western oil painting as well
  • the ink painting above sold for 266.8 million yuan (42 million U.S. Dollars) in 2011 (source)
  • more naturalistic and muted than Qi Baishi, focussing on detailed brushwork on top of muted ink washes
  • there is a sense of movement in many of his pictures

Project: Drawing fruit and vegetables in colour (I/II)

Drawing I, Part 2

Exercise: Using hatching to create tone

Task: Select some pieces of fruit/vegetables. Draw each one individually in your sketchbook, in any medium, paying attention to the shapes or panes that make up the outline. In a second step sketch some ideas for a composition, using a viewfinder.

Exercise: Fruit and vegetables - using hatching to create tone. Pastel on grey straw paper (width ca 60cm)

This was a struggle. I only recently realised that hatching really doesn’t come easily to me. I love tones and areas of colour. But this hatching business… it never seemed so tricky until now where I should focus on it. And there seems to be nothing there to focus on. Lemons and asparagus(es?) are such difficult objects to draw. It’s all irregular and has these tiny wobbly  details that make all the difference. Mine just looks like an ugly ball. The asparagus (below) thought about it but then decided not to turn up.

Exercise: Fruit and vegetables - using hatching to create tone. sketchbook struggle with dip pens/brushes and ink, pastels and some gouache.

... and another sketchbook entry on lemon, asparagus and a green apple. ink and pastels

Then I thought I should focus and use big shapes first and chose apples and pears. (See pastel above). That was better. But maybe I failed to do the exercise as I put in a lot of underlying broad tone and just hatched on top. Is that cheating? Oh well… The background and the objects’ shadow makes quite a difference. The shadow has to be subtle and varied. Also initially the pear and the green apple had the same colour in my drawing, which made it look strange. In real life the colour was very similar, but not the same. Granny Smith apples have this squeeky green while a pear’s green is more muted and yellowish.

Exercise: Using markers or dip pens

Task: Strong marks of these media encourage a bold approach. Try to make deliberate blobs and blotches. For marker pens you can layer one on top of the other but don’t use too many colours or layers. Try out at least 3 compositions – then choose one composition to draw on A4 cartridge paper.

I think I have a weakness for square compositions. They always seem very peaceful or settled.

Below are 3 sketchbook drawings with various inks, watercolour pencils and wash, marker pens and dip pens.

In Trial No 1 I tried out splatters and noticed that you can splatter yellow ink and afterwards give a black wash and it will almost pearl off the yellow ink dots. Maybe I can try that with other washes – more coloured ones later? The banana looks nice but the rest is neither an appealing composition with the bowl too much on the right and the red apple sticking out of it awkwardly, nor is the execution any good. The bowl looks terribly messy. The colours make me cringe.

Trial No 2’s composition is better, a more controlled (and quieter) way of drawing. The course material kind of asked to make a splash – a bold statement – and I seem to be shying away from such drawings as they usually don’t turn out well and maybe it’s a bit out of character for me too.

Again not very well done on the hatching front. I seem to do best when I hatch only slightly on top of washes – a bit like in trial no 3 (the last picture). The stalks of the tomato vine are way darker than in real life but it adds a bit of a Chinese touch to it, very contrasty. I don’t find that bad at all.

I liked the last drawing (trial 3) with the tomato and coriander bunch on the green plate with celery on the side most. It had some good diagonals and the slightly cut off plate together with the birds-eye perspective adds some generosity to the shapes. I may have a weakness for square compositions. They always seem very peaceful and settled to me. The muted colours of this last try appeal to me more than the garish trial 1 and 2 sketches.

Trial No 1: ink, marker pens, poster colour

Trial No 2: Watercolour pencils and wash (I only had the typical highlighter markers with their almost fluorescent colours, so I used pencil and wash instead for most of the picture), black pigment ink pen

Trial No 3: Ink, red marker pen, poster colour, black pigment ink pen (largely applied with a brush)

And since tomatoes and the coriander from trial 3 went into our dinner, I need to fetch some new ones tomorrow for the A4 drawing.

Later: I changed my mind and just drew similar items, replacing coriander with parsley from the balcony, as I had no time to go to the supermarket. I liked the shape of the coriander in its soft curve better than the parsley and in fact the entire sketch composition is better – but otherwise the finished version is ok. Despite not filling in every detail and keeping things a bit vague I feel I am very much on the safe side of drawing. The question is if I need to risk more to develop? I tried the splatter technique – however in a rather controlled way, covering the foreground with paper. I quite like the gritty dirt it creates.

Final A3 drawing (Celery, parsley, tomatoes and garlic on a plate): Red marker pen, ink and poster colour (mainly drawn with brushes, but also dip pens)

Research Point: Perspective

Some thoughts for painting from books below

  • Start with: blocking in the general shapes with very thin/lean paint, look for big patterns and ignore all details to keep the whole thing open; in the next step gradually build up thicker layers of paint/detail
  • Detail and edges for less flat pictures:
    work a picture like the eye works, while focused on one thing (e.g. your foreground objects) the rest seems blurred/out of focus, that also includes the foreground if it is the middle ground that you focus on, in that case the foreground would appear blurred, so don’t feel compelled to detail out the foreground just because it’s nearest to you
    For trees for example, there needs to be a balance between hard edges and blurred edges, too many hard edges will make the tree appear flat. So try to soften it e.g. by painting wet leaves (etc) into the wet background
  • Shadows are varied (not uniform)


  • Philip W. Metzger. Perspective without pain (preview available on google books)
  • Walter Foster Publishing. The Art of Oil Painting. (preview available on google books) – quite helpful, as it treats different techniques for oil painting, incl. brushstrokes and different topics (water, people, landscapes etc)

Gray alone prevails in nature

The last time I was sketching outdoors I thought that everything looks grey on a cloudy day – varied and interesting, but grey-ish.

On that note, Cezanne wrote to his friend Pissarro in 1866: “You are completely right in what you say about gray, it alone prevails in nature, but it’s frightfully hard to capture.” (Quoted in Simms, Matthew. Cezanne’s Watercolours. Between Drawing and Painting. New Haven, London: Yale University Press. 2008. p47.)

I think Pissarro in his picture above introduces some small dots of purer colour to make the grey more lively. I can spot some green in the shadow under the bridge. Also the grey tones are clearly differentiated – with a yellow, brown, green … hue. Not too close to each other.

Exercise: Still life group using tone

Drawing I/part two/Project: Still Life

Exercise: Still life group using tone (Still life with flowers and trainset). pastel, oil pastel, gouache on grey paper, A3.

In this drawing I started off using pastel on greyish, rather coarse paper, then I applied oil pastels and ended up putting on a wash of gouache/poster colour on top and a bit of pastel again. Sounds messy and it probably is a wee bit. Not only because I could not believe how black my sleeves were after accidentally dragging them over the right side of the paper not just once.

Tonal drawing: After only minutes I started to go astray and deviated from the instructions. I still tried to focus on the tonal aspects but I couldn’t just use 3 colours, not even in the beginning. Not to do a line drawing proved quite a struggle too. Pastels are so difficult. But I think I also used the wrong paper. I should try out some other ones that are smoother but still hold the pastel. This one was a grey “straw paper” as they called it in the shop. Very cheap. stuff and nice tints of muted colour. It held the pastels partially, but not very evenly with a rough – well – “straw-like” texture. Quite a tricky one to draw on with pastels but I believe ink must be nice on this paper. What I liked is that the overall picture retained something of the dry pastel feeling despite the gouache wash and that it is quite painterly. That means I didn’t overdo it. I also tried to be mindful of the background and foreground, not treating it as a void but trying to apply some care, like the train’s reflection on the glass table or the indication of the cupboard shape in the background.

While I love the old clay pot used as a vase I find it so hard to draw. It has quite a soft beautiful sheen to it, a typical German or Czech “Lehmglasur” (loam glaze?) that was so common until about 100 years ago. It reflects the light really subtly, and is more a yellowish rich brown, no idea why I keep making it reddish brown. Other than that I liked the colour balance – how the blues and pinks and reds are repeated in different areas of the picture.

Composition: It is not bad. There is some movement in there with the strong diagonals of the table runner on the glass table that is interrupted by different diagonals of the coloured pencils and the train-set, which – with the 2 dropped leaves on the table runner – forms some sort of a curve. I like circle compositions. I should have had the toy train point at a different angle, as currently it aligns with the table edge and that’s a bit dull. I am not sure about the 2 dropped leaves matching the 2 pencils – maybe there should have been less symmetry in the objects? All in all a bit too orderly.

Check and Log

1. What aspects of each drawing have been successful, and what did you have problems with?

Line: Overall not what I would call “successful”, but the banana and basket form a nice contrast of clean long and busy short lines. The apples and the tomato are overdone. I have the tendency to fill objects with regular marks which makes them dull. I should leave things more to the viewers brain to fill in – being more open and economical with my marks. I think Matisse and Picasso could be good inspirations here. Especially their freedom and risk taking when they distorted the shapes into quite expressive drawings. I will come back to this.

Tone: I am probably not far enough away from this drawing, having worked on it last night, but I believe since I have the said tendency to fill in my objects, I have a natural tendency to use tone rather than line. I feel this tonal drawing turned out quite well. It shows a variety of marks, combining different media: Flowers in flat strokes, stipples, lines; broad areas for the table cloth and tighter for the trainset. There is also a variety of objects in different sizes and textures, so that’s more interesting. And I love the greys, a variety of greys broken by some fresh pink and blue.

2. Did you manage to get a sense of depth in your drawings? What elements of the drawings and still life groupings helped to create that sense?

Line: Not really. It looks quite flat to me despite the arrangement of objects on different panes. To me line drawings are not really prone to convey some feeling of depth.

Tone: I think the depth comes about with the objects being allocated well and that the picture concentrates on certain elements – like a camera. For example I left the background quite sketchy, without too much detail, but still varied in colour and mark. But train and some of the flowers are in focus. I think that helps. The lit foreground vs the dark background also helps.

3. What were the difficulties created by being restricted to line and tone?

Not to use the other respectively. You can see in my line drawing I couldn’t abstain from adding at least the tiniest shading. Next time I will try to stick to line only and at the same time be more free and expressive. I think my eye was just bored seeing the same sort of line for the entire picture. I should try using a brush for more line contrast. Rather like Chinese ink paintings.

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