When we paint in the traditional xieyi style, the most important thing is the moyun, or rhythm of the ink. Traditional painting does not try to attract the eye with bright colors, it relies on variations in the use of brush and ink; it revolves mostly on the purity of technique and the rhythm of the ink. It doesn’t rely on gauche colors to draw attention to itself. At the same time, it is about the use of negative space, leaving parts of the composition unpainted, the space itself representing ideas.
Without this quality, when people paint an object, it looks rigid, lifeless, unsettling. A work of art should impart a sense of tranquility. If it has that, when you get off work you can sit before it and appreciate it, and it gives you a sense of pleasure.
There were some pretty big changes in the Qing dynasty, coming in from the Kangxi reign when the Italian Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione introduced new ideas. Castiglione took Western techniques and used them on traditional Chinese ink paintings, that is, he developed a synthesis of Chinese and Western techniques, and this synthesis of the two disciplines is still very common, even in China. In traditional Chinese painting, space is used to represent something, but in Western art space is eschewed. The background is always painted in, every bit of the painting is filled in. Traditional painting is in the position of elements and the use of space, you don’t need to paint all over. You give people space in which to use their own imagination.
(Translated by Paul Cooper)