On Seeing, Image and Vision

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Views on seeing, image and vision in the East and West

-- martin tai (martin.tai@capcanada.com), August 17, 1999


On Seeing and Creation in The Book of Change

Chinese words originated from observation of heaven and earth.

The legendary God of Pau Xi, master of the earth, who created the written Chinese language, observed heavenly phenomenon and methods of the earth, observed the patterns of birds and beasts, captured features from near and far objects, then created the Octogram--from the Book of Change

This dialectic dictomy philosopy about observation from high and low, far and near, heaven and earth and the creation of symbolic forms has being the corner stone of Chinese art--- a credo of great number of ancient poets, painters and caligraphers.

It is cryptic, mystic, yet full of unfathomable wisdom and grandure as the whole Book of Change.

This is particularly evident in San-sui paintings(mountain and water paintings-- not identical to 'landsape paintng'). That is why san-sui painting has always being a major topic in Chinese paintings.

-- martin tai (martin.tai@capcanada.com), August 17, 1999.

Leonardo da Vinci

Great minds think alike

Leonardo da Vinci, the great Renaissance painter, emphasised the importance of learning from nature

Leonardo wrote

" The painter will produce picture of little excellence if he takes other painters as his authority, but if he learns from natural things, he will bear good fruit"

"Painting embraces ten functions of the eye;... darkness and light,body and colour,shape and location, distance and closeness, motion and rest"

(Leonardo on Painting, Yale University Press) 

-- martin tai (martin.tai@capcanada.com), August 17, 1999.

Even though in the east and in the west, seeing is considered to be the starting point of fine art.

However, there are major differences. Classical western art considered truthful reproduction of object as the main objective,hence the mind must act like a mirror and reflects truthfully the outside world.

Photography is the extension of this classical tradition; Hence the pursue of great sharpness, depth of field, dynamic range of light and shadow etc ( for intance F/64 group ) are goals.

In the east, maximum likeliness has never being a goal since Sung Dynasty. Images are only means to achieve vision. As long as the vision is achieved, whether a painted pines tree really looks like a pine tree, whether the pine needles are too big and out of proportion, whether the ink strokes reflect the light and shade is not important.

The artist is free to use the images to creat vision. For example, combination of different images from many frames into a montage is completely acceptable, while at the other end, some photographer declares that any alteration of photograph is not photography.

Both schools are all valid, just different styles.

In Chinese art, the main goal is 'spirit' 'essense', 'vision', not the form.

The Taoist 'chi' is the main objective in Chinese paintings.

In fact the omipotent CHI is not only the corner stone of Chinese painting and poetry, but also the very foundation or Chinese philosopy, and cosmology

-- martin tai (martin.tai@capcanada.com), August 17, 1999.

Leonardo da Vinci on Seeing and the Mind

Leonardo da Vinci on Painting.

People's Art Publishing House, Beijing

Compiled,translated and annotated by Martin Tai


"The mind of the painter must resemble a mirror, which always takes the colour of the object it reflects and is completely occupied by the iamges of as many objects as are in front of it.....

Hence as you go throught the fields, turn your attention to various objects, and, in turn look now at this thing and now at that collecting a store of divers facts selected and chosen from those of less value"

Notebooks of Leonardro da Vinci, Dover

-- martin tai (martin.tai@capcanada.com), August 19, 1999.

Zhen Banqiao

Zhen Banqiao(1693-1765) was a famous painter, poet, writer and caligrapher of Ching Dynasty (Emperor Kangxi-- Qianlung ). Zhen Banqiao's many notes on painting are instructive even today, as he discussed the relationship between the nature, the mind and art creation. The following is one frequently quoted note

Obervations on Painting

                       by  Zhen Banqiao  
                       translated by Martin Tai

In a pristine autumn morning at a house by the brook.

I arose early and watched the bamboos.

The shadow and light of the sun was floating and dancing with the mist amidst the dense leaves and sparse twigs.

I was suddenly seized by a desire to paint.

As a matter of fact, the bamboo in one's mind is not the bamboo in one's eyes.

I grinded up black ingot and set up a piece of painting paper.

A transformation suddenly took place, the bamboo under my brush turned out to be not the same bamboo in my mind.

In short, idea precedes the brush is a cardinal rule in painting.

" Yi zai bi sien" -- or "Idea precedes the brush" means that before a painter starts to paint, he must transform the image in his mind. And that must begin by observation of nature.

" Yi zai bi sien" has become a guiding principle for Chinese painters for centuries.

Precision is copying nature has never being a major trend in Chinese paintings.

Prose and Poem of Zhen Banqiao

Paintings of Zhen Banqiao

Zhen Banqiao Paintings

-- martin tai (martin.tai@capcanada.com), August 19, 1999.

Freeman Patterson

"Good seeing begins with careful observation of what's around you"

"Letting go of self is an essential precondition to real seeing. When you let go of yourself, you abandon any preconceptions about the subject matter that might cramp you into photographing in a certain, predetermined way"

If you do not see what is all around you every day, what will you see when you go to Tangiers ?"

From Photography & the art of seeing by Freeman Patterson.

-- martin tai (martin.tai@capcanada.com), September 06, 1999.

Michael A. Smith

" I have always felt that it is how one sees rather than what one sees that makes any photograph interesting"

Michael A. Smith is a famous 8x10 view camera photoographer. He published two books:

-- martin tai (martin.tai@capcanada.com), September 10, 1999.

Chang Dai-chien(1899-1983)

Chang Dai-chien, a famous painter, regarded as the Picasso of the East.

" There is an ancient saying: "Thou shalt read tens of thousands volume of books, thous shalt travel tens of thousands miles".

What does it mean ?

Because broad experience and knowledge comes from real observation, and cannot be obtained through reading books only, these two must go hand in hand and compliment each other.

Learn by heart the images of famous moutains and rivers, 'to hold grand canyons in the mind' so to speak, only then when you use your brush, you have something to rely upon.

You must have extensive experience, this is not only true in mountain and water painting, it is also true in flowers, people, aminals etc."

" Art is the expression of feeling, it is the manifest of integrity of the author; the technique of brush and ink is only a means to express feeling. Therefore an author must cultivate good character and integrity, if only concentrate on technique, the result is mediocre"

Chang Dai-chien was a globe trotter, he travelled throughout China, climbed up the picturesque Huang Mountain, copied the ancient painting of Caves of Thousand Buddas, travelled to India, Japan, Europe, met and exchanged painting with Picasso, lived in Argentine, Brazil, United States had exhibition around the world.

-- martin tai (martin.tai@capcanada.com), September 24, 1999.

Su Dong Po of Sung Dynasty

Su Dong Po's outspoken views on painting influenced the Chinese traditional painting immensely.

As a matter of fact, in the preceding Tang Dynasty, Chinese brush paintings were rather realistic, subjects from people to trees and animals were drawn with great details and good anatomy.

From Sung dynasty onward, the path of realism was rejected in favour of idealism, symbolism and abstract.

The same transition from realism to abstract also occurred in the West, only at a much later date, in late 19 century, pressed by the ease to achieve resemblance by using camera on the one hand, and under the influence of Oriental art on the other.,

The poet and painter Su Dong Po had great insight, he fore saw the pursuit of maximum realism leads only to craft and not art. As if he foresaw the coming of photography.

Su Dong Po wrote "The view that a painting must have great resemblance is an infantile opinion "

Su Shi Poem

-- martin tai (martin.tai@capcanada.com), September 25, 1999.

Pablo Picasso

The influence of Chinese brush painting on Mattise and Picasso is evident. Picasso acknowledge that he changed his style from classic to abstract under the influence of Chinese painting.

When Chang Dai-chien held an exhibition at the Louvre in the fifties, he paid a visit to Pablo Picasso. Picasso showed Hang Dai chien five volumes of his own Chinese style brush paintings in the style of comtemporary Chinese painting master Chi Bai Shi.

Picasso said "I don't understand why you Chinese come to Paris in droves to learn about art ?". Chang was surprized and thought the translator made some mistake in translation and asked Picasso to clarify. Picasso answered: " Not only there is no art in Paris, there is no art in the West". Chang thought Picasso said so out of courtesy. Then Picasso continued "It is true ! In the world of today, as far as art is concern, first of all you Chinese has art, then Japan; and of course Japanese art also originated from you Chinese; and there is art in Africa.... that is why I don't get it, why there are so many Chinese come to Paris to learn art"

Picasso gave one of his Chinese style brush painting to Chang as a gift. In return Chang gave Picasso a painting with bamboo theme as gift at a later date.

-- martin tai (martin.tai@capcanada.com), October 04, 1999.

Monk Shi Tao

Monk Shi Tao was a great painter in Ming/Ching Dynasties, also known as The Monk of Bitter Mellon. His Notes on Painting is a classic.

To feel or to know.
To feel must precedes to know.
To know then to feel is not to feel

From Chapter Four On Feeling, Notes on Painting, Monk Shi Tao.

  1. Shi Tao painting

  2. Shi Tao painting

-- martin tai (martin.tai@capcanada.com), October 19, 1999.

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