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The Influence of Socialist Realism in my Early Landscape Work   by Henry Li

I am holding an old newspaper dated June 11, 1975, when the Cultural Revolution has entered its ninth year.
On the header of the newspaper,  the name "New China Daily" is handwritten by Chairman Mao in his unique calligraphy and on the left is a quote of Mao:"The struggles of justness by people all over the world always support each other."  It is propaganda  paper run by the communist party.
My parents save this paper for 25 years and gave it to me in year 2000 when came to the states visiting me,  because it has my first published landscape painting on it. That was a such great  honor and reward. I was 15-year-old when I painted that painting and just turned 16 when it was published.
Now, I am going to  show you some of the technique  and concept by re-rendering the painting in small miniature. The original painting was done on a large table size sheet and it took me a whole day to paint that.
That was done on a piece of mulberry rice paper, which I always use for landscape painting.I am use a piece of Japanese rice paper for this small demo.
First, I am going to prepare some of the colors before overall washing. On the foreground we got some plum blossom. I am using opaque white to dot the flowers on the crown of these plum trees. The plum flowers are blooming right now in L.A. They usually bloom in early spring. The Plum Hills  is a very famous scene spot at the foot of Mt Zijing (Purple Mountain) in Nanjing, my hometown. Mt Zijing is the landmark of Nanjing and there is world-renowned Purple Mountain Observatory
 on the top of the mountain.
I dot the flowers in white and let it to dry. At this stage, you won't see the dots but I wash the back ground with pink it will display.
Next I am going to wash the mountain. BTW, a note to the composition, you can see here is the host mountain and there is the guest. The ridge is where is the "Dragon Vein". This mountain is also known as the "coiling dragon" mountain historically.
I wash the trees in dark green(Indigo + Yellow + Ink) and dilute with water to get lighter green. Now I am using lots of water to wet the area before I add more colors. You may apply color on dry paper or wet-in-wet, depending your need.
Next, I am apply a mild brown color from the traditional umber chips. The umber chips is very subtle compared to the brown colors in watercolor tube.  I use this light brown color in the cityscape as  well. You want to leave some white here and there when you do the wash. The bridge is also in light brown. The remote side of the Yangtze River in very light color and I will add some blue to it later.
I put more dark green to the mountain to contrast with the flower trees. Now, the magic begins. I turn the rice paper over to wash the flowers on the backside or the wrong side.
I mixed rouge with water (no white) to get pink. This is on the back side so you need to intensify it a little more than you expect. I colored the under tree first with dark pink. Then I add more water to the pink brush to get a light tone to wash the  tree crown. Now the white dots become visible. Now let us turn it back to the front side to see what it looks like. Isn't it nice? You may also enhance the whiteness observatories  by painting the back side with white color. Add some greens to the mid-grounds, and some light blue-gray to the remote bank of the Yangtze River. 
To highlight the focus of the painting, I dot the red flags on the tower of the bridge although you would not actually see that in distance.  With "socialist realism" you can emphasize the important subject matters by exaggeration. You may also call it socialist idealism. I have found some connection with the "idea writing" of traditional painting. In either case, you are not bound by the material world but more of a ideal world in the art.   
Now I am going to inscribe it with a line from Mao's famous poem, in which he describe Nanjing as "Tiger Mountains and Dragon Hills, today is better than the past".
Thank  you for watching!

This article was published on Sunday 31 January, 2010.
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