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My Seven Sources of Inspiration   by Henry Li


My name is Henry Li and I am a Chinese painting artist and teacher. As you have seen, on Youtube or elsewhere, Chinese brush painting, or ink painting, also known as sumi (sumi-e in Japanese)  painting, is a unique art form that is an expression or reflection of the painter's personality. So before our class starts, I would like to introduce myself by talking about how I became an artist and love what I am doing.

My Source of Inspiration or what makes my paintings look like they do today.

My painting is formed by my life experiences, which grows and evolves. Here are seven major sources of inspiration:

1). My Teachers

Nobody is born to be an artist. Some coincidences in my life made me personally connected to a Chinese painting art teacher and put me in touch with the soul of this unique art. 

I was born into a common Chinese family: my father was a high school principal, my mother taught political-economics  at an university. When I was seven years old, the Great Cultural Revolution started and my father was sent to the labor camp due to his overseas family relationships. It was in the labor camp where my father met his roommate Zhang Zhengyin,  who was an art teacher from another high school. Zhengyin was a student of Master Chang  Shuchi, who escaped the Communist Revolution in 1949 and was one of the first Chinese painting professors in the United States in 1950s. Like my father, Mr. Zhang stayed on the mainland and was persecuted badly by the Red Guards. All of his paintings, his entire collection and books were burnt to ashes. He even attempted to commit suicide. Mr. Zhang became my father's good friend and my first teacher in Chinese painting. Beginning  in 1974 when he retired, Mr. Zhang lived a peaceful and leisurely life with arts, painting and playing classical music instruments. I witnessed how art helped him to overcome trauma.

So my first inspiration of Chinese painting was from my teacher. He taught me something about Chinese painting which cannot be found in the books, that is, the mood, the feeling and the soul of painting. After he passed away in 1995, Teacher Zhang was named as one of the "Four Masters of Nanjing" by the art collectors. Here are some last letters I received from Master Zhang in which he wished me to be the transmitter of his work in order to carry this heritage of Chinese painting forward and spread the word in the Western world.   

2). Archeology and Art History

My second source of inspiration is Archeology and Art History. My skill in Chinese painting brought me many honors during my high school years. For example, at age of 15, one of my paintings was accepted into the Jiangsu provincial art shows and my work was published in the newspaper.

1977 I passed the first college entrance examination after the Cultural Revolution. My major was in Archaeology and ancient Chinese history. I was so amazed by things our ancestors were capable of doing. By looking at human artifacts from the past,  it has given me inspiration to paint. The achievements of humankind in the history of art, including paintings, calligraphy, seal making,  ceramics, and temples, are the second natural sources of inspiration to me. I hope that some of my artwork will do the same 50 years from now. 

3).My Students

The third source of inspiration is my students. I taught at Nanjing University for two years before I came to USA in 1987. I taught American students how to do Chinese painting at the Experimental College, University of Washington, Western Washington University and Pomona College. I have learned a lot from my students in life. "Teaching and learning are intertwined with each other. "

4). Beauty of the Natural

My fourth source of inspiration is the Beauty of the Natural.

-For example, Flowers in the Garden

-Also my travels to the NW and SW.

5).Other Artists 

My Fifth inspiration is other artists.

I'm a learner - always have been, always will be. Not having the opportunity to formally pursue an education in the arts, I was not deterred by this -- quite the opposite-- over the years, I have befriended many influential artists, some in real life and others from the Internet. They include Chinese painting artists, sumi and watercolor artists from China, Japan, the US, and other places in the world.

I look though portfolios and galleries, making notes of the elements, compositions, tips, styles, and subjects that I like. I try to take those things and incorporate them into my own painting - not for the sake of copying, but for growth and learning on my part. I also read a lot of art books. I find these things to be a great source of inspiration  so that when I come across a concept or technique that's new to me, I usually can't wait to try them out with new methods. Many artists inspire me to see things differently. I hope that the knowledge I have can be passed on to other painters through my class and videos.

6). New Materials and Techniques

Sixth inspiration, new materials and techniques have played a big part in my paintings. I am very open minded in adopting new tools, which is very important to make our art different from the past. Together with my brush making friend in China, I have been personally involved in the design of some new brushes and our own brand. I have followed the development of piston-filled water brushes,  all kinds of new inks, paints, rice paper, silicone mounting paper, computers, cameras and so no. 

7). My Family

Finally, the Seventh source of inspiration is from my family, namely my wife and daughter.

Many of my paintings are made to  please Victoria, my wife, who is a Chinese poet and writer and has a great taste in art besides making good tasting food.

My daughter Amy is a very gifted art student,  who has inspired me a lot just watching her painting since she was a little kid.

In short, Painting is the reflection of our sources of inspiration.  Every artist has some sources of inspiration that drives them to make their own paintings. Our source of inspiration tells us what to paint, how to paint, what brush and paints to use, and when to stop. Everybody has different sources,  therefore, everybody has different painting.

The more sources of inspiration you explore, the more unique your painting will become. Chinese brush painting is certainly one of the cuisines in the art banquet. You would not experience the marvel and wonder  until you try it. Just  like a good food that you have never tried, you have to taste it by yourself. It's never too late to learn to paint. Many Chinese artists have taken up painting after they have retired and practice painting until they are quite elderly.   

Finally I want to mention that  what I have discussed are the elements cultivated outside of the painting. In my class I will teach  you the  technical side of Chinese painting in a step-by-step manner. 

See you in the class!

Henry Li


*Special Thanks to Barbara Bornet Stumph for editing this draft. Barbara is the moderator of the Yahoo group on Chinese brush painting:




This article was published on Sunday 10 April, 2011.
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