This is a follow-up post to the previous post about how to create narrative paintings. In this post and the next, I’m going to share my experience in creating Taiwan’s Forefathers – Reaching Shore in two parts:
- The first part introduces the conceptual sketch, pencil study and color study as well as how the oil painting evolved over major revisions to arrive at its final state.
- The second part details the study and creation of key characters in the painting. It also includes reference pictures I took when I went on a field trip to Fujian in Southern China where early Taiwanese immigrants came from.
The tenacity of the Taiwanese people inspired me to work on the historical subject of Taiwan’s Forefathers. When I first arrived in Taiwan in 1985, I saw a vegetable farmer working in the rain on the outskirts of Caozhou, a housewife minding a general store in Fengcheng St. late into the night, metal workers working through the night at a factory in Taipei at the intersection of Sanmin Road… There were just so many examples. The feeling was there but the actual inspiration for the painting came from a chance conversation with a friend at an art gallery. When I heard about how the forefathers came to Taiwan by boat and everyone knew the story of “Crossing from Tangshan to Taiwan”, I knew that this would make a great subject for a painting. I could see the imagery in my head and the potential for artistic interpretation. I went to the bookshops to look for related references, and my most exciting find was the book A Tragic Ballad About Hakka Sailing to Taiwan by Mr. Jung-lo Huang. A hand-written copy of the Hakka folk song discovered by Huang in 1986 recounted more than three centuries of migration to Taiwan. The convincing and detailed account of the many tragedies they suffered moves the readers to tears.
I started working on the composition and completed Reaching Shore first sketch in June 1991. The sketch depicted the forefathers wading ashore from a sampan after braving the waves to cross the “Black Trench” of the Taiwan Strait. During the early Qing Dynasty, the imperial government imposed strict bans on all sea travel to Taiwan to prevent any resurgence in support for Koxinga who supported the old Ming Dynasty. The early migrants to Taiwan were mostly poor people risking death to seek a new life in Taiwan. I decided to emphasize the determination, courage and fearlessness of the forefathers rather than focusing too much on their suffering or their weakness after their stormy crossing. In October, I made a small sketch of the migrants battling storm waves during the crossing. In this way, I was able to present the two key elements of the “Crossing” theme. Interestingly, I placed a sampan on the deck of the ship in my first draft for Crossing the Stormy Strait. When I visited the Quanzhou Mazu Temple in Fujian the following year, a model of the ship used for strait crossings showed a sampan on the deck as well. The old man looking after the temple told me that sampans were carried on deck instead of towed from the stern during crossings because they were easily damaged by the heavy seas. I was quite delighted by this discovery.
In 1992, I went to Southern Fujian Province for a research trip over the course of April and May. I traveled through Xiamen, Quanzhou, Zhangzhou, Dongshan Island, farming villages in Pinghe County, Shenhu Harbor, Jinjiang, Hui’an, and Meizhou Island carrying my oil painting box, canvas, sketch book and camera. I painted fishermen and farmers, visited a number of Mazu temples, and collected reference photos for character images, shipping, props, and clothing. I also held a number of talks with painters, teachers and students from the Department of Fine Arts at Xiamen University, Xiamen Artist Association, the Department of Fine Arts at JiMei Normal School, and Quanzhou Artist Association. They provided me with advice and assistance. Once I returned to Taipei, I began working on the large drawing study for Reaching Shore.
The tone set by the drawing was the joy of hope with a touch of gallantry. A child holding a Mazu idol was made the center of the painting while a farmer with a hoe over his shoulder and a machete on his waist was made the main character. Other characters were progressively developed from there. After much thought, the bent-over man carrying a box on his back was changed to a craftsman carrying a wooden crate. The young man at the front to be playing a simple farmer’s banhu was something that I had planned all along. The fragile old man, the woman with her belongings on top of her hand, the young girl, the boatman, the sampan, the ship, the waves, the farmer in his prime… these all gradually took shape after much thought. I even added a peasant woman with shoulder poles to give the characters more depth. What I did not expect was this character eventually becoming one of the key figures in the composition.
Much of this drawing was taken up by the sky. I originally intended to highlight the freedom of the “new world” and the characters would have a darker palette so they stood out against the sky and the ground. Big changes were made to this idea resulting in the final composition.
The drawing was made using charcoal sticks on standard student-grade oil painting canvas to make erasing and revisions easy.
A large original oil painting with numerous characters must go through a number of color studies. I ended up making three color studies in all.
The small color study in 1992 had cool tones and the red of the Mazu idol’s decorations really stood out in the painting. I was quite satisfied with the overall arrangement of the colors and it was a pleasure to paint. The color study went to a collector friend and I miss it terribly!
When I was working on the large color study in 1993, I went for warmer tones to create a contrast with the cool tones of Crossing the Stormy Strait. This was the reason why the second and third color studies leaned towards warm tones.
The origin of the third color study was a story in itself. The collector Mr. Ping-kun Hung wanted to add one of my still life paintings of a fish to his collection. When he came to my studio and saw the large color study, he changed his mind and wanted me to paint Taiwan’s Forefathers – Reaching Shore in canvas size 30 for him first. I had intended to revisit the color relationships of the second color study, so this became the third color study. A limited-edition print of this draft in its true size was produced as well. The main difference from the second draft was the thumb-sized heads, the use of texture on the characters, as well as same coarse canvas weave as used for the large painting.
Major revisions to the oil painting
In 1993 I began transferring the outlines of the characters from the large drawing study to the three-meter high large canvas. Here I used the traditional grid method for proportional scaling. Color was then applied for the first time with my students serving as models for verifying poses. In the spring of 1994, I went to New Zealand for a plein-air painting trip. Once I finished the paintings for the New Zealand exhibition, I went back to working on the painting again. At this point, I started feeling uneasy about the overall atmosphere of the original painting. One night, the television producer Mr. Xiao-pei Yu invited me to have dinner with him. Over drinks, he came right out and said that there wasn’t enough suffering in this painting. He also wondered if it was still influenced by my old work back in Mainland China? It was like an epiphany to me. I wasn’t drunk yet so I knew that he had identified the source of my unease. Though his opinion was rather vague, I felt that he was on the right track. I raised my glass to him, thanked him, said that I will work hard to overcome this deficiency, then downed the glass in one go! This would be the start of another long and difficult journey.
It proved a long and sleepless night. I thought about many things and straightened them out in my mind. My biggest issue was the emphasizing of heroic characters due to past Soviet and Mainland influences. The forefathers weren’t someone extraordinary like Napoleon or farmers in revolt so the heroic pose of the man carrying the hoe looked out of place in the composition. The overall atmosphere was just a little too joyful and there was not enough suffering. Once I wrapped my head around that, the entire composition felt wrong. I wanted to get rid of the mighty “hero” in particular right away. As I couldn’t sleep, I decided to do some sketches. I immediately made two small studies and spent the entire day next day making rough changes to the full painting. I feared that I might change my mind otherwise. By bulldozing the changes through as quickly as possible, I made backtracking altogether impossible. It was a hack job, but my whole approach changed. I am really grateful to this friend I didn’t know well for his honest words. I must also thank my mother for teaching me to be a humble person that listens to other people because it is how I grow and improve.
After the changes were made to the composition, the man with the hoe was removed. A craftsman and farmer were added to the front. Their characters were also enlarged and made to look as if they were running forward. The crowd formed a sharp triangle that radiated from the left to the right. The color palette was changed to cool tones and in their expressions, you could see the joy of hope and expectation in faces exhausted by the dangers they had faced. Some storm clouds still hung overhead in the sky and the color tone was changed from warm to cold gray. The amount of light was also reduced to be more in keeping with the overall mood. Basically, the amount of suffering and tension was increased in the composition. What remained unchanged was the location of the Mazu idol and the child. Mazu is a goddess and patroness of the sea that no migrant would cross the sea without. She was the focus of their beliefs, and formed the very heart of this composition and color layout. Since I made the painting, I have often prayed in my heart over the years for Mazu to continue watching over the people of Taiwan.
To be continued…