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How to create narrative paintings (part 3) 

This is a follow-up post of the previous two posts (links below) and part 2 of case study Taiwan Forefathers – Reaching Shore

How to create narrative paintings (part 1)

How to create narrative paintings (part 2)


Character changes

Making structuring changes resulted in a very rough composition. The relationship of the characters also had to be restructured and this was what made this painting so difficult to work on. Nevertheless, whenever a character was deleted, their location changed or their pose adjusted, it felt good knowing that I was making progress on the composition.





The photos below are a part of the composition that I photographed while making the changes. When we compare the photo to the completed painting, the bent-over man carrying the toolbox in the upper right picture has been removed to create a sense of space. The boatman in the upper left pictured was also removed and is now paddling towards the ship from the left side of the composition. The man carrying a hoe in the lower right had been part of the picture. He felt out of place and his location was too central so he was removed as well. There was also a girl behind the Mazu idol but it was too much of a squeeze and I put her behind the boy instead. The baby on the back of the woman with shoulder pole was taken out as well to avoid putting too much detail into this area. In the lower left, the farmer wearing a straw hat behind the old man was removed as there wasn’t enough room. All of these changes served to clear up and simplify the relationships between the characters in the composition.




The deletion and re-arrangement of characters is not easy to do on a large canvas. This should’ve been done during the drafting and drawing phases. Much thought went into each character as well, so they weren’t going to quit without a fight. I had to stare long and hard at the painting turning things over mind my head before finally deciding to go ahead with my brush.




Fortunately for me, I painted with a light hand from the very beginning so it was easy to paint over the top. I was able to make my changes without too much hassle from the materials.




Every character in the composition involved many revisions and a great deal of thought. Sometimes, they were a delight to paint and had their own interest. Nevertheless, they then had to be dropped for the sake of the overall effect.




Character study




Character study is the most critical and the ultimate mission of portrait painting. If a painting is to have depth, to stand out from the humdrum and ordinary, and to tell a great story, this is where it all comes together.





The old farmer with a worn reed mat and hoe on his back is honest, loyal and hard-working. Stories of Formosa have filled him with hope. Though he is getting on in years he still plans to rebuild his home there. His mouth is open as if gasping for breath, but there also seems to be a smile from the joy he felt inside. There are tears in his eyes as they gaze at the land ahead. He seems to be saying: “Yes, this is it. I am here at last.”




The prototype for this image was a retired fisherman from Dongshan Island. The old man had a rough and distinctive look. I incorporated his features into the composition and made two major changes later on. The first big change was to the eyes. The air of uncertainty was changed to deep-set eyes looking straight ahead. The second big change was giving him a short, snub nose typical of Southerners in the region. I toned back the smile as well to make him look slightly out-of-breath. I heaved a sigh of relief when I reached this point in my character study. It took a whole year and several more months before I finally “reached the shore” on the image of this farmer.





I started taking part in farm work such as rice harvests and plantings in Hunan’s farming villages when I was seven or eight years old. For the next twenty or thirty years, I traveled regularly to the countryside to help farmers with their spring planting and fall harvests. I am therefore filled with great respect and gratitude towards farmers who spend their days working in the field. These deep-rooted feelings drove me to continue “hammering” away the composition until I managed to paint an image of the forefathers that can be considered archetypical yet based on real life.




The farmers and fishermen from Southern Fujian Province in the lower right corner were the references I used during the creative process. They were mainly used to get a general impression while the character images were being developed. A holistic approach was taken for each study. I didn’t just “deconstruct” and “combine” the facial features, or experimented with different eyes and noses. Everything including the brush size, thickness of the paint and other drawing techniques were adjusted to harmonize the entire composition.





I made the character of the carpenter the soul of the painting. He was a steadfast man who has worked on the docks and built large temples. Smart and bold, he is in front because he has seen the future.





When I visited Xiamen in 1992, I met with Mr. Chang-an Chen for the first time. Chen was a painter who taught drawing at the Department of Architecture of Xiamen University. I took photos of him because I was so impressed by his down-to-earth local Minnan (Southern Fujian) look. When I went to Dongshan Island and Shenhu Harbor, I met the boat captains Xi Chen and Shi-bin Chen. I made quick sketches of their heads and also took photos of another boat captain. All of them had a solid, determined and rough-hewn air about them that I drew on for the image of the carpenter. When I revised the composition for the large painting, I kept experimenting with different variations of the same theme.





While there weren’t any major changes to this character, I made more changes and repainted this character more times than any other. The location and size kept changing around. I kept having to scrape the paint off and start over due to factors such as the head shape, composure, color, surface and texture.




The shape of the lips in the final composition wasn’t as good as previous attempts but I think ultimately some progress was made.




Peasant woman

This was one of the key characters in the painting and I was quite satisfied with the final outcome. She has prominent cheeks and brows, slightly jutting chin, rounded forehead, straight nose with slightly flared wings, thin and slightly raised eyebrows, several strands of wet hair, and a bright red ribbon tied to her hair-bun flapping in the breeze… We have a kind, hard-working country woman whose tired eyes have lit up upon seeing the land stretching away in front of her. She was no beauty but she was beautiful all the same. Her stout body is now running forward carrying her heavy boxes with her.





Her character appeared in profile in the initial small study. Her position was moved to the front after I started revising the large painting. She now faces the audience directly in a dynamic way so I had to take great care with her appearance. Many portrait techniques such as variation in thickness of oil paint and brush strokes were employed when working on this particular head. She was the only one that I gave bright eyes to out of all the characters depicted in the painting.





This image was vague to start with. I couldn’t just transplant the plein-air portrait of a Hui’an woman either. I had asked a girl to model for me in order to check the pose. I found the basis for this image in her distinctive facial features and kind eyes. The basic look was established over several drawings. She started out looking healthy and confident, but I changed that to looking thin and tired at one point. When the painter Ming Xu dropped by my studio and saw this version, he thought it looked ugly and suggested that I should aim for a look that said “Mother of the Taiwanese people.” I ran with it as I thought it was a great idea and finally came up with what we see today. There is just something soothing about this image of a peasant woman.




As I write these words, I imagine how the Russian masters Repin and Surikov must have spent years in contemplation before the canvas as they “hammered” away at the imagery in their mind. From that emerged the very life-like and artistic images we see in Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga, the populist revolutionary in Unexpected Return, and Ivan the Terrible Killing his Son, as well as Surikov’s Boyarina Morozova, the Streltsy facing execution, and the disgraced Menshikov. These images inspire me to keep going. I believe with all my heart that only artistic images that are moving and true-to-life can break down the invisible wall between the audience and the canvas!




Old man

What I initially put down on canvas was based on a retired fisherman. At the time, I thought he looked somewhat like a Native American. I went back over this many times and while I am happy with the expression of the final version, the previous versions were probably better in terms of technique. If I must choose between the two, I will always go with the mental state of the image. I remember visiting the Louvre in Paris when I visited Europe in the 1990s where I viewed several large character portraits by Delacroix. When you look at it up close, the colors and textures of the character’s head seemed to be on the weak side. From a distance however the characters really leapt out at you and the images were very expressive. I realized then that the fundamentals of drawing are essential to the creation of characters.






Woman with bundle

I painted this woman so many times because the head was hard to get right. I used sketches  as a reference but discovered that putting too much emphasis on facial features made the profile look off. It took a great deal of effort to arrive at the result we see now. I must admit that I have no idea what more I can do with this.





The girl with the basket on her head is the only person not looking straight ahead. Her attention is probably on the heavy, wet bundle in her hand. The curved beauty in her pose may be rather artistic but it’s still within reason. I wanted to use this to give the triangle-shaped crowd a strong, forceful finish. The right hand holding the basket flows on to the boatman, ship and the sails in the distance.




All the characters in the painting such as the young man carrying an erhu, the youth holding the Mazu idol, the bare-chested man pointing to the front, the girl with a scarf over her hair, the farmer in a straw hut, the boatman, the ship, the sky, and the waves were all changed again and again to arrive at what we see today. I won’t go into the details though to save space.




I recently wondered: How would I paint this subject again today? My conclusion was that I’d start from scratch! There are too many parts that I am not satisfied or happy with. This painting is therefore just a record of my thoughts up to this day.




Field trip to Southern Fujian Province


Reference photos