I am a strong advocate for life drawing and painting because direct communication with the subject is so important in fostering the artist’s creativity and interpretation of light and color and enriching the painting experience. However, there was a time in my life during which I painted mostly from photos. I made oil painting family portraits out of tiny photos and did replica of classical paintings. It was an interesting episode in my life. It was a choice I made out of necessity for making a living but I made the most out of it and made it part of my art education (or self-education).
In September, 1980, my application to travel to Hong Kong and Taipei to deal with my father’s funeral affairs was approved. Carrying only a tiny amount of luggage with me, I crossed into Hong Kong over the wooden bridge at Luohu Customs from Shenzhen. This moment became the first major turning point in my life.
I ended up squeezed into a cramped high-rise apartment in Kwun Tong, Kowloon, along with my mother and my younger brother who had arrived a few months earlier, as well as my old friend and fellow student Li Changbo who had applied to come to Hong Kong from Hainan Island. I had lived in Guangdong for more than 20 years so language was not a problem and I soon adapted to life in Hong Kong. Being penniless however I had to find work right away.
Fortunately, the trade in export oil paintings had emerged in Hong Kong during the 1970’s. For almost all painters and Academy graduates from China, this type of “export painting” became their first job in Hong Kong. Export paintings were further broken down into photo portraits, reproductions of European classical oil paintings (from prints), and mass-produced replicas of oil paintings. The former naturally commanded a higher unit price but took time and effort. To magnify a single print more than ten times in size and turn it into an oil painting was a tremendous challenge to those without any previous experience. Many people couldn’t meet the quality requirements so had no choice but to paint mass-produced “standard goods” instead.
Li Changbo had arrived in Hong Kong before me so he already had the ordering and painting process figured out. He gave me something pictures to choose from so I picked this one called Coquetry, meaning to act in a flirtatious manner. The intricate brushwork and lifelike character was surely the work of some great European master. I used a projector to magnify the outlines then painted away at home for a whole week. When it was time for Li to “deliver the goods” (having finished making a copy of the painting), he took me along to see the art dealer. The dealer was a Hong Kong native no more than 30 years old who spoke excellent English. After laying my painting out on the bench, the plump young man adjusted his gold-rimmed spectacles, studied the painting with a smile, then asked me: “How long ago did you come out of China?” When I told him a week, he immediately said: “Impossible! Many painters from the art academies in China always make oil paintings “one stroke at a time” and find it hard to break the habit. How did you manage to paint with such delicacy after just one week?”
I told him that as a stage artist, I had painted egg-sized “Chairman Mao” on projector slides so this was nothing at all. From then on, he started giving me commissions including prints of classical paintings (18th and 19th Century) by great masters such as Rubens, Watteau and Courbet, paintings published in the American Southwest Art Magazine, as well as many personal/family portraits from Americans and Australians. All of these had to be enlarged and turned into oil paintings of the specified size… Thus I started making a living from replica oil paintings.
This period did have a positive effect on my painting career because I paid more attention to the details in oil portraits. The experience gave me the skill and confidence to quickly depict all kinds of characters in plein-air portraits later on. I did however remind myself not to fall into the trap of mundane “photo-realism.”
Such experiences in life are unavoidable but if you turn that experience into your own skills and wisdom then you can find happiness in even the most depressing of circumstances.