An art space dedicated to horse painting
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James Phua, a young and dynamic artist who started his journey of art since childhood time. Having his first solo art exhibition at age of 19. Today he is an internationally renowned artist of Chinese horse painting. 《 Chinese: 潘瑞全,一位年轻有活力的画家。从小即展现他的艺术才华,19岁即受邀举办第一次个展。今日他已是享誉国际的水墨画马名家,》

James Phua 潘瑞全 – who has written posts on James Phua De Horse.

We All Have the Experience of Doing A- Single-Stroke Painting

Basically this article is not a kind of sentimental expression but a type of scientific analysis on probing into aesthetic topics. And this probe focuses much more on a specific area i.e. A-single-stroke-horse painting.

Perhaps this uncommonly heard phrase “A-single-stroke-horse painting” seems to be strange to the public. They feel that they have nothing to do with “A-single-stroke-horse painting” as they do not regard themselves as artists. In other words, they don’t think that they know anything about art because they are not artists by profession.

James Phua Chinese horse painting 瑞全中国水墨画马, Single-Stroke-Horse Painting (一笔马)67 x 93cm

Single-Stroke-Horse Painting (一笔马)67 x 93cm

As a matter of fact, almost all adults have experienced doing an artwork similar to “A-single-stroke-horse painting” without knowing it. How is this true? Let’s think about this again. When do you suddenly turn into a great art master? Yes, you become a distinctive artist when you are signing your signature for contracts or checks with full confidence. What a handsome signature! More importantly your signature is done with almost a single stroke or just a few strokes without any hesitation. To me, the signature is no longer simple writing but an artistic creation.


Various signature (各种签名)

Various signature (各种签名)

And what a co-incidence that people in all parts of the world sign their signature stylishly with a single stroke or a few consecutive strokes. Without knowing it, everyone demonstrates or projects a high value of aesthetic idealism i.e. 气韵生动“Qi Yun Sheng Dong” (Flow with energy), a goal that every Chinese painter strives to achieve.


Art Is Back to the Essence of Expression from Elaborate Style

In fact, man’s paintings or drawings used to be very primitive and simple and were completed with just a few strokes. For instance, ancient paintings found in caves were very simply rendered by primitive man. And the “Brick Paintings” of Dynasty Han were also well summarized and exaggerated in form with just a few mature strokes.

lascaux cave paintings (source:洞穴壁画

lascaux cave paintings (source:洞穴壁画
Ancient paintings found in caves were very simply rendered by primitive man.

Ancient Chinese drawing on tiles 汉砖之画

The “Brick Paintings” of Dynasty Han were also well summarized and exaggerated in form with just a few mature strokes.


However, without knowing when it began, it seems that man’s paintings have become more and more refined and detailed, and that painting techniques and procedures have gradually become more and more complicated as man’s desires have become more and more materialistic.

In the West, Realism painting which stresses defined rendering has brought the art of defining and execution to new heights.

However, there was a sudden change during the post impressionism period when artists began to make a U-turn tracing back human expression, releasing their inner feelings through their expressive brush works. And very soon it was followed by the development of Expressionism and Abstract paintings etc. Well, the importance of the direct implementation of human expression once again has been reviewed and measured. In other word the artists of the West are back to the “root” of art as understanding the power of human expression in the making of a piece of artwork.

In the East, Chinese ink painting which is regarded as the mainstream of Oriental art had gradually evolved from the Han Dynasty’s terse -outlined “Brick painting” and developed to elaborate style and reached its peak of refinement with heavy brilliant color in theTang Dynasty. However, there was a huge change when Chinese painters started painting with a plain sketching style (白描Bai Miao) and gradually opened up the development of “Free Style” painting (写意画Xie Yi Hua).And it has been maturing from “Free Style” to “Bold Style” (大写意画Da Xie Yi Hua) until today.

At the surface the conceptions and originality of Western art are different from Eastern art as the former originated from “Rationality” whereas the latter originated from the moderation of the “Irrationality and Rationality”. In other words, these two mainstreams of art are culturally different. However, based on the above mentioned art developments, it is clear that art is a creation made by man. It does not matter whether the art creation is made under the influence of western or eastern aesthetic culture, this definition won’t change.


Xie He , a Chinese painter of the South Dynasty。

Yet there is a similarity found among these two mainstreams of art as they develop along in the art history. The similarity I mentioned is that artists of both East and West are returning to the origins of art coincidentally without noticing that they both share the same destination. Looking back to art history, artists seemed to begin searching and looking for “something” latent in the artist’s body that can be felt mentally but cannot be grabbed physically, yet can be released from the artist’s inner body and eventually projected onto his artworks. Certain western artists named this “Thing” as “Lively”. In my opinion, a Chinese painter of the South Dynasty Xie He (谢赫) interpreted this “Thing” precisely. Xie He forwarded the new aesthetic term , “气韵生动 Qi Yun Sheng Dong” in his six major principles in Chinese ink painting. “气Qi” means a flow of the inner energy latent in a human’s body. “韵Yun” means mood and ambient of imagery. “生Sheng” means liveliness. “动Dong” means movement.

The Straightforwardness of Releasing the Painting Expression

What is meant by releasing the “Qi” out of an artist’s inner body? What does “Qi” really mean? What is relationship between “Qi” and “A-single-stroke-horse painting” ?

Let me show you an example from a different angle:

Mr.Lee (pictured as an artist) wants to express a love message (pictured as aesthetic imagery) to Miss Lim, a girl he admires The message from his heart is “You are my soul. I cannot live alone without you , ” (the artist’s inner conception).In doing so Mr.Lee needs to speak out his message(the artist needs to show his subject images by painting) through his language(the art medium such as Chinese ink painting).At the same time Mr.Lee needs to convey his message with impressive and touching expression(pictured as “Qi”or inner energy) and then pass on or transfer it (through thetechnique of painting) to his dreamgirl Miss Lim(the art beholder).In this case Mr.Lee has two choices oftransfering his message. A) A Complex Transition: through several middle men. ( that is complicated procedures of painting techniques)

First of all Mr.Lee passes down his message to Mr.A (painting technique procedure

1).Then Mr.A passes down the same message to Mr.B(painting technique procedure

2).Similarly Mr.B passes down the message to Mr.C(painting technique procedure

3).Then From Mr.C to Mr.D, Mr.D to Mr.E until Mr.Z

And finally the message is received by Miss Lim (the art beholder). No doubt the message received by Miss Lim will be very different from what Mr.Lee wanted to actually express. In other words the more stages the message passes through the more the message varies.

A Direct Transition: Message sender to Message receiver

In this case Mr.Lee conveys his message directly by speaking out in front of Miss Lim. ( the inner “Qi” is directly released without many procedures of painting techniques). Certainly his message will be presented in a much more complete way.( seen as the ordinary feeling of an artist). Mr.Lee will only win Miss Lim’s heart (seen as the beholder’s aesthetic appreciation) if his presentation of the message is impressive and attractive as well as sincere. (that is, the correct implementation of inner “Qi”, expressing the inner spirit). Conversely, Mr.Lee’s love will definitely be rejected by Miss Lim if his presentation of the message is in stilted words without any inner feeling and is dull and poor in expression(that is, outward appearance without inward spirit).

The above mentioned example is a true experience in life. In fact, it reflects the situation where artists have done too much refinement on their artworks by using too many unnecessary painting techniques until the“Qi” latent in them is blocked and hardly released.

The Idea of Doing A-Single-Stroke-Horse Painting

As a result of the above I began to think of doing “A-single-stroke Horse Painting” by Chinese ink painting.

I think that the energy (Neng Liang) and inner flow (Qi Yun) released from an artist’s body onto the single-stroke painting should be much more direct and complete than other painting techniques. At the same time the challenge of doing A-single-stroke painting is much more difficult in terms of imagery sub sense, conception, techniques and the application of brushwork when compared with Bold Style Chinese ink painting (Da Xie Yi Hua).

If I am not mistaken, my first trial in doing A-single-stroke horse painting was around October last year. A-single-stroke-horse painting is an art creation which is completed with just a single stroke without a break. This creation is amazing and remarkable.

Why not other single stroke animal paintings in addition to the horse? ? As I mentioned in my previous article, the images and features of horses are the most difficult in painting as has been admitted by most artists.

Obviously, I will never do A-single-stroke snake painting or any other animal as it is less challenging Why not use a ballpoint pen to do the painting instead of a Chinese brush?

I found that the Chinese brush is the best and most effective painting instrument in the world in so far as it is capable of transferring “Qi’ latent in an artist’s inner body onto his artwork most directly just like an electric conductor transferring electricity.

As I expected I faced failure in doing single-stroke horse paintings in the beginning It could be said as many as 10 failures out of 10 trial paintings. It made me aware that I still needed a lot of improvement in my horse paintings even though I thought my fundamental skills were sufficient. Therefore I made up my mind that I should go back to the basics and strengthen my foundation in horse painting entirely..

Speaking of A- single-stroke horse painting, we perhaps will think of Chinese calligraphy, especially the bold and rapid stroked calligraphy styles “Cao Shu” and “Xing Shu” .Generally speaking , Chinese ink painting and Chinese calligraphy share the same root. However, there is a slight difference between them as Chinese calligraphy has breaks in between the strokes even though it looks like a continuous brushstroke combination. Yet the imagery of calligraphy is much simpler and less challenging in construction than the imagery of horse painting.

James Phua Chinese horse painting 瑞全中国水墨画马, Single-Stroke-Horse Painting 一笔马(凌云)67 x 114cm

Single-Stroke-Horse Painting 一笔马(凌云)67 x 114cm

Basically the “A-single-stroke- horse painting” is an upgraded art creation of a combination of calligraphy and Chinese ink painting. In “Single-stroke horse painting” my aesthetic expression is ‘nakedly’ conveyed onto rice paper through direct transition of brushwork such as pressing, lifting, pausing slowly and rapidly in artistic rhythm. At the same time, I need to ensure both the outward appearance and the inward spirit of the horse. Yet the horse painting needs to be conducted in a single stroke without any breaks. In doing so, the artist must unite his mind, brush and the imagery of the horse in sub sense without a single hesitation.

I love this “A-single-stroke -horse painting” as it is indeed a great challenge to the artist’s capabilities and I have failed in executing it many times. In fact these failures have made me stronger and braver to face new challenges and hardships each time.


A Single Horse Equals to A Whole Universe

A friend of mine asked me whether a single stroke painting is a bit boring.

It was a good question. I didn’t answer him directly. Instead I took out one of my recent single-stroke -horse painting and showed him. Pointing to the inscription I wrote in that painting, I read aloud:

A single stroke painting;

A single horse;

One is “道Dao”;

“道Dao” produces the whole one;

A single horse,

namely a whole universe.

As for me, the variation of a single horse is compared to the variation of the whole universe. Isn’t it very difficult to understand?

I don’t think I will narrate my above inscription to him. I hope that this friend of mine can slowly become enlightened by himself.


James Phua Chinese horse painting 瑞全中国水墨画马, A –Single-Stroke Horse Painting 一笔马(仰首前程志浩然)66.5 x 74cm

A –Single-Stroke Horse Painting
一笔马(仰首前程志浩然)66.5 x 74cm


James Phua

15th September 2012


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