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Abbreviated Expressiveness in Chinese Painting

Expressive Painting in Blue-and-White

Expressive Painting by Xie Zhiguang

26/7/2019 - 5/10/2019

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This exhibition is divided into two sections showing Chinese art in two different mediums and periods: folk blue-and-white porcelain in the Ming and Qing dynasties as well as Chinese paintings by a modern artist Xie Zhiguang (1900-1976). These two types of art, seemingly disparate, actually share a common ground. They both employ expressive painting techniques to depict flowers, figures and landscapes in simple lines and colours.


The invention of blue-and-white ware enables potters to draw easily on porcelain and turn daily utensils into ink paintings. The production of folk blue-and-white porcelain reached its zenith during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Although its quality and brushwork are inferior to imperial ware, the aesthetic value of folk blue-and-white lies in its free-flowing and expressive style, as well as diversified decorations. This exhibition presents over a hundred pieces of folk blue-and-white porcelain of the Ming and Qing dynasties to showcase the expressive paintings by these folk potters and reveal the wishes and aesthetic emotions of commoners at that time.


The Mainland Chinese artist Xie Zhiguang (1900-1976) excelled in both meticulous and expressive paintings. This exhibition showcases his expressive landscapes and bird-and-flowers and juxtaposes them with the blue-and-white porcelain paintings by folk potters. It is hoped that the similarities in these two different types of art draw attention to the omnipresent style of Chinese expressive painting. The exhibits are all selected from the Hong Kong private collection of Yun Quan Studio.

Expressive Painting in Blue-and-White

To make blue-and-white porcelain, white slip and cobalt pigment are first employed on the body of a clay vessel to render decorative motifs. Next, a layer of transparent glaze is applied all over the vessel before firing it once in a kiln. The cobalt will turn blue upon completion. The transparent coating protects the white slip and blue glaze from wearing, and this method is known as the underglaze technique.

This type of cobalt blue pigment is known as the “underglaze blue”. The production of blue-and-white porcelain was successfully invented by the town of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province during the Yuan Dynasty. In the early Ming Dynasty, Jingdezhen had already become the national center of porcelain production. Its blue-and-white porcelain surpassed all other competitors. Smaller kilns in Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong provinces scrambled to make blue-and-white porcelain; imitating the Jingdezhen style yet lacking the Jingdezhen quality. Therefore, Jingdezhen continued to lead in the production of blue-and-white porcelain.

In producing porcelain ware for the Ming court, imperial kiln sites in Jingdezhen employed a type of imported cobalt pigment known as Samarra Blue which gave a rich and purplish shade of blue comparable to the imperial Yuan ware. In contrast, folk kilns could only produce lusterless inferior pieces. During the Chenghua era however, Jingdezhen switched to the use of a domestic cobalt that resulted in a paler shade. It was not until later times of Jiajing and Wanli eras that more choices became available such as the Muslim Blue imported from Central Asia which yielded a purplish brilliant blue shade. Unfortunately, the lustre vanished and dull colours resurfaced once again towards the late Ming period.

Blue-and-white porcelain revved up its production in the early Qing Dynasty as the country gradually reached a period of stability. Glaze regained its shimmer and richness. It was also better purified; yielding more refined and stable tonalities. This explains the relatively stable colour range of the Qing blue-and-white ware.

Life of a commoner centered around meals and tea time. Thus, the consumer demand for bowls was the highest. In the early Ming Dynasty, a stack of six to ten bowls were often placed inside a saggar, or a container made of clay, for firing. Since the bowls were stacked, this firing method left a spur mark around the central medallion inside the bowl known as the “unglazed ring”. This type of bowl has a heavily potted body with a thick foot and a stud located in the centre of the base. These studded unglazed ring bowls faded out in mid-Ming after potters started placing vessels in saggars one at a time. With this individual firing method, a more stable glaze colour was achieved.

Decoration on folk blue-and-white porcelain can be divided into several stages: decors were realistic in the early Ming, then gradually turned simplistic, and later became elaborate in the Jiajing era. The late Ming saw another full cycle of changes from figurative to simplicity, and then steered towards abstraction. In other words, free-flowing bold distinct strokes seen in the early stage developed into more uniformly drawn lines.

In addition to the rendering of texture, potters introduced tonal differences to their depiction using cobalt blue since the Chenghua era. This technique of producing an ink and wash painting was fully developed in the Qing period. Depicting a greater variety of compositions and themes drawn from daily life, blue-and-white porcelain evolved from bland and dull representations to an alternate vivid form of literati painting.

Noticeably, the development of folk blue-and-white porcelain followed a similar path during the Ming and Qing periods. Both began with complete compositions and realistic depictions, then deteriorated to minimalism, abstraction or even sketchiness.

In fact, folk kilns avoided employing elaborated brushwork and leaned towards an expressive or abbreviated style in order to maintain low production cost. In addition to using less refined clay and glazes, they also tried to minimize production time by rushing through the decoration. Although the painting looks rough with reduced brushwork, it surprisingly exudes a kind of expressive flavor: while motifs are turned abstract, the painting is imbued with a more evocative ambience and stronger resonance, an achievement totally unexpected for the folk kiln potters.

Blue-and-white porcelain made by the Ming and Qing folk kilns were certainly low-end products. Yet, judging from present artistic standards, they belong to a different type of art: modern abstract paintings presented on ancient porcelain created by a group of neglected artists.

YEUNG Chun Tong




Bowl with children at play

Children at play on interior

Late Ming

D: 12.7 cm

H: 5.7 cm

B: 5.1 cm

Dish with fungi and floral sprays

Fungi and floral sprays on exterior and

potter’s mark on base


D: 15.5 cm

H: 2.8 cm

B: 9.5 cm


Bowl with spreading dragon

Early Qing

D: 15.7 cm

H: 8.3 cm

B: 6.1 cm

Brushpot with autumn landscape

Double ring on base

Early Qing

D: 11.5 cm

H: 12.7 cm

Exhibition catalogue

Expressive Painting by Xie Zhiguang

Xie Zhiguang had a solid foundation in both Chinese and western painting techniques. His art can be divided into three phases. In his early years, Xie created paintings for monthly calendars. Starting in the 1930’s, he switched his interest to the meticulous style of Chinese painting. His style turned expressive in his twilight years.

The young Xie blended Chinese and western techniques to deliver realistic paintings. His first calendar painting Boat-Outing on West Lake  was published when he was only twenty-three years old. He soon became famous among the first-generation calendar painters in Shanghai.

Since the fad of calendars faded in the early 1930’s, Xie turned to Chinese painting, focusing on the traditional genre of ladies in the meticulous style. He picked up the style of his late Qing predecessors, rendering his ladies with refined and detailed brushwork while employing a soft and elegant palette of colours. Xie also created bird-and-flower paintings, closely observing formal likeness and employing the boneless method—smearing colours rather than drawing lines to render the depiction. His works in this phase speak of his virtuosity of traditional Chinese painting.

The 1960’s saw a change in Xie’s art. He made a new approach to his bird-and-flower and landscape paintings. The works were mostly in the abbreviated style. His brush manner, ink techniques, form and coloration underwent a drastic transformation, marking the peak of his artistic career.

Xie developed a friendship with the artists Qian Shoutie (1897-1967) and Zhu Qizhan (1892-1996) whom he treated like his teachers. Their epigraphic style wielded influence over him, whose brush manner gradually turned bold and rustic. In particular, his flowers are delineated by thick and full lines akin to Wu Changshuo (1844-1927)’s seal script characters. Xie used carmine and rouge to render red petals, slashing strokes in dark ink to depict leaves, and dry strokes with dark dry ink to render vines and branches. Such depiction alludes to Qi Baishi (1864-1957)’s style of red flower and ink leaf. Xie’s bird-and-flower paintings are defined by their simplicity: usually only a trunk with two branches or a flower with a few leaves is depicted. His flowers assume geometric shapes such as angular lotus flowers, magnolia formed by triangles of varying sizes, and morning glories represented by two circles and a few dots. His animals are absurd and exaggerated in appearance. They are delineated with sharp-cornered outlines which add a sense of rustic simplicity.

Xie’s landscape paintings are usually expressive and entail mountains and rocks outlined in simple strokes. While Xie often mixed ochre, natural indigo and wet ink, he was adept at using stale ink as well as dark dry ink. They were used to highlight areas rendered in wet ink to form an interesting juxtaposition. Xie had a penchant for using ink washes or empty space extensively to create unexpected compositions. His expressive paintings may look abbreviated at first sight; a closer look reveals a multitude of contrasts: emptiness and fullness, boldness and lightness, dryness and wetness, coolness and warmth. 


In his old age, Xie devoted entirely to the creation of Chinese painting. His coloration turned rich and brilliant unlike his soft palette back in his youth. Apart from brush-drawing, Xie would splash ink directly onto paper and use paper balls, bits of cloth or fingers to create a special visual effect. His plum blossoms, for instance, are rendered by fingers. 

NGAN Yu Ting

Assistant Curator


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Embroidering Beauty

 Ink and colour on paper

 65 x 34 cm

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 Ink and colour on paper 

61 x 39.5 cm

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 Ink and colour on paper

68 x 34 cm

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Cat and Peony

 Ink and colour on paper 

 117 x 36 cm

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