Huangshan, with its towering granite spires, is an ethereal landscape that has inspired generations of Chinese painters. Today, those same mountains attract visitors from across China and beyond, many of whom feel compelled to capture the beauty of the landscape in their own contemporary way, usually with camera or phone.
For some, such as Mao Yinfu, tradition reigns supreme. An internationally renowned painter who lives among the mountains’ mist-wreathed peaks, Master Mao feels the same compulsion to capture the beauty of this otherworldly place as so many have before him. We spoke to him about life, his art and the mountains themselves:
Mao Yinfu, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Could you start by telling us where were you born and how you first became aware of Huangshan?
So when did you first begin painting?
As a child, I was greatly influenced by my maternal grandfather and I started painting in the mid-70s.
Was it obvious then that you had a real talent for art?
Perhaps. I had really nice handwriting as a child and my work was sometimes displayed on the wall at school.
Did you receive any formal training or did you teach yourself to paint?
I studied painting under the famous painter Zhou Hanting. I also consulted and learnt from numerous other renowned painters.
When and why did you move to Huangshan?
I first went to Huangshan in the mid-1990s to sketch landscapes directly from nature. I decided to stay so that I could fully capture the essence of the place.
What is life like living and painting there?
Life here is good, but I’m not used to eating rice! My diet before was mostly noodles so it took some getting used to. As for painting, Huangshan is incredibly beautiful. I regard the landscape as my teacher and I as its friend.
That’s a beautiful way of looking at it. For you, what are the core principles of Chinese painting?
Chinese painting aims to express pure ideals and capture the essence of life. The initial structure of a painting strives for an almost spiritual balance in composition and form, which is then vividly brought to life with the finishing touches. The whole art pursues unity of form and spirit, as well as maintaining a rhythmic vitality throughout.
Modern Chinese painting has absorbed these traditional concepts, but with its own novel ideas applied. This has given rise to numerous varied painting styles and schools, such as the Shanghai school and Chang’an school.
So which style or school does your own work belong to?
(Laughing) I’m not really sure which school I belong to, perhaps the Huangshan school?
Okay, so tradition is important in Chinese painting. Which artists of the past influence your painting?
Many great artists have had a big influence on me, especially Xuwei, Ba Da and Shi Tao, as well as Zhang Daqian, Fu Baoshi, Dong Shouping – these last few are modern painters.
Chinese painting may be steeped in tradition, but is innovation also important?
Of course! Innovation is important, but I think any future developments must rely on the foundations, the traditional painting principles and techniques.
What is the special relationship between Huangshan and landscape painting in China?
As you know, the mountains of Huangshan have had a huge influence on the development of Chinese landscape painting – because of this they have been referred to as the ‘cradle’ of the art.
In the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, lots of master painters chose to depict Huangshan. Shi Tao, Mei Qing and Zhe Jiang are known as the big three figures of the Huangshan school, but Huang Binhong, Zhang Daqian, Liu Haisu, Dong Shouping and other modern painters have also created numerous paintings with Huangshan as their central theme.
Do you have a favorite scene that you like to paint?
My favorite has to be the North Sea of Huangshan, the most spectacular and iconic section of the range.
How about a favorite season or time of day?
I’d probably say Spring is my favorite season to depict. Early morning is my favorite time of day.
Do you paint from real life scenes or back in the studio using a photograph?
I prefer siting upon the mountain while painting the scenery.
Tell us a bit more about your method and how you approach a painting from start to finish?
I usually abide by the traditional step-by-step process for painting Chinese landscapes: sketching the outline first and then applying interior brush strokes for texture before adding finer details.
Lately, however, I’ve been having more novel ideas. Sometimes I start with an expressive splash of ink and finish the details according to however the splash turns out.
Have you ever painted scenes outside of China?
Yes! In the past I’ve painted famous scenes like the Eiffel Tower and Fuji Mountain.
Do you think Chinese painting styles could be used to paint landscapes from other parts of the world like, say, Europe or America?
Definitely, I think Chinese painting styles can be used to depict scenes and images from all the countries of the world.
Visit Huangshan this Autumn
Savor the idyllic gems of rural Anhui province on this voyage into ancient China. You’ll visit frozen-in-time villages once home to wealthy merchants and scholars, peer into the mist atop soaring Yellow Mountain, and brave the “bamboo sea” immortalized in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.