On the long painting table lie the Four Treasures, or traditional Chinese artistís tools - ink stone, ink stick, brushes and rice paper. Large bowls of black ink and red cinnabar colour have already been prepared, brushes arranged in order of size. There is a sense of theatre as the master painter Jia Hao Yi selects a large brush, dips it into the black ink and makes a first bold brush stroke on the white paper. Using brushes of different sizes, he adds more strokes - fast and slow, heavy and light, wet and dry, always in balance - and the semi-abstract form of a galloping horse gradually emerges. Next, a few strokes of cinnabar red suffice to suggest a rider with a scarlet cloak flying in the wind.
But for his casual clothes and the lack of a long beard, Jia Hao Yi could be an artist from the Ming Dynasty; the artistís studio, the painting tools and method are much the same today as they were 600 years ago. However, the result is something new: a painting that combines tradition with modernity to create a contemporary style of Chinese painting. Though the painting process looks effortless, it has taken 30 years for Jia Hao Yi to reach this level. With each deliberate yet freely executed stroke of the brush, he is able to convey different degrees of strength or gentleness, the contours of his subjects, light and shade, space and rhythm of movement - all in black ink.
From an early age, Jia Hao Yi felt that Chinese ink was the right medium in which to express himself, but he was also convinced that the Chinese tradition was in need of modernization. At the Beijing Art Institute in the late 1950s, Jia Hao Yi was trained in the mainstream tradition of Chinese literati ink painting. He admired the monumental landscapes of the Song dynasty (960-1279) with their soaring cliffs and waterfalls; but equally liked the simplicity of the wen-jen hua type of literati painting, focusing on a single flower, tree or rock. In such paintings, the figure of a solitary fisherman could suggest a feeling of endless water and infinite space.
Jia Hao Yi also studied the genre of traditional Chinese painting characterized by strong colours and complex compositions, as seen in the many frescoes from the Dunhuang caves in Western China, dating from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-543) onwards. Murals of flying apsaras with their graceful movements and floating streamers in brilliant mineral pigments created a lasting impression on him, and would inspire him later to use bright colours in his work.
Chinese calligraphy has also exerted a strong influence on his work. Since ancient times, Chinese artists have considered that calligraphy and painting have one common source, and the relationship between the two arts is very close. Jia Hao Yi says, "If you use a Chinese brush to do Chinese calligraphy, then you have to use the power of your inner self. I do the same in my painting."
Finally, in common with many 20th century Chinese artists, Jia Hao Yi looked to Western art to re-invigorate and modernize the Chinese ink painting tradition. Artists like Xu Beihong and Lin Fengmian had already travelled to Europe and brought back innovative styles, such as the use of bold colours and Western perspective. Jia Hao Yi believes the composition of Western paintings is especially important.
All these influences have contributed to Jia Hao Yiís unique style, but traditional ink painting remains its foundation. "The mentality of traditional Chinese ink paintings is to show the spirit of a subject," he says. "If you paint a flower, you may do it in black ink which is not like the flower at all in reality, what you are trying to do is paint the spirit of the flower. The aim of Chinese ink painting is to highlight the essence of subject and communicate this to the viewer." Having studied widely, both Chinese and Western artists, he has taken from each tradition the aspects he needed. As a result, his work is in between abstraction and realism.
Today, Jia Hao Yi is known especially for painting horses, a subject he chose firstly because he felt it could express strong feelings, and also because during the Cultural Revolution the strict regulations on figure painting did not apply to animals. In his horse paintings, he aims to show the dynamism and energy of the animal, and especially wants to capture the sheer power of the horse in full gallop. "In the Chinese mentality, the horse is very close to the Chinese people," he explains. "The horse is very important in Chinese history: people rode horses to travel, to hunt and to fight."
The other very important subject in Jia Hao Yiís work is the bull. "The bull shows a different character from the horse," he says. "The bull is associated with hard work, and strength, brute force. The bull is used for working on the land, to grow food; where as the horse is more associated with battle, fighting your enemies. Both animals are very important in Chinese culture and history. One is for food, one is for power."
In the true tradition of Chinese artists who thought it was important to "learn from Nature", Jia Hao Yi has traveled widely in China, especially to Mongolia, Qinghai and Xinjiang . Each time he would return with several thick books full of sketches, which he would later develop into paintings in his studio. "I especially appreciate natural landscapes, with wide open spaces and fresh air," he says. "In contrast with the busy polluted city full of people, buildings and cars, I love the peace and quiet. For me, Nature is a healer."
Unlike traditional Chinese landscapes, Jia Hao Yiís landscapes are simplified, distilled to capture the essence of the landscape, as in the paintings of the Southern Song dynasty. As with his horses, the most important thing is not to depict the animal or the landscape in a realistic way, but to express his feelings. "I believe that art should bring happiness to the viewer and so I paint both horses and landscapes from an emotional point of view, from my heart. That is why I have developed my style of painting."
In the 20th century, some Chinese artists opted to keep the traditional way of painting; others decided to accept Western art totally and deny the Chinese tradition. Jia Hao Yi is an artist who thinks neither of these is the solution. "I believe you have to combine both, the middle way is best. Far from turning my back on traditional Chinese ink painting, I think I have opened a new door for Chinese ink painting, allowing it to express strong feelings and take a prominent place in Chinese contemporary art."