The Role of the Masters

“Painted in the Style of…”

When looking at Chinese paintings, one might sooner or later stumble over inscriptions such as “Painted in the style of…”. This may be confusing for people who have not yet been exposed to Chinese art. In Western art traditions, it is not desirable to copy another painter’s style. In Asian art, however, copying the style of a former master is not only a way to train oneself in various painting techniques and compositions, but also a sign of respect towards the achievements of earlier artists.

Development and Imitation

In Chinese painting, there are various painting techniques associated to famous masters. Many of those painters who developed characteristic painting methods lived during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE), a time in which the arts flourished. Guo Xi, for example, a painter of the Song Dynasty, invented the so-called “crab claw strokes”, a way of depicting trees whose branches are as knobby as a crab’s claw. Mi Fu, another Song Dynasty painter, is famous for his dotting, Ma Yuan and Xia Gui established the axe-cut stroke. Throughout the centuries, painters were not only admired for their skills and ability to proficiently copy the styles of the Song Dynasty, but also highly regarded when they managed to harmonically combine or blend different techniques. The idea of either copying a master or rather painting in an individual style did, however, change over the centuries. In the Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368 CE), for example, painters turned to producing more individual works, whereas the artists of the succeeding Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE) revived the concept of imitating a painter’s style. Therefore, the role of the masters changed according to the circumstances – their styles either served as inspiration, imitating them was a kind of painting practice, or copying served as a way to express respect towards their work.