February 13, 2017 12 min read
Interviewed by Jim Powers, Creative Catalyst Productions
Cheng-Khee, can you talk about when you become interested in art?
My mother excelled in embroidery and needlepoint that was my first introduction to art. I did not have crayons at that time, I remember using pieces of broken clay tiles as drawing tools and drew pictures all-over, such as walls and floors. Sometimes I received praises, other times scolded. When I started grade school, I got paper, pencils, brushes and colors. All students received rigid training in Chinese calligraphy, writing with a brush. From the calligraphy training, I gained a firm foundation in Chinese brushwork, which is also the foundation of Chinese painting. From then on I drew or paint interchangeably with pencil, brush and color. These have interwoven with my own first thoughts about painting.
What inspires you?
What inspires me to paint is my strong inner world’s subjective response to the outer world’s objective reality. My subjective response is influenced by my diverse East-West experiences, tradition, knowledge, and personal cultivation. Over the years, I faithfully follow the principles bellow:
The synthesis of subject matter and feelings becomes my painting contents.
Design and craftsmanship become my painting process. Design helps me orchestrate abstract elements to compose good paintings. Craftsmanship enables me to express my subject.
Is art a “spiritual” experience for you?
Yes! To me, painting is my quest for a sudden spiritual experience or a most immediate realization of an intuitive vision through the practice of painting. The Chinese has a saying "If you meditate long enough, you will achieve enlightenment.” Painting is my meditation!
The act of painting to the Chinese Chan (Zen) and Literati painters is to express a state of consciousness, a sudden spiritual experience, and the most immediate realization of an intuitive vision. They are the forerunners of abstract expression. I am strongly influenced by this concept.
Did you go to art school? How did it prepare you for a life as an artist? How did it not prepare you?
I did not go to art school. But I did receive excellent art education from great art teachers in high school. My watercolor teacher was educated in England, my oil painting teacher was educated both in Paris and New York, my Chinese painting teacher graduated from the Shanghai Academy of Fine Art. Studied under them gave me a strong foundation in drawing and painting in different media.
A painting consists of two elements: content and the process of expression (form). I feel that content is more important than form, because form is only a vehicle for the content. I also believe that process of expression(form) can be taught and shared through lessons and practice; but content must come from the artist’s own heart. A good painting must possess the artist’s rich life experience, strong feelings, great knowledge, broad vision, compassion and elements of the artist’s personal cultivation: noble character, integrity, sublimity, dignity and charisma, so that a piece of art can empathize viewers’ emotion.
My high school training, workshops, and publications have given me good tools of way of expression. The contents of my painting come from years of my own hard work.
In my opinion, self-taught is active learning and skies are the limited; while being taught is passive learning with limitations. To me, active learning is more important than the passive learning.
When did you decide to make a career of it / become a full-time artist?
I have multiple careers: librarian, artist, art professor and illustrator. Only when all our four children finished college, I took an early retirement from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1994, to become a full-time artist.
How long did it take you before you felt like you could call yourself an artist? Was that a long and hard transition to make or was it a quick one? Do you think it's important for artists to call themselves artists?
I suppose I could call myself an artist, when I became the AWS Signature Member in 1981. I started painting off and on since when I was in high school and more seriously since 1974 when my first painting was accepted by the American Watercolor Society International Exhibition. My art speaks itself, it is absolutely not important for me to call myself artist.
Earlier in your life, before becoming a full-time artist, how did you find the time to paint? Was that a struggle? How did you balance “life” and “art”?
I love art, but I know artists travel a tough road to make a living. Therefore, I decided at a very early stage that art is my life, I would always pursue art; but make a living in another profession.
I worked at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, first as a librarian and later art faculty, teaching watercolor painting. In the meantime, I was also father of four children. But I never lost my faith and vision of ultimately becoming an artist. It was, of course, difficult juggling with the multiple tasks, but I had great passion, dedication, motivation, determination, discipline, and seemingly boundless energy at that time to pursue my painting. During the daytime and weekdays, I was a librarian; at night, on weekends and holidays I indulged myself in painting.
Besides my own efforts, I also had strong supports and encouragement from my family, the University of Minnesota Duluth administration and colleagues, and my beloved Duluth community. I always feel that I am the luckiest person in the world! If I have any artistic ability at all, I owe that to my wife Sing-Bee and my understanding and loving children. Sing-Bee always encourages me and makes time for me to paint to develop my artistic ability. All those years when I was working for the University, she shouldered the bulk of the responsibility in raising our four children and managing the family. We share our vision, and we chase our dream together.
How did you approach learning to paint? Was it self-instructed? How did you use teachers, art videos and books to direct your learning process?
I am basically a self-taught artist, however when in high school, I was very fortunate to have excellent art teachers. Studying under these accomplished artists, I received excellent training and established a firm foundation in drawing and painting.
As a librarian at the University of Minnesota Duluth. I was at the source of information. I seized every opportunity to study through books and periodicals, the outstanding watercolorists in the West such as J. M. William Turner, John Sell Cotman, Sir Russell Flint and Edward Seago. I examined the great American watercolorists Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Maurice Prendergast, John Marin, Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield and Andrew Wyeth. I also admired the German expressionist Emil Nolde for his bright, rich and bold colors, Cezanne, Klee and Chagall for their poetic quality.
The University of Minnesota Duluth, Tweed Museum of Art has a rich collection of Western art to let me study. Each year, the Museum also held the American Watercolor Society Traveling Exhibition. I had the chance to closely examine and study the 50 paintings in the show, which greatly expended my horizon.
In the meantime, I took three workshops from Professor Gaell Lindstrom, Edward Whitney and Dong Kingman in the 1970’s, to enrich myself.
What advice would you give about self-teaching to someone who wants to learn to paint?
I would basically share with them my own experience of a self-taught artist pursuing painting in #4 and #8 of my answers to your questions.
Besides books, periodicals and instructional videos. with the advancement of internets, now an artist can study the works of many artists globally online.
How much time do you spend painting now? Do you set a weekly or daily schedule or do you just see where the week takes you?
When I was working full-time, I painted nights, weekends, holidays. But now of course, I can paint as much or little as I want to. I do have a disciplined routine: I get up early in the morning and walk on my treadmill for half an hour before breakfast. In the meantime, I read the newspaper, and catch morning news on both American and Chinese TV. I start working in my studio around nine o’clock and break off for lunch at noon. I continue to work in the afternoon for a couple of hours, and get on the treadmill again for another 20 minutes before dinner. I do some reading at night and enjoy some American western movie reruns or Chinese operas on TV.
Have you ever changed mediums you work in? What did the new medium say that you couldn’t express in the previous medium?
I worked in all media when at high school, but concentrated on watercolor after coming to the US in 1962. After painting for many years, I feel watercolor both Western and Chinese styles are more suitable to my personality.
Based on my years of practice, I conclude that the watercolor medium is closer to Dao (Tao) than any other medium. The very flowing movement of washes has a strong evocative power. The interpenetration of colors creates mysterious precipitations and nuances. In watercolor the artist can let the medium obey its own laws and create wonders in the same way that nature creates her own works. I therefore formulated the principle of “from abstraction to realism.” I consider the act of watercolor painting a dynamic process of interaction, interchange, interbreeding, interconnection, and integration of abstraction and realism, emotion and reasoning, accident and intention, subjectivity and objectivity, imagination and reality. This gives the artist utmost freedom and flexibility in the process of painting. An artist begins a painting spontaneously, and in the very act of painting brings it to the finished stage.
What type of images move you to paint? Do you paint from reference photos? From memory? How do you approach a piece? Do you work through thumbnails before beginning or do you go directly to the page?
I paint subjects for which I have strong feelings and through knowledge. I would never paint anything that I have never seen or have no in-depth knowledge. The images you have seen most often in my paintings are: fish such as koi, goldfish and angelfish; flowers such as irises, orchids and roses; birds such as chickadees, chickens and blue jays; landscapes such as my Southwest series; marine subjects such as boats, ships and harbors; and many urban scenes.
My painting process is strongly influenced by Taoist philosophy, searching for the most natural and effortless way to express the essence of a specific subject for which I have strong feelings. So I use different methods to paint different subjects.
Do you work on more than one painting at a time? Describe your process.
I do one painting at a time, but not finish one painting in one sitting. As I said before, I use different processes to painting different subjects,
How do you know when to quit (a painting)?
The well known Chinese American Watercolorist Dong Kingman said that you quit a painting after it was sold. I have continued to work on a painting even after it was in a national show many years ago.
How can less experienced artists find “their style”?
In my opinion, “style” cannot be taught. It must come from an artist own heart! When people look at a painting and can identify the artist right away without looking at the signature, the artist has his/her own unique style. Because the painting has become a portrait of the artist!
A painting is the visualization of an artist’s inner being. When an artist INTERNALIZES the subject to express it in a painting, and the painting becomes a state of the artist’s consciousness, a sudden spiritual experience, and the most immediate realization of an intuitive vision, the painting becomes a portrait of the artist.
As to how to achieve a personal unique “style”, I mentioned in question #3: "If you meditate long enough, you will achieve enlightenment.” So Painting is an artist’s meditation. If you paint enough you will achieve your own style!
How important do you think it is to have a particular style as an artist? How does it play in the marketability of your work?
It is very important to have a unique personal style of my painting, therefore my painting is different from all others, and people can readily pick out my painting without looking at my signature. In another word, I have created something new, and found my own voice.
I do not think my style has anything to do with the marketability of my work. For general public, they buy what they like; for people who know art, they look for the quality and artistic merit of a painting, in addition to just what they like.
If you want to be a VOCATIONAL artist, you think of marketability first. If you want to be a PROFESSIONAL artist, you think of artistic excellence first.
How do you market your art?
What advice can you share with other artists about what has worked and not worked for you?
I distribute limited edition prints to galleries and post them on website. I sell original paintings through my own studio. I have no other advice to others, except for thinking of pursuing excellence in painting first, before marketability.
Do you teach?
I taught watercolor classes ranging from beginning undergraduate courses to advanced graduate individual studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth 1979 – 1994. After my retirement from the University, I taught workshops around the country. I completely discontinued teaching as of 2016.
Where do you see your art taking you in the next 5 to 10 years? Any hopes and dreams?
Reflecting the past 82 years of my life journey, my heart was filled with deep feelings! On the first day of 2016, I wrote the following:
“When young, I had ambition to reach the clouds; now at old age, I regretfully have not accomplished anything.
Living at this corner, far away from homeland; only painting in my humble studio can soothe my feelings.”
Art is my life, and painting is my journey. I am always on my journey searching for that “perfect watercolor.” I paint because I love to paint and want to do the very best I can; not to compete with others, but only hope that the painting I do tomorrow will be better than today’s.
In closing, what one or two pieces of advice would you like to give to newer artists?
I would advise them just like I would advise myself -- follow the principles bellow:
(1). Paint only subjects of which you have first hand and thorough knowledge
(2). Have strong feelings toward the subject
The synthesis of subject matter and feelings becomes your painting content.
(3). Thoroughly understand design elements and principles
(4) Have competent drawing skill and the ability to handle specific media Design and craftsmanship become your painting process. Design helps you orchestrate abstract elements to compose good paintings. Craftsmanship enable you to express you subject matter.
I would also advise them to do what they like to do, do the very best they can and stay humble.
Cheng-Khee Chee, Associate Professor Emeritus of the University of Minnesota Duluth, is a Dolphin Fellow of the American Watercolor Society, signature member of the National Watercolor Society, Transparent Watercolor Society of America (Distinguished Master Status), Watercolor Honor Society and many others. He has received over 200 national awards, including the American Watercolor Society Silver Medal, Transparent Watercolor Society of America Skyledge Award (First Place), Allied Artists of America Gold Medal and Knickerbocker Artists USA Grand Award Gold Medal and Purchase Prize for Excellence. His publications include The Watercolor World of Cheng-Khee Chee(book), The Work of Cheng-Khee Chee (Instructional Manual), Old Turtle(illustration), and the 6-volume instructional DVDs.
Chee’s artistic career has been shaped by both East and West experiences and influences. Over the years he has explored and experimented with ways to synthesize the concepts and processes of both traditions. His work comprises many styles from traditional to nonobjective. Chee’s ultimate goal in painting is to achieve the essence of Tao, the state of effortless creation. He hopes to produce paintings that are the synthesis of both East and West, realism and abstraction, and communicate on a universal and timeless level. His breakthroughs in concepts and processes of watercolor have greatly influence directions of the medium.
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