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How The Idea of a Flower Grew into a Summer Morning from Dreamland

A few weeks ago, I had a new idea for an artwork. I began by priming the canvas and mixing the base colors with ink. However, what started as an idea for a painting of a flower in the water flourished instead into a picture of a summer morning.

Ideas for my paintings come from spending time in my head. A seed of an idea germinates. After a while, I go to my art studio and begin to prepare the canvas or mix ink with paint.

Since I started working with canvas, I often spend more time planning the painting. I want to make use of the texture the canvas creates as opposed to using paper. When I primed the canvas, I was thinking about how a flower looked in the water, not a mysterious summer morning.

But despite my plans, surprise plays a significant role in my work. When I spill the paint, I have no control over how it splashes on to the canvas. While I use my experience and intuition to work the different layers with my brushes, fate is not something I control, it just is.

So, while I focused on creating a flower in the water, something mysterious happened. A summer morning from dreamland grew on the canvas. It reminded me of an ancient Chinese proverb:


Translated into English, an equivalent expression might be, "A watched flower never blooms, but an untended willow grows."

Fate and the mysterious summer morning

In the Western world, some might consider what I discovered in my painting to be serendipitous or luck. Others may think it is fate willed by an external force.​

But in Chinese culture, especially in Taoism while it is often transcribed as fate, it is not a predestined fate or force controlled by others that brings about change. Change happens organically. Things unfold according to their own nature.

While I set out to intentionally paint a flower that was similar to “Roots in the Water,” it did not work. The flower did not bloom. Instead, an unintentional aspect emerged in the mix of ink and acrylic Chinese paints.

As I began to build the colors, something mysterious formed on the canvas. The image started to look like a morning scene of a mountain village. So, I added a house. And, I surrounded the house with textures and colors to simulate trees and rocks.

The finished scene of the house in the forest resembles my previous work with Chinese landscape paintings.

Artistic techniques and landscape paintings

The scene grew into itself enhanced by the use of gesso and choice of canvas. The combination created the horizontal streaky texture that forms the edge of the roof and paneled walls of the village houses.

I also used small to medium sized dry brushes to create the houses and immediate scenery. Blurred outlines in Chinese landscape paintings often express immense distances, a technique used during the time of the Five Dynasties also known as the “Great age of Chinese landscape.”

After priming the canvas with gesso, I splashed onto it ink and a blend of dark green acrylic paint. The ink, color, and different tonal variations create depth, light, and shade in the composition.

I then used a dry brush to augment the splashed color following its natural shape. I did the same with blue, using a layering technique where I wait for the first layer to partially dry. By placing the darker colors first, I can use them to create shade and texture.

Different brush techniques create energy

While I wait for the different layers to dry, I use the brushes to highlight various aspects of the painting. I follow the natural shapes that arise in the paint. ​

As with “Roots in the Water,” I use a dry brush technique to create the intricate wavy lines that feature in my new style of art. They energize the painting but also develop a sense of fullness.

The extract below also shows an example of how the different blends of layered colors create depth. While I applied the light orange color last, it gives the painting the feel of a summer morning, as if the light sits behind the mountain trees, illuminating their form from behind.

A summer morning in dreamland is an accidental success

While there are other shapes in this painting, it was the first that took me by surprise and grew into a mysterious summer morning. While we may make the best-laid plans, we sometimes fail. Yet, even in failure, there is success.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus set out to sail to the Indies by sailing West. Instead, he found what we now know as the Bahamas and parts of Central and South America. Columbus failed in his original quest. Instead, fate intervened, and he discovered something more significant.

While I may not have achieved my original aim to create a flower in the water, from my failure something mysterious and sensational has emerged. A summer morning from dreamland grew organically from a successful accident.

Shulin Sun

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