How to Become a Professional Reproduction Artist

One of the most frequently asked questions Li has received is how she became a highly regarded Ancient Chinese Art Reproduction, a highly specialized skill that requires years of intensive training.

Here’s our Q&A with master artist Xiang Li. We hope you find this interesting.

Q: What are your primary responsibilities at the Forbidden City of Beijing, China? 

Li: I am a professional ancient art reproduction and restoration artist.

Q: What are Professional Reproduction and Restoration in your field of work?

Li: Professional reproduction artist helps reproduce an existing painting from scratch using the original painting as the point of reference; Restoration is a process that attempts to return the work of art to some previous state that the restorer imagines was the “original”. Restoration is also called “Jie Bi” in Chinese as it refers to “connecting the missing strokes”.

Art reproduction at the Forbidden City defers greatly from reproduction “in general”.  It is not as simple as “copying or duplicating a painting”. My line of work requires deep knowledge of art history, styles, and techniques in over 5000 years of Chinese history. In my 40 years of professional experience, I’ve worked with original paintings from the Qin, Han, Jin, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties.

Arts among dynasties and artists within each dynasty can defer drastically in style. Before I begin working on any ancient painting, I must study and research the history of that time period, and the technique of that particular artist.

Though the differences or variations may seem subtle to people outside of the field, even the tiniest imperfection will fail the approval process. Before reproduction paintings are completely signed off, rounds of approvals are conducted by China’s most qualified critics. The final work must match the original work exactly from the strokes, and coloration, to paper quality and treatment.  Only a few artists at the Forbidden City (and in China) are qualified to do this.

Q: Who are your teachers for the training of these highly specialized skills? 

Li: I’m very lucky to say that I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some of the very best Chinese artists and calligraphers of the 20th century. All of them have passed on and it’s my responsibility to continue these specialized skills for future generations.

My teachers were:

  • Feng Zhonglian: Ms. Feng was the head of the Research Institute of Culture and History in China before she came to the Forbidden City in Beijing. She was the Exec. Art Director and I was the Senior Art Director at the same office/studio. She graduated as the first female valedictorian at Pu Ren University in Taiwan.
  • Jin Zhongyu: Mr. Jin was invited by the Vice President of China, Zhou Enlai from Shanghai to Beijing. Mr. Jin worked at the Forbidden City for decades. His reproduction work was so extraordinary that even experts couldn’t tell them apart from the originals.
  • Liu Lingcang: Mr. Lin was a tenured professional at the famous Beijing Central Art Academy.
  • Chen Linzhai: Mr. Chen was the first seated artist at the most prestigious auction house called “Rong Bao Zhai”
  • Liu Bingsen: Mr. Liu was my calligraphy teacher and one of the most accomplished calligraphers of the 20th Century in China. He was also a renowned painter.
  • Yu Zhaohua: Ms. Yu was my coworker at the Forbidden City. She and I were both privately trained by the list of masters above. Ms. Yu’s father was Yu Zhan, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Q: What type of painting techniques have you mastered? Which one do you use the most?

Li: There are two styles of painting techniques widely used in China, namely Gongbi and Xieyi.

For reproduction and restoration, Gongbi is the most commonly used technique. Though some people may have learned the basics of “Gongbi”, an artist needs to master this technique in order to work at the Forbidden City.

In ancient China, Gongbi was a painting technique only the prestigious had the opportunity to learn. The training doesn’t take months but years (think black belt in martial arts!).

When I studied Gongbi, my teacher asked me to sit still and train for at least 6 hours at a time and I did that for nearly 6 years. In order to master the technique, extensive training is required as it will help with muscle memory, eye-hand coordination and even breathing (when you paint to keep the hand steady). Gongbi is not a “forgiving” technique; one minor mistake may ruin the entire painting that the artist will need to start from scratch.

Q: What’s the typical process for Gongbi? 

Li: In Chinese, Gongbi has the definition of “meticulous brush craftsmanship”. Creative Gongbi paintings take an average of 3-6 months to finish and traditional/reproduction Gongbi can take 1-2 years to complete.

In Short: “The gongbi technique uses highly detailed brushstrokes that delimit details very precisely and without independent or expressive variation. It is often highly colored and usually depicts figural or narrative subjects.”

Also, “Gongbi requires drawing with fine lines first to represent the exaggerated likenesses of the objects, and then adds washes of ink and color layer by layer, so as to approach the perfection of exquisiteness and fine art.”

Xiang added, “For Creative Gongbi, I’d apply 10-15 layers of colors. For reproduction gongbi, I need to apply 20-30 layers of colors. This is because the reproduction gongbi requires additional ‘paper treatment’ in between the color layering. After each treatment, the existing colors inevitably become lighter or darker. Therefore the color needs to be reapplied as a result.”

Q: What are the special treatments for the colors and papers you use? 

Li: Many people approached me and asked how experts produce the “ancient” look during reproduction. The process is an art in itself. First, you must study the color and effect you are trying to achieve due to the aging process of the painting, as well as the materials on which the painting was produced.

The second (and most important part) is to gather the colors of the paper using only natural colors. Natural colors refer to colors generated from plants, minerals, etc. Third, the natural colors are applied to the painting layer by layer during different stages of the painting – similar to the Gongbi technique.

The paper used for Gongbi paintings is actually not made out of paper or cotton but the finest quality silk. The silk paper is always handmade to the desired density and quality.

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