Zhaoming Wu | Drama & Mood

Zhaoming Wu captures the essence of both the figure and the landscape

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Zhaoming Wu, Remembering the Light, oil, 24 x 30.

Zhaoming Wu, Remembering the Light, oil, 24 x 30.

This story was featured in the January 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  January 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

A woman sits, her back to the viewer, gazing off into the darkened corner of the canvas. Pooling around her, like ripples on the water, are the folds of the cream-colored fabric in which she is draped. A peaceful yet mysterious mood permeates REMEMBERING THE LIGHT, a painting by Zhaoming Wu. Such moods are often signature elements in Wu’s work. Likewise, in Wu’s world it is common for figurative works to reference nature. As Wu explains, “From hills drenched in sunlight to a lovely model swathed in cascading folds of material, I find inspiration in the dramatic shapes that occur in nature and the human figure.”

In his paintings, the award-winning California artist says, he strives to take the human form to a higher level, often using the subject as a vehicle to express not only mood but drama and movement. For him the subject is a mere springboard for arranging, adjusting, and creating a mood in a work that blends classical and contemporary styles.

Wu calls his loosely rendered style “expressive realism.” Indeed, both his figurative and landscape works are known to walk the fine line between realism and abstraction. Wu notes that on occasion gallery representatives have shown frustration with his choice of combining seemingly contradictory styles. “They say the works look too contemporary next to traditional paintings and too traditional next to their avant-garde and conceptual work,” he says. But for Wu, if his paintings are perceived this way, his artistic mission is accomplished. He prefers to stay true to his painterly instincts. “With me, it’s the ideal blend,” he says.

Wu lives in El Cerrito, CA, in a home he shares with his wife, artist Qiuzhen Wei. The house is perched on a hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay, with a backyard that spills into a nature preserve of oak trees, grasslands, and streams. Today, Wu is a long way from his native China and light years away from his early years growing up in Guangzhou City under the autocratic rule of Mao Zedong.

But it was under this repressive regime that Wu’s art career was born. In 1967, when he was 8 years old, the Chinese Cultural Revolution was underway, a time of violence and conflict in the country. Cultural artifacts and relics were destroyed. Schools were closed for two years. The young Zhaoming was forced to stay home while his father, an engineer, and his mother, a physician, went to work. Out of boredom he began reading storybooks. The illustration-free tales became the perfect playground for his fertile, creative mind. Soon the imaginative Wu was drawing scenes inspired by the stories. With a brush and ink he also started copying Chinese calligraphy from a book that a friend loaned him.

Eventually Wu’s mother recognized her son’s talent and passion for art. And when one of her patients turned out to be an art professor, she inquired if he would take the 11-year-old on as a student. The professor, who was in the university’s western painting department, agreed. For the next five years, the boy studied privately with him. Following high school, Wu was accepted into and graduated with a fine-arts degree from the western painting division of the prestigious Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. He was one of 32 students selected from 2,000 applicants.

For the next seven years Wu taught painting at the university. In the early 1980s, he made a name for himself by being one of the youngest artists juried into a national art exhibition in which he showcased a western-style painting. The village wedding scene featured layers of glazing and was illuminated by candlelight “in the tradition of the old European masters.” Thus Wu was thrust into the spotlight in the art community and media. At the same time he was on his way to making a name for himself internationally, and by the mid-’80s, he was showing his work in Europe and eventually in the United States.

By this time, China was beginning to open to the rest of the world, giving artists greater freedom—in particular, the freedom to travel out of the country. Many of Wu’s friends were immigrating to the United States. But it wasn’t until 1991, after being accepted into the master’s program at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, that Wu joined them, packing his suitcases and heading for the City by the Bay and a new life in America.

These days Wu can be found teaching painting classes at the academy. He was hired by his American alma mater as an instructor even before he earned his master’s degree in fine art in 1995. Wu is fond of creating works alongside his students as they practice capturing the human figure from life.

Wu usually begins his own works with thumbnail sketches to arrange shapes and decide on values. His choices depend on the mood he wants to convey in a painting. For a somber mood he employs mostly dark values; for a cheerful, high-key painting he uses mostly light values. Next he covers a blank white canvas with either burnt umber or Vandyke brown to block in the darker values. Selecting the range of colors comes later as he builds up layers of paint, working from dark to light.

For Wu, edges and brush strokes play a key role in every painting, and he admits to a strong affinity for the soft edge. “Soft edges allow some areas to become less important than others, which encourages the eye path, and harder edges act as pauses or stops along the path,” he says.

Brush strokes are another way Wu directs the viewer’s eye. Over large, less important areas, he employs thinner paint with little emphasis on the strokes. In a focal area, he uses heavier paint accompanied by more and energetic strokes. But regardless of the technique he uses to lay in the color and values, he favors “really big brushes” about 12 inches in length for an 8-by-10-inch painting. “Holding the brush at the end allows me to move it with a lot of freedom,” Wu says. In addition, the longer brushes allow Wu to create soft and harder edges with a delicate touch.

The fan brush is another favorite. This thin, flat brush spreads out in a semicircle like a handheld paper fan. Even when wet, the bristles retain their shape and won’t come together in a point. “I can make a lot of significant brush marks by twisting the brush in different angles—a Chinese calligraphic technique,” Wu says.

Wu often brings techniques to the artistic table that he once practiced diligently as a young boy in Guangzhou City. Although the viewer may not notice an Asian or Chinese style to his work, the elements are still present. For example, among the folds of the woman’s gown in NOCTURNE and in the tree branches of DANCING IN THE SUNSET, one finds, on closer inspection, Chinese calligraphy. “The marks create movement,” Wu says. “And they also lead the eye through the painting.”

While Wu is known primarily for his figurative work, about 20 percent of his oeuvre includes landscapes and cloud scenes, sometimes inspired by locales not far from his front door. For Wu landscapes are, in part, about capturing the beauty of Mother Nature. They are far easier to paint, he says, because he feels “liberated” and can play more with composition and color. Oceans and mountains can be changed, whereas in figurative work, the anatomy must be depicted accurately.

Just as he sees nature in the human form, the viewer can often see suggestions of the human form in Wu’s creeks and clouds. A meandering stream may call to mind the curve of a woman’s hip or leg. Clouds can offer the illusion of a figure in flight. And with clouds, Wu says, he can portray mood and movement the same way he suggests those elements in the folds of dresses and drapery.

In 2016 Wu celebrated the 25th anniversary of his immigration to America. He says he returns to China on occasion to visit family or teach a workshop, but not often. These days he calls the San Francisco area home. Initially the transition from life in the East to the West was difficult, especially since he was leaving behind an established art career. But over the years he has grown more comfortable with his adopted hometown. His art career here is flourishing, and university life appeals to him. For Wu, learning and growing as an artist never stops. He finds art students and the college atmosphere an energizing experience. He also treasures the opportunity to pass on the great western art traditions to the next generation of young artists. About his move to the United States, he says, “I have no regrets.”

Total Arts Gallery, Taos, NM; Gallery 1261, Denver, CO; Abend Gallery, Denver, CO; Astoria Fine Art, Jackson, WY; Addison Gallery, Delray Beach, FL.

This story was featured in the January 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  January 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Subscribe to Southwest Art magazine
Learn how to paint & how to draw with downloads, books, videos & more from North Light Shop
Sign up for your Southwest Art email newsletter & download a FREE ebook