By Reed Glenn
Not many people can claim successful careers in both physics and art. But Qiang Huang, whose name is pronounced Chong Wong, can do exactly that. Huang was born in 1959 and raised in Beijing, China, where he grew up watching his uncle draw and paint. Professionally trained, his uncle taught high school art in southern China and also worked for a city art program. “It was during the Cultural Revolution, so there was lots of propagandist-type art, like portraits of Mao Tse-Tung,” says Huang. “My uncle visited my grandma regularly in Beijing. He always carried his painting gear and liked to do plein-air paintings. Most of the time I just watched him. Eventually I started writing letters to him and asked him to teach me art. So he showed me his art books and the basics of drawing,” says Huang, who also excelled in the limited art classes that were offered in his school—which were also related to Communist themes.
But Huang didn’t pursue art as a course of study. After high school, he attended the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui Province, receiving a physics degree in 1982; then he worked for several years. In 1985, the University of Louisville in Kentucky offered him a scholarship for its master’s program in physics. “I was very lucky. At that time China and the U.S. were still pretty separate,” says Huang. “China had just opened its doors, and not very many Chinese students came over. I didn’t have any money at that time. I worked for the government, and everybody was equally poor, so I had no relatives or close friends to support me.” After completing his master’s degree, Huang knew he’d need a PhD. He was accepted at the University of Alabama in Huntsville but was required to complete a second master’s degree there toward his PhD, which he earned in 1993. And all of these studies, of course, were conducted in English—his third language, after Chinese and Mandarin.
Huang met and married his wife, Yuehong Song, in Huntsville, and then the couple moved to New Hampshire, where Huang joined a start-up company doing holography. “I’ve always been interested in visual things,” he says. Though the company eventually failed, Huang attended conferences, delivered papers, and networked, eventually accepting a position in Austin with a high-tech optical company, where he currently works full-time; he paints at home in the evenings.
Huang paints mainly still lifes, but they are anything but still. His images gleam with rich, vibrant color and light. Oranges, apples, and pears seem illuminated from within. Glass bottles, copper pots, and ceramics glisten and glimmer with a life of their own. Given his scientific background, it’s no surprise that Huang makes masterful use of light in his paintings. He uses his paint sparingly, revealing the texture of the canvas beneath. Blocky, Cézanne-like brush strokes add texture and charisma in such oils as NOW AND THEN. “People say my style is very loose, simple, very painterly, like calligraphy,” says Huang.
“The reason I do still lifes is practical,” he explains. “I have a day job, so that limits my painting time. When I paint flowers or an apple, I can design my composition and lighting, so there’s lots of flexibility, and I have control. I pay lots of attention to shape, composition, light, value, and color.”
Although he has drawn ever since he learned the basics from his uncle, Huang started painting in oil only twelve years ago, motivated by two things. First, he and his wife and their toddler, Jonathan (who’s now 14) moved into a brand-new house in Austin. “In Texas, everything’s big,” Huang jokes, “so there was a lot of empty wall space, and we were looking for artwork to decorate the new house.” But Huang says he didn’t like the art they could afford, and couldn’t afford the fine art he liked. “So I thought, why don’t I do that myself?”
His second motivation came when he began attending gallery receptions, where he found much of the avant-garde artwork that he saw “really ugly” and incomprehensible. “In some modern work, communication gets broken,” he explains. “The artist wants to say something and display it, but the viewer does not get it. I feel that’s a failure of the artist, because communication is not established. I saw lots of art in Austin going that way, so that gave me a push. I felt sort of personally responsible to do something beautiful and share the beauty.”
Motivated, then, by both the practical and the philosophical, Huang set out to increase his knowledge. “I started taking workshops because I didn’t have formal training,” he says. One workshop was with the highly regarded figurative artist Scott Burdick. He also studied the works of, and was inspired by, late-19th-century painters including John Singer Sargent, Nicolai Fechin, William Bouguereau, and Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Just a year after Huang began painting, one of his works was accepted into an Oil Painters of America show. Gradually he began to sell his work in galleries, as well as online.
In fact, Huang says an important turning point came in 2007 when he started his “Daily Painter” blog: He produces a painting every weekday, and sometimes on weekends as well, which he posts for sale online. He considers these daily paintings, which he creates in one to three hours, to be studies rather than completed projects. “I have something in mind that I want to practice. Then I write a comment on my blog and share my idea, experience, and feelings,” he says. “Lots of people are following me on my blog and find that very interesting. Most of the people buying my daily paintings are artists themselves. So they study the small paintings. I sell almost 100 percent of them.”
Another milestone came when he learned that Whistle Pik Galleries in Fredericksburg, TX, had three of his paintings in its window. Huang was initially confused, because he had given the gallery only one painting. The gallery owner told him that a collector had bought two of his paintings on eBay and resold them to the gallery. The small paintings Huang had originally sold for $200 were now priced at $800. “Maybe I’m not bad!” thought Huang, and was even more motivated to paint.
Currently, Huang sells his larger paintings through galleries and the smaller ones online, keeping the two groups of work entirely separate. “The world is changing, and to be an artist, you must adapt to the current situation,” he adds. “Sometimes you can get two birds with one stone, but I found a way to get four.” That one “stone” was his blog; the four “birds,” he says, are making progress in his work, becoming computer savvy, learning about marketing, and generating income. In addition to selling his paintings online, he advertises his monthly painting workshops, held around the country; a new 2011 calendar; and his North Light Filter, an inexpensive gadget he invented for painters to simulate natural light. Huang is just as passionate about teaching as he is about painting: “I want to share what I learned and what I know, and I want to share the beauty of the world,” he proclaims.
Reflecting on his dual career pursuits, Huang says his scientific background definitely has some effect on his artwork. “It’s not a direct effect, because optical engineering considers the physical properties of the light—photons and that kind of thing. But it definitely makes me more sensitive about light, and also contains the consistency of my life. People think I’m doing two totally different things, but light unifies them. During the day I’m doing physical research on light, and the painting at night concentrates on the artistic representation of light.
“I’m constantly searching for the balance point between everything,” he continues. “I like to see my work as a balance between traditional and modern. For more than a hundred years people have gone into very abstract, modern, expressive work. I want to put my art in between. It still belongs to realism because it’s recognizable. At the same time my brushwork, light arrangement, value, and design is very modern, so it is very abstract. I want to have a balance point that is a rich and communicative type of work.”
InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Riverbend Fine Art Gallery, Marble Falls, TX; Fountainside Fine Art Gallery, Wilmington, NC; Galerie Kornye West, Ft. Worth, TX; Corse Gallery & Atelier, Jacksonville, FL; www.qhart.com.
Three-man show, Riverbend Fine Art Gallery, April.
Featured in March 2011.