Before her Affordable Art Fair exhibition, Chinese ink painter Martha Cheung shares with Lifestyle Asia her artistic journey and favourite pieces to date.
Martha Cheung might have started late on the path to an art career, but it only means that she has the finesse and self-understanding to create a style that is uniquely hers — mythical, enchanting Chinese ink paintings with a contemporary composition. Serene landscapes, soft waves and soothing colours dominate the canvas, emanating a sense of peacefulness that is perhaps just the break we need once in a while.
“Art comes from life, and art integrates with life,” says the painter when asked about her philosophy of art. In her Qi landscape painting series, Cheung’s keen observation of the inherent beauty and healing power of nature translates into confident brushstrokes, which as a collective creates an ethereal view at the solitary countryside, gloomy yet oddly calming.
With a style that “hardly departs from” the traditional Chinese ink painting expressions, Cheung depends on her free-flowing imagination to create something new from existing techniques. “I’d like to invite you to look at Rock Painting, it’s my artistic breakthrough by combining an ancient medium with objects from today,” she points out with excitement. Through this in-depth interview, Cheung extends her invitation to you, the reader, as she outlines her creative process and source of inspiration.
Martha Cheung on reinterpreting traditional Chinese ink paintings from a contemporary point of view
For those who don’t know, who is Martha Cheung?
I am an artist not by the definition of art colleges or an art degree. However, manufacturing, designing and framing have been prominent in my past business. After retiring, I started creating and practising traditional Chinese ink painting; in the past 5 years I also started dabbling in contemporary art. Ever since, my love for Chinese ink painting and art in general has just grown.
How would you describe your style?
If I were to describe my style in a sentence, I would say it’s traditional Chinese ink painting, but with strokes and touches with a contemporary thinking.
How and when did you discover your interest in art?
I have been interested in painting since I was a child. I also enjoyed observing the changes of clouds. On rainy days, I would sit in front of the window cuddling my dog, watching the sky and water splashes on the ground as cars drove by — I could easily spend a morning like this. Because of my love for art, my work before retirement was related to design. I learned to paint in 2009 when I was not as busy with work, and now I can devote myself to my passion in art.
What is your artistic journey like?
All in all, my style hardly departs from the authentic traditional art expressions of Chinese ink painting (水墨), though the journey always reinvents itself. Therefore, I would like to pinpoint my new artistic explorations with Rock Painting (岩彩) — the rock paint is a primitive material that dates back to ancient Dunhuang cave motifs from thousands of years ago. It is a very special material. When I first attempted to use it, it instantly reminded me of various door lock designs seen on Chinese wooden gate doors. I guess it was the immortality of the material and texture of the door that clashed in my imagination.
Do you remember your first-ever piece? What was the creative process like?
I like to experiment different ways to create. I remember that my first artwork was of my dog — I saw Andy Warhol’s work and liked it very much, so I created my first painting with coloured ink and named it “’My Favourite”. As I start a painting, there usually is a very vague composition in my mind. Then I make a simple sketch, and I make changes as I paint. Sometimes the finished work can be very or even completely different from the original concept.
What is your creative process like right now? Did anything change?
My personality is relatively sentimental, and I think my personality shows through my creative process. I like to try different ways to compose preliminary drafts. In the early days, I painted whatever I wanted. I often got told my style was inconsistent. My teacher told me, “You must convey to people that it is your artwork with your own style regardless of the medium.” Now by noticing the unconscious changes in daily life and adding new elements from observation, my style is formed according to personal preferences.
Tell us about your favourite artwork you’ve created.
There is a piece named “Qi Act” (《炁躍躍》), which is created with coloured ink. “Qi” (「炁」) is a heart-shaped emblem from Chinese philosophy that brings a relaxing, joyful, peaceful feeling to people. During the exhibition of this painting, some said they could feel the presence of Guanyin from within. To have the naturally floating coloured ink remind people of a deity is a truly magical experience.
Do you have any artists you look up to? How do they influence you?
The formation of my style and brushworks — especially the oozing technique found in my work “Clouds” — comes from my observation of fog when I was little. The hazy, gloomy, and obscure quality of fog is something I have always paid attention to. Master Hung Hoi once told me, whenever fog rises, he would carry everything outdoor and start life-drawing. This practice is something I hold dearly to my heart. I think the enigmatical feelings invoked by fogs and clouds led to me create the Qi series (「炁」象山水).
How do you stay inspired?
I think an artwork usually reflects the character of its painter. My creations follow my heart. Sometimes an image suddenly pops up in my mind, and I will record it immediately. When I get ready to paint, I will look into my records and start creating from there.
What’s your best tip to overcome an artist’s block?
In the process of creation, it is easy to have a bottleneck situation. I will calm myself down and not force for a muse. Instead, I will read a book, go hiking, and basically try to relax. Sometimes I don’t even pick up the brush to paint for a whole month. Just let the time pass, and then inspiration will come. Without putting pressure on myself, I do what my heart tells me to do — this often leads to more satisfying result in the artwork too.
Is there anything new you would like to explore in the future?
As an artist, I always hope to bring resonation to the viewers through my artwork. I am thinking of combining different new medium in Chinese ink painting to integrate traditional Chinese art concepts with a contemporary interpretation. I look forward to showing these new series of works in the near future.
What’s your philosophy when it comes to art?
Art comes from life, and art integrates with life.
Do you have any advice for young artists in Hong Kong who are just starting out?
Persevere in doing what you like.
Tell us about your featured artworks at the Affordable Art Fair.
On top of the Qi landscape painting series, I will showcase my artistic breakthrough with the Rock Painting collection. Rock painting is an ancient Chinese medium, and I portray with the subject of a gate lock with this medium. I want to convey the usage of a gate that can be opened or closed physically and conceptually. When open, it can offer a glimpse into the outside world; when closed, it can conserve, preserve, and inherit from what’s inside.
These artworks are my latest creations that have been circulating my mind in the past 3 years.
Do you have anything to say to visitors to the Affordable Art Fair?
In the works I show at Affordable Art Fair, I try to convey a mixture of calmness, peacefulness, and positivity through the message carrier — the ‘Qi’ landscape. From the shape of the landscape to the silhouettes of the clouds in the painting, each of the elements is an extension of my personal experience that encourages viewers to communicate, identify and relate with what is presented before them.
Affordable Art Fair 2022 will be held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from 4 to 7 August, showcasing thousands of contemporary artworks from over 60 local and international exhibitors. Stay up to date through their Instagram and get your tickets here.