Li Ning won the Still Life Award in the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with his work A Room Of One’s Own. In this interview, he discusses making his own oil medium, connecting spiritually with his audience through evoking memories, and the difference between creative stagnation and a creative barrier.
Above image: Li Ning in his studio
Artist Interview with Li Ning
Josephine: Could you tell us about your artistic background? How did you become an artist?
Li: I was born in a family of artists; the elements of art fulfilled my childhood. I travelled around the world to see masterpieces since I was very young. Among all forms of art, painting touched me the most. When I stood in front of the works of great painters such as Titian and Rembrandt, those portraits, myths, and allegories revealed to me how divine and powerful art can be. Those silent masterpieces contain another dimension of time and manifest that painting is the most internal form of art which affects people in a most consistent and subtle way. This divine quality of painting rooted deeply in my heart and directly influenced my understanding of art.
About my education background, I studied at Nanjing University of the Arts majoring in painting, tutored by Chinese leading contemporary painter Mao Yan. Then I studied at Royal College of Art majoring in painting, tutored by Emma Talbot. After graduation, I completely devoted myself to my painting practice.
Josephine: What is your process for starting a painting, and is it always the same approach?
Li: I do spend a lot of time exploring differences of each colour, with regards to their drying speed, stability, transparency etc. I prefer a grey tone rather than a bright colourful tone. Among red colours, I prefer venetian red, burnt sienna, madder lake. Among blue colours, cobalt blue, Prussian blue, and ultramarine blue are my favourite. Among yellow colours, I prefer to use Naples yellow, yellow ochre, raw sienna. Beside those, raw umber and burnt umber are my favourite brown colours. After accurately mixing, these colours produce a beautiful and calm effect.
Josephine: What materials or tools could you not live without? Do you use anything unconventional?
Li: I believe that to produce a good work, all the relevant materials are essential. Every material has its implacable function. I do have preferences when choosing materials. For example, I favour nylon long-round head brushes, as they give delicate touch to the canvas and are able to produce beautiful details. If there is anything unconventional, I do make my own oil medium. After lots of experimentation, I find the balance of colour fluency and density by a particular proportion of several ingredients. With the oil medium, my works stay a flexible effect even after many layers of paint.
Josephine: Your artist statement says your work contains ‘another dimension of time and become[s] abodes for spirits to live on’. Is there an otherworldly concept behind A Room of One’s Own? What is the context behind the scene you depict, and what do you hope the viewer takes away from it?
Li: Those words are actually my description of masterpieces in painting history and how their works touched me deeply. The Renaissance painters taught me that figurative paintings can transmit psychological, imaginary and spiritual meanings, even become riddles and allegories. In the painting ‘A Room of One’s Own’, I aimed to show that a still life painting is able to transcend its physical form to give a spiritual impression to the audiences regarding the subject of time and intimacy.
Josephine: Is portraying a sense of familiarity/nostalgia and evoking memory an important element within your work?
Li: Viewers naturally have emotional connections with paintings. Because of different life experiences, the connections vary hugely between individuals, while evoking memory is the common one. Because painting is a silent and inner-oriented form of art, it is naturally attached to memories. For me, the working process is intense and slow. I focus on elements of paint such as composition, light, form, and texture. By proper arrangement of those elements, I tried to combine observation and imagination, enabling the subject to transcend its physical reality to achieve more imaginary possibilities.
Josephine: How do you deal with artist’s block or moments of creative stagnation during the painting process?
Li: It is important to distinguish creative stagnation and creative barriers. A creative stagnation is a situation in which we do not specifically realise the problem of the work, therefore unable to make progress. A creative barrier is that we know exactly what’s the problem, but do not know how to solve it. The two situations should be discussed separately.
It is painful to meet creative stagnation in painting. When it happens, I usually have two ways to face it. One is taking a rest, trying to think more and paint less. It is very dangerous to paint under this situation, as we may repeat mistakes unconsciously. The other way is finding someone, friends, or tutors, who we admire as a better painter, to judge our work critically, which I feel is quite a useful way to break the stagnation.
If it is a creative barrier, I will keep working on it until I figure it out. I enjoy this process because I know I am making progress. However, I will be worried when I process a work too smoothly, which can be a dangerous sign of creation stagnation.
To conclude, a painter’s relationship with his/her painting is familiar to that of an admirer with his/her lover. “The muse of art is a cool lover. Only by enthusiastic hands holding the sword of calm, one could possibly touch her heart.”
Josephine: Do you have a dream project that you would like to realise? If so, could you tell us about it?
Li: In the upcoming practice, I will produce a series of shadow portraits. I will try to abandon the existing traditional structure of my painting, to explore a new way of depicting portraits in dark tones, which is different from my previous work.
Josephine: Which historical or contemporary artists have influenced you the most?
Li: Among historical painters, Titian influenced me significantly. I admire the sincerity in his works, and I learned a lot of painting skills from him, including paint layers building, brushwork, texture, colour using etc. The way he uses colour inspired me a lot. He barely uses dazzle bright colour in his painting. By using rich, dense colour, he achieves a sense of calm colourfulness.
Among contemporary painters, Chinese painter Mao Yan is my favourite. He discovered a unique way of mixing paint and medium, which distinguished his works from conventional oil painting. As my tutor in college, he inspired me a lot.
Josephine: Do you work on multiple paintings at once? How long does a painting take, and how do you know when it’s finished?
Li: I have my standard regarding the level of completion in a work. I think no matter what style a painting is, it should reach a certain level of completion. My painting usually takes months, which varies between size and subject. I normally work on two paintings at the same time. When I am satisfied with one painting, I will lay it facing towards the wall and commence the other painting. After weeks when I come back to the first painting, the defects I cannot see before will normally appear. The process repeats constantly until I am pleased with both paintings. When I have the same satisfied feeling as the last time I look at the painting, I know the painting is finished.
Josephine: How was your experience taking part in Jackson’s Painting Prize’s first independent large-scale exhibition at Bankside Gallery?
Li: The exhibition shows the importance of figurative painting in contemporary art context, so as the Jackson’s painting prize. This is why I think the prize has valuable meaning for all contemporary painters who insist to inherit the great painting tradition. I feel honoured to participate in the exhibition and become one of the award winners.