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In the bustling city of Shanghai, lots of expats have taken up Chinese writing and painting to explore the merits of Chinese culture and art.

German Sibylla Grottke, for instance, has been living in the city for eight years since retiring. She said that she developed a passion for traditional Chinese painting two decades ago.

German Sibylla Grottke (front) paints on rice paper with a brush.

"I first came to China in 1996 on vacation and I saw calligraphy, the utensils, the brushes, ink sticks and the rice paper. I bought them and took them home as souvenirs. But at that time I didn't plan to do anything. I just thought they were pretty," Grottke said. Eventually, her husband suggested she take a Chinese painting class.

For eight years, she learned under a Chinese teacher in Germany. Twelve years ago, she came to China and studied with teachers in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou.

Grottke said one major characteristic of Chinese ink painting is vast use of white space.

"With Western watercolor, you tend to fill the whole sheet with something. But in Chinese painting, you tend to leave some white. This is so much more than just filling a sheet with colors," she said, adding that she also loves black and white, which are the main colors in Chinese ink painting.

 Her first challenge was finding suitable Chinese painting materials in Germany.

"For instance, the paper was not in good quality. So when I touched my brush to the paper, there would be big black blot. Then my teacher would teach me how to avoid this kind of mistake," Grottke said.

She said that the difficulty of getting good rice paper in Germany was among the reasons she moved to China.

 She said the first steps to learning were hard.

"My teacher taught me how to hold a brush correctly, and this was difficult for me at first. Also the rice paper is very absorbent, and it was hard to control the amount of ink and water in the brush," she said.

Remarkably, after two years of painting, Grottke began selling her work. She said she had sold roughly 15 paintings during art exhibitions in Germany.

In terms of the benefits of practicing Chinese painting, Grottke said it helps her to relax. "The funny thing is that practicing Chinese painting makes me concentrated and relaxed at the same time," she said.

"Also, I love the smell of ink, though at first I thought it wasn't a nice smell. But after taking so many classes and doing many works, I tend to link the ink scent with free time, leisure and relaxation."

While Grottke has been practicing Chinese painting for almost 20 years, 37-year-old Violaine Allais from Paris is a relative newcomer.

After moving to Shanghai early last year, she joined a local water ink workshop to learn Chinese ink painting.

An expat in Shanghai practices her Chinese ink painting skills.

Better understand culture

Allias said her motivation to learn Chinese painting art is to better understand Chinese culture and traditions.

"When you arrive in a new country, you need to understand, or try to understand, local people. And I think you can understand a lot about Chinese culture and traditions by learning Chinese painting art. It is for me as important as learning Chinese language," she said.

It is noteworthy that Allais has been learning Western painting and drawing since 8 years old. Before she began studying Chinese ink wash, she already had a good command of watercolor painting, oil painting and drawing.

Despite her experience in Western-style painting, she didn't have much confidence in mastering Chinese painting skills at first.

"I thought I could never do such a painting the first time I saw works of Chinese painting. It seems very difficult to me," Allais said.

She said she encountered a number of challenges starting out. For example, she said that she didn't know anything about the Chinese painting supplies, such as the rice paper and brush, and didn't know how to use the brush as well.

Another challenge for her was figuring out how to work water on the rice paper.

"It is not so easy to deal with ink painting because you can't erase anything," she said. "But actually, this is exactly what I like: to let it go and to be surprised by the ink and the paper."

To overcome the obstacles, Allais found the most helpful way is to carefully observe how her Chinese teacher paints. And after observing for a couple of times, she gradually grasped the key points to do a good Chinese painting.

"When I was young, my French painting teacher told me, 'when you want to paint a flower, you have to observe it 10 times more than the time you draw it on the paper,'" Allais said.

"So to improve my understanding in Chinese painting I do the same: observing 10 times the Chinese teacher. Then you have to practice and feel by yourself the better way to paint."

As she went deeper into the art of Chinese painting, she found that the style requires calligraphy skills, and this became a new challenge for her.

"I love this idea to have together a painting and a poem, but I have to work really hard to be able to write by myself," she said.

Lots of expats in Shanghai have taken up Chinese writing and painting to explore the merits of Chinese culture and art. Photos: Yang Hui/GT

Design cloth pattern

Another foreign painter, American Ann Coletta Doyle is also a big fan of Chinese painting art. And she recently has applied her Chinese painting skills into cloth pattern design.

"An interesting thing happened to me on my way to learning Chinese ink painting is that I began designing sports clothes with an Asian motif. I suppose this developed into a fusion painting, and I like the results," Doyle said.

She moved to Shanghai around 11 years ago and has been studying Chinese painting for over a decade. She said the first thing on her to-do list in Shanghai was to find a professional teacher to teach Chinese watercolor. Fortunately, she came to know Chen Lifan, her current teacher, through an art magazine.

"Chen is a big man with a big heart that seems to instinctively know each of his students. He begins each lesson with an introduction to Chinese calligraphy. In this lesson are the secrets of how the strokes in Chinese writing became the basis of Chinese ink painting," Doyle said.

"From the calligraphy we proceeded to the classic bamboo ink painting and gradually into the mixing of the Chinese watercolors."

She said that she found practicing the art of calligraphy was the biggest help in understanding the Chinese water ink painting.

Doyle said she also found great inspiration looking at paintings in books and museums.

"Of course, with modern technology the animated water ink paintings are simply magnificent," she added.

She also pointed how most Westerners often find the same challenges with Chinese ink painting, including holding the brush, learning about the different papers and brushes, and controlling the water.

For foreigners who want to master the skills of Chinese painting, Doyle and the others all said that the key is consistent and diligent practice. For example, Doyle said that ink painting is now a habit in her everyday life.

"I practice ink painting when I design fabric for clothing design. I practice ink painting for scrolls to be given as gifts to friends. I practice in designing personal greeting cards. And I practice when I introduce a lesson to my students," she added.



Finding personal style

Apart from diligent practice, Allais also said that foreigners need to find their own ways of doing Chinese painting rather than simply imitate existed painting styles.

"As a foreigner, I know I never could paint as a Chinese painter. So I try to find my own style, keeping in mind the basis of Chinese ink painting. I would like to improve myself to be able to create my own paintings," she said.

This was echoed by Song Ruizhi, who has been teaching foreigners Chinese painting for almost a decade. She said that Chinese ink painting emphasizes the painter's perception of an object rather than the object's real appearance, and said it has no strict standards of right or wrong.

Aside from ink painting, there is also a foreign community in Shanghai that is interested in Chinese calligraphy.

Lisa M. DiStefano-Bauer, a 47-year-old American, took her first calligraphy class earlier this year.

"I have to say that at first I was a little intimidated at the thought of learning calligraphy, but now I am very glad that I took the steps to find a teacher and try my hand at calligraphy in addition to painting," she added.

Despite her interest and motivation in learning Chinese calligraphy, she said she initially faced both language and cultural barriers.

"The class I wanted to take is offered in Chinese and not English, and the teacher does not speak English, so I had to grasp what we are working on each class with my beginning-level Chinese language skills and support of some other students (who are mostly Chinese)," she said.

Aside from the language barrier, DiStefano-Bauer said that another challenge was to getting proportions of each character correct.

"In the beginning calligraphy is purely an art form for me. Now each character is a new discovery, not only learning the meaning of it, but why it is written the way it is and what components make it up," she added.

She said she's progressed by practicing each tiny component in a Chinese character.

"Last class we spent one-and-a-half hours practicing the same dot over and over again. I eagerly look forward to learning the next dot," she said.

Outside of class, she also practices three times a week. Her consistency not only improved her control of the ink and brush strokes to write each character, but she said it's offered other benefits too.

"In the short time that I have been learning Chinese calligraphy, I have noticed improvement in myself and my paintings, not only better ink control and confidence in the brush strokes, but a greater feeling of harmony within. It is a reminder to breathe, be in the moment and release the tensions of the day," she said.

For exapts who want to learn Chinese calligraphy, she suggested that the key is to be adventurous and don't let fear or anxiety get in the way.

"Have confidence. After all you already learned to write once before. There is so much to gain and you might even make a friend or two as you continue your journey in China," she added.