Qi Baishi, “Spontaneity”, and Abstract Art

Chinese schools of calligraphy and watercolor painting give the art viewer examples of works that have an apparent spontaneity, a factor that many people connect with various styles of abstract art. One of the most prominent of Chinese artists in these delicate works is Qi Baishi, who over the course of his long life produced thousands of watercolors. As we learn to look at Qi’s work, we can also learn to look at abstract art generally.

Qi Baishi's "Morning Glory and Calabash"

“Morning Glory and Calabash” by Qi Baishi

Qi Baishi and “Simple” Watercolor Painting

At first glance, Qi Baishi’s watercolor looks very simple and direct. The shapes are very basic and the composition is not complicated. The clarity of the brush strokes creates the sensation of easiness. The immediate experience of looking at the work captures the viewer, and we enjoy the freshness of what we see, carried along by the apparent simplicity of the work.

The reality of the art, however, is that this apparent simplicity is not easy to achieve. Watercolors are an unforgiving medium, because there is no way you can correct or change a stroke once it is laid on the paper. It is part of the appeal of the medium.  For Qi Baishi, his training in Chinese calligraphy grounded him in a mental discipline of knowing the figure he meant to place on the paper thoroughly in his mind before the first brush stroke. The whole of the calligraphic figure needed to be clear in his thoughts because there was no second guessing once the ink-laden brush met the paper.

Qi’s discipline in calligraphy shows in his watercolor paintings. Obviously, the whole image had been thought out beforehand. In “Morning Glory and Calabash”, the shapes of the flowers as they overlap each other are clear and well defined. The pale orbs of the calabash were placed with the rest of the composition already anticipated. Creating the image required forethought on the part of the artist.

Seeming Spontaneity

One of the things that many people mistake when they encounter works of art is that they assume that the final effect of a work actually defines the effort involved in creating it. The simplicity and apparent spontaneity of Qi Baishi’s work could lead a viewer to assume that it was created spontaneously. When someone unaware of process looks at something that seems uncomplicated, they can easily assume that what they see was created without thoughtful planning.

The reality for the artist is that achieving a light, airy touch such as Qi Baishi’s requires a great deal of practice and a clarity of mind that doesn’t “just happen.”  There is a joke among musicians about “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” (in Manhattan): the answer is “Practice, practice, practice.” The same is true of visual artists.

Practiced “Spontaneity” in Abstract Art

For those who are not informed about the nature of creative processes, there is a similar misconception when they look at many works of abstract art. Depending on the artist under consideration, there can be an assumption that little planning and craft went into creating the work before them.  But works of art, including abstract paintings, are not created without thought and planning. The artist is usually aiming for a particular effect, and many factors need to be considered in reaching that goal. Will these shapes work? Is this the right color for that particular point on the canvas?

The end result of these considerations may have the appearance of being spontaneous. For many people, the spatter paintings of Jackson Pollock leap to mind, for they assume he did not have a particular effect in mind that he was striving for. But no artist starts with no internal vision that they are trying to manifest.  Like Qi Baishi and his training in calligraphy, the abstract artist “sees” internally what will become apparent on the canvas.

"Breezy" by Diana Hobson

“Breezy” by Diana Hobson

Diana Hobson’s “Breezy” conveys a similar sense of spontaneity as Qi’s watercolor. The title of the work certainly captures the intention of the immediacy of a moving breeze. The effect on the viewer represents the artist’s intention of leaping past our expectations in looking at art. We are taken to the desired effect first. It is only when we step back and consider how she brought us to that point that we can see the practiced thought in the work. The choice of colors and their placement, the movement of the shapes and line squiggles, each of these elements has been thought out and placed in such a way as to immediately take us to “Breezy”.

Abstract art may look “simple” and “spontaneous”. And those reactions may indeed be what the artist is trying to inspire in the viewer. But there is planning and thought involved in creating that response.


“Morning Glory and Calabash” by Qi Baishi. This image is reproduced here under Fair Use Practices for the purposes of information and instruction.

“Breezy” by Diana Hobson. Copyright 2006 by Diana Hobson. Used by permission.


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