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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cheng-Khee Chee - Zen in XXI century

Cheng-Khee Chee, Associate Professor Emeritus of the University of Minnesota, is a Dolphin Fellow of the American Watercolor Society, signature member of the National Watercolor Society, Transparent Watercolor Society of America (Master Status), Watercolor USA Honor Society and many others. He is listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in American Art, Who’s Who in American Education, and Dictionary of World Chinese Artists Achievements. He has been represented in numerous national juried exhibitions and captured over 200 honors.

Cheng-Khee Chee. Koi #1. 1998. 76x102

Mr. Cheng-Khee, you are a member of so many society and institutions. Doesn’t it disturb your painting activity in some way?

Not at all! Though I am signature member of many organizations, but I am not on the governing board of any of them, therefore they do not take away my painting time. The signature membership of an organization, such the American Watercolor Society (AWS), is acquired by having paintings accepted three times to the organization’s highly competitive annual national open juried exhibitions.

Cheng-Khee Chee. Koi #6, 2008, 56x76

I read some articles in Watercolor Artists Magazine and I admired 2 things: when you came to America you worked in the day and painted in the night, and other is that you keep painting every day. What is the source of inspiration for you?

a. I worked at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, first as a librarian, and later art faculty teaching watercolor painting. I was kept very busy during the day; therefore I must paint at night, on weekends and during holidays.
b. After taking an early retirement from the university to focus on art, I try to paint everyday as much as possible.
c. Source of inspiration: What inspires me to paint is my strong inner world’s subjective response to the outer world’s objective reality. My subjective response is influenced by my diverse East-West experiences, tradition, knowledge, and personal cultivation.

The Chinese concept of painting is to have keen observation of the subject, but paint the images of the artist’s mind. A good painting should achieve the unity of objective and the subjective, showing both the image as it exists and the image in the artist’s mind. The act of painting to the Chinese Chan (Zen) and Literati painters is to express a state of consciousness, a sudden spiritual experience, and the most immediate realization of an intuitive vision. I am strongly influenced by this concept.

I painted on location a lot when I was younger. Now I am taking more of the traditional Chinese approach: observe, experience, feel, study, sketch and paint in the studio. Of course, I also take numerous digital photo references. I have built up a huge visual data bank of many subjects that I have deep feelings. I will never run out of ideas for painting.

Cheng-Khee Chee. Lily Pond With Koi, 1992, 64x102

Many of your works look like a fantasy. Do you create completely imaginary world or you can use some photo, sketches, or live studies?
You probably refer to the series of paintings I did by combining ink marbleizing, mono printing, and painting. I do not use photos, sketches, or live studies. It is just naturally happens. The images evolve from ink marbleizing and mono printing are usually unpredictable, abstract, and yet suggest highly spiritual natural forms. I modify the images by adjusting shapes and value, and adding colors. I use this painting method to express my spiritual, visionary, and dream world.

Cheng-Khee Chee. Winter Plesure, 2000, 64x94

Do you create your paintings spontaneously or you have some plan in your mind before you start?
I use both methods depending on the subject. My painting process is strongly influenced by Taoist philosophy, searching for the most natural and effortless way to express the essence of a specific subject for which I have strong feelings.

a. Planned method: For painting subjects with concrete forms and complex perspective, such as boats, buildings and streets, I use this traditional academic approach. Before starting a painting, I would analyze its design elements and then orchestrate these abstract elements into a cohesive painting by applying design principles.

b.  Improvisational method: For painting subjects such as fish, seasons, mountains and rocks, I can either work spontaneously without preconceived ideas, or with only some vague mental preparation. I try to finish a painting in the process of painting. This is basically the traditional Chinese approach. For instance, when painting koi, because of years of observation and study, all the images have been stored in my mind; therefore I can instantly retrieve them in the process of painting.

Cheng-Khee Chee. Rhythm Of The Shore, 1996, 76x102

I like your words: “Human life is but a grain of dust in the boundless universe and one kshana in the eternities of time. Ordinary people only know how to utilize limited time to do deeds; therefore their lives are like a wave swiftly disappearing in the ocean. Only extraordinary people know how to use great deeds to fill the time; therefore they can transform limit into limitless and a kshana into eternity”. What is the place of faith or philosophy in your Art?
I consider philosophy very important in my art. The two philosophies that influenced Chinese artists the most are Confucianism and Taoism.
Confucianism is a system of codes of ethics for the Chinese. It emphasizes the virtues of moral character and intellectual cultivation. It regards the art of painting exists to enlighten ethics, improve human relationship, and explore hidden truths. It functions like the Confucian Classics.

Taoism emphasized freedom, naturalness, meditation, intuition, imagination and spontaneity. The painter must be pure in spirit and free from all worldly desires.
The fusion of these opposing virtues has given the Chinese scholars and artists’ balance and strength, the qualities to be desired in an artist and scholar.

I apply these two philosophies to my own painting concepts and processes. I feel that in exercising one’s own individuality, an artist should not forget the traditional values. In execution, the highest goal is to accomplish it effortlessly, yet the rules must be learn and followed. The artist should learn from nature and paint the image in one’s mind. A good painting should achieve the unity of objective and the subjective, showing both the image as it exists in reality and the image in the artist’s mind. My approach to watercolor painting is a dynamic process and an effort to harmonize opposite elements: yin and yang, subjectivity and objectivity, individuality and universality, emotion and reasoning, intuition and contemplation, incident and intention, imagination and reality, abstraction and realism. The end result is the visual realization of my inner being.

Cheng-Khee Chee. Canyon Impresson, 2008, 30x46

Do you believe in “the Artist-Creator” or “the Artist-Instrument-of-the-Creator”?
I believe artists are the creators of all art forms in their own rights. 

Do you think that the Art can be elevating, ennoble or the Art should be destined for the elite.
Yes, I believe art can elevate human spirit, ennoble human quality, and console human suffering. I believe artists also have social responsibilities, besides creating for their own satisfaction and fulfilments.

Cheng-Khee Chee. Gone Fishing, 2000, 56x76

What is to your opinion the future of the watercolor as a painting medium?
Painting was pronounced dead many years ago, yet it has never been so alive and flourishing. In science, newly proven theories replace the old ones to advance knowledge. In art, however, a new art form does not replace the old one. A new art form, concept, process, style or subject matter is only different from the others. Neither do I believe that one art form; concept, process, style, or subject matter is superior to others. It is the artistic excellence that can evoke a strong response and transform people’s lives that matters. Therefore, All arts should coexist and their collective efforts enrich our lives. Watercolor is the oldest painting medium, and I believe it will outlive any others. I believe the future development of the watercolor medium will follow the following trends:

a. The trend of more plurality: During the early decades of the twentieth century, art in the West had faced the extreme polarization between the avant-garde and the traditionalists, and the abstraction and realism. Artists wasted a tremendous amount of time and energy in this meaningless conflict. After the 1960’s, however, artists gradually started to repudiate ideology, and embrace pluralism. Hence, all kinds of art forms flourished. This exciting period also revitalized watercolor painting. I predict that artists of the twenty-first century will have the wisdom and open-mindedness to continue accept the trend of plurality.

b. East Meet West: The advances of transportation and information technologies have greatly shrunk the time and space that speeds up the international and cultural exchanges of the arts during the twenty-first century. I am certain that this will bring more integration of painting concepts and techniques of East and West. Even with the differences between the Western watercolor and the traditional Chinese brush painting, the two have accomplished the same magical esthetic quality that set watercolor apart from any other painting medium. In reality, there are numerous examples of the synthesis of traditional Chinese brush painting and Western watercolor, historically and in the contemporary scene.

Cheng-Khee Chee

There always had been a discussion: “should watercolor be only transparent or some additional medium can be accepted”. What is your attitude to this?
In my opinion, the progress from pure transparent watercolor painting to multimedia watermedia painting is a natural course of development. From my own observation, the following are the factors for the development: (1) the trends toward plurality in creative ideas, (2) the availability of new water-based colors (such as acrylic) and painting ground (such as yupo), and (3) the spirit of exploration and innovation.

As an artist, I feel the content, message, and artistic merits should be the most important consideration, the medium itself is only a means of expression. Each medium has its own unique characteristics, as well as its merits and limitations. Artists should select a medium that is most true to their hearts and natural to their hands, and create their work in whatever art form, concept, style, contents and means to express their unique visions.

I love the unique quality of transparent watercolor. I do not feel it too traditional or too restrictive. I will continue to paint transparent watercolors, but that does not preclude me to explore other media and ways of working. I feel that using multi-watermedia provides many new possibilities for painting. I have admired and enjoyed many wonderful watermedia paintings!

As 21st Century artists, we must be more open-minded. We need great passion for our own creativity, but must also have the compassion to understand, recognize, and respect diversity. I feel that transparent watercolor painting and watermedia painting should coexist. They are not hindering one another, but enlivening and enriching the world of watercolor painting!

As a Teacher, do you put an effort more on developing creativity or technical skills of your students?
I taught watercolor classes ranging from beginning undergraduate courses to advanced graduate individual studies. For the beginning students, I put more efforts in developing their technical skills. I felt it is imperative to master techniques of handling the inherent qualities of watermedia such as controlling paint and washes. It is also crucial to have a thorough understanding of design, the ability to analyze design elements and orchestrate these elements into a cohesive painting by applying design principles. For the advanced students, who already had mastered technical skills, I emphasized on concepts, ideas, principles, philosophy and creativity.

Cheng-Khee Chee. Homer Boatyard, 2003, 56x76

Do you know something about Russian Art, some Russian artists?
I am sorry to say that I know very little about Russian art, except for a few well known artists, such as Repin, Chagall (shagal) and Kandinsky (Kandinskii). The Repin Academy is very well known and highly regarded in China. Many Chinese artists were sent there for training in the 1950’s and 60’s. I have a few artist friends who were graduates of the academy. Among them is Prof. Quan Shanshi, who was Academic Dean of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (Now the China Academy of Fine Arts) in Hangzhou in the 1980’s. He sent me a book titled Selected Watercolor Paintings of Contemporary Soviet Union in 1987. The text is in Chinese, and it was published in Hangzhou in 1986. Most paintings featured in the book were created in the 1970’s and 1980’s. That was my first introduction to the Russian watercolor. I am sure there is tremendous development since then.

In recent international watercolor exhibitions in China, I saw some watercolors by Russian artists such as Andrew Sklyarenko, Vladimir lirikov and Vladimir Yakobtchuk. I met Mr. Yakobtchuk twice in Nanjing. He is also from St. Petersburg. In November this year, I met Mr. Vladimir Lobanov from our sister city Petrozavods. We had a wonderful visit. From now on I will definitely pay more attention to the Russian watercolor scene, and Russian art in general.

Cheng-Khee Chee. White Iris, 1996, 76x102

What would be your general advise for those who only begins to paint with watercolors?
I would advise them just like I would advise myself -- follow the principles bellow:

            (1). Paint only subjects of which you have first hand and thorough knowledge
            (2). Have strong feelings toward the subject
            The synthesis of subject matter and feelings becomes your painting content.
            (3). Thoroughly understand design elements and principles
            (4) Have competent drawing skill and the ability to handle specific media        
            Design and craftsmanship become your painting process. Design helps you orchestrate            abstract elements to compose good paintings. Craftsmanship enable you to express you      subject matter.
I would also advise them to do what they like to do, do the very best they can, and stay humble.



  1. A most illuminating interview! Cheng-Khee Chee is truly a great artist.

  2. fantastic interview of an astounding artist. thank you!

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed this interview with an extraordinary artist. Thanks for your interesting website and great interviews.

  4. Your blog is such a wonderful source of inspiration. Thank you for your dedication!

  5. I have always loved the wet techniques of watercolor, of which Cheng-Khee Chee is a master!!! Thanks for the video!!!

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  7. I love your work! I've got an iris print of yours from 1996. It just makes me feel peacefully every time I look at it🤗 thank you so much.