Sublime and True to Life: Award-Winning Painter on Classical Oil Figure Painting

By Penny Zhou

For Xiaoping Chen, an award-winning oil painting artist and the head of New York’s Northern Academy of the Arts art department, an oil painter’s brush is not limited to portraying what’s before the eyes, but “what they can sense or hear,” and even “the beings in higher realms.”

“The very beginning of art invariably starts from places such as temples, churches,” she said. “The portrayal of Jesus and other gods are also common in classical Western paintings … This is a prevailing theme.”

Chen’s oil figure paintings, often with spiritual themes, won gold awards in the 2009 and 2011 NTD Figure Painting Competitions; and she is serving as a jury panelist for this year’s competition.

She said that inspiration for creativity can be found in ancient wisdom and traditional masterpieces.

Oil painting artist and NTD Figure Painting Competition jury panelist Xiaoping Chen
Xiaoping Chen, oil painting artist and NTD Figure Painting Competition jury panelist, 2019. (Larry Dai)

Painters nowadays often struggle to create works of distinction. Yet, accurate and honest portrayals are often ignored by modern artists. But Chen said delivering beauty, especially in figure—painting—requires one to be faithful to the subject and follow classical realism styles.

“Mankind is created by gods; therefore in depicting them [human figures], humans should strive for a truthful representation rather than distort or exaggerate,” she said. “If [the artist] has a good grasp of accuracy in proportion, contours, contrast, and perspective, the figures depicted will naturally turn out beautiful.”

Skill and Spirit

According to Chen, a person’s inner spirit affects the caliber of their skills. “Good oil paintings—if we just look at the masterpieces in the museums such as those of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres or William Adolphe Bouguereau—their strokes are so detailed that you can barely see them on the surface of the painting,” she said. “My understanding is that when the painter can take their own ego lightly and solely focus on showing the other, they can achieve almost flawless mimicry (In Chinese: 惟妙惟肖 wei miao wei xiao); ‘miao 妙’ also means ‘marvelous’ or ‘sublime,’ while ‘xiao 肖’ means ‘true to life.’ It’s actually a manifestation of techniques.”

Song of the Angel (1881) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Song of the Angel (1881) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. (Public Domain)

According to Chen, a painting can only be considered truly great when it resonates with people on a spiritual level, and this is only achievable through the artist’s internal, spiritual elevation.

“When your heart is filled with what’s noble and beautiful, it will show through your paintings,” she said. “You can only present beauty when there is beauty within you. Therefore you must elevate yourself.”

Established in 2008, NTD International Figure Painting Competition’s mission is to promote “Pure Truth, Pure Kindness and Pure Beauty” through traditional realist oil painting.

This year’s registration for the competition closes on July 15. An exhibition and auction will be held at the Salmagundi Club in New York in late November. The Gold Prize winner will be awarded $10,000.