Zhang Shujian is a young Chinese painter from Hunan province. His photorealistic paintings pore over the details and imperfections of the human face. The tactile feel of his work is created by applying many thin strokes, and a rather elaborate multilayering process involving paint and varnish. Shujian’s approach distorts and contorts the human form into abstractions. We spoke to him recently about his inspirations and work process.
Neocha: How did you start as an artist? Did you always draw? How did you develop yourself in pencil, then eventually in painting?
Zhang Shujian: I started feeling like I was becoming an artist after I began working with a gallery. Of course I don’t mean that you have to be represented by a gallery to be an artist; the artwork is the most important part. I have always drawn and never pursued any other mediums – others just didn’t feel as natural. In art school, I studied pencil drawing and oil painting at the same time so there was never a progression from one to the other.
Neocha: Do you use references, models, or people from real life? Who are the figures and faces that inspire your work?
Zhang Shujian: I use images that I find online or use my personal photography as references. There are no specific types of faces that inspire me.
Neocha: Who or what were your biggest inspirations when you started? What kind of things or ideas influence you?
Zhang Shujian: I am inspired by the behavior of people around me. The way they move and the things they say are my biggest inspirations. Besides that, critiques on social issues that I see online also have an influence over my work.
Neocha: Your work is so textured and realistic, yet often distorted. What is your work process like? How do you render such delicate skin tones and hair? How long does it take?
Zhang Shujian: When I see an image that I like, I will first start sketching, then begin reworking it. Once I settle on something, I will then transfer it to a larger frame. When I’m working in a large frame, I slowly make my revisions. It’s a very traditional work process. Afterwards, I’ll start to paint the texture of the skin very clumsily, as if I’m weaving. Then I add multiple washes of color, layer after layer. For the hair, I go find the thinnest nylon brush in the art supply store and draw each strand one by one. On average, I finish one painting per month.
Neocha: What are you currently working on and what are you looking forward to in the future?
Zhang Shujian: Everyday I draw, go online, and read books. I like being a recluse at home. I don’t have any expectations. I am mostly looking forward to continuing to paint without restraint.