Celebrating the ‘Unsung Heroes of Ink’

By Sotheby's
An ink painting comes into being when ink meets paper, two elements communing and responding to each other. While appreciation for Chinese ink painting continues to grow, the role of paper and papermaking has largely been overlooked, and thus much of the art form remains unexplored.

A new documentary “Unsung Heroes of Ink” seeks to redress this balance by shining a light on the previously unexplored role of paper in ink painting. First-time filmmaker Olivia Wang speaks to artists Liu Dan and Shao Fan, who explain how xuan paper shapes their work.

“Once your brush makes contact with the paper, the material will respond to you immediately.”
Liu Dan, master ink artist

Liu Dan tries out a new sheet of xuan paper at his studio in Beijing. ⁣Director Olivia Wang, papermaker She Xianbing and art historian Yang Hongzhe watch on expectantly. ⁣

The documentary then takes the viewer to the remote Jing County, Anhui Province, to introduce the artisans who use ancient methods to hand-produce xuan paper, the prized paper favored by painters from the sixteenth century. These craftspeople have spent a lifetime honing their skills. Olivia Wang discusses these “unsung heroes of ink.”

What is the role of paper in ink painting?

Profound. Paper plays an active role in the creation of artworks. In the film, artist Shao Fan says that “different types of paper present me with a set of different challenges” and artist Liu Dan says “once your brush makes contact with the paper, the material will respond to you immediately.” The type of the paper shapes the piece almost as much as the brushwork itself.

Artists are generally meticulous and exacting about the papers they use. They test papers made of different materials and sized to varying degrees before selecting the perfect one. Some even commission their papers to specific papermakers. Each artist has a nuanced relationship with the papers she or he chooses to use.

Harvesting the blue sandalwood trees during winter. One of the two components in making xuan paper.

What inspired you to explore paper and get to know the people behind this medium?

Paper has become underappreciated. While interest and excitement for ink art has grown significantly in recent years, few experts and collectors understand the huge role played by an artist’s tools and materials. We have seen the emergence of the “superstar artist” era, which in many ways is a good thing. However, during these times with so much focus on the artist and their practice, the role of paper—and the artisans who make the essential material—can be overlooked.

When I initially shared this project with artists and ink aficionados, I was met with questions and curiosity. People were particularly interested to know how papers are made and the environment they are produced in. This enthusiastic response was extremely encouraging.

With your background as a curator and writer of Chinese art, why did you decide to make a film?

Good question. I could have written an article or a book. There is so much to know that the research could easily fill volumes. However, as papermaking methods are so visual, I felt strongly that film would be the best way to show them.

Were they any notable discoveries or surprises during process of your research?

I took numerous trips to Jing County in 2017 and 2018. I got to know a number of the owners of the privately-run paper mills who produce handmade papers, some of whom are featured in the documentary. As we all know, China is developing at breakneck speed so one of the things that particularly struck me was the sheer dedication and committment to preserving and continuing the papermaking tradition. For example, Cheng Yang’s grandfather established Jin Xuan Tang paper mill in the 1980s. The 29-year-old joined the family business at the age of 18. He could have left Jing County to live in a big city as many of the young generation there do. Instead, however, he chose to work in the family business, assisting his father in the management and running of the mill. Seeing him take pride in his work and craft was very inspiring.

The other important part of the story is understanding the artist’s relationship with their materials and how xuan paper shapes their work, I went on studio visits and met with ink painters. Liu Dan was a very big inspiration in this project. He believes that one must always respect, but also negotiate, the relationship between the three essential materials—paper, brush and ink. Shao Fan, who has a background in oil painting, takes a different approach to paper in his ink works.

An ink painting’s journey starts a year before brush meets paper. Pictured is Yi Xuan Ge, founded by She Xianbing in 1999 as the first privately run paper processing mill in Jing County.

Why did you focus on xuan paper mills?

Jing County has been the foremost region for the production of xuan paper since as early as the Tang dynasty. During the Song dynasty, the renowned calligrapher Mi Fu wrote that xuan paper was generally of high quality, white, smooth, absorbent and thus most suitable for artistic purposes. From the late sixteenth century onwards, it became the preferred paper for painters and calligraphers.

Today, Jing County is where most of the few existing mills that adhere to ancient papermaking methods are located. Situated in a mountainous area north of Huangshan, the landscape there is beautiful. The contrast between the region and the urban metropolises that we associate with modern China today is something I wanted to show in the film.

On a personal note, my father’s family traces its roots to Anhui. My late grandfather was born and grew up in a town near Huangshan before emigrating to the U.S. with his family in the 1950s. This project brought me to Anhui for the first time, which was really quite meaningful.

What were some of the challenges in making Unsung Heroes of Ink as a first-time filmmaker?

Producing and directing a film is something that had never crossed my mind, so needless to say, this endeavor was a massive challenge for me in at least a few ways.

It took quite some time to hire and organize my film crew. I interviewed eight cameramen over the course of a year before finally finding the right one. My cinematographer Vincent Du was great and we had a good rapport. This goes for the rest of my crew as well. I feel very fortunate to have worked with such a talented crew.

Winter is the only season when the trees are cut down and harvested for paper production. This was something that I wanted to show in the documentary, so we filmed over the Christmas holidays. You can’t tell from the film but it was really, really cold. Most of the filming was done outdoors and there was paltry heating indoors. I wore six layers of clothing plus adhesive heat pads.

Who is your audience and what do you hope viewers will take away from the film?

I do believe the film will be relevant and inspirational to anyone with an interest in Chinese art and history. For those already familiar with ink painting, I think that a greater understanding of paper will contribute to an enriched appreciation of the art form.

The papermakers in Anhui are the ones whom I named the film after, and I do hope the film will bring them more recognition.

artist shao fan in his studio in beijing.

"The allure of paper resides in its variance. It is more sensitive and more receptive than other materials.”
Shao Fan, modern painter, designer and sculptor


‘Unsung Heroes of Ink’ - A Documentary on Ink Art, and the Role of Paper
Directed by Olivia Wang | 2020 | 25 minutes
Language: Mandarin with English and Traditional Chinese subtitles
Find out more about upcoming screenings and Scholar's Ink Studio.

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