Making a Splash: Discover Zhang Daqian’s Ink Masterpieces

Making a Splash: Discover Zhang Daqian’s Ink Masterpieces

T he splashed ink paintings of Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) have earned the artist a reputation as an innovator and as one of the leading Chinese-born modern artists of the 20th Century. The artist, who was also one of the last great exemplars of traditionalist Chinese brush painting was himself somewhat uncomfortable being labelled a modernist. When many contemporary observers saw his splashed ink style as a response to Western Modern Art, Zhang responded by asserting that his technique had mainly evolved in response to severe eye problems. He also believed that he was reviving methods and stylistic tendencies that had been present in ancient China. Still, it should be noted that beginning in the early 1950s, when Zhang began taking regular trips to the United States, he was exposed to Abstract Expressionism and told friends that he felt a sense of competition with Western artists.

Splashed Ink Paintings by Zhang Daqian on exhibition during Taipei travelling exhibition of hong kong autumns sales 2022.

Although Zhang experimented with splashed ink techniques as early as the mid-1950s, he did not fully develop his methods until he was nearly sixty years old. After an eye capillary rupture in the summer of 1957 damaged his sight, Zhang was entirely unable to paint for six months. When he did again attempt to paint, he found that everything looked blurry and wrote: “I could no longer deliberately work. So I had to reduce the brushstrokes…” The methods he soon developed included pouring ink onto paper that had been wetted with a large brush, generating forms that flowed and spread. Pigments added to these “invisible landscapes” would flow rapidly, creating striking and exciting effects.

Zhang Daqian, Sailing by the Lush Landscape . Lot sold for 5,166,000 HKD

As each splashed ink painting developed, Zhang used small brushes to adjust and contain the flow of paint to develop landscape imagery. He painted attentively, looking for ways to create final images that were both lyrical and pleasing as a whole. His paintings in progress were often mounted on boards which could be tipped or swayed to create flows. While at work Zhang would let the paper dry - partly or completely - sometimes using electric hair dryers to speed the process. When a new layer was added he was careful to let the imagery of the previous layers peek through, and also to preserve glimpses of naked paper in some areas. Working this way, towards an uncertain result, was precarious as a painting might become over-saturated and lose its sense of light.


By sprinkling mineral colours - greens and blues - into his still wet compositions, Zhang was able to create fields of sensuous colour that unified his compositions while suggesting flowing forms including lakes and clouds. Often appearing in these fields are carefully rendered bits of recognisable imagery such as trees, hamlets, human figures and boats. These small details help what otherwise might be seen as abstract paintings take on the qualities of landscapes. Zhang used the accidental effects and improvisation of the splashed ink style as a way to bring together imagery from his memory that included scenes from antique paintings and from varied locations. Although the titles he gave the works may refer to a specific place or event, they should be seen as imaginative creations, conjured from the artist’s memories and fantasies. For that reason, these paintings have the quality of waking dreams.

Zhang Daqian, Verdant Hill by the River . Lot sold for 17,920,000 HKD

For more than 25 years, until his death in 1983, Zhang practiced the splashed ink technique in paintings made in a variety of locations including Europe, Brazil, the United States and Taiwan. Even as his sight eventually improved after a series of operations, allowing him to return to some of his earlier styles, it was the splashed ink paintings that broadened his international reputation and brought Zhang’s work into a modern context. A resourceful and extremely clever man, Zhang Daqian was at his best when life presented him with challenges, as his development of his painting amply demonstrates. 

Looking at the seven splashed ink paintings in the upcoming Fine Chinese Paintings auction can provide a stimulating overview of the artist’s versatility and sheer painterly brilliance.

Chinese Paintings – Modern Hong Kong Autumn Auctions

About the Author

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

arrow Created with Sketch. Back To Top