The process of tracing earlier models to learn from past masters has a long history in China, particularly for students of calligraphy, who typically begin their training by tracing characters to learn the nuances of brush movement and composition. As Xie Zhiliu's (1910–1997) tracing copies demonstrate, this method was also used to master the art of painting. The works in this section of the exhibition reveal Xie's early interest in the architectural, figural, and bird-and-flower compositions of the Song dynasty (960–1279) masters, as well as his study of ancient wall paintings, which he encountered while visiting the Buddhist cave temples of Dunhuang, in northwest China, in 1942–43.
On sheets of transparent, glossy paper, Xie made meticulous tracings of individual forms, constructing a lexicon of pictorial motifs that he could later draw upon to compose his own works. He also copied entire compositions but often did so loosely, allowing himself the freedom to "finish" a composition according to his own predilections. This process enabled him to assert his imagination while continuing to learn from past models.
Using line rather than shading to define form is fundamental to Chinese painting, and Xie's reliance on linear tracings demonstrates one way in which this tradition was perpetuated. By placing a tracing copy beneath a blank sheet of paper, Xie could work confidently from an established compositional template, freeing himself to focus on making the brushstrokes of his finished painting as beautiful as possible. Chinese artists have long used preparatory drawings in this way. Indeed, as early as the tenth century, mural artists in Dunhuang used pouncing to transfer iconographic images onto cave walls.