Beautiful biodiversity sketched in all its glory

Liu Xiaolin
Botanical illustrator Zeng Xiaolian has devoted his life to painting biodiversity in fine, assiduous detail. At 84, he still works on his next project: 100 ecological landscapes.
Liu Xiaolin

Shot by Sun Minjie. Edited by Sun Minjie. Subtitles by Sun Minjie.

Botanical illustrator Zeng Xiaolian has devoted six decades of his life to painting biodiversity, capturing the richness and beauty of nature.

One of China's best-known illustrator, Zeng has worked on a dozen biological scientific titles, such as "Flora of China" and "Flora of Yunnan."

After retiring in 1997 as a senior engineer from the Botanical Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Zeng has focused on capturing birds on canvas and ecological landscapes.

Beautiful biodiversity sketched in all its glory
Courtesy of Shanghai Center of Photography

The entrance of the exhibition hall features a portrait of Zeng Xiaolin, photographed by Liu Heung Shing.

An ongoing exhibition, "Imagine Nature Before and After Photography," at the Shanghai Center of Photography, features some 40 of Zeng's illustrations of flowers and birds. Most of the sketches were done after 2020.

"I do hope people from Shanghai can feel the breath of nature from Yunnan," said Zeng, a Yunnan native.

The exhibition, which opened in March, was extended due to the pandemic-related lockdown. It ends next week.

In fact, the museum was forced to close temporarily again last week due to the COVID-19 resurgence. SCOP will also hold three online tours on July 24, 27 and 31, respectively, for those who missed the show.

Beautiful biodiversity sketched in all its glory
Courtesy of Shanghai Center of Photography

A part of the ongoing exhibition "Imagine Nature Before and After Photography"

Painting vs. photography

"I was really touched when I saw his work. They really are an expression of truth, full of details, and are more experimental than many contemporary artists' work," said curator Karen Smith.

"What he did is photography itself," she added, which is to record the original appearance of a certain object.

Before the invention of photography in 1839, botanical illustrators recorded the shapes and habitats of plants based on their own observations, memories, and quick sketches.

With the advancement of technology, one of the most frequently debated topics is: Can photography replace painting, especially realistic painting?

Beautiful biodiversity sketched in all its glory
Courtesy of Shanghai Center of Photography

A part of the exhibition

It is the same question that this exhibition wants to tackle. Along with Zeng's illustration art, photos and artworks by Chinese and foreign artists like Nobuyoshi Araki, Liu Ye and Giovanni Ozzola are also being presented to show how the two art forms are closely connected, complimentary, and mutually beneficial.

Zeng agrees.

"Modern realistic painting cannot be done without photography," he said.

"In the 1970s, I couldn't afford a camera and had to rely on sketching and memory. It was highly demanding and quite intense. Sometimes, I had to paint non-stop for five hours, not daring to waste a minute having lunch, because the light and shadow kept changing and a flower might grow into full bloom," he said. "Now I can take 100 photos in half an hour, from all angles and full of details."

Beautiful biodiversity sketched in all its glory
Courtesy of Shanghai Center of Photography

Artworks by Nobuyoshi Araki

Cameras also help to capture instant movements, such as the minute when a bird spreads its wings while taking off.

The paintings of birds featured in this show are all created from photos authorized by Zeng's friends. For each piece, he had to consult ornithologists to figure out its category, Chinese and scientific name, as well as its habitats, living habits, and distribution areas. Accordingly, he sketches the backgrounds.

"Biological illustration is an art of function. It's not just fine art. You cannot doodle as you like. People need to identify the species from the paintings," Zeng said.

Beautiful biodiversity sketched in all its glory
Liu Heung Shing / Courtesy of Liu Heung Shing

Zeng Xiaolian

When Zeng joined the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Kunming Institute of Botany, he was assigned to work on the 80-volume "Flora of China."

It took 164 illustrators, more than 300 plant taxonomists, and 45 years to complete the masterpiece.

It was finally published in 2004.

Zeng pushed his peers to step out of the institute, research at the archives, be with nature and draw something that was appealing to the general public.

"Botanical illustrations, for example, never used scattering light," Zeng explained.

"Now I've added light and background to make it more vivid and popular, so viewers will find it more approachable and easier to connect with."

Beautiful biodiversity sketched in all its glory
Courtesy of Shanghai Center of Photography

Zeng speaks at the opening ceremony.

'Unorthodox' and experimental

Zeng began his career by studying the conventional botanical graphics in Curtis's Botanical Magazine. He later developed his own free, "unorthodox" style. He fused Chinese ink-wash painting techniques with oil, watercolor, acrylic, and colored pencils.

"Some artists would call it a doodle," Zeng joked.

He bought electric grinders after visiting a jade market in Kunming. In the bird paintings at the exhibition, the brightest spots on the feathers are scratched with grinders, not painted.

On coated art paper, he'd use a cutter to produce small white lines between black lines to add detail.

But he warned newbies not to copy him.

"It's my way of being efficient, inclusive, and outspoken," said the 84-year-old Zeng.

"I don't care about rules."

Quoting from a Buddhist text, he said, "After years of practice, you learn there are no fixed methods, which is exactly the way of life."

"Time is ticking away. But there is so much to paint."

Zeng works eight to nine hours a day and hopes to complete his pet project in the next three years: 100 ecological landscapes.

This series will be much larger in scale, each of them measuring 1.6 meters in height and featuring diversified ecosystems, such as rainforests, alpine coniferous forests, and coniferous and broad-leaved mixed forests of the temperate zone.

Instead of the usual acrylic oil, he is employing traditional Chinese painting.

"I hope the heaven blesses my hands and they don't shake," Zeng said. "I can then still paint with a magnifying glass.

"I will keep on painting till the day I die."

Beautiful biodiversity sketched in all its glory
Courtesy of Shanghai Center of Photography

The poster for the exhibition

"Imagine Nature Before and After Photography" Online Tour

Date: July 24, 27 and 31, 6:30pm

WeChat: SCOP (Shanghai Center of Photography)

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