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Simple brush strokes paint a new world with ancient techniques

Every Thursday night at UCSD’s Crafts Center, Lucy Wang leads students in a traditional style of Chinese brush painting that has existed for more than 2,000 years.

UCSD’s Grove Gallery is now showing “Ink and Brush, Chinese Freestyle Paintings,” an exhibition of artwork by Wang and her students.

Freestyle brush painting originated from Chinese calligraphy and is one of the oldest existing brush styles in Asia. Artists still use traditional materials to create their works, such as brushes made from bamboo and animal hair, watercolors made from tree sap, charcoal and semiprecious stones, and canvases of silk and handmade rice paper.

In freestyle painting, the brush strokes are quick and fluid, and a painting can be completed easily in less than 30 minutes.

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“It is a very simplified painting style,” Wang said, “but it takes a long time to practice the strokes and get them right. We use a traditional Chinese brush, but very simple strokes and less detail. Sometimes, in one or two strokes, you can paint one leaf.”

Chinese brush artists traditionally use plants and wildlife as their subjects, and Wang uses the art form to expresses her own personal love of nature. She paints mostly colorful animals and flowers, many of which have been inspired by San Diego’s natural environment.

“I am very much influenced by the nature here, especially at the San Diego Zoo,” Wang said. “My studio is right next door in the Spanish Village of Balboa Park. I especially like to paint agapanthus. I have a lot in my back yard, and I love them.”

Wang was born and raised in Taiwan, where she took an interest in art at a young age. At age 12, she began formal instruction and eventually earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the National Taiwan College of Arts.

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She continued to study with master artists in Taiwan until she met her husband, an American, and moved to his home in San Diego in 1984. Her studio, Lucy Wang Fine Art, has been open for 19 years.

Wang has achieved international recognition as both a teacher and an artist, and her work has been bought by collectors from around the world.

She created a signature style of watercolor which consists of two layers of canvas. The top layer is watercolor on silk, and the painting behind it is on rice paper. Combined, the layers create a three-dimensional effect. Wang will have paintings of tulips and butterflies in her original three-dimensional style on display at the gallery.

“My paintings are not only a Chinese style,” Wang said. “They are also mixed with Western style, which is very colorful, very bright. Some are mixed with contemporary styles, like the painting I did of fish in Balboa Park. It is very untraditional. The colors are totally different.”

Many of Wang’s students have been with her for three to five years and are now accomplished artists in their own right. Many of them had had little or no experience as artists before taking Wang’s class.

Maureen Ruchhoeft first attended the class when she was a doctorate student in neuroscience at UCSD. She has been a student of Wang’s for 10 years now, as long as Wang has been teaching at the Crafts Center.

“It’s very relaxing, a great stress buster,” Ruchhoeft said. “We have a lot of fun, but there’s also an element of immediate gratification. By the end of one class I’ll definitely have one finished painting, if not two. The idea of freestyle is that you’re not there painting for a week.”

Students in the class paint a variety of subjects that interest them, from landscapes to animals to human faces.

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Ruchhoeft has painted some La Jolla-inspired beach scenes, including one of a child running into the ocean and another of a young man holding a surfboard. But one of the great things about freestyle painting, she said, is that there are no restrictions on subject matter. One of her paintings that will be on display is of a geisha, but she has also been hired by several of her neighbors to paint portraits of their pets.

“Some people focus on one particular subject like landscapes or calligraphy,” Ruchhoeft said, “but you can really paint anything. I like that I can paint totally different things from one week to the next, and mimic a magazine picture if I want. It’s completely accepted to copy your teacher’s paintings to develop the style, because no one can ever copy the same way.”

One peculiar thing about the student body of Wang’s class is how many science students take part each quarter. No one is quite sure what the connection is between science and Chinese freestyle brush painting, but Ruchhoeft had some insight.

“A lot of the stuff I did in the sciences was inspirational,” Ruchhoeft said. “When you’re looking through a microscope or in science books, often the images you see are very beautiful pictures in themselves. In some areas of biology there is a lot of exposure to animals and plants in nature. But even in the other sciences, a lot of beauty exists.”

An artist’s reception will take place Saturday, March 4, and the exhibit will continue through April 8.

For more information visit www.crafts.ucsd.edu or www.lucywang.com.