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Close Partners with Tacit Understanding

Mutual understanding between the two artists played a very important role in the creation of their joint paintings. The viewers can understand the way Chao Shao-an and Yang Shanshen worked by reading the inscriptions. For example, in the inscription for Apples and White Ginger Lily, Chao writes:

I stayed in Chengdu in Sichuan for a year. There were many kinds of flowers and plants in the garden; in particular, I loved to draw the abundant apples. That was over ten years ago, and recently, when I flipped through my sketchbook, I picked one for painting. It so happened that Shanshen was visiting, so I invited him to add the white ginger lily.

They did not have any plans or any pre-set subjects for the joint paintings. It was just that, when one of them was struck with an inspiration, he would invite the other to join in. The invited artist had to look at what was already painted and develop his ideas from there.

The subjects of these works mainly featured flowers, birds and insects. Yang was known to plant flowers in order to draw them. Similarly, Chao studied the plants closely and painted each with its distinctive characteristics. Their joint works, therefore, combined their strengths to produce interesting results. There are joint works that feature classical subjects, too, such as the pine, bamboo and plum. Others are paintings of animals and plants commonly seen in Hong Kong, for example Plantain Tree and Mantis, Pomegranates and Daylily, Rose and Evergreen, Vegetables, Taro and Vine, Cat and Butterfly and Crab and Prawn.

The ink and brush styles of these works display complementary qualities, often contrasting boldness with suppleness, and strength with subtlety. These become the main features of their joint works. Their techniques included the use of wash for atmospheric effect, the use of white powder for tonal gradation and the typical ink and line techniques employed by the two artists. These elements blended together in a harmonious fashion.

Yang is well known for his excellent line contours, as seen in his depictions of flowers and plants. The contours of the flower stems are executed with deft control of weight, with continuous lines at places so thin that they seem to break but not quite, and thicken and wane with a life of their own. The mixed use of wet and dry brush techniques in painting plantain, pine and tree trunks is vivid and lively. Chao’s bird subjects are usually depicted as lifelike and alert, whether perching on branches or in flight.

In Mynah and Persimmon, the body of the bird is represented with a few quick strokes of the brush, with an assuredness that can only be the result of long years of close observation and practice. This exquisite control of the brush is most evident in his depiction of flowers. In Coconut and Vine, the hard, round shell of the coconut and its husk, with the two leaves sprouting from the top are executed with precision and fluid control. By its side, Yang’s delicate outlines of the vines and translucent petals make an interesting contrast. In White Ginger Lily and Gladiolus, Yang depicts the white ginger lily using the shuanggou (outline) method, while Chao paints the red gladiolus using colour ink only and no outlines – the latter known as the mogu (boneless) method in Chinese painting. This strong juxtaposition of colour and texture highlights the character of each artist and, at the same time, adds visual interest to one work.

On the pictorial composition of the joint paintings, both masters had some important points to make. Yang taught his students that:

It is best to let the other artist begin the work. Then you can just add in a few strokes on the side. For example, if the first artist paints a waterfall, you can add in some pine branches among the rocks. If he paints an old pine tree, you can add some fresh green climbing vines. The idea is to make the whole work a seamless entity, and not some incongruous or superfluous additions”. [Note 2]

Chao believed that artists should paint the subjects they like and do best. If the joint painting is a landscape, then one can make complementary additions depending on the subject matter, such as rocks, birds, flowers or plants, or simply choose to paint what one excels most. [Note 3]

Chao and Yang did not have fixed rules as to who would paint first, and would only follow their heart and inspiration. When by chance one came upon a highly satisfying work, he would invite the other to fill in to enhance it for more interesting results. One example is Bamboo Shoot and Leaves, on which Chao writes:

Year of Jiawu (1954), early autumn. I woke early to paint for fun, and did a young bamboo shoot that I found pleasing. Yang just arrived at my studio, so I invited him to add in the bamboo”.

In fact, the one that paints last actually has the hardest task, because he had to unify all the elements done by the previous artists. While respecting the characteristics of each person, he had to connect them up to form the whole. He was the one to decide on the final composition and structure, and his input determined the artistic level of the final work. Since both Chao and Yang were very experienced and on a similar artistic level, it did not matter who painted first, the other could always add to and enhance the work significantly.

Yang spoke about the spirit or attitude of making joint paintings: “Collaboration is working together, and you do not dominate others.” [Note 4] It is important to maintain a modest attitude in creating a team spirit. One should be just as happy to take up a supporting as much as a major role. Chao also noted that “Joint works are very interesting because they consist of different personalities and ways of thinking”. Artists making joint paintings want to relate and have a dialogue, aiming to complement and enhance each other’s talents. This actually comes from a person’s accommodating spirit and wisdom, and whether he is able to work with others in harmony and avoid self-centredness. Instead of placing one’s subject as the central focus, one must leave ample space for the others to express themselves.


2 Chen Qinfeng, The Artistic World of Yang Shanshen (Hong Kong: The Commercial Press, 2012), p. 86.

3 Interview of the artists in the programme Good Morning Hong Kong of Television and Broadcast Limited on 19 March 1983.

4 Chen Qinfeng, The Artistic World of Yang Shanshen (Hong Kong: The Commercial Press, 2012), p. 83 and p. 85.


  • Crab and Prawn

  • Bamboo Shoot and Leaves

  • Cat and Butterfly

  • Mallard Duck in Pond with Bamboo Fence