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Chinese artist teaches workshop

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

ALBANY -- With the subtle grace of a gourmet chef, Lian Zhen pours the yellow watercolor pigment on a small corner of his large sheet of Shuan, a thin absorbent paper that has the ability to spread paint, in front of an attentive class of 16 women.

While he pours, he is steadily giving the class tips and explaining how to paint in the Chinese "spontaneous" style of which many in the art world consider him to be a master of.

Slowly the sketch of an alligator lying amongst swamp grasses disappears before the classes' eyes hidden by a watery background of blues, purples, oranges and greens.

"The alligator is gone now but it is ok, he will be back," Zhen tells the class.

Zhen, a Chinese artist and teacher who specializes in Chinese watercolors, holds 25 workshops like the one in Albany last week per year.

Carole Gum, Georgia Artist's Guild of Albany education and workshop coordinator, said that Zhen is one of the most popular artists the guild hosts throughout the year.

"He has taught in Albany since 2001; he is very gracious and everyone enjoys his teaching," said Gum.

The students also produce more paintings under Zhen's guidance and time management.

Some of the student's in the Albany workshop traveled as far as Texas to learn from the Chinese painter.

Katie Haugland, 28, from Tyler, Texas, said she found Zhen's work online and was captivated.

"I saw that he does workshops and one of the summer workshops was here in Albany, so I got in touch with Carole and decided to come," said Haugland.

The 28-year-old said she didn't mind traveling to attend Zhen's workshop because she is great fan of his work.

"It wasn't a random thing, I really do like his work and the painting technique," Haugland said. "This is my first painting workshop ever and I'm able to concentrate better here than at my home."

Linda Seals, 55, said Zhen's work amazes her.

"He is a strange painter -- the way he has the ability to see things I can't see and how he pours that water, it's amazing," said the workshop attendee.

The three-day workshop with Zhen cost each student $195 plus materials, but many of Zhen's students say the price is worth it.

"The one-on-one teaching and the intimate atmosphere is great," Haugland said. "I think that if I were in a bigger class or bigger city I wouldn't have had that."

During the workshop, Zhen's students use Chinese watercolor paints, which are more opaque than traditional watercolors and Chinese brushes that tend to contain more water and pigment than their Western counterparts.

Another thing many of the workshop attendees were amazed to find is that the Chinese artist only uses three colors in all of his paintings, blue, yellow and red. Zhen's "pouring" technique consists of mixing the watercolors in bowls and then strategically pouring and mixing the pigments on the paper itself in his "spontaneous" style spreads the paints by using brushes, blowing and using his fingers.

"It's more free and spontaneous," Zhen said of his choice of using watercolors. "I like the water medium, it's like magic when you begin painting."

On display at the workshop, which was held at the Albany Area Arts Council on North Jackson Street, were many of Zhen's bright watercolor paintings of fish, landscapes and fruit and also more traditional Chinese watercolor pieces of rabbits, squirrels, a tiger and birds.

While signing one his books on painting that he has written for a student, Zhen joked that many traditional Chinese artists poke fun at his work.

"I say to them, 'It might not look like traditional Chinese painting, but it is. It is the future of Chinese painting.' For their whole lives, (many traditional Chinese artists) just copy and copy (the same style) and they were considered great paintings. They look all alike," said the artist, who started painting when he was 10 years old.

Zhen, who immigrated to the United States from China in 1985, said his paintings are a mix between the East and the West.

Gum said Zhen's style of painting appeals to both seasoned painters and beginners.

"It (the workshop) is a lot of fun and he makes it fun, even if you don't know what you are doing like me," the workshop coordinator joked.

While his student's worked on their own version of the alligator that Zhen painted for the class earlier, the Chinese artist walks around the bright rooms of the old Carnegie Library building offering advice and tips to his individual students.

When asked if watercolor painting was a difficult medium, Zhen replied, "These watercolors are very unforgiving, I compare them to teenagers. The more you push, the muddier things tend to become."

Gum said the last workshop of the season will be with award-winning watercolor artist Fealing Lin. The five-day watercolor workshop will begin on Sept. 20. For more information about the Georgia Artist's Guild of Albany's artist workshops, contact Gum at (229) 432-5417.

For more information about Lian Zhen's workshops, books and instructional DVDs, see his website at www.lianspaintings.com.