An ancient visual art moves into the future.

Ink painting has a very long tradition in Asia. In China, for example, the ink was used in art and calligraphy, for over 2 millennia. However, in the 1980s, the artists reinvented traditional ink art by adopting influences and practices from the West. Chinese painters started to experiment with the media more, to embrace Expressionism, Conceptual and Abstract art, and disrupt the traditional subject matter. That’s how the New Ink Art movement was born (also known as Contemporary Ink Painting, Contemporary Ink Art and Modern Ink Painting). New Ink Art combines contemporary painting with the ancient art of calligraphy, traditional Chinese landscape painting, and figurative sketching. The movement has attracted artists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Korea, and Japan and finally the West, each of them adding something new to the genre.

New Ink Art Movement: The Rising Popularity of Contemporary Ink Painting

‘Contemplation of Rocks’ by Liu Kuo-Sung via Sotheby’s

Contemporary Ink Landscapes

Landscape imagery holds a prominent spot in Chinese culture. It was used for political comment, conveying moral standards, and social values. In the golden age of landscape painting in China (907–1127), mountains towering over the natural world were the most popular subject as they symbolized the imperial power overlooking the country. During difficult times, landscapes stood as metaphor for endurance and survival. New Ink Art movement reinvents the genre by using colors, textures and depicting urban landscapes of modern cities. In Taiwan, painter Liu Kuo-Sung, one of the forerunners of the movement, revolutionized ink landscape painting by removing the visible brushwork with the airbrush, by using bold colors, and by inventing a new type of paper that enhances lines and texture. Other artists like Chen Shaoxiong, painted urban landscapes with busy streets and massive buildings as well as the human relationship with these changing environments.

Expressionist Ink Art

Apart from depicting the changing face of the urban environments, Contemporary Ink painters are also increasingly focusing on the internal world of the artist, aka the landscape of the mind. Inspired by the Expressionism, the New Ink Art movement reinterpreted the traditional ink painting by employing loose brushwork, expressions of personality and the abbreviation of figures. The painters used innovative symbols and composition styles while retaining the traditional elements such as ink brush and xuan paper. One of the pioneers of New Ink Art in Hong Kong, Lui Shou-Kwan, for example, used black and red marks to explore the emptiness of Zen and to channel the spiritual connection to his materials. The inspiration for his artistic approach can be seen in the works of Adolph Gottlieb, Franz Kline, and other American Abstract Expressionists. The result was highly expressive paintings showing the inner life of the artist.

New Ink Art Movement: The Rising Popularity of Contemporary Ink Painting
‘Idyllic Scenery #2’ by Liu Zijian via Artnet

Abstract Ink Art

In traditional ink painting, the brush is more important than the ink, since ink follows the brush to create a line. Artists like Gu Wend, however, separated the ink from the brush, thus introducing the abstract into Ink Art. Gu Wend’s creative process includes pouring, splashing and rinsing large areas of ink or even using airbrush application to create figurative forms reminiscent of works by Salvador Dali. Other artists like Zhang Yu and Liu Zijian expanded the style further by blowing, pouring, accumulating and creating hard-edged collages and skin texture. This new visual vocabulary (that ranged from deeply conscious to aggressive) conveyed bursting emotions — particularly tension and power.

World Ink Art

In the Far East writing is considered both a means of communication and the highest form of art. Many calligraphers have developed unique styles that help reflect their state of mind and point of view. By writing and rewriting the same words over and over again, calligraphers achieve skillfulness that allows them to easily replicate the lettering with similar results. This skillfulness represents the basis for their creative freedom.

Expanding on this tradition, Contemporary Ink painters created letters and words that serve as an aesthetic object deprived of its semantic content. It used dilute ink, burning instruments and other techniques to separate the written word from its meaning and give it pictorial and sculptural dimensions. In their more repetitive work, Contemporary Ink painters have written the same text over and over again to achieve rhythm that gives an artwork the pattern-like quality.

‘Kupa River in Ladešići’ via Art Acacia Gallery

Contemporary Ink Art in the West

For a long time, the New Ink Art movement was limited to the East, with very little knowledge about it outside of the Asian continent. However, over time the movement has found its way to the West, where it has influenced a new generation of artists. Alfred Freddy Krupa, the creator of New Ink Art Manifesto, is considered the pivotal figure in Western New Ink Art movement. Inspired by the ink practice of Japan, where he used to live, Krupa uses dense black ink to create tense, raw and direct art that reflects his minimalist approach.

International Recognition and Success

The New Ink Art movement has gained international recognition with both Christie’s and Sotheby’s organizing Contemporary Ink painting auctions in 2013 and 2014. The artworks by prominent names such as Lui Shou-Kwan and Liu Kuo-Sung have reached prices ranging from several hundred thousand to several million dollars.

Contemporary Ink painting was embraced by art institutions as well. In 2013, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has staged Ink Art: Past as Present in the Contemporary China exhibition, presenting works of thirty-five Chinese ink artists created between the 1980s and the present day. The Finland — China international Contemporary Ink Art exhibition was recently held in Red gallery in Helsinki and artworks by Contemporary Ink masters were also included in INK Brussels 2019. The relevance of the new movement is expected to rise, as more and more Asian and Western collectors are getting increasingly interested in the genre that is considered truly unique to Asia.