I’m Peng Su (鹏·苏), a xieyi artist originally from North China and now settled in Devon. I paint to honour my great-grandpa Baozhang, explore my love of imperfections, and share my own and nature's stories.
In addition to teaching this traditional art form through workshops and private tuition, I continue to develop my own experimental style – drawing on both my cross-cultural experiences and years of technical practice.
I’ve written a little more about my life and work below. I love meeting anyone with a passion for nature or art, so do get in touch!
Baozhang and China
I grew up in North China and spent most of my time running around shoeless outdoors. I mostly had pet insects and birds as well as attempting to grow every plant I could despite the 40-degree summers. I was perfectly content to spend my days watching plants grow and insect wings flicker – perhaps to the dismay of my parents! In the cold months I would go ice-fishing, and desperately try to keep crickets warm so they’d keep singing over the winter. Life is rarely so simple, so I’m happy to have these memories.
I was lucky enough to practise art and traditional Chinese painting with my great-grandpa Baozhang. He was a local photographer and artist known for his bold yet carefully planned style in flower, fish, and landscape paintings. His favoured style was elaborate gongbi with elegant calligraphy, and I would watch as he painted layer after layer over several days, gradually building up a delicate loving image. I believe they were important lessons in appreciating small things and the power of patience.
Baozhang peacefully passed away at the age of 94 and many of his beautifully painted scrolls and fans went from hanging on walls to storage in humidity-controlled boxes. I continued to pursue my love of nature through drawing and education, hoping to honour my great-grandpa’s kindness and passion for beauty in the world around him. Later I returned to full-time to painting, developing my skills through study of previous master’s works and continued observation of wildlife.
My style is developed from traditional xieyi; a freestyle form of Chinese painting in which the emphasis is on the brush strokes and feeling, rather than the exact colours and details. I am inspired by ming/qing dynasty artists Xu Wei and Bada Shanren. Their use of ink and brushstrokes were economical yet expressive in depicting the spirit of the subject matter, while their personal lives significantly relate to their compositions, experiences, and humour. Their masterpieces give the impression that xieyi painting can be more realistic than reality – reflecting emotional and spiritual responses to the world with impressionist brushstrokes worked within the artist’s mind.
While I paint and teach traditional xieyi, my own and experimental work is also inspired by Japanese sumi-e and Western watercolour.
The beauty of Japanese sumi-e is in making the most of the water in the brush and the bleeding of the ink on the washi paper. This ultra-thin paper has the special ability to record each brushstroke in order. When I look at a painting, it moves and feels as if the artist is painting in front of me, forming a window through which viewer and artist are connected. By reverse engineering these brushstrokes I can continue developing my knowledge and techniques over time. Having spent time in Japan I am particularly interested in the value of blank space, inter-connectivity, and flow.
After moving to the UK, I discovered more botanical and impressionistic watercolour paintings. I loved the attention to miniscule details and sense of storytelling and atmosphere, and started to include the more Western use of light in my own work. While it requires adapting to xieyi painting materials, I feel it brings a sense of time, place, and season – with a subtlety beyond the use of seasonal plants and migratory birds.
In my current work I use my practical experience to express the beauty of nature in its most real form. I like to include details such as backwards facing flowers, old broken stems, and crusty browning leaves. Sometimes the stories in my work show interaction between nature and less classically beautiful human elements; snails crawling up a can of slug repellent, rats feasting on the remains hanging from a cheese grater, or a clever cockroach balancing on a mouse trap. Whether it’s a cultural difference or modernisation, I increasingly feel we see ourselves disconnected from nature – like it’s a beautiful thing to observe from a window rather than a story we’re a part of.
While I practise most areas of Chinese ink work, I particularly enjoy painting small animals, birds, insects, and fish. I like to paint what I love and am familiar with, rather than continuing the cycle of copying second-hand what previous masters were surrounded and inspired by. While this repetitive duplication is needed to develop your brushwork, Chinese painting ultimately relies on having such familiarity with the subject matter that you can paint from memory. I believe only then can you capture the spirit of the subject and your experiences in the work.
Moving to the UK I've enjoyed discovering how much people enjoy painting classical Chinese landscapes. Now I hope to capture the beautiful countryside and dramatic scenery in the UK. As people with different experiences and from different environments learn ink brush painting, I believe it can cross cultural borders and evolve. We can all feel the free spirit through the brushstrokes, the texture through contrasting ink effects, and the messages hidden in blank spaces.