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Inspired by the human experience, Li paints his subjects with emotion and dignity.
Reprinted with permission. Watercolor Artist, April 2012 “Quiet Reverence”by Meredith E. Lewis (pages 32-39) www.watercolorartistmagazine.comHumility, grace, dignity: these are the hallmarks of Morehead State University professor Dongfeng Li’s watercolor portraits. Choosing to paint people from a variety of places, ages and life experiences, Li works to imbue each subject with poise and distinction. “Their different backgrounds can create interesting contexts,” he says. “I’m curious about these differences, so it’s one of my primary motivations in creating my work.”Li’s style is realistic, although diffuse, muted and atmospheric color washes-trademarks of his chosen medium-augment the transition from foreground detail to background abstraction. “My work is primarily realistic, though it can vary, depending on what I want to achieve with a piece,” he says. “With watercolor, I can often create detail that rivals that of oil paint, though sometimes I like to pursue a more simplistic approach, such as in the painting ‘Joe,’ which relies more on color washes.”Contrast and Harmony - Li completed his undergraduate studies in China, where he studied Chinese watercolor and oil painting, as well as drawing. He credits this early training to his success with watercolor and with realism, noting the similarities between the Western watercolor tradition and the Chinese school. “There are some similarities between watercolor and Chinese painting, such as washes, brushstrokes and paint bleeding effects, as well as their typically summarized and simple nature,” he says.“Both contain a simplified approach to color by creating multiple subtle layers of glazes. Chinese painting and watercolor are focused more on design and composition above all else, as well as how the economy of the brushstroke is used to create structure of form.” In college, Li was also preoccupied with sports. Soccer, volleyball and table tennis were his favorites, and he spent a great deal of time outdoors or in the gym. “Many of my professors told me that I should attend a sports academy, rather than studying art,” he says. “This has influenced my work today, and is part of the reason why I’m interested in plein air painting, as I love being outdoors, surrounded by nature.” Li’s paintings explore color contrasts, color temperatures and hues, elements that allow him to capture the personalities and moods of his subjects in two-dimensional space. Emotion arrives through composition and through his use of light and dark values, color washes, texture, brushstrokes and color work. “Contrast and harmony are based on my design purpose,” he says. “If I need more attention, I’ll use more contrast; when I want elements to seem unified, I’ll do the opposite.”Painting from life, photographs and reference material, Li strives to achieve authenticity in each painting. Life painting is his favorite way of working. If he chooses to work from photographs, he often changes the color scheme and various personal elements to complete and unify a composition. Working and teaching in a variety of environments-from the studio to en plein air and travel painting-gives him flexibility and virtuosity with the medium. It also allows him to demonstrate a wide variety of painting methods to his students.Vivid Forms - Composition takes two forms in Li’s process. The first is brainstorming. He spends time with his subject, watching the model or examining the photograph for clues. “Often, after a period of time, I’ll have a vague idea of the theme, color, light design and composition,” he says. “Then come the thumbnail sketches and black-and-white value study or color studies.”With this preliminary work in place, the second stage of Li’s process sees him developing his final painting according to the road map set out by his initial thoughts and studies. For the painting “Pack Rat,” Li first completed a black-and-white drawing and quick color design study-elements that allowed him to edit and perfect his composition. With these references in place, he drafted his drawing in pencil on his watercolor paper. He then blocked in the lightest colors and, where gestural strokes were required, he worked additional colors into these areas while they were still wet.
He designed and glazed the background before he went to work on the face and detail areas. When he finally launched into the facial planes of the work, he began by creating the value and blending in cool and warm colors, before achieving depth in detail areas. Throughout his process, Li takes care not to overwork any particular area of the painting. “My process of watercolor isn’t that different from many other artists,” he says. “However, I do emphasize the idea of ‘lost and found’ in my work. I use this tool to provide emphasis in certain areas of the face and details, allowing less emphasized areas to subtly blend into the background. It’s key to making the form of a portrait more vivid.”In addition, he “counts white as black,” he says, and allows some areas of his paintings to be busy and tight in contrast to quieter areas with less detail. “These are both well-known theories in Chinese painting,” he says. “They describe the use of positive and negative spaces. I also sometimes look for more abstract shapes in both spaces.”New Vocabularies - For Li, who enjoys the quiet dignity of the human face, the challenge is to remain open to new ways of working with and exploring a subject. He admits that he’s often dissatisfied with his initial painting efforts, and it may take weeks of additional work and assessment for him to arrive at the finish line.“In giving myself this time,” he says, “I can explore new and interesting ideas that I can later add to the piece that I wouldn’t have explored initially.” Success in painting can be elusive, but exploration - the search and investigation itself - is key.
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