“I have tried to do portraits, but they don’t have an influence on me. The human figure freaks me out,” said Tongyao Su ’19.
Senior Studio Art and Psychology double major Tongyao Su began painting when she was in high school, but her talent makes it seem as if she had been painting her entire life.
Before Su began painting landscapes, she learned how to create Chinese traditional ink printing, which she still does. Last summer, Su had a printer-ship with a master in China, where she learned how to do landscape painting and how to manipulate her ink.
Her favorite artist is Fan Kaun, who painted landscapes during the Song Dynasty (960–1279), which was a great cultural movement in China.
“Kaun’s powerful mountains look like middle-aged men. Once you look at the mountains you hear the details,” said Su. “His manipulation of tiny strokes make each of them stand out and have a lot of difference, which makes them stand out as a whole.”
Su incorporates techniques she learned from her homeland in China as well as from Muhlenberg, where she has her own art studio in Hillside. She studied abroad in France in the spring of 2018 and has traveled to Venice, where she also painted landscapes. Nature is Su’s greatest artistic inspiration, and it allows her to paint what she sees.
“Nature is spiritual. It is the greatest master and it is deep with wisdom,” Su said. “Trees are culture by itself and energy moves from inside and outside of them. They live longer than we do and have seen history that I can never witness. It’s really important to listen to what nature has to say.”
Her process for painting is to hop outside, find a beautiful place to sit for hours and create a work. She explains that while painting in nature, the light changes extremely often. The movement of the clouds cast different colors on the entire landscape. If the light changes, the color looks dramatically different and she has to find a baseline for it, but at the same time, paradoxically, she tries not to let the changes influence her work.
Besides listening to what nature tells her to paint, Su paints the images that pop into her head. Some of her inspiration comes from her dreams. One of her paintings, entitled “Spirits,” came from an image she saw in a dream a few weeks ago: the eyes of a spirit under tree leaves. She decided to paint her own eyes, since she did not remember the way in which the eyes of the spirit looked from her dream.
While Su draws inspiration from the images around her, she also focuses on a lot of differences in the style of Chinese art and art from the United States.
“The composition is really different and we don’t have a fixed horizon line or linear perspective, but we do have an atmospheric perspective and we do build up our ink based on that,” said Su. “So the ink becomes lighter and lighter as we move to the background.”
Su said that a white, spacious canvas is really important to her pieces and that it should never be completely filled in for landscapes.
“My master once said to me that if I just paint paint everything on the whole space, I am just killing the landscape, because I am not allowing it to breathe. Now I have to fill up the whole surface slowly,” said Su.
The best advice that Su was given came from her master at a zen temple:
“He told me that we are ‘human doings’ rather than ‘human beings,’” she said. “Humans are so caught up in the doing that they are not being in the moment.”
Su is not yet sure what she wants to do after she graduates from Muhlenberg, but she plans on staying focused on the present moment and keeping her eyes open for the best opportunities.
Su wants to learn more about herself and has been trying to do so for years, but is still trying to find out who she really is.
“The self is a great puzzle to solve,” said Su. “I am getting pieces of it, but I am still trying to put them together.”