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Innovating a Centuries-Old Technique to Bring New Life to a Traditional Art

LifestyleInnovating a Centuries-Old Technique to Bring New Life to a Traditional Art

Xu Hui is a woman in her 50s who sees cotton wadding as more than just a soft and fluffy material that keeps us warm. With her dexterous hands and artistic flair, she has transformed cotton wadding into delicate artworks. Her studio, located in Xi’an, Northwest China’s Shaanxi province, boasts a big wall painting that jumps into sight upon entering.

The wall painting is not just any ordinary painting; it is an exquisite work of art that depicts a small inn nestled in a green bamboo forest, where a stream flows through and children play. The meticulous details bring the painting to life, lending the studio a natural touch.

Upon closer inspection of the painting, thin filaments can be seen, unveiling the stunning craftsmanship that dates back to the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Xu explains that the painting is made entirely out of cotton wadding, which is dyed in different colors through steps such as boiling and air-drying.

Although the materials and tools used for making paintings of cotton wadding are simple, involving just cotton, glue, pigments, and forceps, the manufacturing process is difficult and time-consuming. Xu explains that to produce such a painting, it is necessary to go through 16 steps, including material selection, dyeing, outlining, and framing.

According to Xu, cotton wadding is particularly suitable for creating floral and feather paintings. The major raw material used is high-quality long-fiber cotton, which is manipulated into various shapes and sizes through spreading, pulling, twisting, tearing, and winding by hand.

Xu’s artistic talent and expertise in cotton wadding painting are truly remarkable. Her art pieces are unique and eye-catching, making them sought after by art collectors and enthusiasts alike.

In addition to wall paintings, Xu also creates other artworks using cotton wadding, such as sculptures and decorative items. Her ability to turn a simple material into stunning artworks is truly awe-inspiring.

Xu’s love for cotton wadding art began when she was a child. She would watch her mother create cotton wadding toys and was fascinated by the process. As she grew older, she began experimenting with cotton wadding art herself, perfecting her craft over time.

Despite the challenges of creating cotton wadding art, Xu finds the process therapeutic and fulfilling. She enjoys the quiet and meditative atmosphere of her studio and the opportunity to create something beautiful with her hands.

Xu’s work has gained recognition both domestically and internationally. She has exhibited her artworks in various art exhibitions and won numerous awards for her exceptional talent.

In a world where art is often associated with expensive materials and complex techniques, Xu’s art serves as a reminder that beauty can be found in the simplest of things. Her ability to create stunning artworks out of cotton wadding is a testament to her creativity and ingenuity.

Through her art, Xu has not only elevated cotton wadding to a new level but also showcased the beauty of traditional Chinese art forms. Her work is a true reflection of the rich cultural heritage of China and a source of inspiration for future generations.

Xu’s studio is a treasure trove of art creations that showcase her exceptional talent and creativity. From glass-framed paintings to ancient-looking fans, her works feature natural scenery, animals, and plants, all true to life and reflecting a theme of the latest events.

One of Xu’s recent series of paintings marked the spring equinox. The paintings depict a girl running with an airborne kite and a narrow mud track adjoining the grassland adorned by yellowish flowers under a light blue sky. Each part of the painting was handmade from scratch and carefully matched and pieced together.

One of Xu’s proudest works is a rabbit on a grassland with flowers. The piece was created to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, and the entire work is only 6 millimeters thick. Xu ingeniously made the glass-framed painting look different from the front and back, in terms of the rabbit postures and plant arrangements.

Xu’s themed works also include Winter Olympics venues and medical workers fighting the pandemic. Her stunning, lifelike images have recently made the news and exposed more people to the charm of her craft.

As one looks around Xu’s studio, the attention to detail in each piece is truly remarkable. The colors and textures of the artworks evoke a sense of awe and wonder, leaving visitors captivated by the sheer beauty of her creations.

Xu’s ability to turn a simple material like cotton wadding into exquisite works of art is truly inspiring. Her mastery of the craft is evident in every piece she creates, showcasing her unique style and artistic vision.

Her works not only capture the beauty of nature but also celebrate the culture and traditions of China. Her art serves as a bridge between the past and present, preserving the rich heritage of traditional Chinese art forms while adding a contemporary twist to them.

Xu’s art is not only visually stunning but also emotionally resonant, evoking a sense of nostalgia and wonder in the viewer. Her creations are a testament to the power of art to inspire, uplift, and connect people from all walks of life.

Xu’s work has earned her a well-deserved reputation as one of the most talented and innovative artists of her generation. Her art has been exhibited both nationally and internationally, and she has received numerous accolades for her outstanding contributions to the art world.

In a world that often values material wealth over creativity and imagination, Xu’s art serves as a reminder of the transformative power of art and the beauty that can be found in even the simplest of things.

Centuries ago, people living in cotton-producing areas in China would use their spare time to dye cotton batting, using various techniques to create traditional Chinese paintings with auspicious flowers, animals, and totems. These paintings were often given as gifts to celebrate birthdays, friendship, or to express reverence for nature and aspirations for a smooth life.

The art form looks like a sculpture when seen up close, but like a painting from a distance. It is widely known as a “three-dimensional painting” in China. Liu Zhengjun, president of the Xi’an Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Association, believes that the painting uses cotton as raw material and derives inspiration from folk customs, with simple rural life as its subject matter, making it a valuable art.

Xu Hui’s paintings of cotton wadding have a unique style, according to Liu. After years of exploration, Xu has combined traditional techniques with modern aesthetics. She also uses a unique perspective from photography, forming her own style and opening up a new realm for realistic painting.

Xu’s fascination with cotton paintings began when she started making paintings of cotton wadding at a local plant after graduating from middle school in 1988. She was able to study the craft at the plant’s arts and crafts department. She found it fascinating that ordinary cotton could be transformed into exquisite paintings.

Xu began to study the techniques with Li Futang, an inheritor of the Shaanxi painting of cotton wadding. Li learned the art from Chen Bulan, who integrated cotton wadding craft from his hometown in Hebei province with classical Chinese painting in the 1970s, according to Xu.

More than a decade later, Li refined the craft by taking the integration up a level, Xu says. At that time, the paintings were usually large and mostly depicted tigers, cranes, and peonies. It would take a team one or two months to complete a painting of cotton wadding. “This period was the heyday of the traditional craft,” Xu says.

However, as time passed, the painting slowly fell short of the aesthetic tastes of modern people and was on the brink of extinction. Xu realized that if the painting was to survive, innovation and creative efforts should be made to adapt the historical craft to the changes of the times.

Today, when one enters Xu’s studio in Xi’an, Northwest China’s Shaanxi province, one is attracted to a variety of her art creations, ranging from glass-framed paintings to ancient-looking fans featuring natural scenery, animals, and plants. They are true to life and reflect the latest events.

For instance, Xu recently made a series of paintings to mark the spring equinox. One of her proudest works is a rabbit on a grassland with flowers, which was made to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, and the whole work is only 6 millimeters thick.

To produce a painting of cotton wadding, it is necessary to go through 16 steps, including material selection, dyeing, outlining, and framing. The major raw material is high-quality long-fiber cotton that is manipulated into various shapes and sizes through spreading, pulling, twisting, tearing, and winding by hand.

“Cotton wadding is particularly suitable for creating floral and feather paintings,” Xu explains. Although the materials and tools used for making paintings of cotton wadding are simple, involving just cotton, glue, pigments, and forceps, the manufacturing process is difficult and time-consuming.

Xu’s paintings seem to pop out and have a life of their own, with meticulous details that present a small inn tucked away among a green bamboo forest where a stream flows through and children play. It lends the studio a natural touch.

Xu Hui’s innovative approach to the traditional craft of cotton painting has helped to keep it alive.

In 2015, Xu was inspired by double-sided embroidery and incorporated the technique into her cotton wadding paintings.

Instead of using a canvas stretched at the back to create a semi-relief form, she used gauze in the middle as a background for two paintings on the front and back, as she explains.

Her creative approach earned her the best design award in the small object category at the 2016 international quilting contest hosted by the China Fashion and Color Association.

Moreover, she has enhanced the painting technique that allows the art to appear three-dimensional.

For instance, to make flower works, she used cotton twisted into a thread as a skeleton (branch) and then added cotton-made petals. “In this way, the entire flower is made of cotton,” she says.

This technique eliminates the need for cutting the flower shape on paper and then attaching the cotton onto it, as required in traditional methods.

“The traditional way would make the flower appear bulky, but with the ‘bone and thread’ technique, it appears more refined and elegant,” explains Xu.

In 2018, the authorities of Lianhu district of Xi’an added Xu’s cherished cotton craft to the intangible cultural heritage list, which motivated her to attempt another breakthrough. As a fan of blue-and-white porcelain, she explored the possibility of using cotton to produce a porcelain vase.

Xu thoroughly examined the features of porcelain and employed its painting techniques to design a square vase with four distinct sides, which she then interwove using a cotton thread. This was a pioneering achievement in the Shaanxi-style cotton art, taking it from two-dimensional to three-dimensional. As her creations have been purchased nationwide in recent times, Xu has sensed a growing recognition and admiration for cotton art among the general public.

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