Asian American Who Became an Artist

Categories: American Born Chinese

Nature played an immense role in the way Asian and Asian American artists displayed their persecutive of such a broad subject into their art pieces. Many aspects played a role in the way artists were influenced with the use of nature in art forms. Going back many years, Northern Sung Dynasty had just declared that landscape officially became the only “worthwhile subject for painting.” (ICS 5 Chinese Painting Overview Notes) That being said, artists would make their art in a hanging scroll format, mainly consisting of formal and monumental landscapes.

Artists during this time did not use many colors, but rather showered perspective and shading through using darker colors.

“Travelers on a Mountain Path,” by artist Fan Kuan (Asian and Asian American Slide Review), shows the fundamental aspects of the dark colors of the paintings shown in the trees and areas of the piece that required highlights or dimension. During this time, artists did not necessarily create art pieces to make a living off of them, but rather made them for high standing individuals.

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Such pieces would often be catered to individuals like the Emperor or other upper class people who live a financially stable life. That being said, it allowed artists to have a sense of freedom within their work, sometimes showing the more abstract side of nature in their art.

Because of this, artists were able to create work that they enjoyed, thinking deeper into the meaning of nature, and not creating work that needed to sell in order to make a living.

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When investigating the deeper style and the paining of Fan Kuan’s piece, viewers are able to notice the brush strokes that are seen throughout the trees, mountain, river, and various parts of the background or sky. With such pieces being created on hanging scroll which was typically made of silk, artists had to pay great attention to the brushstrokes and where or what the next addition to the piece is going to be, being that mistakes are irreversible. We also can look at Li Cheng’s piece, “Temple on a Clear Day” (Asian and Asian American Slide Review) which shows the perspective of nature through the details. We see that this piece consists of the color black only, showing depth and shadows by making some aspects darker than others.

Nature continued to play a big role in art seen and created by Asian artists. We learn that religion eventually starts to play a role in the way artist portray nature in the Southern Sung Dynasty. Taoism became the heart of many artists artwork and their inspirations in their pieces. Taoist cosmology was shaped in the way Chinese traditionally saw and understood the world. The yin and yang energy in the universe essentially shares that both halves together create and complete wholeness. Yin is the “tiger-female, darkness, and receptive,” while yang is the “dragon-male, light, and strength.” (Taoist Cosmology Notes) In the text, we also learn that the yin and yang are also expressions in “the Taoist cosmological concept of the five elements.” (Taoist Cosmology Notes)

These five elements include: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Being that the Chinese word that we translate as “landscape” means mountains, water, or rivers, Chinese artists often used such forms of nature in their paintings sharing a perspective of nature. For example, “Bare Willows, Distant Mountains” created by Ma Yuan, (Asian and Asian American Slide Review) shares a more specific element, being water. In this piece specifically, we see what looks like a large body of water, with clouds hovering over and around the mountains, with the mountain peaks peaking out of the clouds. When you look even closer into the image, we can see lots of fog within the forest and town, showing small parts of the trees peering out. Another piece that shares one of the five elements is “Branch of White Jasmine.” (Asian and Asian American Slide Review) The image shows a simple, yet beautiful piece of art, being jasmine blossoms. The jasmine flower is often considered to be a symbol of purity and innocence. This image shows a more simplistic and straightforward meaning towards nature, being earth itself and the beauty that comes out of it.

Among Asian artists, individuals often were seen using particular mediums over other. Japanese artists used woodblock prints to share their view on nature. That being said, there was a specific way to make such prints. To begin with, all Japanese woodblock prints have an area of writing “to identify the print’s title, artist, publisher, etc.” (Japanese Prints Notes) No two prints ever have the same location of the woodblock print, as the artists often decides how and where they would like the print to be seen within their piece.

The series of prints that are engraved into the woodblock sharing some insight of the artist, title, and even the publisher’s seal, are all scattered and put in different places of the block itself and never seen all in one area. “The Great Wave, Kanagawa Point” by Hokusai depicts a big wave, threatening and about to overtake three fishing boats. The multi-colored print features a glimpse of the Mount Fuji, sharing a perspective of how big the wave actually is, also using perspective as if the mountain is being swallowed up with the boats too. This piece by Hokusai, was just one of thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, each sharing a different perspective of nature.

In the coming years, Asian American artists carried over nature, but seen in a new light. The Chinese were among one of the first to enter the United States, specially to California. Starting the late 1800s, Japanese, Korean, and South Asian immigrants started arriving to the United States. In their new environments, artists were able to share, create, and express their vision and perspective of their new American lives. That being said, Japanese artist Chiura Obata became a very well known artist during this time. In 1903, Obata left for the United States, where he eventually arrived in Seattle, slowly finding his way to San Francisco, where he found a job as a domestic servant in a household, getting paid $1.50 per week. Overtime, Obtata was able to earn his living in California as an illustrator for different newspapers. By the next twenty years, he soon reaches about 3000 illustrations and countless cover designs.

By the year 1920, Obata sent a majority of his time painting landscapes throughout California, and becoming the co-founder of the East West Art Society in San Francisco. In the following years Obata began getting a lot more recognition for his work through various woodblocks. One of his most famous pieces, “El Capitan, Yosemite,” shows a world famous landmark in California. In the art piece, Obata uses a total of three colors (blue, black, and yellow) to which they all contrast one another nicely. Areas that are showing nature such as trees, are shown in a darker color, while the landmark itself is in a yellow. Shadows are portrayed throughout the image by the color blue. “Monterey Coast” is another very well-known piece by Chiura Obata. It is clear that Obata uses a lot of his prior Japanese art skills throughout this piece, shown through the trees and hills in the back. We are able to see brush strokes throughout this piece, specifically seen in the sand, clouds, and rocks.


Updated: Dec 12, 2023
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Asian American Who Became an Artist. (2021, Dec 09). Retrieved from

Asian American Who Became an Artist essay
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