Mei Selvage : A Brief Comparison of Asian and Western Art

Break_Through 10 x 8 acrylic on canvas
Mei Selvage (

Asian and Western art have many differences because they are rooted in their own cultural backdrops. Thus, it is challenging for Westerners to interpret Asian art. As a contemporary Chinese artist, I will use my painting experience as an example to share some key differences between Asian and Western art in a general sense. The main differences include an artist’s relationship with the painting objects, the background, and the focus.
Let us use the flower painting as an example. The flower painting is typically categorized in the “still life” theme in Western art. Western artists often paint what is literally in front of their eyes. This means to paint blossoms in a vase on a table and the immediate surrounding such as a tablecloth and wallpapers. Indeed, everything is “still” and prearranged. Artists are observing the objects as bystanders. Nothing is wrong with this approach.
Meanwhile, Chinese artists would argue that there is nothing “still” about flowers. Art is foremost a means to cultivate the mind and manifest the inner spirit of the artist. Therefore, learning flower painting is never as simple as mastering techniques. By painting archetypal flowers, Chinese artists are embodying and expressing feelings represented by these flowers, such as a lotus for purity, a plum for perseverance, or a peony for abundance. Flowers, the artist, and the painting are essentially one entity from the Chinese perspective.Magnolia Spring.12 x 12 acrylic on canvas JPG
Constraints are another hallmark of Chinese painting. This is seen in the economy of colors, brush strokes, and large proportion of negative space. In comparison, the background — especially shadows — in Western art offers illusory life-like effects, but they can also reduce viewers’ participation when a painting is full of details. Thus, Pablo Picasso purposely painted “Boy Leading a Horse” with a minimalist landscape background to highlight the archetypal figures in the foreground. These types of paintings reveal a universal truth: the hidden reality is more important than the perceived reality, and the archetypes are more revealing than particular snapshots.
In my flower paintings, I focus on lyrics and rhythms instead of light effects. For example, the darkened overlapping among leaves and dancing leaves conveys a sense of lyrics and rhythms. Moreover, my paintings’ backgrounds are often unapologetically minimalist yet engaging. Sometimes, less is more.
Without a doubt, my creative inspirations originate from Chinese art, literature, and philosophies. They add an intentional Chinese accent to my paintings. At the same time, my paintings do not speak pure Chinese because I use Western art mediums such as acrylic, oil and canvas, which can connect to a Western audience more easily. Essentially, my paintings aim to translate the East to the West, ancient to contemporary.

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