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Natural Wonder – Yu Chengyou

An air of serenity runs through Yu Chengyou’s prints, found in each      delicate stroke and curve. His wonderful woodcuts show his vision of the Chinese landscape and the natural world with effortless grace.Words by Jake Kennedy, article in issue11 of Pressing Matters.


“For decades I’ve spent a lot of time every year sketching and collecting materials – I’ve almost walked through all the mountains, rivers and lakes in HeiLongJiang Provence.” YU CHENGYOU

Pressing Matters first encountered the peaceful serenity of Yu Chengyou’s prints via the ArtChina stand at Woolwich Print Fair in 2019. Their sense of space, contemplation and clear respect of the natural world was evident from every fern, blade of grass or cloud, truly taking the viewer to somewhere more relaxed – certainly more so than the busy print fair! Yu explains that this love of nature began way back in primary school, and with a simple act of mimicry. “I started out trying to imitate popular folk New Year prints,” he recalls. “The themes were always flowers and birds, vegetables and fruits and insects,” he adds.

Soon, Yu’s experimentation found him out in the country with his pad. “When I graduated from junior high school in early 1969 – during the cultural revolution – I became an ‘educated urban youth’ – I was 16 at the time – and went to work in the countryside and mountain areas. Together with others from Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and other cities who loved art, we drew everyday, but it was mainly portraits, life sketches – but without missing a single day. This practice built the foundation for me in the future… but the inspiration of my early creations mostly came from work and life in Beidahuang – every blade of grass and tree, the local folk and each passing season.”

Printmaking soon followed on from the sketching and observation in this artist’s life. “I studied printmaking in the early 1980s. I attended a course taught by Mr. Hao Boyi, one of the founders of Beidahuang printmaking,” Yu recalls. “During six years from 1982 to 1987, I spent about  three months every year learning printmaking. Beidahuang has been a most influential creative group in China since it was founded in 1958, incorporating a complete scheme of systematic printmaking research and teaching. Chinese critics call it the ‘real academy of printmaking” and it’s trained many dozens of outstanding Chinese contemporary printmakers. in 1978 I started to apply some of my landscape sketches on plywood and transfer into black and white woodcuts. So essentially my formal printmaking practice began in 1982, after I joined a BeiDaHuang printmaking class.”

Yu’s technique goes on at length to describe his printing process, forming the backbone of his output, you feel. “First, I have to select images from collected materials – which are mostly my own photos – sometimes using a few, or at other times dozens of them, and I decide how to create a particular print,” he explains. “Then I’ll draw several full size complete pictures to choose the best composition of a print, and this process will take five to seven days. Next, I transfer the drawing to the plywood, which is specially used by the printmakers. Generally speaking I need four to five blocks for a print, and each is cut separately. It takes 10 to 20 days to complete a colour print. I take about three or four attempts to get a good result, and then I’m ready to print.”

“I like to be quiet, and that’s maybe because of my personality.I try to keep my work peaceful.” YU CHENGYOU

Indeed, most of Yu’s prints are really just the result of a lengthy, involved process, with ideas set in place long before he even goes anywhere near the printroom. “For decades I’ve spent a lot of time every year sketching and collecting materials. I’ve almost walked through all the mountains, rivers and lakes in HeiLongJiang Provence, and Heilongjiang covers 473,000 square kilometres! I’ve taken over 200,000 photos. Except for Tibet, Qinghai and Xinjiang, I’ve been to almost all of the other places in China to sketch or paint nature,” he says. “I like to be quiet, and that’s maybe because of my personality. I try to keep my work peaceful. I use simple language and try to express things sincerely, to calmly communicate with the viewer. I think this kind of communication is more equal. To naturally express something is the artistic concept I’ve been pursuing in my works,” he adds.

Again, Yu believes it comes down to a harmony in both the work and the nature he is representing. “A human is a part of nature. Humans should live in harmony with animals and plants in nature. I’ve always tried to express this harmony in my work, the feeling I’ve experienced after I’ve traveled to remote areas many times in the north of China – I want to capture this peaceful sensation with wildlife such as the reindeer and others.”

Another charming element of Yu’s prints is an often unusually high horizon line, allowing viewers to place themselves right in amongst the landscape of the pieces. “This allows for many expressive objects to be added into a work, but also
provides a much richer detail and a more completed narrative. The composition is based on the subject matter of the idea. However, for some of my other works I’ve done in recent years, I’ve lowered the horizon,” he says.

Yu’s work has been brought to the wider world by the ArtChina initiative, as mentioned earlier. “I have to thank Ms. Aimin Liu and ArtChina as she’s introduced my work to the UK since 2011, he says. “ArtChina show my works several times through its exhibitions in UK each year. However, in 2018 my biggest solo show, titled Clean Journey – Yu Chengyou’s Print Works, opened at the China print museum in ShenZhen.” Yu also had a touring exhibition that traveled the country in 2019 and will continue this year.

For now though, any remaining time left in 2020 is an opportunity for personal development for Yu, he hopes. “I plan to complete the construction of my personal studio and strive to build a better printmaking studio in China which will include all types of printmaking and the first class presses,” he says. “I’m also planning to create a series of prints to present the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter using oil paints, watercolor and ink as a simultaneous creation, and I plan to print 60 of each edition,” he concludes.

Since 2002, Yu Chengyou has been working as a professional printmaker in Heilongjiang Printmaking Institute and is a member of China Artists’ Association. His print ‘The Night of a Small Village’ won silver medal at the 6th National Print Exhibition.
His prints are widely collected in China and abroad.

Special thanks to Aimin Liu from Art China for her invaluable help with this article.


News from Yu Chengyou in 2020

Chinese New Year will start on 25th January this year, different from most of the countries in the Western world. This is the Year of Mouse in China, as illustrated in the drawing by our young artist Zhu KeCheng below.

I recently caught up with one of our all time favourite artists, Yu Chengyou, to see how he is doing and what he is planing for the new year. I found out that he is staying in Hainan during the winter season, one of the sunniest islands in southern China, then he will return to his home town, Harbin, which is the coldest province in Northern China. I like his living plan.

‘Clear Journey’, 100cm x160cm, water-based woodcut, 2015

Mr Yu’s solo show ‘Clean Journey’ recently toured to JiangShu Huaian Art Museum. The exhibition started from 31st Dec. and runs through to 15th Jan. The exhibition includes his recent prints, the size of which has increased hugely, even up to 2m. This is evidently to demonstrate his artistic strength and ability in his profession. The car series and farmer’s  series give the viewer maximum visual impressions.

‘East Red 75’  120cm x 160cm, water-based woodcut, 2014

“Distant . Sunshine” 90cm x 150cm, water-based Woodcut, 2015

Works like ‘East Red’ Tractor and ‘Combine’ Harvester show the progress and the development in our national technology and modernisation. By applying photo surrealism to represent those big machines’ construction, texture, colour, and the micro-details inside is an extreme challenge with the woodcut technique.

Mr Yu has retired from the institute, often invited back to consult young artists in institutes across the country. As shown in the above photo, Mr Yu was recently in the Hunan Changling Printmaking Institute teaching as a visiting Professor.

Mr Yu also released another good piece of news to me: that he has been appointed as one of only 26 researchers across the country selected to join the printmaking department at the China National Academy of Painting in Beijing.

I admire Mr Yu’s artistic creation and his enduring printmaking practice. I also applaud him for his latest achievement and it is delightful to see his art widely shown nationwide.

Words by Aimin Liu.


Yu Chengyou: A Solo Exhibition in Shenzhen

One of our talented Chinese artists, Yu Chengyou’s images draw upon natural surroundings, from wildlife to human life, places that, through the simplicity of his style, seem tranquil and uncluttered. His prints offer quite a contrast to the metropolises’ of China; they depict places that bring solace from the maddening crowds and industrialisation of China today. His work promises something better for us, a calmer world to strive for.

We’re pleased to share a few images from his solo printmaking exhibition titled “Clean Journey” that was shown at the end of 2018in Shenzhen, China. Below are the images from the exhibition catalogue and a few words from the artist himself, talking about his artistic journey.

My Artistic Journey: 

I was born in the rural area of ​​Shandong, China. My father had participated in the local army during the Second World War against Japan. Later, I learned that such a unit was called an “armed force.” My father has always been a cadre in the village. During the Great Leap Forward in 1958, the village was already starved to death. He was afraid of taking responsibility and left his hometown to come to Heilongjiang Coal Mine. For this reason, he was identified  as a “Out Party Member” during the Culture Revolution. My mother gave birth to me when she was 40. When I was seven years old, I went to the mine with my mother to reunite with my father.

Photo: Yu Chengyou was in Guanlan Printmaking Centre at ShenZhen

Although my father didn’t have higher education, he had beautiful handwriting. My mother painted and did various embroideries. She also specialised in the traditional moulding by using Shandong flavours. I later learned that this kind of craft is called “flavouring moulding.” If I have a little talent for painting, maybe it was inherited from my parents.

When I graduated from high school in 1969, I got caught up in the movement which called on graduates to go to China’s countryside to work. I went to the Great Northern Wilderness (in Northeast China), which was thousands of miles away from home. Since I was a child, I liked drawing. After I went to the countryside, I started drawing with some older educated youth who came from some of the big cities. At that time, we were very hardworking. After work, we sketched and draw portraits. In 1973, because of my interest in drawing, I became an art teacher in the army. In this way, there was no need to work early in the field in the morning, and there was plenty of time to draw. In 1977, I was transferred from the regiment to the division and had the opportunity to draw together with some of the educated young artists, such as Hou Guoliang and Lu Jingren. I learned a lot from them, and practiced everything from sketches to oil paintings to comics.I rapidly improved my artistic skills. Later, Hou Guoliang and Lu Jingren left the district, and I transferred to the division club and became a full-time art worker.

Later, I participated in the Jiamusi Agricultural Reclamation Bureau and took a printmaking class tutored by Mr. Hao Boyi; that was the beginning of my focus on printmaking.

I stayed in the Great Northern Wilderness for 18 years. At that time, I was very naive. I didn’t want anything besides the time to focus on my art. Now that I think about it, I really appreciated that period whenI worked hard to learn how to make art.
More than 30 years have passed, and I have always loved printmaking; the experience of this is only known to myself.

I have always believed that art is inseparable from life. I have traveled all over Heilongjiang in these years and I go to countryside two or three times a year to experience  quieter life and collect materials. Every time, I gain a lot; in addition to accumulating a lot of creative materials, I also let my body and mind wander into nature, to help me to maintain a peaceful, simple state.

My requirements for my own creativity and works are not high, but I approach it as seriously and sincerely as possible. I don’t like bluffing, and so it is the same in my work.

In recent years, I have seen some works that have awed me and some that have confused me. I always feel that I am out of date, but I have an open-minded attitude. Printmaking is my speciality and I am continuing to work in this field. I will keep going, step by step…



Read more about Yu Chengyou and see the prints we have for sale from this artist on the ArtChina UK website.