1948 was the first year in which Zao Wou-Ki went to Paris to study French and wander around museums. With the advent of 1949, he resumed his creation,but because he wished to fully dedicate himself to the study of Western art he deliberately took leave of Chinese ink and wash painting. Before he once again started creating with oils, however, he happened by chance upon Desjobert’s studio, where he made prints in 1941. To save money, Zao Wou-Ki initially used only black, later employing a mere three colours to create his prints,and even deliberately diluting the ink. This printmaking experience provided two important inspirations for Zao Wou-Ki’s subsequent oil creations: one was to limit the application of colour, while the other was to render Chinese ink wash effects.
In Paris, Zao refused to embark upon the shortcut of pandering to those Westerners enamored of Chinese ink painting. The Chinese culture that had surrounded him for almost 30 years nevertheless formed a major part of his art. As he put it:
It is thus evident that Zao Wou-Ki had engaged in a profound study of traditional Chinese culture, one which permeated, transformed and corresponded with Western formalism to produce modern oils richly replete with implications of Tang and Song dynasty mountains-and-water landscapes. The limited colour application (Chinese monochrome aesthetics) and ink and wash rendering effects are both aesthetics of the traditional Chinese art experience handed down over many centuries.
The five hues of ink painting develop into limited-colour oil paintings.
The Chinese monochrome aesthetic traces a lengthy provenance, and is visible on such art forms as porcelain vessels and painting and calligraphy: Song dynasty porcelains have a single simple glaze, and ink and wash paintings, by controlling the proportions of water and ink, depict different objects through subtle variations in hue. In the early 20th century, however, modern Western art introduced colour as a means of generating space and, whether in the case of Matisse or Rothko proceeding from a different starting point, both explored the potential of minimalist quantities - even the use of a single colour on the canvas - to structure a space. This deliberate limiting of the colour application and the monochrome aesthetic developed during the Song dynasty (960-1279) to address this element of colour at different levels; with this method of structuring space through the use of colour converging with the mode in Chinese calligraphy and painting of treatment by leaving blank spaces, that is to say the single colour of the paper itself became the background to create a space in the imagination, and this chimes well with modern aesthetics.
From the early 1950s,whether in the case of his linear still lifes, Klee period,or the Oracle Bone series, as well as the full abstract creation of the 1960s, Zao Wou-Ki completes all works using about three colours,such as: black-white-yellow, red-orange-black, blue-white-black, green-yellow-black, and grey-black-white. The white is used mostly for shading purposes, while the black depicts lines. Works often use the same colour groupings, but in differing proportions of creation,and Zao seems to be exploring the visual complexity able to be created with minimal colours. 1961’s 15.6.61 (Lot 26), which is a creation in blue-grey-black-white,seems a continuation of 1954’s Paris Sky from the Oracle Bone series. Although it is of minimal colour, yet the varying hues produced by the rendering effects induce a birth of colour that, alongside adjacent colours, causes the light to change in a way that cannot be fully captured.
The 1950-era Paris Sky is charged with a rustic simplicity redolent of symbols of ancient civilization, which develop into such details as the surging, agitated colour patches and heroic, unrestrained lines. These bounteous, energetic lines ...
"Although the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist, I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China it has affirmed itself as my deeper personality. In my recent paintings, this is expressed in an innate manner. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris I owe this return to my deepest origins".
“Who is aware of the amount of time that I have spent to listen and digest artists such as Cezanne and Matisse, but when I looked back in search of our tradition, I ended up realizing that paintings from the Tang and Song dynasties are the most beautiful. It took me a total of five decades to come to this realization!”
The use of beautiful monochrome palette can be traced far back to Chinese ancient history, as can be seen in its porcelains, paintings, and calligraphy. The unique monochrome glazes of the Song Dynasty porcelains and paintings reflect the Chinese ability to depict various forms through 'the five colours of ink,' which refers to its subtle monochromatic shadings (Fig.1). And at the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of shaping space by means of colour appeared in modern Western art—artists as diverse as Matisse and Rothko both explored, with their own approaches, the possibilities of establishing space with very small amount of colour on canvas, or even with completely monochromatic schemes. At a different level, the same use of colour was also an issue in Chinese art, where the aesthetics of monochromatic painting had been developing since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Furthermore, the use of colour to establish space is not too distant from the way in which Chinese painting and calligraphy employ empty space to achieve similar effects. The way in which they produced imaginary space by employing the monochrome background of the paper corresponds with the similar effects in our modern aesthetics.
to create the 'rhythms of solid forms and empty spaces,' 'constant motion,' and 'a wonderful balance between lightness and weight.' He said, 'I want to paint what cannot be seen: the breath of life, the wind, the various forms life can take, the birth of colors, and the way they merge.'
ZaoWou-ki, in fact, was fully aware of the differences between his own abstract art and that of Western artists. He once commented on what he learned from the Chinese traditions: 'I love Mi Fu's arrangement of his space, and the way Ni Yunlin (1301-1374) handled the open, uncrowded spaces of his paintings. This is where Chinese landscape paintings differ from Western oils. A lot of areas in my paintings may look empty, but oils are not like ink-wash--they don't spread that easily, so I actually spend much more time on these seemingly empty spaces than on the solid forms of my paintings. In Chinese painting, solid forms and empty spaces have a rhythm, constantly in motion as each pushes at the other, giving the pictorial space a wonderful balance between lightness and weight. This was an area where I really gained insights from our tradition. If you say my painting is different from most Western painters, it probably has to do with my concepts about how to handle space.' Put simply, ZaoWou-ki's handling of space borrows characteristics of Chinese ink-wash paintings.
French art critic Daniel Marchesseau once said that ZaoWou-Ki's painting is the "integration of two world uniques", that is to say of a "Paris Chinese, a Chinese Chinese". Most view ZaoWou-Ki as a Chinese Western painter, but in fact ZaoWou-Ki's Chinese culture was what enabled him to successfully bridge Chinese and Western aesthetics, and thus create novel abstract painting.