Zhang Yunyao graduated from the Shanghai Normal University Oil Painting Department in 2007. In 2013 he sojourned in Scotland as the Glennfiddich artist-in-residence, and became fascinated by the element of texture in material and its great diversity and possibilities. During his career Zhang has experimented with materials as diverse as pasteboard, stainless steel, and leather. But it was only following different types of experimentation and exploration that in 2011 he discovered felt, one material that has been put to such a wide variety of uses, and proceeded to develop an independent series of works based on it. Felt is light and not absorptive; it is also not easily permeable, so liquid pigments meet little resistance on its surface, often spreading without control and in unpredictable ways. To reduce the degree of unpredictability and return to the foundation of art in the elements of line and form, Zhang has attempted to eliminate the 'liquid' element, using more easily controllable materials such as graphite, charcoal pencil, and COYC (sketch rods). He found that when applied to felt, the particles of these mediums would not drift or spread, and in the process of rubbing them back and forth or 'grinding' them in, they would penetrate into the deepest texture of the fabric. This process, however, requires continual applications back and forth across the felt, and is time-consuming and physically taxing. At the end of a session Zhang would find his nostrils layered with black dust and fibers that had flown up from the felt. But the result of these struggles between the artist's body and his materials has been his ability to create the sense of a moment of time suspended in eternity.
Due to the inherently deep tones of graphite and charcoal, and the fact that sketch rods produce only dark tones, Zhang's felt artworks are all basically black and white, except for a few where pastel is used. In keeping with the character of his personal creativity, artwork is presented as a clean, sober worlds on easel. His interests the philosophical air of works in black and white derives from the love for the films of Hitchcock, and Pasolini; he infuses painted scenes with a strong sense of the cinematic. The First Mourning is charcoal on felt, measures over two meters long, and takes its subject directly from a work of the same name by William-Adolphe Bougeureau, a French academic painter. Among Zhang's series of works on felt, Mourning is rare as it projects such grandeur and gesture of movement.
The First Mourning takes its theme from the Old Testament account of Adam and Eve, who discover that their son Cain has killed his brother Abel, and depicts a moment in which the two hold their dead son's body. Bougeureau's version employs the clean, calm lines and colors of Neoclassicism in depicting the grief of that destructive brotherly relationship; what he communicates visually to the viewer is directly experiential. Zhang Yunyao adopts the same stable triangular composition, but filters out all of its color. The effect is as if, in the graduated tones from the far distance at the horizon to the central figures in the foreground, a red filter has been employed to produce an almost total field of blackness; it is just possible, however, to make out the lone plant that edges out from a corner of the stone, a detail the artist has decided should remain expressed. The indelible shadows of the black and white tones, however, heighten with further clarity the musculature of Zhang's subjects, with no loss of expressive force, while the multilayered, shaded contours of the foreground echo the heavy black clouds of the sky to affect the viewer at the deepest levels.
The felt’s materiality adds a rounded haziness to the work, an effect much like the natural transitions between black and white areas in gelatin silver prints. Because felt is low in reflectivity, it can absorb great amounts of light and maximizes the expression of shadowy areas. In a black and white painting, the creator's intent and underlying thought often seem relatively uncomplicated, yet at the same time, may be even more heavily charged with abstract symbolism in a way that provides abundant room for the imagination. Zhang Yunyao avails himself of the texture of his felt material, and through his realist painting style achieves a work with strong unity; even a viewer unaware of the underlying Biblical allusion will sense the powerful anguish behind The First Mourning. It is an anguish of both peace and intense conflict, in a work that conveys its understanding simultaneously through both visual and textural means.