Born in China’s Hebei province but raised in Beijing, 35 year-old Fresco artist Liu Zheng is the son of a fashion designer and a musician. His father played French horn in a military band. Liu says although he loves music, he didn’t want to follow his dad’s path.
Instead, he stubbornly repeated his last year of secondary school four times to finally score enough marks to win a place in an oil painting program at a university in China’s capital. Upon graduation, he was handed a stable government job but later opted for a trowel and a paint brush.
Before Liu Zheng apprenticed with a Fresco Shifu (master), he studied oil painting and sculpture for five years each. After almost a decade of apprenticeship in a relatively secluded environment, his master thinks Liu is finally ready to break out.
Since Liu’s debut in 2016, he has now toured almost 10 cities in China. Deals with Mercedes Germany and art galleries in Tokyo, New York and European cities are also lining up. Liu recalls a meeting with a great Italian Fresco artist, Antonio De Vito, also the curator of The Divine Michelangelo Art Exhibition at Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest.
He says Antonio De Vito who is in his sixties was very surprised to find out that in the far east a young Chinese man is practising Fresco, a mural painting technique whose Renascence hayday is long gone. Fewer artists are learning it now because of its complicated technique and intense creation process.
The techniques of Fresco that Liu employs can be traced back to the Renascence, especially regarding painting on wet plaster walls and the technique of “strappo,” a way of detaching the paint from the wall and then transferring it onto a linen or a more transportable surface for preservation purposes.
Liu Zheng’s Fresco collection consists largely of imitation paintings of those from Dunhuang, Yonglegong and Fahaisi, all of which serve as a lens into ancient religions and cultures. The originals are now scattered all over the world. Liu says he signs on each of his imitations to make sure that people know they are not the original. Despite that, when being sent abroad, one of his pieces was still stopped by customs officials once due to its close resemblance to the original.
Art Zeen met with Liu Zheng to chat about why he says Fresco has “chosen” him and what it takes to create art.
Art Zeen: What made you decide to take up Fresco?
Liu Zheng: It was love at first sight. The vintage feel and the mottled paint effect of Fresco seems mysterious to me as if it has endured the test of time. I like history. So, when my master offered to take me as his one and only apprentice, I gladly said yes. Little did I know what the training would entail. I checked in every single day for a year but didn’t even get to hold a brush in my first year there. The Fresco workshop was an approximately 700 square meter space renovated from an abandoned factory. My job was to sweep the floor, dusting off the residuals of plaster, day after day. I was told it was meant to smooth out my rough edges. And it did.
Art Zeen: What do you consider to be the biggest challenge in creating a Fresco artwork?
Liu Zheng: It demands a lot of energy. I make my own plaster from scratch. I dug a hole in my studio and let the lime burn for six months. Each day I’d check to ensure the temperature is kept at 900 degrees Celsius to achieve the optimum grey paste. I would beg friends to help me source authentic quality mineral pigments such as corals, pearls and other precious stones from everywhere. I then grind them into usable powder paints. Either myself or some people I hired will search and mine refined river sand that is to be mixed with the paste. This is just the preparation before I even pick up the brush. The longest I had gone without a break was four days and four nights. You must apply paints before the plaster dries out otherwise the paints won’t be absorbed into the wall or become a part of it.
Art Zeen: What influence do you hope to have with your art?
Liu Zheng: Art is to pose questions. Artists should be unrestrained in thoughts. I can only be responsible for my own work. I can only subjectively inject my thoughts and feelings into my art. It is a process of self-realization. How others interpret my work will not influence how I create. Everyone should have their own interpretation. If we are all the same, it would be too scary. But to those who see my art, I would not mind hearing what their stories are. I believe in the power of individual stories. If you place something that is highly personal and individual in a group setting or even a mob, the shine of individuality will be subdued.
Art Zeen: And what is the next step for you?
Liu Zheng: To create more original work.