Qiang Huang: Myth Buster

This Texas oil painter shatters multiple myths—including the notion that artists are myopic and single-minded. Qiang Huang helps workshop participants learn how to draw, paint, and sell their artwork using modern technology and traditional painting methods.

by Kim Carlton

Qiang Huang helped a student
understand how to measure elements
of a still life setup during his workshop
at the Artists Retreat & Learning Center,
in Magnolia, Texas.

Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” That’s not true anymore: we have Qiang Huang (pronounced “Chong Wong”), born and raised in China, now a proud American, and in him, East truly does meet West.

But that’s not all. Science also meets art, abstraction meets realism, and business meets pleasure in this oil painter’s work. In these belt-tightening times, Huang’s paintings have been selling like hotcakes, galleries are wooing him, and his workshops are full. Workshop attended one of his recent still life painting workshops to find out why.

In passing on his knowledge during a recent three-day event at the Artists Retreat & Learning Center, in Magnolia, Texas, Huang used a three-pronged approach. First, on the mornings of days one and two he delivered thorough PowerPoint presentations. He followed each of these sessions with a demo that illustrated the lessons he had just taught. Third, during the afternoon sessions he allowed the students to practice what he preached, and he took meticulous care to guide them, from designing the setup to signing the painting. On the third day, as a practical postscript, he taught a class about his online business techniques to show students how to establish an outlet for selling their work.

The first day’s PowerPoint presentation focused on composition. Huang emphasized that the subject of a still life is not the assorted items in the setup but rather the light. He explained different light effects, including spotlighting, silhouetting, and others, and he described the items being portrayed as “abstract light manipulators.” Huang explained that these pieces of the abstract whole must be strategically placed to allow the viewers to read the painting. They may read in a linear or curved direction; they may read fast or slow. The artist must decide these things during the planning stages of a painting. The abstract concept of the work must be fully formed, and the center of focus determined in advance for the piece to be a visual event and not “just a collection of artifacts.”

The second day’s lecture covered painting elements: drawing, value, color, edges, and brushwork. Drawing, the foundation of all representational art, requires an understanding of linear perspective, measurement and proportion, and structure and anatomy—plus a trained eye, according to Huang. He draws with simple, straight lines, mostly just marking boundaries. “You are not to render a copy of your setup,” instructed the artist. “The purpose of the drawing is placement.”

Value is the design tool that shows shapes through the contrast of light and dark. Huang encouraged his students to employ as few values as possible in order to keep the statement strong.

Huang spent a lot of time discussing the role of color in painting. The artist believes that a painting communicates better if it has a dominant color. Sometimes that dominant color may be what Huang calls a “noncolor”—a muted color—in which case it would support saturated colors at the center of focus. For color continuity, he uses hue sequencing to describe flow, such as the sequence of yellow to orange to red that follows the curve of an apple.

Huang advised a student on the
importance of the background’s
value and hue.

Huang prefers to use transparent colors for shadow and limits visible brushwork, applying the paint with large, flat synthetic brushes. He uses opaque colors for areas in the light, delivered with a bristle brush for pronounced texture.

Edges are an artist’s secret weapon for creating dynamic paintings. “Edges orchestrate the painting with priorities: Sharp edges draw attention, soft and lost edges show continuity,” he explained. Later, when he was monitoring the students’ painting progress, Huang often used his finger to brush a smudge between objects, smearing a hard edge. Students noted that one motion can transform a pedantic effort into a moody and dramatic work of art.

One of the defining aspects of Huang’s own paintings is his strong brushwork. “Use big brushes. Use a lot of paint,” he emphasized. “Use a palette knife to mix paint piles. Otherwise, you will be miserly and waste too much time mixing.” The stroke orientation controls the reading pace and creates abstract patterns, lending mood and energy to the surface. In conclusion he asserted, “Brushwork provides the power of the painting.”

Watching Huang set up to paint is like being backstage before an important production. He already knows what’s going to happen, but he collects himself and mentally rehearses, carefully orchestrating and thoroughly scrutinizing the still life setup. He stands back, then steps forward and drops a flower petal onto the foreground. He adjusts a stem, fiddles with the light.

For a demonstration at the Magnolia workshop, Huang clamped a blue filter to a spotlight that illuminated his setup at a 45-degree angle, then arranged another one for the spotlight on his canvas and palette. He chose blue so that students could see a light similar to north light. Huang does this in his own studio, as he usually paints at night. He discussed the impact different light temperatures will have on paintings. His paintings are generally warm, so cooler light provides a counterpoint and prevents the paintings from having a subtle blandness. He prefers a Philips 60-watt Natural Light Plus bulb for its cool light. Huang’s studio is dark except for those two spotlights. In the instructor’s workshops, there is also the light from a large projection screen that allows the audience to see a close-up view of his process and progress.

The instructor reminded a student to
think about the setup as a composition
framed by the limits of the painting

Huang explained that he likes to raise his still life display to eye level because he feels it has more visual stability that way. He avoids having a horizontal line travel uninterrupted across the canvas, saying that, “In a gallery situation, the viewers will glide right through your painting to the next one if there is nothing to stop the eye.” He arranged his tablecloth and articles accordingly.

The backdrop for the demo was a homemade device consisting of two pieces of plywood, hinged in the middle, and Huang draped fabric over the backdrop and the foreground. As is his custom, the light came from the top left, creating a shadow pattern that he says is the key design feature of the painting. “The objects are secondary to the shapes and colors, which I will manipulate for their shadow play and spectral interaction,” he said. “A painting is a piece of music in the spatial domain. The light and color at the foreground present a high-pitch melody, and the dark background provides a low-pitch bass.” One could almost hear the conductor tap his baton as the painting began.

Huang started by toning the canvas with his trademark dark—French ultramarine and burnt sienna (cool and warm)—the way he starts most paintings. He likes to set this tone in part to “destroy the devastating perfection of the white canvas. From then on, your canvas is always getting better and better.” To tone the surface, he applied undiluted paint, then wiped it down with a paper towel. Sometimes, he thins it with a tiny bit of turpentine, but this is kept to a minimum—even when it comes to cleaning his in-use brushes—because turpentine dries fast and makes the finish matte. Huang just wipes the brushes clean while he’s working and doesn’t use any medium.

At this point, Huang removed his glasses and squinted at the arrangement he was preparing to sketch. During the drawing stage, his quick, straight lines delineated large shapes only, following the light direction. He used a bristle brush and undiluted paint—the same mix he used for the tone. With a paper towel, he then wiped out his lights. Huang strives to have a “finished” painting at each stage, never overdeveloping any one spot before the rest. Once the drawing was satisfactory, Huang moved to the darks, blocking them in, still using only one neutral tone.

Next was the color. Since slavishly copying the scene is discouraged in his approach, Huang was not as concerned with the setup as with the painting. Color would be adjusted later if need be. Huang carefully mixed his darks, taking time to get them right. He kept a pile of his background color handy for integrating into his other colors for harmony. Pure white was reserved for the very end. At this stage, the painting was still fairly monochromatic, and the major design had been achieved with shapes and values.

The instructor picked up the brush to
demonstrate a point on a student’s

Huang usually works left to right, back to front. Most of the light area will be cooler than the dark, due to the coolness of the spotlight. He pointed out that this is usually reversed when painting en plein air, where the sunlight is warm and the blue sky is reflected into the cooler shadows. He began the lights in much the same way as he did the darks, carefully mixing colors, then applying them with large brushes at first, progressively downsizing as he got more detailed. Eventually, he donned his glasses again and got after the fine details with small sables. He warned his students, “Do not work on an area for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time. You will start adding too much detail. If you’ve spent 10 minutes, begin to look for another area to pay attention to. If you listen to your painting, it will tell you what it wants.”

To sculpt the shapes, the artist painted out of the boundary lines with the positive color, then cut back in with the negative color, pulling the wet darks into the body of the shadow. These soft and lost edges provided the underlying flow that one senses when looking at Huang’s artwork. He takes care to blur all lead-in edges around the borders of a painting to help the eye stay content in the body of the composition.

When working with the darks, Huang’s colors were already related, but when it came to the lights, he kept the colors protected, pure, and unpolluted. One careful stroke at a time, he sensitively shifted the temperature in the halftones and double-checked his edges. The final details were rendered with great care. “Very small shapes, such as apple stems, should show strong contrast,” he advised his students, “so take your time with them. Use a clean, dry brush to feather edges where needed.” For the highlight, he suggested using the opposite temperature, applied perpendicular to the surrounding strokes.

As the painting began to feel finished, he stepped back and began asking questions that the painting would answer. Huang’s counsel: “Once you get to the final stage, stop looking at your setup altogether, and just relate to your painting alone. The painting is your teacher.” The following queries spilled forth. “Are the reflections believable?” Huang asked. “Are the light effects consistent with the lighting? Maybe a dark accent is needed. Check to ensure against any color appearing too isolated. If there is some discrepancy found there, add a color echo or some background color to bring harmony. Look for design elements that might be repeated. This is your rhythm and melody. Double-check that the center of focus remains the star of the show. The most important thing to know is when to stop.” The artist announced that he would wait until the painting was completely dry before signing his name.

Students in Huang’s workshops were
provided with much information about
how color and light affect the success
of a painting

Huang has a rapacious curiosity and a highly developed work ethic. As a child, he spent a lot of time drawing, and admiring his artist uncle, but as a student he pursued science, viewing it as a practical course of study. Now a doctor of physics, his extensive education affords him an unusually thorough understanding of light and color. He works full time as an optical engineer—a scientist of light, working with holography and optical systems. This was enough until about 10 years ago, when Huang attended an art symposium in Austin, Texas, the town he now calls home. There he watched slide after slide of popular works of art, while within him grew the conviction that he could create such art himself and maybe even surpass it. The sleeping artist was awakened.

Huang began directing his own art education, attending many workshops taught by such teachers as David Leffel, Sherrie McGraw, Gregg Kreutz, Jean Chambers, and others, practicing what he learned whenever time allowed. Although primarily a still life painter, Huang was not originally drawn to still life as a genre. His feeling was that a still life was something that was “not quite dead; it is still life!” That changed when he met David Leffel. Leffel taught him to paint the passage of light instead of portraits of objects. In the properties and effects of light, engineering and painting suddenly found common ground. This idea was exciting to Huang. It has since been a bridge connecting his scientific mind to his artistic heart. The concept leads him to tinker with color theory, to clamp tinted filters to his studio lamps, and to experiment with setups that flow in spectral sequence (an orange placed between a red apple and a yellow-green pear, for example).

Upcoming Workshops

Qiang Huang has the following workshops
scheduled for the remainder of 2009:

Hot Art in a Cool Space
June 18 through 20
Lacombe, Louisiana
Contact: Barbara Shaw,

Three-Day Still Life
Painting Workshop

August 14 through 16
Granbury, Texas
Contact: Theresa Navan,
Artistic Retreat Center,
Iron Horse Inn,

Three-Day Still Life
Painting Workshop

September 18 through 20
Austin, Texas
Contact: Karen Wilkerson,

As his love of fine art increased, he made more and more time for it. Huang’s weekday looks like this: He works 9 to 5 as a physicist, and when he gets home he has dinner and visits with his wife and son. Then from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. he paints. The next morning, he photographs his painting before going to work. At lunchtime, he uploads the image onto eBay and manages his blog, his many memberships, his sales, and the associated administrative work. He packages and mails paintings within a couple of days of the sale—as soon as the paint is dry enough to ship.

His deepening affair with art has produced a desire to share what he has learned, both the business strategy and his approach to painting. His very example teaches that a disciplined life rewards you with the freedom to create and enables your creations to be seen. One pearl of workshop wisdom he now passes on to his students is to allow themselves to be in the process of creativity. He advises students to sincerely follow an instructor’s teaching during a workshop by suspending their own style but says that they should not remain followers after the workshop. Once home, participants should incorporate into their style only that which advances their art.

Huang’s own style is bold and strong. Although he completes a small painting in about two hours, he does not paint quickly; rather, he paints intentionally. He will consider his subject carefully, mix an accurate color, and then place a single stroke. If it’s inaccurate he will scrape it, but he will not paint over it. This way his colors stay strong and pure, and his brushstrokes are gainfully employed in the composition. He says that smearing thin paint around the canvas is “staining, not painting.”

Huang believes that there are three levels of artistry: craftsmanship, aesthetics, and communication. In his workshops he tries to teach all three, to enable his students to have as rich a relationship as possible with their art and their public. He sees craftsmanship as the language with which the artist speaks, so it must be mastered first. The painter will use this language to interpret what he has witnessed aesthetically. Believing that artists possess a unique vision and appreciation for beauty, he teaches that it is their responsibility to convey their vision to canvas, not to make verbatim copies of what is seen. The highest level of art, he believes, is communication. If the artist’s painting causes ambivalence or confusion, the effort has not achieved its highest possible purpose. If, however, the painting is able to touch the viewer and communicate, the work has achieved transcendence. As he delivered his PowerPoint presentations, as he demonstrated his painting style, as he tutored his charges while they painted, Huang was meeting artists at their current level and helping them to the next.

To see some of Qiang Huang's finished paintings, click here.

About the Artist

Qiang Huang was raised and educated in China. He is a member of Oil Painters of America, Plein Air Austin, Daily Painters Gallery (www.dailypainters.com), and Daily Paintworks (www.dailypaintworks.com). The artist is represented in Texas by Riverbend Fine Art, in Marble Falls; Galerie Kornye West, in Fort Worth; and InSight Gallery, in Fredericksburg; as well as Fountainside Gallery, in Wilmington, North Carolina. Visit his blog at www.qiang-huang.blogspot.com or his website at www.qhart.com.

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About BrianRiley

Brian Riley is the managing editor for the American Artist family of titles (American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing & Workshop) and has been part of the AA team since 2003. He first became interested in art as a child, specifically drawing, but drifted away from the visual arts as he grew older, gravitating towards writing while in college. His position at AA has offered him the opportunity to reinvigorate his early passion and continue his education.  

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