Artist Talks: David Zheng

This week, the Yale Herald sat down with David Zheng, GH ’22, an undergraduate artist who recreates oil paintings of Old Masters and creates 3D-printed replicas of ancient artifacts that he uses to inspire his original work.

Yale Herald:  On your Instagram, I noticed that you painstakingly recreate art-historically significant paintings. How does this reflect your relationship to art, and what is the meaning behind it? I’m referring to your reproductions of Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait and Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

David Zheng:  A huge part of my passion has been to create reproductions, either through sculptures or paintings. In my process of copying Vermeer, Caravaggio, and Rembrant, I learned a lot about how they see subjects, how they see the light, and how they use their brush strokes. All of that to me is just a lesson on how to use paint—it’s an informative free lesson.

We have the amazing resource of the YUAG [Yale University Art Gallery]. I can look close and see how [the artists] render each layer. […] I try to intentionally vary the scope of the masters I’ve imitated. Van Gogh is much different from Vermeer, but from that copy of Van Gogh, I was able to create some new Expressionist paintings and evolve into more Expressionist, Impressionist, and Romantic paintings.

YH:  As both a painter and photographer, what role does verisimilitude play in your realistic paintings? When you opt to paint a subject matter, what qualities does paint offer that makes it a more favorable medium than photography?  

DZ:  That is a great question…I’m trying to present a painting that reveals the painstaking work involved in developing each moment and planning each stage. Each color was thought out. When I’m taking photographs, there are very, very few staged photos. I don’t do too much portraiture with perfect lighting. I’m concerned with capturing the moment—the spontaneity of time. That’s the greatness with photography. I’m able to capture the spontaneous emotions that people present, spectacular moments of nature when light shines on the building, on an animal in that particular way. I’m obsessed with that part of photography, with how you can capture moments where people are overly emotional. And so, in painting…occasionally, I like a moment of serenity. Even for my portraiture, I like to think there is some moment of stillness—that you look at that painting and think this represents a longer, more eternal feeling, or a longer lasting moment, than photography, which is spontaneous.

YH:  It’s like Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the “decisive moment.” I stumbled upon a process video of one of your most recent paintings, in which you use a Vermeer style underdrawing to depict your friend Mary as the Virgin Mary. How do you locate yourself as an artist in dialogue with other artists temporally? 

DZ:  I’ve been described by many friends and old teachers as an 80-year-old man. Part of that shows in my paintings. I like to situate myself as an Old Master painter. I don’t know why, but there is something about the skills, the rendering, of Holbein, Vermeer, or even Rembrandt. In the case of Mary, the painting is deeply influenced by Holbein and Boticelli. I try to learn how [these artists] pose their subjects, the kinds of emotions they were trying to convey. I find great joy in seeing older style paintings—that’s influenced by my upbringing. I was copying and studying a lot of the Old Master paintings as I was trying to learn art. But all of that said…I sometimes feel myself stuck in that period and location. So, I intentionally tried to diversify my work in both time and location. Right now, I’m working on a Romantic landscape painting, and I want to depict the horrors of fires in nature, inspired by the horrors of fires in Australia. I’ve studied African masks, Islamic geometry, and Chinese drawings.

YH:  What is something you hope to communicate through your art?

DZ:  My hope for my paintings, or any artwork I make, is to communicate beauty. 

I am from China—I grew up in China—and I find that there is a lot of social messaging right now in art, which is very admirable and important, but I don’t think that I have that capacity. So, what I like to present through my artworks is beauty. As a kid, I just found works by artists like Jacques-Louis David to be so stunning, even though I did not know who Napoleon was when I was when six or seven. I did not have any knowledge of these other cultures, but what I did know was that these artworks were just so extremely beautiful. I was intrigued by that [and wanted] to learn more about other cultures and explore other countries. When I have money, I hope to travel to more places.

The main theme of my artworks is for anyone to look at them and know that, even though there is a lot of conflict in this world, there are still some things that can really unite us. I think the main theme in art that some contemporary artists might be ignoring is how powerful beauty is, and how powerful the representation of a human figure is—and that’s something I wanted to express through my artwork.

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