Serial pictures give old art form a new lease of life

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Li Chen's representative work, The Border Town, is adapted from a novel by Shen Congwen. [Photo provided to China Daily]

In 2008, Li brought up the idea of easel serial pictures. He thinks that as digital media changes people's reading habits, traditional Chinese picture books are falling behind. Easel serial pictures, however, can be enjoyed at exhibitions, just like other types of painting.

Unlike Li's childhood favorites, including Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Railroad Guerrilla, easel serial pictures today use more academic skills, like sketching and coloring. Easel serial pictures use a fine-painting language and literary aesthetics, which are deeply rooted in Li's works. A famous series of pictures is his Border Town, adapted from a novel of the same name by Chinese writer Shen Congwen (1902-88).

For Li, the best part of serial painting lies in the creation process.

For example, when he was drawing stories about the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45), in order to draw Japanese airplanes, he had to dig historical records on the type of airplanes and eventually bought an airplane model from an overseas website.

It took Li three years and seven visits to Xiangxi Tujia and Miao autonomous prefecture in western Hunan province to draw serial pictures for Border Town. Once, he saw a funeral wreath carried by a motorcycle, and that happened to be for the funeral of an ethnic Miao man. Renting a farm tricycle without headlights, Li went to visit the Miao village on twisty mountain road with a flashlight at night. He was able to illustrate the whole process of burial in this way.

Li believes in the future of Chinese serial pictures and illustrations, as this is "a good time" when the country is eager to promote its culture.

He also believes in his students at the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts, who are born in the age of cartoons and comics.

"Serial pictures not only explain literature, but they go beyond the text. It's a smart kind of painting," says Li.

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