Under the Light of an Oil Lamp [Part 1]

Reflections On Arts

Bui Xuan Phai (1920-1988)

This notebook was written in those moments when I stopped painting or was taking a rest from painting.

I do not think that painting diligently but mindlessly is necessarily a good thing; for apart from painting, you need to think frequently about Art — a path that is often plagued with difficulties but is ultimately a beautiful one.

In addition, I think one needs to read books and learn from paintings by all of the Masters (~f available) so as to elevate one’s vision, so that one can distinguish between the highs and the lows, between the gold and the brass.

Art is indeed rich. Real appreciation, real appraisal requires the viewer to have reached a certain benchmark. It requires much learning.


1. 1 believe that Modem Art is not yet fully formed in Vietnam

I’m saddened to see that certain paintings are called “modern” without carrying any intrinsic artistic value. I believe that there is such a things as false Modem Art, just as I believe that people who paint bad portrait are merely forging “Classical Art”.

I often complain to Nguyen Sang that it is these premature modern artists who cause many people to misjudge Modem Art as something of a con.

In forming a conception about modern paintings, we cannot be lax. Laxity is something we need to avoid in Art. It lacks depth and strength. It is not enough to evoke feelings in the viewers.


2. When a painting is finished, I feel it is already “old”. It seems as if I want to paint it in a “better’ way. in a more fluid or less fluid way. Whatever, as long as it is “better” as a result of the change.


3. Picasso often painted a theme repeatedly until it was extremely beautiful, extremely “ripe”. Extraordinarily fluid. He had a sensitive vision and a skilful hand. May be those two elements are but one.


4. As for us, very often we know it, we know something is beautiful or ugly but we cannot achieve the effect. Is that because of a lack of skill or is that because our physical ability just cannot match our emotional desire?


5. Search for Beauty in nature, understand nature thoroughly in order to see its essence. To paint fictitiously means you are becoming shallow and sloppy.


6. Looking at Picasso’s sketches of a bull or a horse, we realise that he knew his subject so well by heart, for brief as they were, these sketches were still so real.


7. Lean on nature to make your painting. If you only recited what’s in nature, your work bears no creative significance. A camera does that job so much better.


8. Unfortunately, viewers cannot distinguish between research painting, mechanical painting, photographic painting and artistic — creative painting. The true meaning of Art is Creation — to create something NEW — something BEAUTIFUL.


9. More and more, Art is moving away from reality because of the fear of bearing a resemblance to photographs. Photographs record reality readily and accurately. An artist uses the mind and the emotion to analyse reality and transfer the findings to the mental facility which relates to Art (artistic imagination).


20. To paint with or without models? That depends upon the painter’s point of view. If you are painting in the classical, impressionist, realist… etc styles then invariably you will need a model. But you should not be overtly dependent upon the model. Certain facets of Beauty cannot be captured by the model. Thus the presence of a model is not always necessary.


21. You need to be professional in order to be good. But being professional without being seen to be professional is what needed in order to be fluid, free (in your painting).


22. Don’t place undue importance on “appearance” but do try to make the “appearance” of your work one of Art, of emotional inspiration.


23. It seems that Art ( with all its special meaning) is something mysterious, achievable for some and beyond the reach of others whose very best efforts still only lead them to mediocrity.


24. Think a lot, note down a lot, have a sure hold on all the facts about life. Don’t do anything that is shallow, cheap. Whether Beauty has been captured or not, only the eyes of the painter can see.


25. I put Art first. To make an appealing painting is the foremost responsibility (of an artist); of course, that “appeal” must be something of benefits to people (there exists certain “useless” kinds of appeal, but we won’t paint those).


26. Is painting an easy or difficult task? Depending on the concept. Painting according to someone else’s concept — a concept that is different from your own — is really difficult. Painting in an irresponsible manner is easy.


27. Don’t be afraid to re-work certain things over and over again to find a certain something that will lift you to a higher level. Don’t be satisfied with a laxly done work. It is the best in you that entices the public (I’m not talking about the section of the public with lower standards.)


28. Painting a portrait must first of all be an artistic, rather than a likeness-driven task. It’s not about trying to paint accurately, realistically… But what is realistic anyway? It must be realistic in accordance with the painter’s concept, not the viewer’s.


29. Sketches or portraits must be fluid and free-flowing and all the while, still capturing the artistic essence. The art of painting a portrait requires a combination of thorough and sharp observation of the physical appearance of people together with a pictorial inspiration in order to form a work of art. Don’t be satisfied when you are yet to understand, to capture the essence of the person being painted. The portrait need not be “realistic” but it must reveal, it may not be “realistic” but may still be definitive and there you have a satisfactory portrait!


Don’t be restricted – don’t worry about the lack of resemblance….Don’t be timid. If it does not work, throw it away, it doesn’t matter. The more you paint, the more experience you gather. It is sad when a painter does not realise at which level he has succeeded or failed. It’s necessary to work very seriously but comfortably.


40. Having painted many, you will realise which of your paintings were touched by Beauty. Think carefully when looking at your own works and separate out thos’e that are beautiful and those that are not.

Once a painting is acceptable or is beautiful (in the whole), don’t try to fix it any longer because you may push it toward Ugliness. Lifting it up to a higher level is a good thing but be careful because what you are doing may effectively push it down rather than elevate it.


41. Repairing a painting is very risky and difficult. It is very easy to lose its togetherness, in many cases the painting pretty much needs to be completely redone or repainted in order for it to be saved. So he careful!


42. Materials play an important role in Art. Lacking good materials, equipment, the artist will be restricted. He cannot do as he wishes, cannot elevate his works. Using materials of low quality means that the works are prone to damage, affecting the enjoyment of the viewers.


43. 1. Research, gather information

2. Prepare the vehicle for expression

Of course for the first step, there are many methods. Certain people only need memory, others have many sketches, still others who paint in front of the live model.

No matter, as long as the painting is artistic and meaningful. There should be no laziness, sloppiness or laxity in Art.


44. A liking for experiments is a good thing but don’t experiment in a circle, don’t experiment in order to find regressive, outdated things. Experiment to find new appeal, new forms of Beauty.


45. Yes, the naivety, the artlessness in painting is really easy and yet, really difficult (to achieve). False artlessness is just so tiresome. Paint with a sincere and free spirit. Don’t resemble a scholar, a teacher, a student with his homework or a commissioned worker while you paint… No, paint freely, if it does not work then rub it out, throw it away. If it is quite good then hang on to it.


46. Don’t think often about being better or worse (than someone) in Art. Similarly when you are painting, thinking in this manner is rather pointless.


47. Simple things sometimes come instantly to you and sometimes they don’t; only because the artist cannot see them. Painting away so diligently and yet when finally you just want something simple (don’t mistake this with something simplistic), you can no longer see it.


48. The level of success of a painting does not depend on whether you have spent a little or a lot of time on it. It depends on the painter. But it’s not acceptable to feel impatient or rushing to finish when you are engaged in a work of Art. Those of us with a professional conscience cannot accept negligence or sloppiness.


49. You must accept that there are many difficult things in Art- very difficult things. When you feel that Art is easy is when you are going along a well worn path, re-doing familiar, old things and you are lacking in thoughts, in searching, in research…

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