Dissimilar in Form but Similar in Spirit
This happens when artists do not aim deliberately for virtual replica in form between works of art and the objects depicted but make every effort to achieve a resemblance in spirit. This is also known as “dissimilar in form but similar in spirit.” The Chinese theory of painting in the Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties emphasizes resemblance in spirit over similarity in form. The artistic elite represented by Shi Tao (1641-1718?) in the Ming Dynasty objected to both the idea that the artist should emphasize a profound artistic ambience at the expense of formal resemblance, and the idea that the artist’s sole duty is to blindly imitate the form. They believe that an ideal work of art is both “dissimilar and yet similar at the same time.” “Dissimilar” means that an artist should paint with free will, discarding outdated practices, and not excessively pursuing resemblance in form. “Similar” means that painting should be based on true life and artists should strive for similarity in spirit. This principle of allowing for dissimilar form in quest of similar spirit strikes an ingenious balance between artistic reality and the reality of daily life.
Today some painters casually use a few strokes to show their effortless skill and graceful simplicity, while others, muddle-headed as they are, overload their works with complicated structures and details. They always say that they care little about similarity in form, not knowing that artists of ancient times, when saying that they had no appetite for similarity in form, in fact pursued similarity in spirit. How dare those who cannot master either simplicity or complexity compare themselves to great artists! (Wang Fu: Notes on How to Do Painting and Calligraphy)
Famous mountains can be visited but not painted. If a painting is too much like the mountain itself, the mountain in the painting will look unnatural. Only when you depict them as mystically muddled, dissimilar in form but similar in spirit, will they seem subdued under your brush. (Shi Tao: Dadizi’s Comments on His Own Poems Inscribed on Paintings)
Sky and earth blend into a harmonious whole, distinguished only by the cycle of the four seasons. Artists should use brighter and darker colors to make objects look appropriately high or low, far or near. Genuine similarity is similarity in substance despite dissimilarity in form. (Shi Tao: Dadizi’s Comments on His Own Poems Inscribed on Paintings)