wài shī zàohuà, zhōng dé xīnyuán 外师造化，中得心源
Draw Artistic Inspiration from Both Within and Without
According to this precept, in pursuing artistic creation, one needs to draw inspiration from all things in nature and his innermost thoughts. Zaohua (造化) means nature. Xinyuan (心源) is a Buddhist term, meaning that the true awakening of one’s mind is the root of all Buddhist teaching. This view, originally described by the Tang Dynasty painter Zhang Zao, was quoted later by the Tang Dynasty author Zhang Yanyuan in his Famous Paintings Through History. It originally was a principle governing the painting of landscapes. It aimed to achieve both verisimilitude and ephemeralness and convey the subtle nuances of mountains, rivers, lakes, trees, and rocks in real life by carefully observing their true grains, shapes, and colors. The painter was encouraged to experience their beauty with his heart and capture it in a painting. “Nature” and “inspiration from within” are complementary rather than confrontational – they have a relationship of unity rather than opposition. Tang Dynasty essays about poetry, too, referred to the “soul” and “inspiration from within.” Descriptions of poetry writing were not very different from Zhang Zao’s interpretation of the process of painting. Classical Chinese prose and poetry are similar to painting in that they stress the importance of molding different physical images into an aesthetic whole. They value the charm of a literary work, fusing outer nature and inner thought.
Bi Hong, an official who oversaw the management of the crown prince’s residence, was well-known. He marveled at Zhang Zao’s ability to paint with an almost worn-out brush. When he saw Zhang Zao touched from time to time the undyed silk Zhang was painting on, he asked Zhang how he had learned this skill. Zhang said, “I have learned it all from both nature and within.” (Zhang Yanyuan: Famous Paintings Through History)
Inspiration from within is like a furnace, and the tip of a writing brush is like a burning charcoal fire. An artist extracts the essence of all things from the furnace and carves out concrete objects with his brush. His thoughts and feelings pour out a free flow of multitude of vivid expressions. (Liu Yuxi: A Preface to Dong’s Notes from Wuling)