I noticed that many of my students in China don't get enough life drawing experience so I started running portrait drawing workshops in my office. We all took turns modelling for each other or drawing other students in the canteen. Here are some of my drawings:
I realise many of my posts may sound like a rant about Chinese things I don’t like. My intent is to discuss the challenges faced, but just in case, here’s a list of things I prefer in China:
Many of these aspects of society come from a tradition of philosophy that is very different from that of the west. For example the tradition of philosophical rock appreciation.
1: Everyone plays their position
Colleagues in China are what we can only dream of in the west. People are willing to play their position and slowly work towards a higher level through quality work and supporting the team. They aren’t interested in creating a confrontational workplace. It is a luxury being around people who enthusiastically give support instead of snide remarks.
2: People are helpful and caring
No, not just helpful. They are fucking helpful. Everyone in China is willing to lend a hand and do a favour for someone. Part of this is due to a ‘I scratch your back you scratch mine’ arrangement in the culture, but I think a good portion is also genuine. People are always giving directions, helping me shop or even offering Chinese lessons. Even if they are investing in a future favour it’s a much smoother lifestyle.
*I’m writing this while on a flight to Shanghai. The Chinese man sitting next to me literally just warned me to be careful of how hot the meal is.*
3: People are forgiving
Folks really let things slide in China. Balls-ed up a local custom; don’t worry about it. Screwed up your tonal pronunciation and said you are going to the uterus not the dinosaur museum; it’s okay. As long as people can tell you aren’t trying to be a dick, they will let most things go. There is a bit of chaos caused by this (just look at Chinese traffic) but in the end it makes my life, and learning Mandarin a whole lot easier.
4: There is a different idea of masculinity
In China positivity is a sign that you have your life under control. Negativity or confrontation is usually considered a sign of failure. This means men are generally kinder and there’s a lot less pigeon chested lads around. Only drawback is often people will bite their lip to remain positive when a confrontation is necessary.
5: China is safe
Aside from the odd hustler in tourist areas, there isn’t much to worry about in terms of safety in China. A friend of mine who grew up in Henan province once told me she found it strange that western women were afraid to walk alone at night in their own countries. She had never considered any threat until meeting foreigners.
6: Things are done quickly
When the Chinese make a decision, it gets done. Do you remember the discussion in the United States a couple years back about building highways made of solar panels? China has already finished their first one, but apparently it wasn’t possible for the states. China announced in 2017 it would build the world’s first carbon negative city (absorbs more carbon than it produces). They plan to complete it by 2020. This year the Communist Party announced the People’s Liberation Army would be mobilised to plant trees. A forest the size of Ireland is due to be planted by December. Development is fast, well planned and embarrassingly better organised than the west.
7: Teaching is a respected profession
I have never once heard the expression ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.’ outside of America and the UK. In China teaching is a highly respected profession. I know I’ve griped about the attitude of some of the students I have at HuangHuai University, but their attitude is the minority. Teaching is a profession people aspire to and has competition to enter. There’s a bonus too – art teachers are more respected than some departments and the pay reflects it!
9 September – 16 September 2018
Artist Jon Schwochert will lead a landscape drawing and painting course in the historic region of Lot, southern France. The course will cover techniques and theory in plein-air landscape sketching and oil painting, while exploring the history and culture of the surrounding area.
The week will include excursions to the Pech Merle 30,000 year old cave paintings, the medieval town of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail, a local market and cafés and the Lot River.
Accommodation is at Cote Grange Puyjourdes, a recently converted farm courtyard featuring old stone walls, handcrafted windows, handcrafted stairs and balconies are juxtaposed with white linen, new modern showers, and Parisian textiles and surround sound.
Sunday 9 September
- Pick up from Toulouse Airport and check in at Cote Grange
- Dinner and introductions
Monday 10 September
- Morning: Demonstration of landscape sketching and drawing techniques followed by sketching at Cote Grange
- Lunch at Cote Grange
- Afternoon: Demonstration of plein-air landscape painting techniques, logistics and theory at Cote Grange followed by a grisaille painting
- Supper at Cote Grange
Tuesday 11 September
- Morning: Demonstration followed by landscape painting at Saint Cirq Lapopie
- Lunch on an island in the River Lot. Local chef Penny will prepare lunch for you in her potagé on her picnic table under willow trees.
- Afternoon: Continue painting at Saint-Cirq-Lapopie or along the river.
- Late afternoon: Tour of and discussion of the 30,000 year old cave paintings at Pech Merle.
- Supper at Cote Grange
Wednesday 12 September
- Morning: Optional excursion to Cahors market with Emma from Cote Grange, Puyjourdes.
- Late Lunch at Cote Grange
- Afternoon: Plein-air painting at Cote Grange
- Supper at Cote Grange
Thursday 13 September
- Morning: Excursion to a local farm. Sketching and demonstration
- Lunch: Picnic lunch.
- Supper at Cote Grange
Friday 14 September
- Morning: Visit to Marcilhac sur Celé on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail, landscape sketching and painting
- Picnic lunch
- Afternoon: Demonstration followed by landscape painting and sketching.
- Supper at Cote Grange
Saturday 15 September
- Morning: Demonstration and landscape painting at Cote Grange
- Lunch at Cote Grange
- Afternoon: Landscape painting at Cote Grange
- Dinner in a restaurant in the local market town of Cajarc (not included in the total price).
Sunday 16 September
- Depart Cote Grange for Toulouse Airport
About Artist Jon Schwochert
Jon Schwochert studied at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, before moving to London. He quickly became disheartened by the lack of technical training in the University system. Jon left university to train in traditional techniques and media at London Fine Art Studios. He completed his MA in Illustration at the University of Hertfordshire in 2015 where he received a distinction for his thesis.
His drawings and paintings have been commissioned for video games, comic books, medical illustration, advertisements and editorial illustration. He has been published by Nintendo, The Artist Magazine, Self Made Hero, Rising Sun Comics, Manifesto Press and in many smaller publications. He has been a resident artist at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Central School of Ballet in London.
Currently Jon is based in London taking commissions and teaching at HuangHuai University, China several months of the year.
About Cote Grange Puyjourde
Cote Grange Puyjourdes is set in profound rural south west France, in a regional park in the Lot, and has panoramic views of kilometers of woodland. The buildings are created out of an old stone farm, recently renovated using natural materials. Handcrafted windows, handcrafted stairs and balconies are juxtaposed with white linen, modern showers, Parisian textiles and surround sound. The gardens cascade and are subdivided by old stone walls and in them you will find a 15 meter long swimming pool, table tennis, table and chairs and benches, wells and a water fall creating karma for rest, rejuvenation and creative thinking.
- Artists will be required to book their own travel to Toulouse Airport
- The course is centred on plein-air landscape painting and will therefore require artists to be able to walk and carry their equipment for moderate distances
- Artists will be required to bring the majority of their materials
- Artists are recommended to book travel insurance and/or carry a European Health Insurance Card
- White spirit (banned on flights)
- Canvas boards
- Brushes (recommended mostly flats or filberts ranging from size 4-8, a couple of large brushes and one small brush or pointed round)
- Oil paints (Jon will be teaching to the following palette: titanium white, cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, cadmium red, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, viridian, burnt umber)
- Linseed Oil
- Paper towels and cloth rags
- Palette knife
- Palette cups
- Sketching materials (pencils, pens and erasers)
- Umbrella and clothing for inclement weather
- Cobalt dryer
- Extended palette
- Additional canvases
Costs include accommodation (7 nights), meals and regional wine, above mentioned materials, tuition and transport for excursions.
Costs do not include flights, mentioned materials or other expenses and the optional final night out at a restaurant.
Payable by 50% on reservation to secure your place and 50% three months in advance of the course.
Please note that if you cancel less than three months before the course commences you will forfeit your entire fee. You are therefore advised to take out travel insurance to cover events outside of your control that may result in your not being able to attend the course. Cancellations before then will be entitled to a refund minus a £100 admin fee.
For further information or to book, please email
Here's a few of my 5-10 minute life drawings from Sketch Club at London Fine Art Studios.
My teaching has taken me to Zhumadian in Henan China for several months out of every year. Zhumadian is by Chinese standards a small rural city that the rest of the nation has never heard of. It’s hard to get an exact figure on it but from what I’ve gathered the city centre is around one million, the urban area three million and the district it administers is nine and a half million. Henan is one of the most if not the most populated province in China.
Zhumadian, Henan, China,
Zhumadian was originally a stopping point on the Silk Road. It’s name translates to something along the lines of ‘stables and inn’. A few decades ago the city was tens of thousands of people, but with China’s rapid development it has exploded to the size it is today. I’m told that 20 years ago there were only a handful of cars on the road. Now almost everyone I meet has a car or electric bike. Having heard about the advancement of China for years it is incredible to experience and be a part of it.
Central China is radically different from the coast in so many ways. The coast was naturally the first area to develop and the rest of the country has followed. The cities of Henan are very modern, but the countryside is still underdeveloped. While travelling I often see farm equipment that could date from the Cultural Revolution and farmers drying crops on the asphalt of the freeway. I’m told that when trays at the university canteen are cleared the scraps are taken to pig farms that evening.
Abandoned farming equipment at Huanghuai University
Zhumadian is classified as a level five city and currently undergoing a series of reforms to achieve level four status. Basically it’s a red neck town. People are constantly asking me why I am working here and not in Beijing or Shanghai. I’m very happy that my first contract is here and not in diet China. It forces me to understand the culture and learn the language. Maybe eventually I will move on to a more glamorous city, but this is an invaluable experience for the moment.
The biggest difference from the coast is the people are insular and unfamiliar with other nationalities. I would not be surprised if in the history of Zhumadian, less than 50 foreigners have visited, and most of them were likely Soviet officials. The total foreign population is less than a dozen at any moment and we are almost entirely lecturers at Huanghuai University. As you would expect, a handful of people in the city speak varying levels of English.
This means I live a life somewhere between a local celebrity and an exotic foreign animal in a zoo. Reactions to seeing me might involve stares, people pointing and shouting ‘Laowai’, photos with or without permission, some very flattering comments and very funny moments. Overall reactions have been very friendly and innocent, but every now and again someone will cross the line. So far the only two times I lost it are when someone was taking a photo of me while I was eating hung-over and when a guy tried to take a photo of me at a urinal in a night club. They might not have understood English, but I think the tonality and volume translated perfectly.
Zhumadian by night with a view of the Huanghuai River
My experiences with people have been overwhelmingly positive and welcoming. Often times people are kind to the point of embarrassment and I have no idea of how I could repay them. An integral part of Chinese culture is to welcome foreigners and this means people are constantly offering to pay for me or be my guide even when they earn considerably less than I do. I try my best to not let them, but many are quite persistent.
Another aspect of Chinese culture that has surprised me is how willing people are to help each other. Part of this is rooted in the collective mentality; part of it is related to the concept of Mianzi, usually translated to Face. Mianzi is a formalised concept of social status that exists in China. Much of it is based on an I scratch your back, you scratch mine relationship. It is very common for me to get offers for free Mandarin tutoring, being shown where to eat or anything really. I was once eating in the canteen when a student approached me holding a spoon and said, ‘Hello teacher! You can use this!’ I never realised my chopstick skills were so obviously poor.
Chinese food is incredibly diverse and is defined by region. Henan cuisine is amazing. I have only had one or two meals I wasn’t impressed with. Hot Pot seems to be the most popular food to go out for. Generally meals begin with cold salads of pickled veg and tofu. The main course will be meat and vegetables cooked together in a large pot with a thick sauce creating almost a stew. After the contents of the pot are finished noodles are dumped in the pot and mixed with the remaining sauce. People will often eat stir fries similar to what we normally think of as Chinese food. Chilli is very popular in the region and how people deal the with cold humidity in autumn and winter.
Henan style Hot Pot
Food is cheap to the point where I never cook in Zhumadian. One pound is equal to eight yuan and one dollar is six and a half. Dinner at a mid range restaurant for three with drinks is usually ¥100-125 and a meal at the university canteen ¥8-10.
Standard tray at the university canteen
There are a couple western fast food chains in the city and the local interpretation of a coffee shop. Coffee is not a part of Chinese culture. It is seen as an exotic foreign treat. So it is very hard to find it in supermarkets, coffee shops don’t open until the afternoon and don’t understand the concept of take away. I believe staff also think I am very lonely for having a coffee by myself. Coffee shops often double as ‘Western’ restaurants. After experiencing their idea of a steak I no longer accept any criticisms of American Chinese food. It’s a two way street for sure.
Obligatory teddy bear at Mann Coffee
Drinking culture is also shockingly different. The hardest thing for me to accept has been that men drink and women generally don’t. Drinking is usually done in a restaurant with people you already know and there is no equivalent to a pub. Nightclubs are bizarrely male dominated. There are very few women present who don’t work there. Those that do are usually Go-Go dancers or can be auctioned to sit at tables and make rich men look important for the evening. Guys huddle around tables playing a dice drinking game and occasionally watching the variety shows on the stage. I have yet to see anyone who looks like they are genuinely having fun at a night club. It seems like people do it more for Mianzi than anything else.
Several of the foreign teachers I have met have really struggled with the experience. The culture is so radically different and you can very easily ostracise yourself. One thing I realised while there is just how big the world still is. I found the key is to make local friends and attempt to experience life the way they do. It can be easy to become a prisoner to the university or become overly critical of their way of living. I still have my limits and only a few times I have found I need to challenge something. The work I have put in to make my time enjoyable has definitely paid off. I have learned a huge amount and grown from it.
If you live in central China don't try to fight the trip it will fuck you up. Just roll with it and you won’t regret the experience.
After my second trip to Zhumadian, I’m finally getting around to writing about my travels in China – only six months later than I should be!
This year I was recruited for the International Art Programme at HuangHuai University. My courses so far have been in oil painting and professional practice for artists. More on that in another post. The university is home to more than 20,000 students and my classes range from lectures of 120 students to practical sessions of 40 students.
Art and Design Building at HuangHuai University, Zhumadian, China
Since starting my teaching, my stereotypes about Chinese students have been crushed! My classes are filled with some of the most unruly, disruptive and lazy students I have ever taught. I have had lectures where I could not hear myself over their chatting, a constant battle against the use of cell phones in class and had to deal with a very unexpectedly poor work ethic. At first I thought the lack of respect might be because I am a foreign teacher, but many of the local professors expressed the same problems.
How could this happen in the land of diligence and authority you say?
The professor I am partnered with explained to me that previously only the top 10% of Chinese students could enter University. This ensured that they were of course the best and hardest working. Due to the economic changes the country has faced in the past few decades, University has been opened up to the top 40% of students and it is taking some time for the quality of those new 30% to catch up.
HuangHuai is in Chinese terms is a small university, in a provincial city miles away from the coast. In addition to that, international art is a fairly new major and not in high demand yet. Some of my students come from the surrounding region but many of them are students who just barely made that 40% cut off. I’ve asked many students from other parts of China, ‘Why did you choose to come to Zhumadian to study?’ The most common answer is shamefully admitting that their test scorers weren’t high enough. Some of them have since realised it is time to get their act together, many haven’t.
Well, challenge accepted.
Library Building at HuangHuai University
I was initially told not to worry about the students’ behaviour. That is was a cultural difference and not a problem. I attempted to follow this advice during my first trip in spring but really struggled to accept this when it was preventing my ability to do my job. The last straw was when the Vice-Chancellor of the university sat in on my lecture and the students would not even behave for him.
Up until this point I would yell or slam a book to get the students to quiet down. This would work for all of five minutes, then they would be back at it. So at the recommendation of my supervising professor we instituted a new policy – the first student who talks would lose 40% of their grade and the second 80%. An example was made in each of my two lecture groups and it had the expected effect.
At this point I was teaching an oil painting course called ‘Colour and Representation’. The students work was for the most part appallingly poor with a few exceptions. A portion of this might be due to their lack of training in western art. However I believe that if someone works in a visual medium a certain amount of their skills are transferable and should translate into other media. I put the blame much more on their lack of attention in class and laziness.
As a result I ended up failing 20% of the class and only one student received above a 90%.
Entrance to the North Campus of HuanHuai University
In the Chinese university system, students take short intensive modules over a 15 week semester. My classes run from 3-5 weeks and I see students for 3-4 sessions every week. Students are allowed to fail 5 modules before being expelled from the university. I also am required to give a makeup assignment that allows failed students to gain a pass.
I find this coddling very unhelpful in developing students. So I make my makeup assignment extremely challenging so that someone can’t slack off for the entire module and get a pass from doing a single item of work. I was told that of my 40 failed students, eight joined the army and four passed their makeup assignment.
When I returned to HuangHuai this autumn I found my students had got the message. There was a strong fear of being failed and for the most part they were ready to work this time. I only had a few infractions throughout the term and they were much easier to deal with than battling an entire classroom.
The students seemed to find understanding my expectations difficult. Many of them could not understand why I wanted silence in lectures and hard work but on the other hand I don’t require them to do things like ask permission to go to the toilet during class. Very few of the students call me by my name and if they do it’s ‘Mr Jon’. Most call me ‘sir’ or ‘teacher’. I have got ‘master’ a few times to my surprise! A hierarchy seems to be well instilled in them, but ideas like self responsibility aren’t. Many of the students don’t seem to realise that they are adults at the age 20-22.
Art lecturers, assistants and translators I work with at HuangHuai University
The students worked very hard during my ‘Professional Practice’ course this autumn and it showed in their finished projects. But I did not anticipate the level of panic, lack of self management and neediness that would result. This created a huge workload for me as I was constantly getting frantic requests for help from students who should have paid more attention in lectures and taken some responsibility. There were several days where I ended up working from 7am until midnight or later.
My goal, should I have this group again, is to instil some initiative and self responsibility in the students. My theory is first you need to get them working, then you can get them thinking. I also need to create a method of organisation so that hard working students can get the help they need without me killing myself for undeserving time wasters.
When I get a new batch of students I will be instilling discipline straight away so I can the ball rolling much faster. It might come in the form of Gny. Sergeant Hartman or maybe the legendary, ‘Saving Private Ryan Speech’. We’ll see . . .
Like a good artist I kept my sketchbook with me while teaching in China. I didn't get as many done as I wanted to but here's a few that aren't so terrible.
In realistic drawing we seek to give the viewer the illusion of a three dimensional composition through light and dark. This illusion is also called chiaroscuro. The first step in this process is being able to see light and dark accurately. This is the first of two exercises I recommend to gain a basic understanding of light.
This exercise can be done in paint or charcoal. You’ll need:
Fabriano Ingres paper or thick textured drawing paper
- or –
A canvas board
Black or burnt umber paint
Brushes and palette
Turpanoid or white spirit
I recommend drawing from objects which are white or monochromatic. This means you won’t have the additional challenge of reducing colour information to black and white.
Here’s the style of composition I recommend beginning with. Start with a black background and white objects. Use a single, direct light source and block out any additional light sources in the room with boards or a box. There’s nothing incorrect about multiple light sources, but they can add confusion to this exercise. Having a studio is always helpful, but as you can see it's possible to do at home.
Try using a simple drawing system like the enveloping or ‘Encajar’ system that was popularised in Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries. This example is from Charles Bargue’s lessons for students attempting to gain entry to the Ecole de Beaux Arts de Paris.
Here’s an example I’ve set up. I start by drawing a box that contains all objects in the composition. Check the proportion of the height against the width. Then draw lines cutting out the negative space and marking mid points of composition. Remember to look at the whole composition rather than drawing object by object.
Here’s another two examples. Next, draw the lines of the shadow shapes. For this exercise we will be drawing solely in two tones so ignore the fourth stage. It will be covered in Part 2. In order to reduce all of the nuanced tones to black or white, squint when you look at your subject. This will simplify the tones and push middle tones to either dark or light.
Be careful when approaching the reflected lights. Reflected lights are almost always still a dark. If you make them too light, it will flatten the image and you will lose the illusion of chiaroscuro.
Finally colour in the dark areas using the side of a one inch piece of willow charcoal. At this point we are only drawing shapes of light and dark. So if you have an area of shadow on an object next to a dark background, there is no need to colour up to the edges of the object. Draw over your lines since the whole area is in shadow. The below example shows the direction your charcoal should move.
Throughout your drawing, correct any proportional errors you find. Every time you put down new information is a chance to asses what’s already on the page. Don’t be discouraged if you see a number of errors once you colour in the darks. This is normal and is one of the best moments to correct your drawing.
Spend 20-30 minutes per drawing and repeat the process over and over again with different compositions. Seeing light and dark is learned through repetition. Think of this exercise the same way a musician practices scales or boxer punches focus mitts.
When you feel ready try more complex objects and backgrounds like the composition above. Don’t be intimidated by any subject. Everything can be reduced to light and dark.
I run classes on site and online, for more information please contact me.