I came across a really neat article in Chinese by Suzhou embroiderer Tong Hui-Qin (湯慧琴) about her experience in creating an embroidery reproduction of Music at Court (宮樂圖), an Tang Dynasty (618-907) painting depicting twelve women in the Tang Dynasty court playing music, drinking or engaging in general revelry around a long table. I thought her essay about the creation process was very informative, so I translate some highlights from her essay below, as well as some pictures of this sublime example of fine Suzhou embroidery. And If you are ever in Taiwan at the right time, you might be able to see the original piece at the Palace Museum!
Full view of Music at Court, completed in 2006 (48.2 cm by 69.5 cm).
The original painting
The embroiderer recounts:
" In May of 2001, a business man who loved Suzhou embroidery and his wife visited my teacher Chinese embroidery master Lee E-Ying with a copy of the late Tang Dynasty painting Music at Court. They told Master Lee that it was their wish that she recreate this beloved piece with the techniques and style of Suzhou embroidery. At that time I was embroidering the Sung Dynasty painting Children at Play in an Autumnal Garden at Master Lee's home. After they had a look at my work, they decided to leave their copy of Music at Court with Master Lee for me to embroider under Master Lee's artistic direction.
Music at Court is a famous painting from the late Tang Dynasty. The original is currently in the Palace of Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. The work depicts the culture of banquets and music in the Tang court, and shows buxom and elegant Tang court ladies each with their own poses and expressions. Seated or standing around a table, the twelve court ladies in the painting drink tea, play drinking games, with four of them playing instruments to create merriment and the two standing figures setting the rhythm with the clappers in their hands. A variety of tableware are set on the table. Due to its old age, the painting had lost much of its color and details, with substantial portions being blurry and it was difficult to distinguish the original textile patterns on the ladies' robes. Looking at the painting, I had a lot of doubts in my mind, because I had not yet embroidered a painting involving human figures in such a complex scene. In addition, the image itself was not clear due to its age, which added to the difficulty in execution. However, I thought it was also a new challenge and test for me, so I quietly decided that I would do a good job.
Then, how would I achieve that goal? I thought that the first thing was to gather some background information on Music at Court. Luckily, I found a book that provided more detail of the figures and objects in the painting. After a certain amount of research to fully understand the composition, I then set up the fabric on my embroidery frame to begin. When I was preparing the embroidery threads, my teacher noted: ancient paintings are different from its modern counterparts. We are neither producing a painted copy, nor [insert conserve] the original work. Instead, with Music at Court as a guide, we are using our needle as our paint brush and recreating the piece in the style of Suzhou embroidery. Due to the age of the painting, the colors are clearly not what they were over a thousand years ago. Therefore, when we are choosing our threads, we do not necessarily have to use the same colors as appears on the painting, but we should consider the bright colors preferred by the Tang court. Therefore, with my teacher's instruction, I prepared a set of threads that included vermilion, jade, ochre and citrine in some tens of shades for each color. After everything was ready, I started the actual embroidery in June of 2002.
I used a irregular long and short stitch, at the thickness of one filament (an average silk floss is comprised of sixteen filaments), for the outer edge of the woven mat table, the legs of the stools shaped like crescent moons and the dark outlines of the table, applying different shades of brown to create the appearance of wood. For the woven mat center of the table I used several traditional Chinese stitches (e.g. diagonal satin stitch, battlement filling, split stitch) to further illustrate the woven quality. For the tableware, I laid down layers of silk threads, at the thickness of one filament (see picture below) and half a filament (respectively, one-sixteenth and one-thirty-second of one silk floss) and at the edge of the dark outlines of the jade colored tableware, I further added a thin line of white, so that the curves in the tableware appear even more three-dimensional.
The pink circle in the picture shows the thread at the thickness of one filament (1/16 of a silk floss)
During the embroidery process, I paid particular attention to three aspects, as set forth below:
The fashion worn during the Tang dynasty has become an icon of ancient Chinese clothing. Before working on the robes of the court ladies, I did a fair amount of research on Tang fashions, as well as the colors and designs of the fabrics that would be used at court. Since the painting has deteriorated considerably through the ages, it was difficult to make out the patterns of the textiles used in the robes, so the best thing I could do was to reconstruct, based on my research of Tang dynasty textiles and what I could make out from the painting, a set of patterns to be embroidered on the robes. I traced the patterns onto transfer paper and stitched guidelines based on the patterns. Then I used irregular long and short stitch and, following the contour lines of the robes, I stitched the robes, leaving empty the parts covered by the guidelines I previously laid down. After the robes were completed, sans the patterns, I then completed the patterns using the appropriate stitches. After completing this, I was not really satisfied with the results. The robes and the textiles comprising them appeared heavy, with no sense of movement or billowing that I had imagined. After some additional experimentation at the side of my frame, I decided to restitch the robes without leaving any empty space for the patterns, and then I used extremely fine threads to re-embroider the patterns on the robes, taking care that the fine threads have sunk between the threads for the previous layer. I was quite happy with the results this time, seeing that the patterns on the robes now have a woven quality and the robes had a much lighter and airy look to them.
For the faces, I used a light red and a rouge red at the forehead, nose and chin areas. I took care to not emphasize the contour lines within the faces, in order to prevent the appearance of pockets of light and darkness on the ladies' faces. Such pockets of light and darkness are prone to appear as the silk threads travel along contour lines that have more dramatic movements. Another important point was to embroider the features accurately, with not one iota of deviation, and to convey the delicateness and colors of the ladies' complexions and cosmetics. I went about this by laying a fairly sparse foundation with rather thin threads, and then laid additional layers in different colors and increasingly thin threads, which were as thin as one sixty-fourth of a silk floss, or even a tad thinner. I concluded by leaving one line of empty space on the bridges of the noses, and sparsely stitching around the hairline. As I arrived at the hair, I used threads of various colors and thicknesses for the hair, and where the skin met the hair, I used a color that was closer to the skin and with very thin threads, I lightly went over the hair line with irregular long and short stitches again, so that the hair would look like it grew out of the skin, and perhaps add to the spontaneity of the facial expressions.
Third, to use a popular expression, eyes are the windows to the spirit, conveying a myriad of feelings and emotions. The execution of the eyes have a direct correlation with the success or failure of the entire embroidery piece. The eyes of the ladies in the painting are tiny, and quite difficult to handle. In the beginning, I used different shades of the same color to embroider the eyes, but after I finished, I found that the eyes looked dull, with no animation. So I decided to try redoing the eyes in the same fashion, but did not see any improvement in the results, so I was getting increasingly anxious. For a while my mind was completely consumed by thoughts on how to do the eyes; even as I walked on the street or while I was waiting for the bus, I would try to pay attention to the surrounding people and their eyes. On one occasion, I happened to see photos of some movie stars in a magazine, and I ended up using their eyes as a guide to do some additional experimentation around the outer edges of my frame. Finally, I used a fine thread to do the white of the eyes in sparse and short stitches. Then I did a thin foundation layer for the pupils, on which I added more layers of different shades until the pupil areas were fully stitched. Then, depending on each lady's expression, I used a fine thread of varying colors and added a few stitches, and found that those few stitches of other colors made all the difference in creating the character's expression. As I embroidered, I examined my own eyes in a mirror and observed the way in which they changed as I altered my own expressions, and thus I embroidered several eyes around the outer edges of my frame that seemed to be saying various different things. At that point I felt I had begun to grasp the key to embroidering eyes. Thereupon, I completed the eyes of the twelve court ladies in this manner, and my conclusion is that when embroidering eyes, the ultimate coloring described above cannot be off by even one filament, a mistake of even one filament can create a world's difference in the message conveyed by the eye.
During the four years of embroidering Music at Court, I worked in front of my embroidery frame for about eight or nine hours each day. Whenever I encountered any difficulties during the embroidery process, Master Lee always provided guidance and support to me without fail, so I was able to reach a new level in my command of the traditional techniques and my understanding of contour lines and the use of color. In August of 2006, I finally completed my Suzhou embroidery version of Music at Court. My teacher was very pleased with the final product She said it was precise, delicate, elegant and pristine--in other words, the essential characteristics of traditional Suzhou embroidery."
The embroiderer during the final stage of the piece
The embroiderer at home