work resume

The problem is that, outside of Chinese culture, the uniqueness, the meaning and the value of these paintings is largely lost. Our design, titled “Rice Paper”, helps bridge the cultural disconnect between the creators of traditional Chinese paintings, guohua, and non-Chinese viewers. It leverages an iPad application to facilitate the sharing of large quantities of artistic context for traditional Chinese paintings in the form of tangible, printed booklets, making the cultural context that breathes life into a Chinese painting more accessible to a wider audience.

Design Process

In order to better understand how Chinese paintings are currently viewed, we conducted participant observations at the University of Michigan Museum of Art and The Chicago Institute of Art, which had a special exhibit through November 2014 titled “Beyond Beauty: Botanical Motifs and Metaphors in Late Imperial China”. In these observations, we found that many visitors were frustrated with their ability to relate to traditional Chinese paintings.

When asked their thoughts on Chinese paintings, one replied, “This may be a stereotype, but I'd like to see something different but I can’t. It is too different, too far away from me. I need something more personal."

As a next step, we conducted both in-person and email based interviews with professionals working in the related fields. These interviews gave us a wealth of information on how to present Chinese painting to a non-Chinese audience. These interviews, backed up by a literature review, also highlighted the importance of the tangible, almost meditative experience afforded by the act of painting with ink and brush on paper. As a group, we conducted a hands-on Chinese painting session during which we attempted to recreate a few simple motifs from The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, one of the preeminent instructional works for traditional Chinese painting. This session gave us first-hand experience on how the ink, water and brush interacted with the rice paper medium, and also made us aware about the complexity of creating a Chinese painting.

Based on this research, we generated several possible approaches, including the use of Google Glass, augmented reality and other projection-based solution.

We settled on an approach that enables artists and art experts to directly participate in the process of creating a conceptual blend of cultures. To add greater detail to our design, we held a participatory design sessions with Fan Feng, director of the Wuhan Art Museum (Wuhan, China) and a prominent Chinese painter, and Carol Stepanchuk, the Outreach Coordinator at the University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies. For the session with Fan Feng, we chose three paintings done by Fan Feng’s “Overlook” series, as well as “The Lotus” painting by Bada Shanren, and explored his approach in describing the painting, the elements that he highlighted, the vocabulary used to explain the context and the inner meaning that is encoded in the painting. This session gave us valuable input about how to create the iPad interface, what key components to include in the creation of metadata about the painting, and also the order or flow of the interface.

For the sessions with Carol Stepanchuk, we discussed how Chinese paintings are taught and the key elements of a contextual interface for appreciating such paintings.


We have designed “Rice Paper,” a tangible booklet experience that complements a Chinese painting, and is created by a Chinese artist or expert via accompanying iPad application. The booklet guides the viewer through the key elements of this painting, and attaches context that is otherwise lost, providing a non-expert audience with an enriched opportunity to appreciate Chinese paintings and enabling Chinese painting artists and experts to better reach a broader audience.

To illustrate our approach for a tangible book-like interface, we selected a work by Bada Shanren, “The Lotus” Painting. This work demonstrates several features representative of traditional Chinese paintings, such as the large empty spaces untouched by ink, the close-up, partial depiction of the flower, whose form seems to extend beyond the edges of the picture, and the varying tones and density of the ink.
This booklet is created by artists and art experts through an iPad application, the interface of which facilitates the addition of information about the painting’s motif, the meanings of elements, the strokes, the artist’s life story, and/or other contextual elements. Content translation can be done in the application by the artist or art expert or external parties.
The iPad application facilitates rapid distribution, regardless of geographic distance, as an electronic mockup of the booklet can be immediately viewed, and a paper version can be sent to print on demand directly from the iPad application. Electronic versions of the booklet freely available and booklet printing - on rice paper to facilitate a tactile connection to the painting itself - done on demand for less than US$25.3 This design enables Chinese painting artists and experts to skip the museum or publisher and directly present their paintings to a wider audience.

hari [at] haridecoded [dot] com