He is sitting facing a large canvass in a tiny room, in silence, with his right arm – his only arm – stretching out and moving constantly but subtly, working on an oil painting depicting what looks like a young Tibetan couple standing in a mountain covered by snow, their baby held in the father’s arm. Their dark brown skin forms a contrast with the pure white background.
“I love drawing people,” says Tang Dijian, 32, referring every once in a while to the printout of the original painting on his left. It is called “Sacred Mountain,” a work of a Chinese painter, Ai Xuan. Tang has spent almost a month imitating the painting.
“Look at their rough skin,” he says, “and their distant stares with both pain and courage – paintings like this tell stories.”
Tang is one of the thousands of painters who live and work in Dafen, a 0.4-square-kilometer village in Shenzhen, a city that borders Hong Kong in south China. Known as the oil painting village, Dafen is where most of the replicas of famous paintings in the world markets come from. According to the village administration, last year, there are about 1,100 galleries in the village with around 20,000 people working in the oil painting industry.
Western countries have been the village’s major business markets. Official statistics show that in 2005, Dafen supplied around 56 percent of the oil painting replicas in Europe and America. But in 2008, the global financial crisis gave Dafen’s oil painting business a heavy blow – during one of the most important annual regional trade fairs, the village only secured orders worthy of RMB 1.08 million, compared to at least RMB 30 million in previous years.
Despite the gloomy business outlook among the overseas markets, the domestic market emerged as promising. By now, although overseas orders still account for about 60 percent of the village’s business, the domestic market has become larger, and more and more important to the village.
“Mainland China is a very large market,” says Tracy Zhang Ke of the Manage Office of Dafen Oil Painting Village. “Chinese people are getting richer and richer, so they’re bound to require for more cultural fulfillments. I feel confident about the domestic market.”
Shenzhen Songmei Art Co. Ltd., where Tang Dijian, the one-arm artist works, is one of the companies in Dafen that see most of their customers from the mainland. Rose He Shulin, general sales manager of the company, says many of its mainland customers are hotels buying decorative paintings, mostly replicas of world-famous master pieces, while many of the western customers are looking for paintings with more Chinese elements.
She says the company currently has about 160 contracted painters as well as many freelancers. They not only imitate other paintings, but are also encouraged to paint original works.
“We never reproduce the original paintings by our own painters,” she says. “When they have good original works, the company will buy the works and sell them out. Original works are always much more expensive than replicas, and there are more and more customers looking for original paintings these days.”
According to her, most replicas cost around RMB 200 to RMB 800, while original paintings usually cost several thousands.
Long Xianzhong, another painter for the company who had learned medicine for five years before spending another three years learning art, says he already sold the company three of his original paintings.
“I work 8 hours every day,” Long says, “and I draw my own in my spare time. I felt exited and recognized that the company bought my works.”
“Our mode of business is still unique here,” says Rose He Shulin. “Not many other companies do what we are doing. But I’ll not be so sure after one or two years. More and more Chinese households are coming here. More and more rich people are interested in original paintings. I think there will be more companies like us in the future.”