A few years ago I adopted the habit of practicing a personal activity every day, or at least once a week when I’m busy. I regularly go back and forth between pursuing new interests and rekindling old passions, but whatever the topic I always practice with dedication.
The passion I originally had for drawing quickly grew to computer graphics, which in turn is the reason why I discovered computer programming. Following a stint in China in 2019, I have also been working hard on learning Chinese.
I have always been fond of drawing but was not very disciplined when in middle and high school. Once a student at École polytechnique, I adopted a more regular practice by joining the fine arts association. I then spent most of my time experimenting and trying to use colors, and had a hard time finding a technique which suited me. I then didn’t manage to make much of oil pastel and oil paint and was not convinced by acrylic. As a result, I didn’t improve my skills much during this period, though I intend to give another shot at oil paint as the problem was not that the technique didn’t suit me, but rather that it requires some technicity which I need to take time to master.
After my graduation, I discovered soft pastel and immediately became fond of this technique. It really feels like drawing, but with colors, and thus seemed very natural. It is also very easy to fix a mistake or blend colors, leading to a lot of freedom, and the only major drawback is the fragility of the result - I’m actually having a hard time storing my drawings.
In parallel, I also explored techniques like ink or gouache. I didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked on gouache, but I like this technique a lot. Though the material is not as beautiful and noble as oil, it is a very interesting technique because by drying fast it allows one to work quickly, and it gives interesting tranparency effects. Any mistake can also be reworked, contrary to watercolor for which you need to adopt a completely different philosophy by accepting the lack of control. Another advantage over pastel is that, gouache being a paint, you don’t need a huge collection of tubes to work because you can derive what you need by mixing pigments - you do the same with pastel, but directly on the canvas, making it more difficult to control the effect.
After a lot of practice with pastel I became hindered by my drawing skills, and decided to work on it it by progressively switching back to drawing without colors, or with only a few. I spent a lot of time playing with different types of pencil or even with felt pens. At some point, I particularly enjoyed sketching with pierre noire, because it produces interesting effects and allows me to work faster than with pencil. I also loved practicing the trois-crayons technique (3-pencils: pierre noire, sanguine, white, usually applied on a mid-tone paper), a technique dating from the 16th century, which was intensively used to make portraits.
I generally work from a real model rather than from a photography, because it trains the ability to see in space and often leads to more lively results. It also has advantages, like the possibility of moving around, getting closer, seeing the model from a different perspective in order to comprehend it better. I particularly enjoy drawing from statues in museums, or going to the Jardin des Plantes to draw real, living animals. I either wait for them to repeatedly go to the same position when they wander around or circle in their enclosures, at which point I quickly add more strokes to my sketch, or just try to capture the idea of their movement when they move too much (damn monkeys…). I also love going to live model sessions in Montmartre or elsewhere, especially with friends.
Lately, I’ve focused on drawing with simple pencils because it is very demanding. While you can easily get interesting effects with techniques like charcoal or pierre noire, pencils are very neutral and, in a way, lack personality. If you draw a stroke with pierre noire, the stroke is interesting in itself and can give strength to your drawing. On the contrary, there is nothing more boring than a pencil stroke. Using pencils thus takes more time and forces you to be extremely strict and rigorous, but on the other hand gives you a lot of control and leads to very subtle and interesting results. It also makes you learn a lot - a lot more than the other techniques.
After a very long break, I recently hopped back on Blender to have a bit of fun.
I particularly love playing with shader graphs to get interesting results. It reminds me of when I used to program shaders in C++ and HLSL while in high school.
I lived in Shanghai in 2019, which allowed me to discover the Chinese culture and more specifically the Chinese language. I fell in love with this language, and since then have been practicing with diligence. My dream is to have the ability to enjoy Chinese literature in Chinese, and by enjoy I mean not only understand the text but also grasp its subtleties and relish the style in which it is written, all things which are lost in translation. This goal is of course difficult, maybe to the point of being unattainable; it is nonetheless the resolution by which I abide when I practice.
One of the main reasons why I went to Shanghai is that I had then lived almost all my life in France and was looking for a radically different experience. China then seemed an obvious good choice, so I went. I initially hadn’t intended to learn Chinese because it is such a difficult language, until a friend who was also going convinced me to attend a Chinese class.
What I really loved about going to China is that the country and its culture are so different from what I had known, and there is so much to discover, that I was immediately destabilized. Every day brought its lot of discoveries and as a consequence felt quite different: one has a different perception of time, then. This feeling of discovery is also something I experienced by learning the language. Of course, we always learn things by practicing foreign languages, but in the case of Chinese, because the sentences and their meanings are expressed in such a radically different manner, I immediately had the feeling I needed to change my way of thinking whenever going from French to Chinese and vice versa.
For instance, the Chinese language can be imprecise: a lot depends on the context. As a result, translating from French to Chinese is doomed to fail from the very start. My Chinese teacher in Shanghai and I had countless discussions of the form:
- How would you say [some sentence] in Chinese?
- You would say [such and such].
- But this doesn't express the same thing at all. How would you preserve the meaning?
- Well, you can't.
It actually drove me a bit crazy at first, because to me all natural languages are Turing complete in a sense, meaning they should be able to express the same things, right?
A few words about the Mandarin grammar
Another simple example is the grammar. I’ve heard a lot that Chinese doesn’t have a grammar and I find this saying very wrong. It is not because a language doesn’t require to conjugate verbs that it doesn’t have a complex and subtle grammar, and I actually own a 400-page book just about this topic (this book).
Modifying the meaning
Something fun about the Chinese grammar is the modifiers. It is for instance possible to modify a noun by adding information with the structural particle 的, written de in pinyin, the official romanization system for Mandarin Chinese. Note that pinyin uses accents to denote tones, but I will omit them for simplicity: see the dedicated section below for more explanations. For instance, in Chinese, “my friend” would be translated to the following, where I add spaces for the purpose of clarity (words are normally written stuck to each other):
我 的 朋友
wo de peng'you
"I [characterizes] friend" --> i.e.: "my friend"
我 / wo is “me” or “I”, and 朋友 / peng’you means “friend”. The interesting point is that 的 really doesn’t express possession in the first place: in the previous sentence it simply expresses the fact that 朋友 / peng-you / “friend” is characterized by 我 / wo / “me”. In this context, the sentence specifically means “my friend”. But it is possible to use 的 to modify a noun with an adjective: again, it is all about characterization.
For instance, you can use 好 / hao / “good” to characterize a friend:
好 的 朋友
hao de peng'you
"good [characterizes] friend" --> i.e.: "(a) good friend"
You can even characterize this friend with the fact that you met her in Shanghai, in the sense that you became friend with her while there. This is a bit the equivalent of a relative clause:
我 在 上海 见过 的 朋友。
wo zai shang'hai jian'guo de peng'you.
"I in Shanghai meet [characterizes] friend" --> i.e.: "The/a friend I met in Shanghai".
Here there is something else to notice, which is that the place (在上海/ zai shang’hai / “in Shanghai”) preceeds the verb (见过 / jian’guo / “meet”). Putting the subject aside (我 / wo / “I”), in Chinese we start with the background (time then place) then talk about the details (action, etc.).
Looking at the verb itself, we can notice it is actually made of two parts. The first character 见 / jian means “to meet”. The second character 过 / guo expresses an experience like in: “once in my life I have been in China”. If you replace 过 with 了 / le, which expresses a change of situation and consequently often marks past actions, the meaning of the sentence changes:
我 在 上海 见了 的 朋友。
wo zai shang'hai jian'le de peng-you.
"The/a friend I saw in Shanghai". (say, I saw a friend when I went there last week)
Also, I explained above that we use 的 to modify nouns. There actually exists structural particles for verbs and adjectives, to describe the manner or degree: 得 / de and 地 / de. And we could go on and on and on like this…
One last fun thing I really want to mention about the grammar is the quantifiers: whenever you quantify an object (“one cat”, “two cats”, etc.) you have to use a quantifier between the number and the quantified object. For instance, “one” is 一 / yi, and “cat” is 猫 / mao. One wouldn’t simply say 一猫: a quantifier is missing. Generally speaking, it is possible to use 个 / ge:
一 个 猫
yi ge mao
"one [generic quantifier] cat"
We can however be more specific, and being specific helps us to be understood: the quantified noun can be ambiguous. For instance, 只 / zhi is used for animals:
一 只 猫
yi zhi mao
"one [quantifier for animals] cat"
For long objects like roads we can use 条 / tiao:
一 条 路
yi tiao lu
"one [quantifier for long objects] road"
It applies to fish, as most of them are long:
一 条 鱼
yi tiao yu
"one [quantifier for long objects] fish"
There is also a quantifier for something we hold with the hand: 把 / ba. For instance:
一 把 伞
yi ba san
"one [quantifier for objects held with the hand] umbrella"
Of course, this only scratches the surface.
Moving away from the grammar, the pronunciation is interesting. Chinese is a tonal language, meaning you constantly have to change your tone pitch when speaking: depending on the sound you pronounce, your voice has to go up, down or stay flat, and the way you do it does change the meaning. I omitted it above, but in pinyin we put accents on some letters to express the tones. For instance, I listed below a few Chinese words whose pronunciation varies only in the tone. You should follow the direction of the accents: the first one is flat, the second one goes up, etc.
逼 / bī / "to force" (someone to do something)
鼻 / bí / "nose"
笔 / bǐ / "pencil"
币 / bì / "money" (like in the Chinese currency "RMB": 人民币 / rén mín bì / "the people's money")
Note that above I actually listed the four Chinese tones, in order: first tone is flat, second tone goes up, third tone goes down then up, fourth tone goes down. When a Chinese speaker does pay attention to the tones, they really add musicality to the language. On my side, I have to admit I found them quite hard to accomodate at the beginning: it took me a while to stop nodding or at least moving my hand up and down to accompany the tones while speaking Chinese…
Who could talk about Chinese without mentioning the Chinese characters? There truly is beauty in a Chinese character, and a strong evocative power. This is especially striking when looking at traditional Chinese characters, that is to say characters from before the 1952 simplification in mainland China, and which are still used in some places like Taiwan. For instance, the traditional character for 学 / xué / “to learn” is 學. If we decompose it, we get:
in the 易经 / i'jing / "Book of Changes"
The whole character describes a child learning the hexagrams of the Book of Changes. It can actually be seen as forming the image of a child learning at their parents’ knees (ref).
As illustrated with the example above, many Chinese characters can be decomposed into simpler ones. More specifically, it is often possible to decompose a character into a semantic component and a phonetic component. For instance, 青 / qīng expresses both green and blue and designates a (set of) color(s) typically found in landscapes, and consequently also found in paintings like the famous 山水 / shān’shuǐ / “mountain and water”. 青 is used in other characters which have a similar pronunciation, and from which I give a selection below:
- 情 / qíng / "(a) feeling" - 忄is a compact version of 心 / xīn / "heart"
- 请 / qǐng / "please" (ex.: "please open the door") - 讠is a compact version of 言 / yán / "word"
- 晴 / qíng / "fine" (about the weather) - 日 / rì is the "sun"
- 清 / qīng / "clear" (ex.: "a clear soup") - 氵is a compact version of 水 / shuǐ / "water"
Interestingly, some characters, when used as semantic components, often specifically identify words from a given lexical field. A simple example is 犭, the compact version of犬 / quǎn / “dog”, which often identifies animals:
- 狼 / láng / "wolf"
- 猪 / zhū / "pig"
- 猫 / māo / "cat"
- 狐狸 / hú'li / "fox" (you may have heard of 狐狸精 / hú'li'jīng, the fox spirits taking the shape of seductive women)
Similarly, Chinese people designate everything which looks like an insect, a worm or a reptile with 虫 / chóng, which is consequently used in the related characters:
- 蛇 / shé / "snake"
- 虾 / xiā / "shrimp"
- 蝴蝶 / hú'dié / "butterfly"
- 蜥蜴 / xī'yì / "lizard"
Our last example, the character 月 / yuè / “moon”, often identifies body parts:
- 脸 / liǎn / "face"
- 肚子 / dù'zi / "belly"
- 脑子 / nǎo'zi / "brain"
- 腿 / tuǐ / "leg"
- 脚 / jiǎo / "foot"
Once again, this only scratches the surface: there are many other ways of forming Chinese characters…
Some notes about learning Chinese
While it is easy to learn Chinese in China, I had to adapt a bit once I was back in France to build a proper learning environment. My way of doing it: Chinese class once a week, tandems with some Chinese partners at least twice a week, a bit of reading, and Chinese TV series when I have spare time. I used to learn vocabulary with the flash card application Anki, but have stopped because it didn’t prove to be that efficient. This probably depends on your goals, though, as flash cards can be very helpful when preparing for an examination for instance. I always focus on tandems when I don’t have much time, because I think practicing conversation is by far the most useful, and it is also a lot of fun. Note that it is easy to find partners on applications like Tandem.
About TV series, I started with 致我们单纯的小美好 and am now watching 大江大河. I’m usually not fond of sickeningly sweet and romantic dramas like 致我们单纯的小美好, but at least it is easy to understand so I recommend it for a start. I definitely recommend 大江大河. Besides, I also heard a lot about the costume drama 琅琊榜, which had a lot of success in China due to its rich and complex plot. It is good to watch (I love the credits song, by the way), but not that useful to study Chinese unless you want to learn a lot of old and specific terms, as well as all the possible ways of addressing someone at the imperial court (殿下, 陛下, whatever…).
I’ve recently discovered the science fiction author Liu Cixin (刘慈欣) and really love his books. If you don’t know where to start, I recommend his short novel The Wandering Earth (流浪地球 - don’t watch the movie). Reading proved to be my most efficient way of acquiring vocabulary. As finding Chinese books can be difficult outside of China and importing them is quite expensive, I buy/download ebooks for my Kobo reader. Even online, I sometimes have trouble finding mainland books and thus often end up buying the Taiwanese version (i.e.: with traditional characters), but as I intend to learn calligraphy I guess it is for the best…
Also, I loved going to KTVs while in Shanghai, and ended up knowing a small repertoire of Chinese songs. My favourites: 小幸运 (the movie is cute, by the way), 小苹果 (stupid, but very fun), 月亮代表我的心, 童话, 平凡之路 (more generally, I really enjoy Pu Shu / 朴树’s songs), 十年, 夜空中最亮的星, 卡路里, 学猫叫 (don’t ask why…), Superstar, 刚好遇见你, 那些年 (I like the movie).