As Xu Gang lays an iron stick on an electric welding machine, the high temperature instantly reddens and softens the stick. He immediately bends the stick and hits it with a hammer. Soon, an iron crane is born.
Xu is an iron painter in the city of Wuhu, eastern China's Anhui Province. The city has abundant iron mines, and iron painting became an important part of local art thanks to advanced metal refining skills in ancient China and the traditional emphasis on Chinese culture.
"I have been in this business for 30 years," said Xu. "It's a difficult job, but I love it."
Recently, Xu's paintings stole the spotlight at the Jiuci Old Town tourist attraction in Wuhu, as the local government tries to promote Anhui cultural relics such as Anhui paintings and Anhui ink in the newly-expanded old town, which officially opened to the public in December.
Wuhu iron paintings took shape at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Artists use iron blades and iron sticks to create a variety of decorations. China listed the craftsmanship as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2006.
The iron paintings drew inspiration from traditional Chinese brush paintings, but the iron sticks replaced the brush strokes. They mostly depict mountains, water, plants and birds and exude a sense of elegance and charm.
Before Xu became an iron painter, he was an ordinary, skilled worker in a local iron plant in Wuhu, churning out iron products.
"Although I was working at the iron plant, my heart yearned for iron paintings," he said.
In Wuhu, there were already workshops specializing in iron paintings, and Xu made up his mind to learn the art.
"The lessons were basically one on one," Xu recalled. "There was no systematic way of teaching, so we had to follow our masters very carefully."
To craft a good painting, it is important to understand the delicate strength when making the iron curves.
"Every detail requires extra attention," he said.
At first, Xu did not master the techniques, and his failures often frustrated him. However, he would spend hours learning until he owned the skills.
"It was boring. We mainly spent our time pounding the iron sticks to learn about precision," he recalled. "I needed to make sure that every hit pounded the thin iron wires."
Xu said he would beat the sticks thousands of times a day, and the practice lasted a month before he proceeded to design entire paintings.
"Because there were sparks everywhere, it was normal to get burnt," Xu said. "It was tiring, but I am glad I made it."
Xu said iron painters often have burns on their hands, and the fingerprints have almost disappeared on their thumbs, index fingers and middle fingers because they constantly bend the iron wires with their fingers.
A SOLID CAREER
Making the paintings requires eight complicated procedures, Xu said.
"We need to have a picture first, burn the furnaces, make the iron sticks into the shapes and add lacquer and color," he said. "For elements like the crane, I am swift in creating it because I have done it so many times."
But for tailor-made products, it usually takes more time and energy because every painting is handmade.
"There are no two identical iron paintings in the world," he said. "Every painting is unique."
Xu said that most iron paintings are colorless these days because "the black color perfectly represents the styles of Chinese calligraphy and brush paintings."
The tough job has scared away many young people from learning the craftsmanship.
"You need to have a deep understanding of iron paintings and work really hard," he said.
In 2017, the Wuhu government issued a regulation to protect iron painting. It encourages colleges and vocational schools in the city to set up related courses to turn out talents in this regard.
Xu said that they are working with universities to increase the art's influence among young people.
"I often invite students to come over to visit, and we communicate," Xu said. "I want them to appreciate the essence of the art."