Zhu a true master in paintings

IMAGINE painting vibrantly at the age of 103. This is Zhu Qizhen, China's most senior living artist, whose works of dashing colours and energy would make young viewers exclaim, ''Do these truly come from a centenarian?'' The 128 pieces of Zhu's art, now displayed at the Special Exhibition Gallery of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, is a fascinating colour feast.

For Zhu, colour is as important as Chinese ink, both of which he uniquely and boldly combines to create a striking graphic quality that distinguishes him from among his more traditional contemporaries.

''His paintings are messages of health and happiness. Viewers derive an unparalleled sense of confidence in life from them,'' commented Dr Leo K. K. Wong, who owns the collection and is a good friend of the artist.

Yet one could hardly expect such zeal from an artist who has lived through the ups and downs of three eras: the Qings, the Kuomintang and now the Communists.

At 91, Zhu had his first largest exhibition in Beijing, after a hibernating period during the Cultural Revolution when a lot of his works were burnt.

As resilient as his Narcissus in Snow (1977), which does not bend under severe weather, Zhu emerged from the revolution with even stronger and more brilliant colouration.

A native of Taicang, Jiangsu, Zhu dabbled with the ink brush when he was barely eight, ''being bad in all other subjects except painting'', Dr Wong says.

Zhu's unconventional use of colours could be traced to his Western art training in Japan at 26 - his works reveal the unmistakable marks of colourists like Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin and Matisse.

The changing hues of Zhu's works keep you wondering what he will come up with next: leaves in blue instead of green, orche for lotus. And stark red bamboo in a blue bush? Autumn Colours (1973) gorgeously exhibits a tree of orange, red and yellow, a sheer fiery burst beside a quiet blue rock, yet a clever use of complementary colours that enhance each other.

If you are laymen on colouration, do not panic. The exhibition provides a highly informative pamphlet on Zhu's use of colours.

It also explains all things technical about Zhu: his ''boneless'' style (direct application of colour without outlines) and ''splash ink'' (unrestrained and spontaneous application of ink and brushwork) which musically release visual rhythm and melody.