Mass Painting

4 December 2013

Entrepreneur turns oil paintings into global industry in Shenzhen

By Mark O’Neill

Zhang Wenmin sits at his desk with a big smile on his face, surrounded by his paintings. The cheapest ones sell for just 15 yuan and the most expensive for tens of thousands.

“One day I did ten Baltic Sea pictures. I lined them up together and, while the paint was drying on one, I worked on the next. When I had done the finishing touches on the last one, the paint had dried on the first and I went back to it.”

Welcome to Dafen Village, in a northern suburb of Shenzhen, which produces more than 60 percent of the world’s annual output of oil paintings, sold in China and around the world. More than 10,000 painters work here, with the value of their production last year reaching two billion yuan.

“If you become famous, you leave and sell to galleries and auction houses in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong,” said Zhang. “Here this is commerce, it is not fine art.”

Around his shop is a labyrinth of streets and alleyways that are home to 1,200 galleries, workshops, studios and retailers selling the paint, paper, stone and other items the artists need. There are also cafés, bars and restaurants where you can take a rest between purchases. As you walk, you can see many of the artists at work.

Their pieces can be found in hotels, doctor and dentist waiting rooms, reception halls, clubs, airport lounges and private homes from Dallas to Dublin, Malmo to Melbourne.

The pictures can be copies of anything – from da Vinci, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Gauguin, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, the cafés of Montmartre and New York to photographs of Johnny Cash, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Chairman Mao, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping.
A famous image of Deng Xiaoping in a beige chair holding a cigarette above a white tea cup sells for 6,000 yuan: another one of him with a wry smile while he plays bridge – his favourite pastime, ahead of watching the Premier League – goes for 3,000. Prices are negotiable.

For the first 20 years, the main markets were in Europe and North America, including Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer. Now, due to the economic crisis in the West and the appreciation of the renminbi, domestic clients predominate. So the painters have turned their hand to misty lakes, jagged mountain tops, pagodas, chubby children and other themes preferred by Chinese clients.

Dafen is a triumph of entrepreneurship and hard work, not beauty and creativity. It has become the world factory for oil paintings as other cities in China have done for shoes, shirts, furniture and iPads.

Village founder

The ‘father’ of Dafen is Huang Jiang, a native of Sihui, part of Zhaoqing city in Guangdong province. On a wall close to the entrance is a large photograph of him, a biography of him in Chinese and English and photos of him meeting national leaders who have come to see the village.

Huang lost his father at a young age and received his education in Guangzhou. His mother, a primary school teacher, passed on to him her love of art. In 1966, he graduated from high school with marks good enough to enter the city’s Zhongshan University – but the Cultural Revolution started and, like millions of other students, he was sent to work in the countryside – a village in Huadu, a suburb of Guangzhou.

After four years, he decided to escape to Hong Kong and try his luck there. He worked on a construction site, as a decorator and a bartender in a night club; he went to painting classes during the daytime.

He started to paint and sell his own works. While the average person earned HK$1,000 a month, he was able to take home HK$3–5,000. He was a commercial artist, selling to clients both in Hong Kong and in Europe and North America.

In 1981, through the introduction of a client in Macao, he opened an oil painting factory and started giving classes in Jinjiang city in Fujian. Within a year, the project failed but he developed friendships with the students he taught there.

In 1982, he opened an oil painting factory in Guangzhou, to fulfil the orders he had obtained in Hong Kong from clients in Europe and North America.

The business flourished. In 1986, like thousands of other entrepreneurs, he moved to Shenzhen, to take advantage of China’s largest special economic zone (SEZ). He moved his factory to a site in the Lowu district in the city centre. But he found the rents and the cost of paying and housing his 26 apprentices too high and decided to look for a cheaper site.

Dafen project is born

It was in August 1989 that Huang and his colleagues found Dafen. It was a poor village with an area of 0.77 square kilometres; its 300 residents earned an annual salary of less than 300 yuan growing rice, pineapple and lychee. They welcomed the artists – they saw an opportunity to improve their incomes and the quality of life in the village.

The benefit for Huang was that rent and living costs were very low and it was only 30 minutes’ drive from downtown Shenzhen. New painters he wanted to bring in from outside did not require a SEZ entry permit either.

That is how the Dafen model was born. Huang lived, worked and slept alongside his apprentices; everyone did mass production of oil paintings. He was the manager and chief of sales, going to Hong Kong to meet clients and take orders.

In Renaissance Europe, an artist needed several months to complete a masterpiece – but not in Dafen. Huang ordered his employees each to do a part of the reproduction and work on several pieces at the same time, for maximum productivity. He paid according to output; the more you did, the more you earned.

Word spread and more people came; they rented space in the village and worked all hours of the day and night.

Production grows

In 1992, he got his biggest order to date, from an American buyer – 350,000 copies of two oil paintings measuring 8cm x 10cm. He had one month to complete the order and earned five-to-six yuan for each copy.

In 1994, he received an order from New Zealand – 55,000 copies of an oil painting of 24cm x 36cm, also to be completed in one month. The profit was 20 yuan per copy.

By now, he had 2,000 people working under him; overtime was essential to complete the orders. From 1992, he stopped painting himself and became a full-time manager, taking orders from Europe, North America, South Africa and Asia and ensuring their smooth execution. Since his English was not so good, he had to rely on his wife as interpreter.

As the scale of the business grew, his apprentices asked to leave Huang’s firm and set up on their own. He did not oppose them, reasoning that they would help to increase the overall turnover of Dafen.

In 1997, two of the 26, Wu Ruizhou and his brother Wu Ruiqiu, made such a request. Huang agreed and gave them 3,000 yuan in start-up capital; now they run one of the biggest companies in the village. Some left to go to Beijing, Shanghai and other cities; some stayed in oil paintings, others invested in new businesses, like property.  Now only six of the original 26 remain in painting in Dafen.

The success of the model attracted painters from all over China to settle in Dafen. Others came to set up galleries and open shops to provide raw materials to the painters. The majority of the paintings went to overseas markets, especially in Western countries. The proximity of the village to Yantian Port and Shenzhen airport made shipment abroad quick and convenient.

Generals and foot soldiers

Zhang Wenmin remembers the early days. “When I came here in 1993, there were just 100 painters. By 1998, there were 500, and now there are more than 5,000. A few of them left, but more arrived.” In 1999, the first painting market was established in the village.

One of the arrivals was Yuan Luo, who sits in a small stall in a corridor of shops, in front of a portrait he painted of Steve Jobs. “It took me one week to do it and costs 2,000 yuan. I admire him. He created something really new.” There are also portraits of ex-Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and a Buddhist monk, who passed away at 106; they are two other people he admired. He did all three portraits from photographs.

He used to be a designer. After he moved to Dafen, he became a full-time painter. “The life of painters here is hard. The prices are low and competition is fierce. It is the large companies that make money.”

For its first decade, the village grew without outside input; the local government regarded it as a ‘wild animal’. But, as the scale of production and export orders increased, the government became involved. It invested in improving the roads and infrastructure of the village. In April 2002, the painters took part in the Canton Trade Fair for the first time.

In 2005, turnover reached 200 million yuan, of which 90 percent was exported to Europe, North America and the Middle East.

In November 2006, the painters showed their works at the Asian Culture Center in Manhattan for the first time. In 2007, the city government invested in a Dafen Art Museum, the largest of its kind in Shenzhen, as a venue for the works of the painters in the village and from outside. It built 268 apartments and rented them to artists for a modest fee, to offset the problems caused by the high rents in the city.

The 2008 international financial crisis was a major blow. Orders at the Canton Trade Fair in October that year were a miserable 1.08 million yuan, compared to 30 million at the previous fair six months earlier.

In December 2010, the village held its first International Oil Painting Exhibition & Trade Fair and Oil Painting Art Festival. Sales reached 655 million yuan, of which 380 million came from abroad.

The next stage will be construction of an Oil Painting Industry Complex, which is included in the 12th five-year plan (2011–2016) of Shenzhen; it will cover 16.6 hectares in the first phase and a further 30.29 hectares in the second phase. The official target for sales is five billion yuan by 2015.

The success of Dafen is the story of the entrepreneurship and hard work of Huang and his 26 apprentices and the many others who followed their example. It is also a story of Shenzhen, which provided him, like other entrepreneurs, with the environment in which to achieve his ambitions.

Just as millions of people around the world walk to the office wearing Chinese shoes, they see all around them the work of the Dafen painters.