There are six principles by which Liyuen paintings are judged by:
Firstly, by their technique, the way the artist holds their brush in not only their depictions of the world but their calligraphy of Liyue’s written word. Calligraphy is, in the end, inseparable from painting and an artform of itself.
Secondly, by their accuracy, how quickly you can discern what the artist means to portray upon your eyes glancing on the painting. Unlike other nations, Liyuens rarely deal in the abstracts; traditional paintings are intricate, beautiful, real.
Thirdly, the applications of colors, the suitability of the tones and the hues to the mood. A majestic landscape does require, after all, similar respect in its portrayal, in all its shining colorful arrays of blooming spring flowers to its muted mysticism when shrouded in mountainous winter fog.
Fourthly, the division of the painting: where each object is on the canvas, and how the artist not only utilizes the space but how they also choose to leave corners of the paper untouched. It is not good to have your painting considered ‘busy’, to have onlookers confused on where to place their eyes; it must have coherence, order, a seamless flow from one direction to another.
Fifth, and this is one many struggle with: the copying of models, not only from life but from other historical works of art. Many rebel against the notion that great works from long-dead bones should constrict what Liyuens define as ‘art’, but such thinking still prevails nonetheless: the highest form of painting not only has everything described above, but also pays respect to the weight of Liyue’s history, drawing men and maple in the same way one who stood before you three thousand years ago once did as well.
And lastly, the most difficult principle which is not simply so easily learnt: the spirit of the artist themselves. This is the reason why Zhongli has never been able to paint to his own satisfaction.
Academically, he knows what constitutes a good Liyuen painting. It is by his own admirations, after all, that the groundwork of these principles were laid upon: he had always enjoyed portrayals of Liyue’s gorgeous landscapes, and to this day they remain the most highly-regarded form of art. When the sons of man witnessed incredible historical events of three thousand years past and committed them to canvas, it is Zhongli who collected those painted memories. It is Zhongli’s praises of their skill which created the tradition where all young artists never truly consider themselves a real Liyuen painter if they have not yet redrawn Demon Conqueror and Baqiu in their own flavor, depicting the yaksha in golden wings and splendid jade spear which tore the ancient sea beast asunder like an eagle diving from the very heights of Celestia.
For most of his very, very long life, Zhongli had no reason to paint. At first, he believes that humanity creates pieces of art, water on canvas to fire in the kiln, in order to immortalize themselves in something that will live beyond their fragile bodies. Such a desire is foreign to one who faces an eternity sprawled beyond the very stars themselves. But when he grows old, older than he already always was, the paintings of Guizhong along the lakeside of Nantianmen transform instead into depictions of a mortal woman frolicking along Yaoguang Shoal, with hair that is not hers, hands that are not hers, a smile that is, still, hers, but her humanity is the only thing they still manage to capture. Even those imitating the Demon Conqueror and Baqiu begin to paint Xiao in extravagant golden hues, striking amber scales and incredible talons of gold, so much so that Xiao would not recognize himself in their artistry if not for the lone nuo mask which has remained loyal to every depiction.
Zhongli learns, then, that even though the fifth principle of Liyuen art emphasizes on respecting the weight of their history, even the Geo Archon’s commandments cannot shackle the passion of mortals to artworks created by long-dead bones. That in time, even the most famous of pieces will have their meanings forgotten to the annals of history, and Guizhong’s name becomes naught but a whispered footnote in the displays of art exhibitions till the day no one knows what it means. The beautiful smile upon the lakeside becomes humanity’s interpretation of a mortal girl’s love, and it is gorgeous in its own right, but it is not her, the one who stretched her hand out to a terrifying god and asked him to paddle in the waters, illuminated in the splendor the Liyuen sun before it was ever choked in her dust.
And so he begins to paint.
As with many things, he is a natural. He is clumsy, at first, for his hands are ones that wield weapons of war and create mountains of gold out of the very rock and earth, but they are not the gentle, precise fingertips he needs for the the art he envisions in his own mind. But he has always had the luxury of time, and so he paints, and paints, and paints, and sometimes, they find their way into mortal hands.
No matter what pseudonym he goes under, Zhongli’s paintings are always regarded as astounding works of art, the signs of an artist who has truly mastered their craft. The technique is immaculate, calligraphy beautifully intertwined; their accuracy is breathtaking, absolutely true to life; the colors he chooses are muted in earthy browns in that perfect way which carries the scent of freshly-tilled soil; the painting is full of life as it is emptiness, wonderfully spaced in the beats between gorgeous details and blank space. And his respect to former works, oh, it is so striking that one can almost fool themselves into thinking he is the self-same artist who lived three thousand years past.
And the spirit of the artist--
“It is not there,” Zhongli once said to a group of critics, and he merely smiled as they shouted him down, amber eyes twinkling in amusement. They will never know he is the self-same artist who lived three thousand years past. “No, there is still something missing.”
Zhongli learns of Albedo before Albedo ever learns of him.
He grants the man his Vision, after all, shining amber and glowing Geo. Yes, he has always known of Albedo, but it is not until the traveler brings him to Liyue that they had the good fortune of meeting face-to-face, archon to the one they have blessed. This is Mondstadt’s greatest alchemist, Lumine introduced, and Albedo does not protest to the praise because it is simply true. He’ll be coming along on our journey.
“A beautiful nation with beautiful sights to behold,” Albedo sighs in admiration, as if they had not just endured a grueling climb up Mount Hulao to farm more Cor Lapis for Zhongli’s (“very rock-hungry”, said Lumine) ascensions. “How about a quick break so I can sketch this beautiful scenery?”
“I was not aware you are an artist,” Zhongli says, and Albedo unfolds a painting stand from his own knapsack, materializing a brush of concentrated Geo into his fingers. “I hope you do not mind if I observe you. I have spent many years studying the art of Liyue, but possess woefully limited knowledge of paintings outside these borders.”
Albedo twirls the brush in his hand, before giving Zhongli a nod. “You... may not receive the most accurate picture of a Mondstadtian artist from me. Chief Alchemist of the Knight of Favonius I may be, I am not a native to the city myself.”
“Ah, but that only piques my curiosity further,” Zhongli says with a gentle smile, and the two of them continue ignoring Lumine and Chongyun in the background as they break rocks and fight slimes. “But do not let me distract you any further. Paint as you wish.”
And so Albedo does, crystallizing the very beauty of Liyue in one single moment.
His art is divine, so much so that it surprises Zhongli himself-- how the brushstrokes of a foreigner can so accurately capture the view of a land mired in its own history. At the same time, he is unrestrained by the shackles of long-dead bones, and obviously not trained in the art of Liyuen calligraphy-- the critics, Zhongli thinks in amusement, are already a cacophony within his own mind: it is too bright, too busy, too breathtaking. It lacks of the muted, faint watercolors of a Liyuen painting and instead opts for the strikingly bold hues reminiscent of Inazuman woodblock paintings; a wholly magnificent art in their own right, yes, but it is not Liyuen, yet abjectly is.
And when he is done, Zhongli turns to Albedo and asks: “Are you influenced by Inazuman works?”
“Oh... yes, I am,” Albedo confirms, somewhat impressed by Zhongli’s astute observations. “The illustrations from Inazuma hold such incredible narrative power, captured in a single still upon one unmoving page. I try my best to convey that very same power into my own art... in fact, I’ve collaborated with a Liyuen writer before, bringing his words to life. Have you ever heard of ‘A Legend of Sword’?”
“I am not familiar with that title, but I shall seek it out,” Zhongli hums. Somewhere down the mountain, Chongyun sneezes, and wonders if his best friend has somehow gotten into trouble somewhere. “The way you have captured the landscape of Liyue from this height is spectacular. The way you have portrayed the angle of our ascension with bold colors for the red leaves that linger close by, while using softer lines for that which lies far away... you are an artist of great skill indeed.”
Albedo tosses his paintbrush away, letting it dissipate into the wind. “Thank you,” he says with a gracious bow and a tone which reveals how he is all too used to being heaped with praise. “You seem like a man of great knowledge yourself, Zhongli. Lumine had alluded to you knowing a lot about Liyue... are you an art critic?”
“Haha, no-- while I respect many an occupation within our walls, I could not imagine myself with such a... miserable pastime,” Zhongli words as carefully as possible, and it evokes a short but genuine laugh from Albedo’s lips. “I do, however, collect antiques in my spare time. Though your painting is as close to a newborn as one can get, I would be glad to add your piece to my collection.”
“Oh, you may keep it without payment, if you so wish,” Albedo says, and when Zhongli opens his mouth to argue, the alchemist continues with: “Besides, Lumine has oft complained that you are without mora for the payment of anything at all.”
“You... are correct,” Zhongli admits, bringing a hand to his chin as he thinks. “However, one’s skill should be compensated fairly. I find it difficult to agree to a contract where I receive something of value and yet give nothing in return.”
“Then... how about an art trade?” Albedo proposes, and he crystallizes another paintbrush in his fingers before handing it to Zhongli. “Sometimes, artists in Mondstadt will create paintings of the same subject in their own styles and give them to one another in a gesture of friendship. I have never done any myself-- I lack the time for establishing relationships which require consistent effort in matters not concerning alchemy-- but there is a first time for everything, as they would say. Should you agree, I have another canvas, and extra paint on my person.”
Zhongli nods in agreement, a smile returning his face. “An art trade. Yes, that is a suitable arrangement. And I am to illustrate the same subject that you have?”
“Yes,” Albedo says, and he gestures at the view that still remains in front of them, made just barely different by the gradual motion of the sun. “I am curious to see how one of Liyue would paint their own countryside.”
The brush of Geo resonates in Zhongli’s fingers, and, somehow, something tugs within the deeps of his very soul, at the very godliness he had vacated from his chest and left behind in La Signora’s hands.
Zhongli looks up, surveying the landscape, and he paints.
He paints, and paints, and paints, not even cognizant of how the sun sets and Lumine sets up camp behind them. He paints even through Chongyun calling the two of them over for dinner, paints as Lumine begrudgingly stuffs Mora Meat into Zhongli’s own mouth for him so he may continue busying his hands, paints as Albedo begins to realize Zhongli is no longer drawing the same subject he has.
It is past midnight when Albedo finally speaks up, as Lumine and Chongyun lay asleep by the campfire behind them. “Zhongli, this is incredible,” he says, and then he gestures yet again at the view in front of them, now dotted in stars and fireflies-- “but that is... not at all the Liyue I see in front of me.”
“Ah,” Zhongli says, as if he has only just realized that. “My apologies. I shall redo--”
“No, it is wonderful as it is,” Albedo clarifies. “I am simply wondering... how did you paint a landscape like this--” --his fingers trace over the dried portions of the canvas, depicting the mountaintops enshrouded in clouds, the yaksha with his jade spear overlooking the sea, the goddess with her human smile by the water’s edge-- “--while studying a landscape that is completely different?”
Zhongli looks up, as he did three thousand years prior, when a greater mountain once stood in his way. When Guizhong traveled here to the water’s edge and Xiao looked over them from the heights above, trying not be noticed but being far too obvious for that. When the people needed a spring of water from Huaguang Stone Forest to continue down to Nantianmen, so Rex Lapis, God of War and the very archon whose name trembles with the might of the earth, brought down the mountain that stood in its way.
“I...” Zhongli exhales wordlessly, for a moment, before shaking his head. “I simply have very good memory.”
“Zhongli,” Albedo begins, “are you Rex Lapis?”
“Yes,” he confirms without a moment’s hesitation. Albedo doesn’t blink. “You do not need to tell me how you have realized my former identity. I have been... informed... that I am not very good at hiding it.”
“Not at all,” Albedo agrees, and the new, adventurous smirk across the alchemist’s face betrays his excitement at the revelation. “So this painting... is it a snapshot of history?”
Zhongli nods. “You are correct. Once, there stood a mighty mountain before us. So mighty that it made carving a water way difficult. Our people had to travel through treacherous roads filled with beasts and demons to attain the fresh spring waters of Huaguang Stone Forest... thus I leveled it to the ground, so that they need not make the journey for something as essential as water.”
“Ah, I did read that Rex Lapis has always been a benevolent archon,” Albedo praises in turn, before looking back at the painting. “If you do not mind, may I bring this image to life?”
Zhongli blinks owlishly. “To... life?”
“Yes, literally. Not metaphorically.” Albedo brings out a sketchpad, very quickly doodling a firefly, and in an instant it rises from the pages, glowing softly in the moonlight. “Through convening with the soul of the artist, I am able to bring their crystallized memories to life, albeit temporarily. It is rather complicated to explain, requiring much knowledge of alchemical terms. Of course, I shall only do it if you give me permission.”
“Soul of the artist...” Zhongli thinks to himself. “You may, but I am unsure if that will work.”
“I am certain it will,” Albedo says with the confidence of a man who knows exactly what they are doing. And so, the alchemist brings his hands to the page,
(“Come now,” Guizhong laughs, stretching her hand out to Morax. “You have had such a long day’s work. Take a rest! You created this lake. Surely you have the right to paddle in it, too?”
It is her smile, her feet wading in the waters, her laugh which reaches his ears and, oh, this is the spirit of the artist, is it not?
“Guizhong,” he breathes, and though he knows she is not real he steps forward all the same, into the waters that he had just carved the lakebed of. In the past, their people had been with them, watching in amazement as Morax singlehandedly flattened a mountain which had stood in their way for generations, but now it is just her, just Guizhong’s memory, the same one which lives in Zhongli’s very soul. He takes her hand and steps into the waters, and it is colder than he remembers, because in the three thousand years past he didn’t actually step in with her, did he? “I have tried so long, to capture your memory--”
“Shh,” she shushes, and then he sees it: her hair is wrong, her hands are wrong, her smile is, undoubtedly, correct, but it is all he had managed to recreate. “And you have, Morax. What a gorgeous world you have created for me, crystallized in one happy memory.”
He reaches out to touch her face and she is paper-thin, almost as fragile as the specks of dust she once held dominion over. “No, I haven’t,” he whispers back, and the water that goes up to his ankles suddenly feel like ice. “It is still not perfect.”
“Morax, nothing we create ever will be,” Guizhong says, and she says it so simply and so confidently that Zhongli, for a moment, actually believes it really is her. “I do not think anyone is capable of capturing the expanse of our memories on a single canvas, Zhongli. Not even you, my dear. After all, can you even remember my voice?”
It is not said in an accusing way. Her voice is gentle, reassuring as it always had been, but it is also not hers. “Even gods with the greatest of memory will not remember every year of six thousand,” Guizhong hums, and as they wade deeper into the water, he realizes she is made of paper. “And just because it is not perfect, Zhongli, does not mean it lacks your soul. Just because you imagine something in your head and struggle to replicate it perfectly on the canvas does not mean your blood and sweat has led to naught.”
She reaches out to cup his face, paper-thin fingers slowly seeping with water, and she begins to crumble, like the long-dead bones that she is. “You paint pictures of a Liyue which no one has ever seen,” she says, even when the memory of her begins to fall apart like dust. “It must feel lonely, holding onto a snapshot in time so old that even you yourself cannot put it back together. But that’s okay. Zhongli--”)
“--Please see the Liyue that is right in front of you,” Albedo finishes, and the woman disappears, the lakeside disappears, they are back on a mountaintop under the starry sky with not a drop of water on Zhongli’s trousers.
Zhongli blinks, and though the canvas is now utterly blank, it is as though a part of his own painting has found its way into the deepest part of his metaphorical heart. “...Albedo, was that all you?”
“No,” Albedo says, but the excited glimmer in his eyes show that he is taken aback all the same. ”Fascinating, though. It is true... dust is the most basic form of complex life. Like how I can create life from the still pictures, I can pull the memory of her from your very mind. A whole new form of creation! What is next? Perhaps I can trasmute-- no, even better, through the refinement of the crystallized memory--”
In spite of holding six thousand years of knowledge, Zhongli proceeds to have no clue about what Albedo is saying.
What he does understand, however, is how the alchemist turns to him with a deep bow before saying: “Thank you, Zhongli. You are a most excellent artist. May we do art trades like these more often?”
And, seeing the Chalk Prince smile so brightly right in front him, Zhongli can only smile back in return. “Of course.”
(From soil was birthed chalk. From dust does form all of complex life. From memory do we recall the importance of looking forward.)