Influenced by the works of Matisse, Picasso, Paul Klee and Cézanne, Zao Wou-ki’s distinctive paintings were abstract in style. He used vivid colour palettes alongside light and dark areas in his work to produce intense big-bang-like images. Zao studied calligraphy in his hometown Dantu, and later, painted at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou under Fang Ganmin and Wu Dayu.
Zao’s wife Lan-lan was a composer, and it was with her that he moved to Paris. His early exhibitions in Paris were successful, drawing praise from artists such as Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso. In 1957, after Zao and his wife divorced, Zao decided to visit his younger brother Chao Wu-Wai who lived in America, close to New York City. Next, Zao travelled to Hong Kong where he met his second wife Chan May-Kan, an actress with two children from a previous marriage. Zao encouraged Chan May-Kan to nurture her creative talents as a sculptor. She was very successful thanks to the help of Zao but sadly in 1972 she committed suicide at the age of 41, a victim of mental illness.
Zao’s paintings were named with the date he finished them. He worked on triptych or diptych canvas sets and was considered one of the most successful Chinese painters during his era. The highest recorded sale of one of his works was HKD 202,600,000 (US$25,949,076) in 2017. Zao died in 2013 at his home in Switzerland.