WUHAN, Oct. 6 (Xinhua) -- Xiong Qinghua was thought of by friends and neighbors as a freak, but now the farmer from central China's Hubei province is making hay in the art world.
"I am no Picasso. I am Xiong Qinghua, with my own style," the 41-year-old said, with no hint of irony.
Somewhat taciturn, Xiong is nothing if not persistent. Living in the village of Yongchanghe, he became interested in painting at the age of six.
"Everyone mocked me, telling me I was nothing but a peasant boy with no reason to paint," but he carried on.
He copied pictures from comic books; first with a pen, and later with a brush.
In junior middle school, he had a great art teacher who told him that he was "very talented and would become a great painter."
"With his encouragement, I practiced more and more, even during classes for other subjects," Xiong said. His painting improved, but his scores in other subjects dropped.
In the third year of his junior middle school, he decided to drop out. "I found the lessons quite hard, and I couldn't be bothered with homework," he said. "I had no confidence in the classes. Only painting gave me something to be proud of."
When not painting, he did some farm work.
"Why don't you learn some skills?" other villagers asked. The "skills" they talked about, of course did not include painting.
A matchmaker once introduced a woman to Xiong who unceremoniously dumped him which she found out about the constant painting.
In 1999, Xiong, 23 then, fell in love with Fu Aijiao, who was one of the few people who admired his talent.
After their first child was born however, Fu told him to go out and earn some money, so he followed her to Shenzhen and found a job.
"I worked on an assembly line, polishing pieces of metal," he said. "The work was not creative and I felt like a machine. I hated life like that and quit after three days."
Xiong told his wife that he would rather starve than do such work, and he meant it.
"She yelled at me, before collapsing on the bed and wailing," he said. "The more she cried, the more I was determined to become a good painter."
He went back to his hometown and took up the brush again. "I began to paint the real scenery and people I saw," Xiong said. "If you put what you see into a painting, it will be a good one."
When he felt frustrated, he would anaesthetize himself with pop songs, listening to Michael Jackson at maximum volume.
The turning point came in 2009, when former classmate Lei Caibing met him 18 years on.
"I was surprised to see him so haggard," said Lei.
Xiong showed him around in his "studio," where paint and sketches were strewn all over on the floor.
Lei was especially impressed by one painting of two big kites flying over a field of yellow flowers. Another painting showed a man whipping a cow pulling cart against a blue sky.
"These are the scenes of our past," he marvelled.
Lei posted photograph of the paintings online and soon Xiong had his first customer, a woman from Shanghai.
Xiong is no business man, so the woman talked with Lei and finally bought five paintings for 5,000 yuan (about 750 U.S. dollars) bringing a seachange to the attitude of other villagers. "They were surprised to see that a painting could sell 1,000 yuan," he said.
In 2010, Xiong had ten buyers. Two paintings about childhood games were sold to a gallery in Chengdu, capital of southwest China's Sichuan Province, for 10,000 yuan each.
In 2015, he signed a contract with a gallery in Beijing, where he sold around 200 of his works. Some of the buyers were from overseas. He even had an exhibition at the 798 Art Zone, a famous artistic community in Beijing.
Despite his success, Xiong's habits remain unchanged. He works uninterrupted all day, every day he can. He only takes a bite of a steamed bun for lunch.
"Someone suggested I found a company or a school, but I just want to improve my own painting," he said.
Xiong found his 16-year-old son is also talented in painting but not so hard-working. "He likes playing online games. 'Painting is no use,' he told me. He calls it a waste of time."