Yang Qi switched from graphic design to advertising because of a "bottleneck of inspiration" seven years ago, but she never dreamed that she would become an artist telling stories with sand.
It all began when she saw a video clip of a sand animation show called The Story of the Bible, by a Hungarian artist in 2004.
"The delicate pictures made of sand and the smooth hand moves appealed to me so much," she said. "I never thought sand could actually be a medium that could tell a story or an idea on stage."
Yang realized sand painting has many things in common with Chinese painting, as both focus on expressing the essence and the spirit of the subject, then she wondered whether she too could master it. She started by painting a galloping horse, a traditional subject in Chinese painting.
Her sand painting of a horse captured the attention of a director friend, who specialized in stage performances, and he arranged a show for her at a New Year's party. It proved very popular with audiences.
A print version of this horse painting still hangs in her office in Beijing.
However, such a smooth start proved deceptive. With no teachers and few learning materials to study, Yang had to research the techniques and materials herself.
First, the sand would stick together when it was too wet and generate static electricity and flow with the hand when it was too dry. The sand she uses now is a special formula, created after many trials and errors, which has just the right humidity for her. Though orange, it presents a glossy tan color on the projector screen.
Another difficulty she encountered was using her hand to draw with the sand.
"For instance, it's easy to draw with only one forefinger, but it doesn't look nice on the screen," she said.
In the beginning, she had problems controlling the width and lightness of lines; by now she has mastered drawing with every part of her hand, including the wrist and the back of her hand.
The hand positions and movements are specially designed to make the performance more visual.
"It's totally different from using a pen," she said.
In 2008, she moved from Shanghai to Beijing. She now has performances every two or three days, often for companies looking for intriguing presentations to introduce their history or products.
"With the music playing, and the hand swirling back and forth, and the pictures on the projector screen constantly changing, people are easily hooked and are eager to know what the next frame will be," she said.
Once, an organizer was concerned that eight minutes was too long for a show, but after she performed, he asked: "Eight minutes already?"
Yang likes performing; it is one of the reasons she decided to make sand animation her career.
"It's different from most painting," she said. "It's an art in which you get to face the audience directly and even get to interact with them."
So far, Yang has done hundreds of performances at press conferences, festivals and TV shows. She has performed at the Shanghai Expo, and has done advertisements for big brands such as Ford and Bosch. Her charge for a single show or advertisement can be as much as 100,000 yuan ($15,000). However, she is still not satisfied with these achievements and her passion for her art means she is always exploring new possibilities.
Yang and her team are now looking at ways to preserve her transient works. They plan to start a sand painting and animation training program for children and teenagers, because "it's not only art, but also a lot of fun".