The years of transition between the Ming and Qing dynasties were dominated by different attitudes towards art and current events. Shi Tao belonged to a group known as the Four Monks (the other three being, Hong Ren, Kun Can and Bada Shanren). The four monks painted in reaction to conservative trends where artists were preoccupied with reproducing landscapes of old masters in highly ornamental and somewhat rigid styles. Like the other three monks, Shi Tao preferred to avoid obsessive reference to the past, instead he believed one must seek his own style and paint freely without fears or restrictions. Promoting that an artist should have the courage to break with conventions and explore the unknown, an attack against those artists who preferred to stay safe by engaging in dialogue with the great figures of the past, which was seen as a symbol of high art and cultural refinement but was really a conservative trend that lacked real originality. The attack against conventions is at the same time a political protest against the occupation of China by the foreign Manchu rulers and the dissatisfaction with a new reality imposed on the locals.
This explains why the Four Monks preferred to turn their back on society and avoid collaborating with the aggressive Qing rulers. Only Kun Can was a monk before the arrival of the Qing Dynasty in 1644, the other three including Shi Tao became monks more as a symbol of protest and dissatisfaction than genuine religiosity. Shi Tao's later works are less hostile towards the rulers and show a closer affinity to nature. As Shi Tao reached old age his works display the unrestricted and carefree brush work of a truly great master. His Landscapes may seem crude to western viewers but they actually represent the type of atmosphere Chinese landscapists and viewers admired the most. His art, although unrestrained in brush work, still maintains a lyrical mood that is captivating in its simplicity and warmth.
Shi Tao was a prolific painter his works are not confined to landscapes but also include orchids, bamboo, lotuses, plum blossoms, different fruit and vegetables and more. His theories on painting were very influential and won him the reputation of one of the most famous painting theorists in the Chinese tradition.