Wednesday, June 13, 2018


This post has nothing to do with art. But I feel like I need to say something. This past week two well-known people had committed suicide, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Two people I actually like.  They both hanged themselves, Kate Spade with a scarf (as befitting a fashion designer, sorry to say this), and Bourdain with a bath robe belt three days later. I wonder if he got the hint from Kate.

I like Kate Spade's design. I have a handbag and a set of pajamas from her brand. Her death almost feels personal. Shocking. And I have been binge watching Bourdain's Parts Unknown on Netflix. Seeing him mingling with the local people in obscure parts of the world, smiling with his kind eyes, and enjoying great food, you feel like he's still with us.

They were deemed highly successful people, at least by worldly standards. Yet all I could think of is, how dark they must've had felt in their hearts before they took that final step to take their own lives. They were creative people. Sensitive and gentle souls. And they suffered, and were tormented, in their minds and hearts, Kate by depression (and possibly the break of her marriage), and Bourdain by I don't know what.

I hope they rest in peace and they have found a better place to be for themselves.

I had very few encounters with death personally. Guess I have been fortunate. The only death in my family was years ago when my dad's father passed away. I was little back then, and had very little memory of my grandfather. The only thing I remember was playing with my cousins in my uncle's house in the countryside. On a dare I walked into the room with the coffin placed in the middle alone at night, and suddenly froze and was gripped by fear, as if I was facing death in person and totally felt its presence. I ran out as fast as I could. But then I giggled with my cousins at the funeral the next day. You can imagine my father wasn't pleased, to say the least.

Another recent death of someone I know came rather as a shock too. A college classmate (technically we were not classmates. I was a journalism major and he's in Chinese Literature, but we had classes together sometimes). Died of lung cancer. Tall and good-looking, he was popular. The kind of guy who would throw a paper ball at you from the back row and pretend he didn't do it. I can't say I know him too well, although we had a good rapport. I had not heard about him for twenty years until a few months ago. The cancer took his life rather quickly. He smoked and drank with abandon (at least that's what I heard). He had moved to the city where my family is living now and became a reporter/editor in charge of the sports section of the city newspaper. I can't imagine how his wife and child are coping.

Anyway the post is getting a little sentimental. But I think we are allowed to do that sometimes.

These recent suicidal deaths teach me to be more empathetic. Sometimes people's cheerful fronts are just that, a facade. You never know the cross some people have to bear, and the private pains they endure. And for those of us who are living, if we seem to have a good life, it's because we are lucky.

P.S. This is going off on a weird tangent, but I once read a book by a psychic who is also a psychiatrist. She was treating a patient with severe depression. One day the patient came in for an appointment and looked more spirited than she ever had been. She told the doctor how she had been feeling better and how the medication really helped her. The doctor somehow drifted into a trance for a few seconds watching the clouds in the sky outside the window. A thought popped into her head: she is going to kill herself. But she pushed that thought away, thinking it's ridiculous. A week later, the patient did commit suicide. The doctor blamed herself for not heeding her intuition and wowed to never let that happen again. Well if only we could.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Painting from photos

Is it really a sin to paint from photos, especially when the photos are not taken by yourself? Well these are all done from photos I found online. I kind of got tired of model sessions with harsh lighting and uninspiring outfits. So just experimented with different photos of Asian, Caucasian, olive-skinned, and African-American people. I think I still learned and practiced painting different skin tones. 

What I learned: simplify values, colors and shapes. Do not paint everything you see. Focus on where the light and shadow meets. That’s where the most interesting drawing takes place and where local colors make an appearance. It helps to premix a few colors for the major shapes in your painting. And I find I get more nuanced colors when I mix with a palette knife.

Next I went on to figure painting. Found this photo of an art model with dramatic lighting online. 

Not quite finished but almost there. I have to say I used an app to blur out the photo a little bit, which helps to take away some details. It’s kind of like squinting but without actually squinting your eyes.

I was working on this painting today. It was 12 pm and I was deep in grappling with accurate half tones and shapes on the model’s back. Suddenly I got a call from the school nurse who informed me that my son’s got a deep cut on his finger (by scissors, not by his own doing. It was an accident) and he needed stitches. I picked him up and he got four stitches at the emergency care. But he feels pretty good now. Ah, life with a kid. Always be prepared for something. Poor little guy cried and cried on the way to see the doctor because it hurt so much.

So...where was I? Oh yeah I still learned from painting photos. About accurate placement of colors and shapes to suggest muscles and the bone structure underneath. It’s not necessarily an evil to paint from photos per se, but it’s helpful to have painting from life experiences to inform the process. And I’m glad I was home and was able to take care of my son as well. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Summer flowers

Oil on linen panel, 11 x 14

These flowers are from a local fruit stand. I love how organic and different they look, unlike those ones you usually see in grocery stores and even flower shops. 

I remember Quang Ho said in his still-life painting video that the best still-life has a sense of randomness in it. Like you just happen to find it in its current state. It does not look staged. You can experiment and put different things together, and see how they look. You might even spend hours arranging it yet it looks a bit haphazard and beautiful. 

These flowers fell into a graceful arrangement once I put them in a tall vase, bursting with colors and life. I really slowed down for this painting. I usually paint flowers very fast, carried by the initial excitement and the urgency that the flowers will soon change shape. But this time I was drawn to study each flower, its structure and character. There is clarity and satisfaction in observing those details carefully. 

That light green flower literally took me over three hours. I had to scrape it and start over the next day. It's very engrossing. What I learned is if I stare at it long enough I can actually paint its every petal instead of going cross-eyed, and come to a better understanding of the light and shadow pattern on the flower. And the silhouette of each flower is very important. It tells the distinct character of each flower.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Joshua Been lecture and demo

I went to a Joshua Been lecture and demo last Saturday at my friend Hai-ou Hou's place, Chesapeake Fine Art Studio. It was great. He basically has it down to a science, including figuring out a myriad of plein air gear and his approach to plein air painting. He has a very disciplined way, which I lack, that includes always doing a pre-sketch with four value markers before he starts painting. This neat little pack is what he uses to make black-and-white sketches. You can buy it on his website.


That pen with a little white sphere on top is what he uses to determine the precise direction of the light source. 

He breaks down the visual language into four elements, values, shapes, edges and texture. The values are the foundation and you lay it down by doing pre-sketches. I used to do it sometimes, like a thumb-nail sketch, but usually for my studio paintings, or figuring out a composition for my ideas. When it comes to plein air painting, there is this urgency because the light changes so fast, so I tend to jump right in. If the first composition doesn't work, I just wipe it out and redraw it, and that tones my canvas too. I almost like the chaos, the not-knowing, and the unpredictable nature of the process. My friend Janice has been doing these sketches. Maybe I should start making them now!


This is his palette on the day-tripper easel he designed and sell on his website. Janice already bought one. It's very lightweight. He only uses seven colors: titanium white, lemon yellow(missing?), cadmium yellow medium, cadmium orange, burnt sienna, cerulean blue hue, alizarin crimson, and ultramarine blue. No black. He starts the painting thick, no thinned washes.


This compact little thing is his fly-on-the-wall easel. It's good for painting in tight places where you really don't want to cause a scene! He used this to paint the dinosaurs in the Smithonian museum in DC. I like his dinosaur paintings.



And this little sunset(sunrise?) painting.


Then he did a demo, a larger piece from a smaller study. 



He's a great plein air artist, and articulated his methods clearly and wonderfully. I bought his book. It will come in the mail. Now the thing is go out there and do it myself!

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Outdoor figure painting

Oil on linen panel, 12 x 16

This is actually my first ever outdoor figure painting. Can you believe it? I painted this with my artist friend Abigail on my deck. Abigail has a lot of experience painting outdoor figures since she studied with John Ebersberger and at the Cape Cod School of Art. She's done many mud heads, figures on the beach, etc. She couldn't believe I had never painted a figure outdoors. But it's true. Somehow all my portraits and figures were done indoor with controlled lighting. But I'm liking the outdoor light with the cool reflected light on the model's face.

It was a cloudy day and made for an interesting study of the colors on the model's skin and kimono. Later the sun kept coming in and out of the clouds, making painting more difficult. It's a complete different painting when the sun is out! 

Kuniko is a great model. She always arrives early, times herself, and holds the pose very steady. We are happy to have her working with us.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Azalea garden



The weather is getting warmer and better for plein air painting. My artist friend Janice knows about this pretty azalea garden in Clarksville and I painted with her there a couple of times in the past two weeks. There are tons of azaleas of different colors, white, pink, fuchsia, and violet. They peaked last week and are going away now. But what a beautiful sight when they are all blooming by the water!  

Friday, March 3, 2017

Figure studies


Same model in both paintings. I'll have to work more on the second painting at the second session.