Ringing in Tết with Đông Hồ Paintings

At the end of this week, Tết, Vietnamese New Year, will arrive. Vietnamese New Year and Chinese New Year often coincide from year to year, with rare minor differences.

I live out my life alone and isolated from the Vietnamese community, having been raised entirely outside it. Often I feel as if I'm just a stranger looking in at traditions the Western school system cut out of me at a young age.

Nevertheless, international New Year (January 1st on the Gregorian calendar) is part of a traumatic time for me. I still wish to welcome the change of the year, however, so I choose to celebrate Tết now.

One tradition of Tết involves art in the form of Đông Hồ paintings, printed via wood engravings. Here are just two traditional designs:

Traditional Đông Hồ designs.

Subjects include cultural stories and good-luck animals. The style features strong line art and bright colors made from natural pigments: the yellows of resin and aniseed, the red of clay, the blue of verdigris or indigo, the green from cajuput leaves, the black of the carbon ash from burnt bamboo.

Notably there's little concern in traditional Đông Hồ paintings (or much of Southeast Asian and East Asian art, for that matter) for Western-style concepts of soft shading, perspective, or lighting.

Chinese art masters through the ages emphasize the importance of capturing the spirit of the subject over the mere physical likeness of it, a principle that also applies to more Western styles of naturalism and photorealism.

For this year, I created a small painting of my own. Note: snake art incoming!

Snake in my own Đông Hồ inspired style.

The style is reminiscent of Đông Hồ, and yet also farther from it. I'm not reliant on wood printing, so I was able to use finer lines for the snake scales. Instead of using inks, I used colored pencils. In particular, I used a limited pool of Luminance pencils, which have an application so buttery they resemble oil pastels.

The challenge of using an extremely limited palette without color mixing, without even tints or shades, yet communicating life and spirit, was pleasing to me. I additionally used texture in the background.

I remain ill and exhausted, so I might not get around to creating a piece of horse art in a similar style.

But I feel like I connected with my ancestors, somehow, at long last. And that's the gift that art this Tết has given me. I'm grateful.

Thank you for following me on my journey as I seek to reclaim my heritage.

Cảm ơn. Ava

It Feels Good to Do Things

Hello, dear readers! Some thoughts on not doing art for the likes.

I hadn't realized it, but Mr. Rogers had a clip that summarized a lot of what I feel is missing when an artist starts to post for exposure and/or likes. (You can watch the clip here.)

"It feels good to do things. No matter how anybody says it is." — Mr. Rogers

The problem with social media, I learned eventually, is that sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, et al, strongly encouraged me to create art for the likes—to create art that not only can be appreciated by others, but that I felt must be appreciated by others in order for that art to have any value. These days the algorithms on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram simply reinforce that motivation, by hiding your less-liked posts—even from people who've chosen to follow you.

While I think fan art and cute art can be quite valuable and fun (even outside of their popularity on social media, because fan art and cute art give catharsis and comfort to the viewer), ultimately I ended up wanting to do cute art for all the wrong reasons: for the likes. For the reblogs and the retweets.

I'm told by other artists that likes and boosts are necessary for them to be inspired to create. I'm happy that this works for them; it didn't work for me. For a while I wondered if the fact that I wasn't moved by likes/reblogs (or that they could outright depress me, or fuel a worrying competitive, obsessive edge) meant that I wasn't a real artist. Or that I was somehow the worst kind of artist, an artist snob, a fake and insincere artist.

The current driving idea I've seen espoused in many places is that one needs to create art for others, and not purely for oneself. That art that has no mass appeal is worthless.

Nowadays I reject that idea. I think the art that's the most fulfilling is the art that you do for yourself, outside of the framework that social media encourages. And for someone like me, who couldn't filter bad critique versus good critique from strangers and acquaintances, social media stagnated my creative drive.

So in June of 2017, I cut myself off from posting much art to social media, and eventually by October 2017 reduced it to no art (or rarely posted art).

Once free from trying to create art that had mass appeal, I started to experiment. I thought I hadn't been listening to people who told me that you can only paint with watercolors in specific ways—but I had been, all along. It was only months after unmooring myself from the pitter-patter of people who didn't know me that I realized I'd let those "common-sense" homilies stifle me.

That sounds so arrogant. After all, who am I to say if my art is good or not? Shouldn't the market decide? Shouldn't the world decide?

But I realized that letting others decide if my art is good meant I wasn't taking a proactive stance in my own development. I was simply receiving what people told me was good for me to do—and it's a fact that people are quite bad at knowing what they actually want, much less what's good for others.

When I left social media, I took my art journey back into my own hands.

Art I do post remains on my own site these days. (That's turned out to be a blessing, given the overreach of many terms of service agreements on social media sites, like Twitter and Instagram.)

I'm sorry to all the folks who looked forwards for more cute cat doodles from me—my heart wasn't in them, and I think that's a disservice to y'all anyways. I'm happier with my art experiments, and I think one day, perhaps, they'll be something other people can enjoy as well.

But in the end: it feels good to do things. No matter how anybody says it is.

Also, a bit of art: my third serious self-portrait (January 2018). My previous portraits are stacked on the right, with December 2017 on the top and June 2017 on the bottom.

Collage of portraits.

Cảm ơn. Ava

Art and Self-Discovery

Watercolor painting of sugar packets and a creamer.

Lately I've been reinventing myself and moving away from more traditional watercolors—at least, as defined by Western/European standards. It's not that I dislike watercolor's wonderfully semi-chaotic washes—indeed. I view much of watercolor as being about coping with what the water gives you, and that's a fun and unique element of the medium.

But one of the discoveries I've made about myself is that I have a preference for bold strokes. My favorite watercolor pieces I've done utilize distinct areas of color in delinated shapes, which is one of the loosest definitions of a stroke. I often employ concentrated paint or colored pencils to add texture as well.

Watercolor, ink, and colored pencil painting of a blue jay.

And yet my approach developed into neither photorealism nor naturalism (a style one step removed from photorealism). The stylization I use is close to that used in old Chinese and Vietnamese paintings I grew up with. My parents had no interest in art, but did leave me as a child alone in a Chinese mall many days. I had little to do other than walk and stare at art being sold, or marvel at incidental screens and decorations on the walls.

Sanguine oil pencil drawing of a grey wolf.

Lately my exploration has extended into mediums I never thought I would tackle: pencils and oil pastels. I have no desire for the smooth shaded planes found in many pieces, so I work a lot with strokes—the palette of line that is most often found in pen and ink work, except that I have much more flexibility with line width and color depth from a single instrument rather than a series of pens, inks, and brushes.

Light sepia oil pencil drawing of a baby.

I can certainly do naturalism, as in this fun little portrait sketch of a friend's baby—but it's not something I wish to do. And ultimately I feel that's part of what an artist has to find for themselves—to create art their way, whether that's the art of painting, or animation, or writing, or even board game design.

Oil pastel painting of a still life with false fruit.

I think I've always veered away from naturalism. I would set lotuses and daffodils on fire, and these days I work more subtly with false plastic fruit. There aren't any rules in art that say you have to paint real fruit, after all.

There just aren't any rules in art at all.

Sketch - Young Elk

Sanguine oil pencil sketch of a young elk amidst vegetation.

Look at that vegetation. It's like a coral reef, except on land.

Sanguine oil pencil is my favorite warm-up medium—as well as something I can use on days when I'm too sick to do anything else, but am a bit well enough to do a little art.

In particular, I prefer a chunky 5.6mm sanguine oil charcoal lead in a cheap yet surprisingly comfortable wooden holder.

I'm starting to add dates alongside my signature these days.

For the curious, my signature is four Chinese characters plus my three English name initials (AAJ). The first two characters mean "red-brown", which is a description of the color of sinopia, a red-brown ochre pigment traditionally used as under sketches for frescoes and oil paintings. The last two characters together mean "dinosaur", literally translated as "fearsome dragon".

The dates going forwards are going to be written Japanese-style, e.g. "yearmonthday 日", because any reason to practice kanji is a good reason.

Painting - Magic Shop Storefront

Watercolor painting of a small town magic shop that might exist in a world where magic is real and mainstream

Watercolors, pen, and pencil, from November 2018.

This started from a photograph of a shop, but I decided to alter quite a few details. I started and finished this ink, colored pencil, and watercolor painting around Halloween, so my thoughts were on quaint settings set in a world where magic is quite real—and commoditized.

I didn't feel like, say, sketching an industrial factory pumping out magical goods, and focused instead on imagining and rendering a small shop of hand-crafted magical items. I've fond memories of small town main streets; I'm definitely not a fan of cities.

(During my early twenties I was fascinated by malls, but as I've grown older the din of those places has become far less pleasing.)

Painting - Protection from Fate's Storms

Watercolor painting of a pool surrounded by rocky shores and a storm in the distance

Watercolor pencils, from April 2018.

This started as a value study exercise of rocky shores on a California beach. I added the starfish in a protected pool, and added the dark edges of a far-off storm to the background. The original photograph is quite sunny and cheerful, but at the time of this particular piece I wasn't feeling anywhere nearly so cheery, and this art became a comfort piece for myself.

This was also my first foray into using watercolor pencils, which are quite a different medium from either colored pencils or watercolors. I worked to preserve the rough surf and ever-moving motion of the water, even in the protected pool.

Painting - Jizō (2018)

Watercolor painting of a small Jizō statue

Watercolor pencils in a pocket-sized Pentalic AquaJournal, from July 2018.

My second foray into watercolor pencils, I wanted a little reminder of the protector of children, the Bodhisattva Jizō. My childhood was not a happy one, and the thought of divine protective figures is attractive to me.

I created this piece as a birthday present to myself. The small blue butterfly represents a soul. I added more liveliness to the Jizō statue, so that the stone comes to life in a way difficult to capture with a photograph.

Sketch - Cat Looking Behind

A cat looking behind

And a cat that started from a hastily sketched bean shape. I find that beans can easily become certain animals or torsos for human figures; it’s a great drawing/doodling exercise. We can imagine the volume of a bean, and that develops the form of the subject.

Sketch - Memory of a Parking Lot Bridge in Seattle

Dream tunnel half-remembered

I started this sketch from a single arc and roof shape with a perspective curving the tunnel into the distance. After that I added some dreamlike elements all around it based on nighttime Seattle memories, with physical space not quite matching up (especially inside the tunnel, which curves in the opposite direction from outside the tunnel).