essays Archives

I Used to Think Non-Digital Pleasures Didn't Exist

When I was a software developer, I thought that I'd always prefer everything to be digital. Even when I first shifted to developing as an artist, I initially attempted to only craft digital pieces. I snubbed pencils and pens for drawing with a tablet. That was over two years ago.

But this is now.

On Sunday morning I pulled out a simple photo reference book and flipped through various pages. It was oddly pleasing, and productive because I could free-associate images that were disparate from one another. Free association is a large part of how my creative processes work.

There's something simple and yet complex about being able to randomly access a the pages of a physical book. Novels and non-fiction tend not to be randomly flipped through, and reference books have keywords and headings, so up to two years ago I thought that all my reading forever would be through ebooks. But photograph books, whether for artist's references or simply for art enjoyment, are a very different matter.

Afterwards, I picked up a simple sketchbook and some pencils and sketched a tiny picture.

Pencil sketch of a small fishing skiff in late afternoon.

Pencils and a sketchbook, not even a terribly fancy or expensive Moleskine, but a sufficient grained surface for the graphite to hang onto. One thing I've found about art is that it helps to have as few jumps between your brain and your method of expression (pencil to paper, or pen to Wacom tablet) as possible. With IRL pencils and paper, where I draw is directly where I see, and I don't have to make a mental translation between what I'm doing on a tablet at desk level, and what I see on the monitor.

Even pen displays--which are expensive monitors you can directly draw on--aren't nearly as convenient. My sketchbook here is the size of a 4" x 6" index card. It's light, it doesn't require power or tuned room lighting to avoid screen glare, and it doesn't generate so much heat that it can burn me.

I'm sick at the best of times. The pragmatism of reducing the barrier to creating art means I've been leaving digital methods behind.

This sketch took maybe fifteen minutes? Perhaps less. I draw much faster these days than I did when I first started drawing. Also it's a tiny picture, roughly 3 inches by 2 inches.

And yet I've gotten more pleasure from this than I ever have had when coding for a similar amount of time. This little sketch is not more difficult to me than writing a shell script to batch-process files in a specific way. It's also got about the same number of problems to solve with similar difficulty or ease, even if those problems are of a vastly different nature.

Yet here I have something that my human eyes can see and register is real. It's a human quirk to not think of the digital as having as much weight as the analog.

I'm highly pleased and relaxed in a way I never have been while coding. This sketch cannot process files on my computer in the future. It's not a reusable part of a library of script files, say.

Somehow that doesn't change how much more real that sketch is to me than all the code I've ever written in my life.

At times I wonder if, perhaps, the world could be better if everyone could do a little art. It doesn't have to be worthy of a museum, but maybe just a doodle that fills out a small space to a satisfying end. I'm pretty sure that people rediscovering coloring in adulthood falls into this category, and in some way, makes the world a better place.

Cảm ơn. Ava

Effects Are What Matter, Technique Only Supports

Simple sketch of a variant of Ochna integerrima, mai núi.

One of my concerns early on in my art development was the idea that I should always execute technique in standard ways. To tell the truth, it was valuable for me to learn the "proper" way to do things (of course, there really aren't any proper methods bestowed upon us by the art gods, just communities of general agreement between mortals).

But as I continued to improve and level up my skills, worry over being proper started to hinder me. Part of this circles around aspects of ableism that I internalized: the idea that I have to do things in a manner approved of by authorities.

Eventually I learned that technique supports effects, and that effects are ultimately what matter. How we achieve them is usually merely of secondary interest.

These days I don't build more watercolors on top of a very plain watercolor painting. Instead I use colored pencils to add texture. This is considered cheating by some artists, and invalidates my work from being entered into various watercolor artist societies, but my illness means I need to find energy-efficient ways to achieve my desired effects.

I still veer sharply away from photorealism and naturalism; what stylization I apply results in a different take on gong bi paintings (detailed and colored Chinese art styles).

Here's the underpainting, by the way.

Underpainting for the above sketch.

It's quite plain; the transformation it takes, shown above, adds interest and additional interplay between colors, such as optical mixing in the background.

Cảm ơn. Ava

Does Art Need an Audience?

A single iris in oil pastels.

I've spent quite some time thinking about the purpose of art: why one should create art, or conversely, if there's no reason to create art at all. Is the purpose of art to move an audience? Is the purpose of art to change minds? Is art only purposeful if it makes money, thus proving itself as worthy of existing by way of ROI (return on investment)? Does art even need a purpose?

Some have said that it's controversial to say that whether something is art depends on the opinions of others; from my perusal of Google search results, this isn't the case. The majority of the English-speaking world, at least, considers art to only exist as a social contract between artist and audience. That true art cannot exist without this social bond.

Perhaps old books still hold to the notion that art for art's sake is still art. But the world moves on the internet's terms nowadays, and popular vote says that art is only art if it invokes emotion in other people. Whether or not this is caused in part by society being beset by social media doesn't matter; society always changes.

Yet... what about private diaries that a century later became public record? Though they were never intended for outside eyes, once revealed, entries were capable of moving people. Joy, sorrow, identification, empathy, sympathy, even anger and disgust: these long-ago words still have the power to burn across the hearts of an audience that was never meant to see them.

Did, then, these writings exist in a Schrödinger-like superstate of being both art and non-art until they were gazed upon by an external observer?

While light can be both a particle and a wave, art is not. If something is considered art when exposed to an observer, it must have always been art.

This is why I think that works, written or visual or aural or anything else, intended only for the audience of the artist, are still art. That these works may become dust before an external audience ever sees them is immaterial. That means there exists art that is lost in time, that can never been seen by others‑but that is not the standard by which art can be defined.

Should we weep for these lost works, even if the creators never intended them to be found?

Perhaps. But what is fame to us when we are dust? In the end, nothing truly lasts. No art is eternal, just as humanity is mortal to its core.

That's followed by the question: what is fame truly to us when we're still alive?

Human beings are complex and myriad and can rarely agree upon truly personal matters. Humans also can change on an individual basis. Thus I believe that fame is not always valuable, nor even always useful.

The art I create has a noticeable impact on me. To say that I'm "troubled" would be a vast understatement, for I have many traumas most would not even begin to understand. Yet where medication and therapy only barely held the beasts at bay, art has soothed those terrible shadows in my mind. They are not gone‑they never can be gone, and, like the Babadook, can only be lived with.

So art has purpose outside of moving others. Art has an existence outside of external audiences. And if art truly needs an audience to exist, it already always exists‑because art always has an audience, and that audience is the artist themself.

Cảm ơn. Ava

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.