Viewing, appreciating and interpreting art can be therapeutic for some, but another more interesting interaction in art lies in the fact that art may be in fact be therapeutic for its creator.
Fine art artist Liu Ling shares an intimate account of her artistic journey, and how art has worked its magic on her, acting as an understanding and consoling friend and helping her through difficult times in her life and career. The creator of award-winning hyperrealistic charcoal portraits says that she still has much to learn, and despite the various accolades, is still trying to make art a full-time career.
Read on for our conversation.
P: Pendulum Magazine
L: Liu Ling
P: Tell us about your background and how you arrived at where you are today. When did you realise you have a passion for making art?
L: I left China for Singapore in 2002. After receiving a diploma of Computer Engineering from Temasek Polytechnic and Bachelors Degree in Computing from National University of Singapore, I worked as a full-time web designer/developer for a few years.
Since my youth I have been a sensitive introvert, easily getting anxious or upset. Luckily, I have drawing as my friend; it has always been a joy to draw and it never failed to console me. I started with drawing Japanese anime and manga characters, and then gradually expanded my interest to include real-life subjects. Back then my artworks were decent but amateur; I thought of taking art classes but gave up the idea due to financial constraints and a lack of confidence.
In 2014, out of desperation to get out of a quarter-life crisis, I studied charcoal drawing short courses at NAFA and LASALLE. It was here where I met my current mentor, Raphael Koh at NAFA, and have since then continued to study under him. At his Art Is studio, art did its curing magic to me again. I got back on my feet and my skills improved dramatically. I find that when I take care of my art, art takes care of me.
The next year, I freed up more time to focus more on my art by becoming a freelancer. Since then, I have received awards, publication features, exhibitions, art sales and commissions. Although I still cannot make it as a full-time artist and I am not sure if it will happen, what I am certain of is that art is always there for me. Art is my home.
P: Briefly tell us about your time studying at Art Is Studio. How did your pursuit of a formal training program contribute to your existing skills?
L: Raphael is the sole instructor in Art Is Studio. I remember being surprised during my first lesson with him when he asked us, a group of inexperienced beginners, to draw on 100cm by 70cm paper. All of my drawings before then were no bigger than A4. He has widened my vision on art, literally. Drawing in a larger size forces me to see more details of the subject and gives me more space to communicate with the material. If I have to draw in a smaller size now, my drawing will be more solid because it is a condensed expression of what I would depict in a bigger size.
Raphael's teaching constantly challenged my old habits. For example, we were asked to look at form and tonal range instead of just the outline, to start from details rather than generic characteristics, and to spend as long as it takes to get it right instead of avoiding problems to get it done fast. While he is very strict about skills, I have benefitted from the new perspectives of seeing things and the development of an authentic attitude towards art and life. Once your eyes are clear and your mind is in the right place, it will not take long for your hands to catch up regardless of the medium. I recently finished a digital art commission, and though I haven’t done digital painting in years, I could see that there has been improvement in my use of tones and colours. I give the credit to my training at Art Is Studio.
Another benefit of studying at the studio is the inspiration coming from other fellow artists. Many of them have amazing skills and some of them have won international acclaim. I think it's very important to look at others and not to be trapped in your own world. There are a lot of inspiring artists out there to admire and learn from.
P: Is there a specific art technique (charcoal drawing, pen drawing, oil painting) that you particularly enjoy doing?
L: I treat mediums as friends with different personalities:
Charcoal is flexible and loves to get your hands dirty.
Pastel is beautifully soft and fragile.
Pen is the most easygoing. You can hangout anywhere.
Oil is very sophisticated but high-maintenance.
Among all these good friends I am most familiar with charcoal because it is my first companion on my journey of art training, and so far the majority of my artworks have been done in charcoal.
Charcoal is a medium of many faces and is capable of making all kinds of marks from fine lines to variable strokes, light grey to pitch black, smooth gradient to grainy roughness. It can be broken easily, but this vulnerability lets you obtain different sizes and textures. Most of all, it allows me to feel it with my fingers. I always love to touch materials directly.
P: Is there a part within the creative process that excites you the most?
L: What excites me the most is the part when the subject begins to take shape on the canvas, the moment it turns from strokes and tones to reality. Especially for portraits, I get an indescribable thrill when the subject starts to look back at me like a real person. I am always amazed at this transformation of inanimate materials into something lifelike, even if I am the one who makes it happen. I wonder if moms feel the same when they get the first kick from their baby.
Another thing that excites me is working on details of texture. When I try to recreate the texture I often feel that I am indirectly putting my hands on the subject and I really enjoy the virtual touch. Have you ever felt that somewhere inside you is tickled by the fluffiness when you spot a Bichon puppy in the street? That's the delight I get if I am drawing fur of a Bichon. I wish to pass the same pleasure to the audience as well when they look at my artwork.
P: Where do you find inspiration for your work?
L: It might sound cliché, but life is a miracle and anything can be an inspiration. As Richard Feynman said, "everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough."
Most of my major artworks are portraits of humans and animals, however, whatever is in front of my eyes can be my muse. For example, last year I did a series of still life paintings inspired by a visit to Singapore Chinatown Heritage Centre, where I found these old kettles and mortar on a greasy cement countertop. Although they were from a different era, they looked familiar to me and brought back childhood memories of my grandma’s old place in China. As an immigrant myself it gave me a distant sense of belonging.
P: What’s your favourite or most memorable project you’ve ever worked on?
L: My ‘Winter Girl’ charcoal portrait series means the most to me. In each of the drawings, there is a girl wearing winter clothes standing in the snow against black background. I wanted to show the pure souls and inner strength of the girls by creating contrast between the dark background and bright snow flakes, as well as the coldness of winter and the warmth that emanates from their being.
There are three pieces in the “Winter Girl” series. The first piece, ‘Xiao Fang’, brought me my first few awards including Strokes of Genius 10, Shades of Gray Competition and Artists Magazine's Annual Art Competition. It gave me a lot of confidence not to give up when I was going through a difficult phase early on.
These three drawing were finished in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively. This is so far my longest project. Although during the process I was often interrupted by other work, I am happy that I could take my time with them without the pressure of deadlines. This series has witnessed my growth and accompanied me along my journey. I hope to continue with it and add at least another two pieces to the series.
P: Is there an artist that inspires you?
L: In terms of artistic skill, there are many artists that have inspired me with their amazing work. Leng Jun and Luciano Ventrone influenced me the most on hyperrealism. The ‘Winter Girl’ series was partly inspired by the intricate texture from Leng Jun's portrait drawings. I had the honour to see actual paintings by Luciano at a local gallery and I was totally blown away. No matter how close I looked at the painting, it still looked like a photo. I hope my craft can achieve this level someday.
In the aspect of motivation, Richard Feynman is the most important to me. The Nobel-winning physicist was also an artist. He appreciated art the same way he appreciated physics and he described it as a feeling of awe about the beauty of the world. This idea constantly reminds me of why I am an artist and it helps me find inspiration anywhere.
P: What advice would you give to artists looking to develop their own style?
L: I might not be the right person to give advice on style, because I never think about my style when I am creating. All I am concerned about is how to make my subject come alive my artwork. As a late bloomer, I still consider myself a newbie in the art world, and at this stage I think it is more important for me to explore everything I am interested in and to master the essential skills than to restrict myself to a certain style.
I believe that whatever you do, there’s a trace of you, but it takes a lot of hard work and self discovery to fully bring it out. There might be certain formulas to produce a style visually, but a real style speaks to who you are and lets the audience not only recognize you, but also feel you.
Now I am simply focusing on developing my skill and personality. Hopefully the two will click someday and give birth to a stronger style. Before that day I will just enjoy creating art and being myself.
P: We understand you have an upcoming solo exhibition at the ION Art Gallery in Singapore this year. Could you tell us about the collection that you will be showcasing?
L: Last year I was privileged to be selected as one of the three winners of Young Talent Programme presented by the Affordable Art Fair and ION Art and supported by Hotel Jen. This solo exhibition is part of the programme. The exhibition launches August 30th and will run until September 15th.
The tentative title of my exhibition is "Screen · Time". Currently I am in the process of producing two series of black and white drawings for this show. One series will include 5 to 6 charcoal portraits on canvas. I want to depict the playful side of the relationship between people and photo manipulation technology. The other series will contain 8 to 12 small mixed media artworks, also mainly done with charcoal. They offer a glimpse back into the old-school technologies like film camera and cassette tape that are being replaced by smart phones. Putting aside the nostalgic feeling, my main purpose is to present the curiosity and inspiration that people always have about technology regardless of era.
P: Do you have any other upcoming projects you would like to share with our readers?
L: Besides the solo exhibition at ION Art gallery, Young Talent Programme has also given me opportunities to showcase my artworks at three Hotel Jen locations in Manila from March 15th to April 14th, Penang from May 17th to June 16th, and Singapore from October 10th to November 3rd. The Young Talent Programme is a significant platform for myself as a young artist to hone my craft. As ION Art gallery is centrally-located in a great mall, I hope many will come see the exhibition in August and September. Admission is free!
Other than these shows, so far I have two other events scheduled this year.
In June, two of my charcoal portraits will be exhibited at TOUCH Giving Art Exhibition organized by a nonprofit organization TOUCH Centre. It is a charity exhibition with the aim to raise funds for people with special needs. I am honoured to be invited to this meaningful event as one of thirteen professional artists.
In July, I will have an artist talk and a showcase of a few still life paintings at SPRMRKT, a cozy bistro at STPI Creative Workshop and Gallery in Singapore. I will also be creating a mural painting in the bistro, which will likely be an extension of the paintings to be showcased. I think it will be very interesting and I am very excited about how my first mural art will turn out.
All photos courtesy of Liu Ling.