Article by Ｆｏｃｕｓ Ｍａｌａｙｓｉａ，Issue 061, 29 Jan, 2014. Written by Teresa YK Yong-Leong, Photo by DD Hoe.
James Phua. a master of the single-stroke painting technique, is all about translating the beauty and vibrancy of the horse onto paper
THE horse in graceful motion with its vigour and vitality has professional artist James Phua in thrall. The animal, which holds great symbolism in Chinese tradition, inspired him to put ink on paper to capture its fluid beauty. His love for horses was ignited when he was a budding teenage artist and his fascination has only grown over the years. He is particularly keen on single-stroke horse paintings, a painting of a horse that is completed in one long, continuous stroke of the paintbrush. Like any other child, Phua loved to draw superheroes, and only later progressed to drawing animals. Phua’s early life in Muar, Johar, in the 1970s, was one of filling endless sketch pads with his doodles. A television was a luxury his family could not afford, and hence he found succour and stimulation in the lines of his drawings.
Phua believes that he inherited his artistic talent and love for horses from his dad, a real-estate agent and one-time student of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore who ended his artistic dreams due to financial problems. Fortunately for Phua, his mother was supportive of his passion and encouraged him to participate in many art competitions in his primary school years. Often, the art teachers and judges would comment that his works were too realistic and mature for his age. By the time Phua entered secondary school at St Andrew’s, he was gaining popularity as he was winning many awards in both local and international competitions. At age 14, he won first prize in a portrait competition and the following year, he was awarded a merit award international art competition. It was at this point that he decided that he would become an artist when he left school. Unable to afford any art classes, he taught himself to paint. It was during this time that he was first exposed to Chinese ink painting and fell for it.
Phua went on to obtain a scholarship to study at the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA) in Kuala Lumpur in 1989 but sadly that was also the year his father died of a heart attack and his life became tougher.
Phua’s big break came in the form of James Chan, the owner of a restaurant he worked in, who was also director of student affairs at MIA. Chan was very impressed by Phua’s paintings, especially his horses, and helped him to organise his solo art exhibition at the Chin Woo Art Gallery in KL at the tender age of 19 to rave reviews.
Phua has not looked back since and was especially inspired by renowned Malaysian artist Chung Chen Sun’s horse paintings. Phua decided then to specialise in the equine form and dedicated himself to learning all about horses and their anatomy. He spent much time at the Selangor Turf Club stables to study their anatomy, movements and moods in order to capture their spirit on paper.
“I talk to the horse trainers and jockeys to gain deeper insight into these animals. I know I have to work hard and I have spent time doing thousands of sketches of them and their anatomy,” explains Phua.
He also delved into the history of horses and sought out Richard Lines, the former jockey now turned champion horse trainer, in his quest to better understand his charges.
From this research, Phua is able to imbue a sense of realism into his work. According to Phua, the horse is the most difficult animal to draw by free hand as the artist has no draft to work on to depict the galloping spirit of the horse. He adds that “the medium has no boundary but it is hard to control the strokes” Borrowing from Chinese mythology, he says he paints with “qi” and often the strokes are faster than what he can see.
Phua developed his own unique techniques and skill in one-stroke horse paintings while learning to draw and paint in his early years. Today, he is attempting to chart new territory in painting horses that deviate from the traditional Chinese style of doing so.
To broaden his scope of painting, Phua has also ventured into drawing horses in different contexts – flying horses, horse racing, show-jumping and polo games. Phua believes that as a professional artist, you have to specialise in order to better serve your clients.
In conjunction with the Year of the Horse, Phua created the longest horse painting on canvas at the Suria KLCC to welcome the Chinese New Year. The event was witnessed by Datuk Danny Ooi, chairman of the Malaysian Book of Records, who presented a certificate to Phua for his record-breaking feat. Using a huge Chinese painting brush costing several thousands of ringgit, he amazed the crowd with his freestyle techniques and completed the painting on a canvas measuring 33ft by 18ft using 60 litres of paint, within 45 minutes at the esplanade under an overcast sky. Phua exceeded the previous world record set by Australian artist Yao Di Xiong who painted the largest horse painting on 10ft by 20ft canvas in 2002.
JAMES PHUA set up his own art centre in 1994 after serving two years as the principal of the National Art Gallery Creative Centre. He has conducted workshops for students from the US, UK, France, Australia and New Zealand. He was also appointed secretary of the Contemporary Ink Painting Research Society.
Today, his paintings are priced at US$3,000 (RM9,900) per sq ft and his artworks are collected by state leaders, prominent figures and international art collectors.
Phua has been spending time exchanging artistic views and ideas with local and international artists for the past 10 years apart from promoting art education for children and charity. Three years ago, he cut down almost all of his activities to indulge in painting horses full-time. Phua now has the luxury of spending a few hours a day to paint horses and developed a personal style of painting horses. Eventually, he developed his subject to include equestrian sport themes such as horse racing, polo and show-jumping.
“Unexpectedly, by adopting these themes, I discovered that they had indirectly assisted me to develop an innovative technique as well as a completely different style for Chinese horse painting. I think this new discovery is very crucial as is an important breakthrough in my personal art development,” says Phua.
Phua believes that artists have over-refined their artworks by using too many unnecessary painting techniques, which hinder the flow of “qi”. He thinks that the energy (neng liang) and inner flow (qi yun) released from an artist’s body onto the single-stroke painting should be much more direct and complete than other painting techniques.
Phua’s first attempts at a single-stroke horse painting was in October two years ago. He says
he chose to do single-stroke animal paintings for horses as the images and features of horses are the most difficult to execute, as acknowledged by most Chinese artists.
He is of the opinion that the Chinese brush is the best and most effective painting instrument as
it is capable of transferring “qi” latent in an artist’s inner body onto his artwork most directly just like an electric conductor transferring electricity.
Phua likens single-stroke horse painting to Chinese calligraphy, especially the bold and rapid stroke calligraphy styles. This is because Chinese ink painting and Chinese calligraphy share the same root. However, there is some difference between them as Chinese calligraphy has breaks in-between the strokes even though it resembles one continuous brushstroke. The imagery of calligraphy is much simpler and less challenging in construction than the imagery of horse painting, Phua adds.
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