At full gallop

Strides ahead: Second to None, Secretariat (97cm x 180cm) by James Phua pays tribute to the greatest racehorse of the century, the American thoroughbred, Secretariat.

Strides ahead: Second to None, Secretariat (97cm x 180cm) by James Phua pays tribute to the greatest racehorse of the century, the American thoroughbred, Secretariat.

One of the most talented artists on horse paintings infuses his work with his soul.

IN the wild, the spirited horse unleases its boundless energy. The wind caresses its mane and its hooves kick up dust. It’s born free.

On the racetrack, the horse charges forward on a single mission – to win!

Through the years, Chinese horse painting artist James Phua, 43, has captured horses in various settings and using different media like paper and canvas. Despite a 25-year art career, the Muar, Johor-born Chinese brush painter took the last 10 years to specialise only in horse paintings.

At 19, the self-taught artist had his first solo Chinese horse painting exhibition at Chin Woo Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, and sold more than 40 paintings.

In 1992, he graduated from the Malaysian Institute of Art with a major in Chinese ink painting. He learnt traditional Chinese ink painting from several renowned artists including local Chinese painting master Chung Chen Sun. Having mastered Oriental and Western art, he also taught both streams of art.

Chinese horse painting artist James Phua has been painting horses for the last 10 years. His first horse painting was when he was five years old.
Chinese horse painting artist James Phua has been painting horses for the last 10 years. He did his first horse painting when he was five years old.

“It takes me 10 minutes to an hour or more to perfect the painting of a horse depending on the (painting) style,” said the founder of James Phua Art Centre (in Petaling Jaya, Selangor).

“The horse is (like) a bridge. Adopting it as the subject of my artworks has connected me to my art viewers. Painting horses is my profession and source of creativity.”

As a child, Phua was impressed by the beauty of horses. Sketching and painting horses on recycled paper became his pastime as his family could not afford a television set. He credited his mother, Toh Liang Kwee, as playing an important role in encouraging him to develop his hobby.

As an adult, he sees the horse with “different” eyes. There is also no boundaries in the media employed for his horse paintings. He has dabbled with charcoal, acrylic, watercolour and mixed media.

“The majority of my horse paintings are in ink and colours. Chinese brush painting is one of the best mediums to capture the spirit of the horse,” he explained.

Further along, Phua elaborates that he employs qi dao (literally, the way of energy flow) in his horse paintings.

James Phua's The Horse Power (97cm x 180cm) pits the horse with a racecar.copyright for mcjames
The Horse Power (97cm x 180cm) juxtaposes the horse and a race car.

“Qi dao is an innovative painting style in which I embody the flow of qi (energy) in my artwork by completing the image of horses without a break.”

In traditional Chinese horse painting, Phua said, flat brushes are rarely used as they make painting the horse extremely difficult.

Phua integrates his skills of traditional Chinese painting with a sense of modernity. Through his bold and vigorous brushwork, the horses on the rice paper come alive with powerful energy.

But his mastery with horse painting comes from his observation of horses with his “brain and heart.”

Phua also uses a unique technique in rendering the horse’s galloping motion. The four limbs of the horse are rendered in a simplistic way using vigorous calligraphic brush strokes. His traditional Chinese painting brushwork is said to be “forceful, energetic, unrestrained as well as bold.”

“The tremendous energy in my horse paintings is like a surging symphony rousing up the beholders,” he said.

Polo (97cm x 181cm), a painting depicting a game of polo, which James Phua has taken keen interest in when it comes to his art.
Polo (97cm x 181cm) is a painting depicting a game of polo, which Phua has taken keen interest in when it comes to his art.

Earlier this month, Phua took his art to the masses. He painted the “longest single horse painting (12m by 6m) with paint on canvas” at Suria KLCC. Entitled One Big Horse to represents 1Malaysia, it was completed in about 40 minutes, he said.

Phua used the largest Chinese brush (bigger than a mop) made with horse hair in Malaysia.

He considered the event to be an art demonstration and an exercise to challenge his ability as an artist.

“As 2014 is the Year of the Horse, this attempt was even more meaningful,” said Phua.

Datuk Danny Ooi, the founder of the Malaysia Book of Records, witnessed the record-making attempt on Jan 16 together with two Tan Sri Richard Cham (chairman of Selangor Turf Club) and Andrew Brien, CEO of Suria KLCC. Phua reckoned his horse painting will also be unofficially the world’s largest Chinese horse painting.

“My aim is to share my experience, artworks, opinions and knowledge of art with art enthusiasts around the world,” he concluded.

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