Heart and Soul: My painting journey

The writer’s painting titled Fireworks (acrylic on canvas, 2016).

Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures. – Henry Ward Beecher

I have always loved painting, for I find the act of releasing one’s emotions and thoughts on canvas liberating.

My interest in painting began when I was in high school. Though I managed to ace the subject, I was never keen to pursue art further. After all, in those days, artistic pursuits were frowned upon; and in a typical Indian family, you either have to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Sadly, I was not cut out for any of those professions, nor did my parents have the means to enrol me in a private college.

So I took the road less travelled and pursued Form Six and managed to further my studies at Universiti Malaya, ending up with a degree in Social Sciences (History major). I later obtained a teaching diploma in TESL.

The closest I got to art was when I taught the subject in school. So there I was, teaching art and its theories, never once painting anything on my own. The notion was that since I was not making a career out of it, it was pointless to invest time, effort, energy and of course money in such a trivial pursuit (at that point of my life).

In 2016, upon completing my PhD in English Language Studies, I had this sudden desire to start painting. Maybe it was due to those bottled up emotions during the years of completing a rather laborious thesis on semiotics. In retrospect, it made sense that I wanted to do something totally different after years of being caught up in the rat race of academic excellence. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision which I have never regretted.

I picked up my brushes, long kept away in an old Bata shoe box, and invested in a vibrant selection of Winsor & Newton acrylic colour tubes. I then started to work on my first piece, Fireworks. It now hangs in my office, and on the days when I am feeling down, the colours simply rejuvenate, soothe and heal. Rather oddly, I name my paintings according to the songs I listened to while painting; from an eclectic playlist which dates back to the 1960s.

Using out-of-the-box techniques (think twigs, stones, comb and fork), I started painting to my heart’s content. And that was just the beginning of my painting journey. Without any sort of formal training, my knowledge was based on the books I had read, hours of watching YouTube tutorials, and memories of my student days spent at the National Art Gallery of Kuala Lumpur (the current Majestic Hotel).

The memories of my trips to art museums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Center Pompidou in Paris, and the Tate Modern in London are certainly fodder for my imagination. From the mixed realism of Frida Kahlo’s portraits to Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, I was inspired by them all.

Those experiences and an eye for colour matter in the visual discernment of my thoughts and judgements. They are my emotions on canvas. I found solace in the colours that depict my most vulnerable thoughts and feelings; they were my antidote. These were narratives of my heart. And that’s the beauty of abstract painting. Viewers bring their own interpretations to evoke meanings, and none is wrong.

In creating a painting, a range of emotions is experienced by the painter. For some, the anguish of the wrong choice of colour seems to be sometimes unavoidable; and thank God you can just paint over with Gesso. For others, it may be the despair of scouring with a fine-tooth comb for stray hairs of brushes or even strands of one’s own hair drowning helplessly in paint, which can be daunting. Unless of course that’s your intention of creating a mixed media artwork!

At times, in your own muddled state of mind, just picturing the complete work can be stressful too. For some, the intensity of strokes and colour choices might be overwhelming. But in the end, the joy of finally overcoming all these hiccups are certainly worth the experience when you look at your completed artwork. As Jerry Fresia (2019) succinctly posits, “When we touch back or respond with our brush we begin something sensual, a dance of sorts, and a conversation.”

It has been a good five years since I embarked upon this engaging discovery of my artistic expressions. Yes, it was not easy to convince myself that I had to pick up my brushes again, and that painting might be a pursuit worth exploring for the pleasure and calmness it provides.

These days, when stress overwhelms me, I just look at the pieces on my walls. They bring a smile to my face for they capture the spirit of my mind and soul, that life goes on no matter what challenges one may face.

Art is such a core part of my life now; I have even introduced it in my English language and Language Arts classes. These students are able to better express themselves when they talk about a selected painting or even one of their own quickly sketched drawings or doodles.

Through the exploration and expression of my feelings on canvas, I have come to feel whole and content. Colours matter to me now, and the world is not all black, white and grey. And Nataly Kogan’s quote “I paint because I can’t not paint”, is certainly close to my heart.

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Painting , art , hobbies , self-expression


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