Kuangyi Liu won the Amateur Award in the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with her work Interior No.5. In this interview she discusses how she got into painting, the ways she manages her work-life balance, and how beginning to paint has opened up a whole new world of observation and expression.
Above image: Pieces of Beijing, Kuangyi Liu, Oil on canvas panel, 27 x 37 cm | 10.6 x 14.6 in
Josephine: How long have you been painting, and how did you get started?
Kuangyi: I started painting from scratch in 2014, when I signed up to a 5-day ‘Oil Painting for Beginners’ class at an art school in London. That was my first encounter with painting. Why did I do that? I had always been interested in arts, but never had any tuition other than the school classes when I was little. I had to give myself an opportunity and see what oil painting was all about– and I never stopped since.
Josephine: Were you initially drawn to a particular medium, e.g. oil paint, or did you try a bit of everything?
Kuangyi: Before the beginner class. I occasionally drew a thing or two when I was doing my PhD. For example, the buildings outside the library window, the winter wonderland. I even tried oil pastel and acrylic to paint something from my own photos. It was all intuitive and random, I didn’t know the medium, definitely not any techniques. After the beginner class, I signed up to another oil painting evening class, and naturally oil became the main medium I focused on.
Josephine: What is your process for starting a painting, and is it always the same approach?
Kuangyi: I often do some compositional sketches elsewhere to start with, to warm up and get familiar with the subject matter, also to get a good composition for later work. After that, I would normally sketch in oil directly on canvas, and then block out the areas with big brushes and work my way in. My approach has been roughly along this line, and became more definite over time. Sometimes I wish to be more ‘brave’ with my brushstrokes. However, the current approach seems to be how I see and think at this moment. I wouldn’t push any dramatic change, but rather letting it evolve naturally.
Josephine: How important is drawing for you, do you keep a sketchbook?
Kuangyi: I do have a little Fabriano sketchbook. Compared to oil painting, it is a lot more accessible and instant. I use this artist journal to do preparatory sketches, also take it with me in case I’d like to draw something when I am not home. Accuracy is fundamental to a good painting, and I believe drawing helps improve eye-hand coordination. This said, I know I am doing far from enough.
Josephine: As an amateur artist, how do you find time to balance your work and life with painting?
Kuangyi: I work full-time in a multinational company, work itself can be demanding and sometimes stressful. Painting has been my sanctuary from my busy work life since I first started. Although I occasionally paint in the evenings during the week, I often find it impossible, both physically and mentally. I mostly practise at Saturday drop-in sessions in London, where I could have access to different models, and get advice from the tutors. Other times I would find some time to paint at home also on the weekend. I don’t have a dedicated room as my studio. Whenever I’d like to paint, I will need to set up the space, i.e. cover the floor, gather the easel and other materials, and put them back when finished for the day. It is not the same as having my own studio space of course, but for now, it works.
Josephine: How do you decide on the colour palette of a painting?
Kuangyi: I have a set of primary colours to choose from, one cool and one warm, plus a few earth colours, all the usual suspects. Sometimes, especially if I have a short time window, I just go with a limited palette, so I can focus on other things, such as tonality and accuracy. Overtime, I’d like to explore more alternative colours and see how they may make a difference.
Josephine: What materials or tools could you not live without?
Kuangyi: I like my reds at the moment, i.e. Cadmium Red and Alizarin Crimson. It doesn’t necessarily show on my canvases which are often muted, but somehow I like the idea of using red to do sketches and corrections. It’s a recent thing. On the flip side, I risk making the painting too warm, which I need to be careful of. And, masking tape. It helps me in many ways, for instance, sticking paintings temporarily to the wall, bringing wet canvases back home. I’ve been painting on loose canvas sheets in recent years, and I use masking tape to fix the canvas sheets to a board. It leaves neat edges and allows me to take the painting off easily when done. My life would fall apart without it!
Josephine: What has been your favourite subject matter to explore in your work?
Kuangyi: Figures and portraits. It must be down to the first painting class – Without realising it, the beginner class was based on life models. I kept going with this subject matter ever since. I enjoyed observing another human being, and dealing with the challenges painting brings. It also makes everyday life more interesting. Sometimes I’d look at a fellow passenger on a tube or train, or maybe a colleague on a video call, and mentally try to figure out the shapes and tones on their faces. Of course, I need to be careful not to be caught in the act of serious staring. Meanwhile, thanks to the silver lining of lock down, I learnt to appreciate things in everyday life a lot more, such as a corner or moment at home, or items that are of interest or sentimental value to me. This opens up another world which I like a lot. It’s not just about the techniques, but to use painting as a language to express myself or tell a story. This is the reason I love painting – It helps me understand and enjoy life more through observation and practices.
Josephine: Could you ever see yourself as a full-time artist?
Kuangyi: I ask myself this question from time to time. I appreciate very much the fact that for the first time ever, my artworks were selected for a few exhibitions in the last 10 months. Together with the honour and excitement, I realised selling artworks is not the same as producing paintings. What I can say is that it takes quite some bravery to be a full-time artist, especially if one started the career outside arts. Not because painting itself is not enjoyable (I would never complain if I get to paint everyday!), but that one first needs to make a living out of it, and then talk about anything else. Otherwise, it won’t be sustainable. So how to balance between doing what we like and being liked by others, so much that they’d like to pay for the work? It perhaps is an art on its own. Altogether, do I see myself as a full-time artist one day? I think so, but only when I am sure enough about who I am as a painter. I have a long way to go!
Josephine: How do you know when a painting is finished?
Kuangyi: Painting has different stages to me, i.e. the sketchy stage when I put the paints on a blank canvas; the ugly stage when paints are there but everything is ‘wrong’; the near finishing stage when it all comes along together but something is still missing; the overworked stage when the painting went to something else and does not give the audience what I want them to feel anymore. In between the last two, there must be a sweet spot where what’s on canvas tells exactly what I want to say, and that’s when it’s finished. This is only my theory. More often than not, I don’t know when exactly this moment would be, or if I can ever get there. I would stop when I feel I don’t want to put more paint on the canvas anymore. I recently considered going back to a couple of paintings I left on the side early on, as I wanted to get it to somewhere else. So maybe as many other artists say, there is not a ‘finish’, but when you think ‘That’s it!’.