As far as I could remember, drawing has always brought inexplicable comfort, peace and joy to me. Even as a child living among members of 2 extended families, ours and my Eldest Uncle’s whom my 5 elder sisters and I ( I had been the youngest) call “Dai Bak”, brought with it quite a bit of angst for me. Family intrigues, bullying from one of the boys, jousting for favors from our very correct Grandmother from Hong Kong, had been part of growing up.
- Guest Post by Priscilla Tang, Pet Portrait Artist.
Drawing with my dad very early on equipped me a lot on dealing with my young pressures. Even though we did not know the name for it then, Art (Therapy) gave me inexplicable strength and tenacity to move forward, ignoring the distractions (even when that young) to enjoy and excel in drawing with my Dad….alright it started with doodling, with my dad holding my chubby little hand! Dad believed so much in me and my budding inclinations.
I could doodle my yellow pupper with (odd shaped anatomy) long before I could memorize my A,B,C’s and I also remembered that I still couldn’t count then. So I drew small banana bunches for “fingers”! And in my Primary (Elementary) 2, I was already drawing pictures of princesses with tiaras and poufy gowns studded with diamonds and gemstones for my eager little girly classmates. The popularity I got made up a great part for the loneliness in my childhood days.
Also the other turning point in my young life was when a little yellow puppy was introduced. I named him, “Bobby”. I practically grew up with Bobby. He was my “muse”, my companion, the one to go to when I needed a safe warm retreat. Animal Art actually began for me at that spot in my life. I think I was between 6-7 years old.
Through all my young life otherwise, doing art has given me the therapy of cultivating a better self-awareness, reliable emotional well-being, safer comfort zones where I could face my emotional conflicts, raise my confidence, protected my self-esteem, and helped me cope and focus on my schooling and family life. The latter, as a result, I could summarily say, had been quite a happy one!
As I grew older, I researched on how life can turn out for those who relied on art as a coping mechanism in the often difficult process of growing up.
It appeared that “Art Therapy” was a word first coined by the famous artist called Adrian Hill in the 1940’s who used it to cope with the ill effects of his tuberculosis.
In recognition of the excellence of the therapy, other notables later, came along to further explain it, explored it in a scientific way with testing, experimentations and discoveries to form empirical proofs and studies of this new term, “Art Therapy”. Soon the civilized world began taking notice and Art Therapy gained traction and became familiar and receptive to mostly the professionals. The 5 disciplines mentioned here are not exhaustible.
The “notables” had been: Margaret Naumburg, an erudite artist, Hanna Kwaitkowska, a versatile and learned Polish artist, and Florence Cane to name a few, who made significant contributions toward the development of art therapy as a recognized field. (Credit: https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/art-therapy )
5 Art Techniques To Try
Throughout the history of mankind; cave paintings, rock carvings, ritual dancing, and campfire gatherings of worship and celebrations had been considered techniques that helped early civilizations to cope with precarious living. You might say, they needed all those. We in our modern living recognize many other relevant coping therapies for our lives and 5 of these Art Therapies are the ones I will further explore.
I first came across Expressive Arts when I was back home in Hong Kong in the mid 1990’s from a 9 years’ sojourn in the US. I was 2 years old then. That was just before I ended up with 20 years in Fashion Illustration. EA was offered as a master’s program with the Univ of Hong Kong. I’ve come across positive reviews from people with artistic inclinations or other bachelor degree holders who wanted to teach EA at college level schools in Hong Kong.
I dug further in and found that EA uses all 5 disciplines of the arts: visual, dance/movement, music, play/performance but I was not so interested in it because my objective was not in the academics.
Somehow I felt my illustration had other merits to it and I was deeply interested to bring comfort ( healing?) to those who need it. At that time I had not been much into pet art. Not yet.
Inspiration had always been kept alive all through my life. Having started as an art prodigy, thanks to dad, inspiration had been a much-needed element to stoke my artistic pursuits, even though I was young and not aware of it then.
The very things that have had inspired me could have been the furriness of a donkey – I didn’t know how thickly rough-furred a donkey could be and those prickly curious whiskers on its face( that I found on a holiday trip to Paris, in a park; of all places……not on a farm or a paddock but in urban Paris!), or, listening to Gigi, the St. Bernard in Hong Kong, that young gentle monster of a dog barking in anticipation, in her cute ways when she smelt me coming with my pitted cherries), walking up those rickety steps to her at the attic……Or play- butchering Bobby after coming home from school, with me a mere child, still in my blue Convent pinafore, using my little wooden ruler while he laid placid on that sunny spot, unperturbed even when I began to get rough with the chopping and the slicing!
Certainly, memories have a lot to do with Inspirations.
Currently, it might have been a chance-meeting an attractive obedient French-bulldog on the leash of a young woman, with her clasping a tall cup of coffee on her other hand, standing at the corner of a Starbuck’s……or bumping into an all-white gloriously-fluffy Spitz, fresh from a grooming, on the way home with her owner in a touristy urbane region down in Central, Hong Kong Island.
We used to love to do urban trekking in Hong Kong, especially at our parks which are often found nestled among high rises. Otherwise these might be found on the edges of an underused piece of land in a less populated area. There we could visit a butterfly farm, a bird park, or a wetland’s park, or a panda zoo, which I would find the anticipation of going stirring up some fun related excitement and with the aftermath, of having my imagination all fired up after a day’s urban trek. For me, coming out of these tends to refresh my psyche which in turn produces renewals that helps me tremendously in my work, and were quite needful.
Sometimes at a pause I would think what our world would be like without imagination: It is not an oxymoronic thought because it is rewarding in a counterintuitive way (and it takes a great deal of mental digging) ……I suppose we would be deprived of all manners of love expressions, every iota of hope, anticipation, excitement,love and even notions of GOD. All of my animal artwork would be drab and listless, dull and lifeless….. with the works of artists like mine becoming redundant, with no longer any point of it. Frightening, isn’t it??I can say I found GOD at the age of 21and have found that spirituality a most inexhaustive source of help. I still pray every day and sing.
Dreams play a surprisingly important role in imagination that is beneficial in my work. I often find that in my half-awakened state of mind, incredulous solutions float into my limpid consciousness, which offer amazing answers to the very pet art that I might have been working on maybe the night before. Visual problems that I was not able to resolve earlier that had made me pause or even stop working in my tracks!
Carl Jung equated dreams to having great impact on our daily imagination, even though we are not conscious of. My dreams or half dreams play an impactful role in my visual art solutions while crafting my animal portraits, making a difference in whether I keep struggling with a difficult piece of work making tough uphill progress or enjoying a smooth flawless flow with a potentially good piece of art.
Therefore dreams are an essential part that also contributes as being therapeutic to artists of all forms, not only in animal art, I believe.
The thing that I find most therapeutic about animals is the way they each relate to us, or, we relate to them, and the antics that we see in these beings so human like us, cute and beautiful that they are. Like my dogs….. Gigi: how her eyes would gleam to smell my ripe cherries; the way she would subtly “invite” me into her more intimate domain ( the small patio outside the attic, unfenced thereby facing a huge drop if you fell over…..) There was an open hole also unfenced right in the middle of this patio where Gigi would show off to me as she did her zoomies all around the unfenced hole and how she would get my own frightened hackles up! Like a child saying in glee to me, “See mom? No need fence!”. Both these dogs played a great part in inspiring my pet portraits: Bobby and Gigi, in different times of my life. I met Gigi when I over 35 years old.
I find inspiration in many areas. Nature: a piece of driftwood that I found alongside a river bank, a thunderous rain storm with me safely holed up in my little urban apartment in Hong Kong, listening to the torrential rhythm of the rain amidst the strong melodious notes of ‘Puccini’ coming from Maria Callas, rising above the rain.
On animals though, I have found that the tactile property of touch, on the animals that we find so incredulously wonderful……juices up my Oxytocin like none other like what both mom and baby feel when they are being stroked lovingly. Such phenomenon has been proven by scientific studies.
In a concrete jungle like Hong Kong, I find my oxytocin enhancers come easily at finding well kept spacious pet shops that are ethical to their wares, or a visit to a dog park (yes we have a few of those) on a week day or, in the Boston Park in Massachusetts, feeding ice cream to a hot-harassed squirrel on the hottest day before July 4th, watching a mated pair of swans glide down the man manmade lake surrounded by magnificent weeping willows and dark green shrubs……all these add up when photos are taken but with the best of memories stored in our computer galleries.
During a visit back home once, which is Malaysia, we visited the ‘Zoo Negara’ (Bahasa which means ‘National Zoo’) a few stones throw away from where my doting sister and her family lived, I came across a majestic white peacock opening up his back feathers as if to charm and declare to me how handsome he actually thought he was! Oh what a glorious gift he gave me that day! On certain evenings, always hot and humid, we could hear elephants being fed by the keepers……oh the happy bellows and honks……all these indelibly inspire me. And by the way, being so close to nature also brings its own bane: massive sized mosquitoes which I heard only stung elephants! One exception: such monster mozzies are not that inspiring!
According to copious studies made and documented, art activates the reward center of our brain which secretes more Oxytocin which has been named the”happiness” chemical by many. It also has been stated that all sorts of visual expression induce good and pleasurable experiences but I wish to point out here that it is “repeatedly executed” which calls for a small degree of skill and initially under experienced teachers. Undoubtedly Art lowers stress. Again this wouldn’t be debated upon especially when improved skills have been honed in the initial elemental stage. Otherwise unhampered by naivete left to her own devices, Art CAN be stressful!
Also it is very true Art helps to still one’s mind and allows that person to focus more deeply, even to the extent of slowing their breath allowing deeper breathing and that itself increases the intake of oxygen which further, feeds better our brains.
I have had been an epic hypersensitive child……and some remains of that baggage is carried with me down through the years. Childhood bullying by older boys with high A- hormones had carried in me much trauma and woe. How I dealt with those: Intentionally strong digging into my art. By the time those boys found that bullying is counter interactive in civilized societies, I was way ahead of them, excelling in my art in school followed by academic results that had flourished well enough due to having less distractions. Yes art makes for kinder emotions, peace and even happiness enough to make us fruitfully successful in our lives, or at least, much positivities.
Traumatic though my childhood had been: I broke my femur at the age of 8 from a fall down the back of my schoolbus to the tarmac below, (thankfully there had been little traffic that day!), I suffered loneliness in my childhood because I was the youngest among 6 girl siblings (and all were much older than me), I had a defective memory in my schooldays (a disadvantage), had male cousins who were bullies, but I never suffered from PTSD, thanks to Art. In fact because I always had very high marks for my Drawing, my grades hence often were above average.
These days, personally after a good workout at a piece of artwork, I tend to have a more vibrant memory, a kinder approach towards all kindred, and even get a more benevolent feel towards the world in general!
Indeed to me, Art is cathartic in that it provided me especially needed help while younger and vulnerable, with a pleasing sense of relief especially after I had engaged well in a piece of artwork. The process itself works wonders for every person, so I learned!
The color wheel generally helps us to become better colorists as it provides us with different scenarios when different combinations of colors are more apt to produce the best result to a finished piece of work. I generally like to use the Complimentary Color Scheme where opposite colors on that round Color wheel go very well together like in my work for eg…..green (or variations of it) compliments a rosier color. Or Purple with Yellow! Some combinations are beyond our otherwise quite limited imaginations (I intellectually find colors hard to imagine! Or consider ever asking a blind man how he imagines the color Green was like?? Case closed!).I never came across a Color Wheel till I received formal art training at the F.I.T. in New York. The Color Wheel is more of an academic aid to the art of painting. And can come in very useful.
Why Painting Animals Is Therapy For Me
I was told I was born with a crayon in my hand. It was my dad. He was the artsy gentleman, he charmed me with his doodle puzzles some of which I still remember to this day: little thumbnail images that he might draw, say, an object, like looking at my mom’s high heel from the back at eye level and asking me to guess what object it was…..or of seeing a row of sharp knives (bayonets) seen above a wall (a small army of musketeers marching in a line behind that wall, with only the tops of their bayonets showing…..) and I’d to guess what was behind that wall….. Dad would trick me and I got used to thinking harder before I ever relied to questions such as those.
Dad was talented and expansive with his praise, he loved to show off my childish doodles which he had helped me by hand, to the mahjong players who’d come everyday to play their table game. And Mom would complain testily how both Dad and I had messed up the square mahjong paper by drawing all over it! Those were my first memories of my dad and I drawing up a storm on our mahjong table in the Yee Tang “Second Hall”) of our ancestral home back in Ipoh, a tin-mining town north of Malaysia.
How was the love of animals instilled in me
Bobby was actually my 1st cousin’s pet but it was I who grew up with Bobby. It was Bobby who ran top speed into my downstairs room when the cockroaches were plying the air one night, disturbed by an imminent rain storm. Bobby tried to catch those pests by jumping and snapping at them (he even caught a few!). He seemed to know I was petrified of them, as I was screaming my lungs out at them. That was how much he loved me, and I, him. We played together in the sunniest passageway on the side of our very long terrace house, which had no awning. I would mercilessly “butcher” him with my wooden ruler but Bobby pretended to keep on sleeping, unperturbed.
My professional journey in parallel art careers: my formal art training
In my pre-u days (in my early 20’s) I devoured the autobiographical novels written Dr. James Herriot (“All Creatures Big and Small” series and more…. ) It set my heart on fire and I wanted to become a veterinarian doctor. Sadly I was placed into the Arts’ Stream in our Convent School and only those in the Science could go on to become a medic student,. But my love for all animals, especially farm animals remained lodged deeply inside of me.
Kids grow up. I got enrolled into the NUS and pursued a bachelor’s degree in architecture. I found it to be the most boring 5 years of my life but I managed to convocate and even spent some years of my young life working as an architectural professional in HK, Malaysia, then the US (in that order.) It was a well-paying job but my heart wasn’t in it.
Immigrated to the US in 1985 (I was 34 years old) . I spent 9 years in the US with my HKie hubby. In the 4th year of my sojourn, I picked up courage and went back to school to study a subject that still had been my very first love: Illustration! After graduating the eldest in my year but top of the class, I became a freelance Fashion Illustrator plying the streets and avenues of Manhattan. Surprisingly enough, I seldom thought of Bobby. 20 years spent as a popular freelancer in a glamorous occupation and my work assisted divas and boutique owners along Broadway Street and Madison Avenue in avant-garde Manhattan. Hasten those years till 4 years later, both my hubby and I decided to return to HK so that my other half could help a friend in his business.
Back in Hong Kong. In HK I continued working for a US fashion magazine as a “permanent” freelance Fashion Illustrator. I spent another 20 years there. My mind eventually returned to dogs and animals as I would spend much of my free time visiting pet dogs belonging to friends……a St Bernard, Gigi, who lived in the attic (penthouse!) of a highrise building while other dogs belonged to other friends ( on pretext of paying them visits but to play with their wards!).
Coming full circle: Back to Animal Portraits. It took great courage from me to leave Fashion Art behind. But that I did at the end of those 20 years. In 2016, I started out sketching puppers belonging to friends. My “clientle” started to grow and at a certain point I decided to pull in some money and thence started my Pet Portrait business, a little audacious start up. I realized I had come full circle and in drawing those doggos, giving all I’ve got, Bobby and all the dogs I’ve ever loved, came back into my life or the happy memories gave me fuel to pursue my new brand of business in a new way, with zest and vigor, serving owners broken by the demise of their beloved pets or those who wanted to celebrate the bonds and lives of those still living. I was then 67 years old.
How Painting Animals Is Therapy For Me
My love for animals of all kinds. James Herriot’s farm animal books touch a strong chord in my impressible younger life in my Pre-Varsity days. I however realized it had been a good thing I didn’t become a vet doctor…..it would have contained too much heart break for me seeing the suffering of animals. Instead I have now resorted to Animal Art. Dog Portraits to be exact, abetted by proficient fashion skills honed by my 2 decades of Fashion Illustration.
My personal Creative Resources. I derived much inspiration from the ample nature we had in Malaysia: the riotously colorful sun sets, the thunderous pouring sheets of rain that came almost everyday at 5 o’clock in the evenings, clean wet laundry at the Indian dhoby-shops where dark-skinned natives from India, washed giant loads of laundry and spreading them out to dry on the grassy fields in our hot early mornings with actual steam streaking out (due to the hot sun)from the clean wet laundry and rose into the clear morning skies, the whole fields were by then filled with steam making the misty scenes indelible in my mind……drift wood found along river banks, colorful wax-resistant batiks cloths done by the Malay natives……stories of roque elephants and man-eating tigers and of crocodiles plying inland rivers and pig mamas with their half score of striped piglets running helter-skelter behind their mom, all these have gathered collectively as my Creative Resources….. By then my work had taken form and strongly comprised of Art + Animals + Fashion Art ( the latter being an uncommon asset!) https://charcoaltofu-dogart.com/
The wonderful mediums of watercolor and charcoal. By those years I had mastered the watercolor medium ( and some of Photoshop). By itself, Watercolor is an unforgiving medium but I had learned to love how the watery mix flowed and curdled into certain spaces, the fluidity, the layers of increasingly darker paints accentuating the subtleties and nuances of the medium. I’ve long learned to love the uncertainties and kind of risky elements of this medium and how each artist , worth her salt, have to negotiate well with these….. Lastly Charcoal remains my favorite second. Charcoal is another strongly unbudging medium but one can use that to the best aesthetic ends.
The pleasing animal forms: their furriness, colors, features, textures; I love them all and they are such lovely things (have you ever looked into the eyes of a donkey? They are deep wells that mirror their souls and those enviable eye-lashes!) – they all appease the turmoil that sometimes fill my heart as I’m sure is a normal occurrence in all our lives with all their pulls and press. The animals that I have enountered had always boosted my sensibilities, thanks again to James Herriot but it was the ‘dog’ that I finally settled upon to be my muse. Bobby must have jumped for joy up at the Rainbow Bridge.
The dogs in my life. I have loved all the dogs who have had come into my life: especially those belonging to my army-man brother-in-law, who kept big dogs consistently: Long haired German shepherds (Ace), Rhodesian Ridgebacks (Asa), stubborn Basset Hounds, pitch black Labs……And Bobby, the yellow dog remained my best forever friend, gone but whose spirit continues living in the back burner of my heart. And Gigi, MY St. Bernard, is also very close to my heart. She once belonged to my Chinese herbalist doctor who lives in a downtown region in Hong Kong. Yes that dog that I mentioned who lived on the attic! Oh, how her eyes gleamed when she smelt the very-ripe cherries that I used to bring her, fragrant things kept in small brown paper bags.
Lastly it was Bobby, my willing muse who provided me a good semblance of stability and sanity in my difficult childhood. (Living in tiny high-rise apartments in Hong Kong, I am currently not allowedto keep pets: a policy strictly carried out by our estate management office. I therefore treasure my strong memories of my ‘pets’). Saddened. For now.
The joy my art gives – serving others
My work has often given my customers double takes, made them teary-eyed or have the corners of their mouths turn up, when they see my work of them, even though half-done. I find that my art has a blessed gift of mending broken hearts, imbued with the chic -ness allowing my dogmoms to aspire to be as savvy as they appear to be in their portraits. They try, and that is quite sufficient for me and my objective. The most recent response came for a retired Military Personnel: “I’m in tears…….your work is breath-taking…..!”
I know that every time my customers get to gaze on their trendy portraits, they will be glad they have something positive to look up to, possibly with a renewed desire for positive change in their lives. In doing so I do hope to draw them back into the loving arms of our divine Creator, who is the unending, inexhaustible source of all comfort, love, acceptance, forgiveness hope and joy.
May my beloved customers learn to draw upon these inspirations as they gaze at my art. The very My Raison D’etre behind it all. Oh yes, in return, the whole process of my portraits do bring me inexplicable joy that overflows, discernible gentle healing and inexpressible comfort. They are all spelt T.H.E.R.A.P.Y.