Last week I had the pleasure to attend a demonstration by Melbourne based artist It Hao Pheh. Held at the Berwick Artists’ Society, it gave me the opportunity to see Pheh’s process in action over two hours as he showed the early stages of a large scale watercolour work.
Trained in Malaysia and England, his watercolours are both beautiful and sensitive. He tends to predominantly focus on architecture and landscapes. His art, unlike much traditional watercolour is quite drawing-dominated and tends to keep tight control over the medium, working flat on a table rather than allowing the water and paint to bend to gravity’s will through a more typical vertical set-up. He sticks with a limited palette and basic brushes, using a spray bottle to introduce the water just as much as applying it with the brush. He also uses a lot of stippling of paint which adds interest but is also quite beautiful when applied to imply the leaves on trees or other small details.
He is a very friendly and humble person and it was lovely to be able to speak to him after his demonstration. Watercolour is the one area of painting I have never been trained in and he said that was fairly common that it didn’t get covered. I’ve only tried it once myself and had great frustration with it but a deep appreciation for its beauty at the same time. Pheh said he considered it the hardest painting medium to master and I happen to agree. Watching him, it looked so easy but I feel that (to use a music analogy) it’s the jazz of the painting world. Oils and acrylics can be controlled and pushed to the artist’s will, however there’s a certain level of improvisation and ‘letting go’ required of a watercolour artist while under the surface there has to be solid technique. The work is extremely intentional and yet very free. There’s a lot of skill in getting that balance right.
I appreciated his tendency to limit his palette and materials. He was trained to work with what was available to him at the time and to value portability so he could paint anytime, anywhere. It did remind me of recently when I was playing with my son in the park -digging holes in the tan bark with sticks. The thought crossed my mind at the time how satisfying it was to create with what’s around you – that there’s a simple joy in drawing a picture in the dirt (or whatever colour’s left in your paint palette, in It Hao Pheh’s case). As a child I used to enjoy crushing rocks and clay and mixing them with water to create paint. There’s something in me that wants to get back to that idea of not needing much to create work. (It would also help me to fit my art supplies in my cupboard a whole lot better!)
It Hao Pheh’s work uses white space masterfully. He really knows what to leave out and doesn’t overwork his images. In response to a question asking why he didn’t paint the sky in his work, he said he was very influenced by traditional Chinese painting where it’s the subject that provides the context (if you paint a bird flying you know that what surrounds it is the sky). There’s no need to over communicate and it prevents the subject from being overpowered.
In light of what I saw and learnt from him last week I have a feeling I’ll be experimenting with watercolour fairly soon. Wish me luck!
It Hao Pheh’s next demonstration will be during Strathdon Art Show, Forest Hill, on 25 March, Saturday 2-4pm. Open to the public.
It Hao Pheh teaches classes at the Sherbrooke Art Gallery. http://www.sherbrookegallery.com/art_classes.html
To view more of his work, see: