Crawling Through Windows

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IMG_1889Without a doubt, art is one of the most defining elements of any culture. It captures the spirit of people, places and time, and expresses mood, opinion, and thought, in such a way that transcends even the greatest of language barriers. Whether it be a song, play, dance or a visual composition like pottery, painting or drawing, every piece of art is a window into that culture’s world. When we attempt to learn about and experience other cultures, sometimes it’s enough to remain on the outside looking in; to go to a museum or a gallery, or attend a concert or production. But other times it’s fun to crawl through the window and become part of the action, immerse in that same spirit of people, place and time, and gain a first-hand understanding of those moods, opinions and thoughts; either by moving to another country, enrolling in a class of some sort, or both–which is exactly what I did/have done!

Five weeks ago I signed up for a Minhwa (traditional Korean/folk) painting course after learning about it on UlsanOnline, every foreigner’s go-to site for information about living in Ulsan. The course met once a week, for three hours at a time. It set me back about $150, but considering the length of each session and the fact that all the materials were provided for me, it seemed like I’d be getting plenty of bang for my buck…er, wham for my won.  Plus, at the end of the class, I’d be going home with my very own Korean masterpiece!

The instructor, Choi Yu Jin, is a young, soft-spoken but very talented painter. Her English skills, though basic, are more than enough to lead you through the painting process. I was just grateful she spoke any English at all! That being said, the language barrier did prevent us from being able to talk about painting techniques and styles. I would’ve liked to learn more about how to properly mix the colors, and pick her brain about blending and fading the paint on the canvas. But instead, she kindly insisted on preparing the necessary colors for me and with a repeated nod and smile said, “Outside painting, inside blending” (meaning, only use the blending brush on the insde of each leaf/petal). The resulting way of working was clear and easy, with a bit of a “paint by numbers” feel. I still walked away from each session having learned at least a little something about painting, but it was more through my own trial-and-error and observation than Yu Jin’s graceful demonstrations and fragmented instructions.

To quickly describe the process: I started with a pencil sketch of my subject on a piece of tracing paper. Then, I flipped the paper over and darkly scribbled over all the lines in the drawing. After that, I flipped the tracing paper back over to the front and, with it taped to my canvas, retraced the subject with a red ballpoint pen (so as to see where I had already retraced). This was how the preliminary drawing got transfered to its final resting place on the canvas! The lead from the dark pencil scribbles on the underside got pressed onto the canvas as I retraced. Cool, huh? From there I enhanced the faint lead lines on the canvas with a fine tipped brush charged with Korean ink. It took me the entire first two classes just to get to this point! The remaining classes consisted of applying layer after layer of thin, water color-like paint to the paper canvas. “Outside painting, inside blending.” During the final session, when there was no more outside painting and inside blending left to do, Yu Jin gave me another ultra fine tipped brush to outline the flowers, stems and leaves in various colors, which really gave it the finished/polished look I was waiting for. All in all, it wasn’t a perfect first attempt but I’m still very pleased with it!

As I said, I may not have learned as much about the actual art of painting as I would’ve liked, but I at least have a rudimentary understanding of the process, as well as an appreciation for the time and patience required to produce such simple yet beautiful artwork. I look forward to continuing with these art classes, as well as finding other windows to crawl through while living in Korea!

Dark scribbles used to transfer pencil lead to the canvas. Retracing the original drawing, transferring scribbled pencil lead to the canvas. Beginning to enhance transferred pencil lead with Korean ink. After enhancing pencil lead with Korean ink. Progress! Base layers of color. The end of class #3. Almost done! End of class #4. Looking good! Minhwa painting is serious business. The finished product!

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