THAI ARTISTS AND THEIR ART
Written by John Irvin No. 4 May 1, 1999
The river scene fits together like a balanced puzzle, a blending of form, color, geometry, art and engineering. The flowers in the foreground lead to the river, and the river leads to the far shore, which is covered with greenery. On the far shore, a huge tall building stands amidst nature, and around it, in front of it, are sky, filled with soft colors and soft clouds, water, reflecting the sky, a bridge, connecting the distant side with the foreground, and, of course, plenty of flowers.
"Bank Building and Bridge over the Chao Praya," painted in lively colors by Charoon Boonsuan, is one of the artist’s few paintings that contains a man-made object such as a building, but one of many which contain flowers. Flowers are Charoon’s specialty, his favorite subject. In a world where art continues to evolve into different stages of the abstract, the surreal, and artists turn to indigenous themes, Charoon is busily turning out landscapes, filled with bright colors, and utterly cheerful. The viewer cannot help but feel a wave of positive energy from the glow of his colors and the peacefulness of his nature scenes.
"My aim is not to paint a rose, but the colors from the rose," he said. "Dahla 1" and "Dahla 2" feature a close up view of flowers, light pinkish-orange petals reaching upward, bright yellow-green stalks, against a diffuse background of yellows, oranges, browns and purple. The luminescent glow of the petals is so abundant that it spills over onto the green stems of the flowers, reflecting their pale orange hue on top of their own light green color.
"We artists make art for other people," Charoon told me recently when we talked at the art department at Chiang Mai University. "I feel glad when other people like my work." Yet, he is far from finished. "I feel my work is not yet perfect, there is always something more to do," he said. "When the artist feels perfect, his work is dead."
Charoon grew up wanting to make art. As a boy in his small village in Singburi, he remembers drawing pictures in the dirt, when he was 5 years old. At the time he had no materials to draw with. He used to like to watch Leekay drama, a Thai art form which has costumes and painted backgrounds. In high school, his goal was to be a scenery painter for these shows. His interest in painting scenery became transformed into a career as a fine artist, specializing in landscapes. "I never reached my goal of being a scenery painter," he laughs.
He went to Silpakorn University in Bangkok, and afterward came to Chiang Mai to do his graduate study. It was here, at a friend’s pond, that he discovered the joy of painting flowers, in all their vivid color.
"I used to use dark colors, lots of browns," Charoon said to me. "I didn’t think I could paint in bright colors." But, when painting the lily pads in his friend’s pond, Charoon found brightly colored flowers mixed in with the darker colors. Being a good student, he reproduced what he saw accurately, and in the process the color seeped into his work. He found very quickly that he liked using bright colors.
"Painting dark colors used to make the sadness come out from me," he told me. "Now, when I paint, I feel more happy."
Indeed, Charoon’s work is about color as much as anything. "Color is the most important factor in my work," he readily admits. Not only are his flowers brightly colored, but the borders of these flowers, the inner edges where flower touches flower, have a light source that comes through like an inner light, soft, warm, and glowing. His red flowers may be edged in orange, orange flowers in yellow, pale orange also in yellow, bright yellow flowers edged in orange, and pale yellow flowers edged in yellow. Never is there a dark color, except where background begins. In the foreground, color is divided by more color, pure and simple. Charoon doesn’t compromise when it comes to color.
But form and design are also important elements in Charoon’s work. "Poisien" and "Tongkwaw" are very similar. Both have a close up study of flowers against a very mottled and diffuse background. In "Tongkwaw," the flowers are all one color – a bright vermilion, against a dark green background. By using colors that are almost complimentary with one another, he creates a contrast as strong as black and white, but with the energy of the colors. This also creates the opportunity for negative space, the effect that happens when small pieces of background color, framed by the foreground subject, suddenly appear to jump forward in emphasis. Many of his other paintings, notably "Muakjin" , use strong color and value contrasts to create negative space.
Light is an important component of color. Many of Charoon’s paintings appear to have been done outdoors, but rarely do we see distinct shadows and bright sunlight. The brightness of the colors is strong enough to collect the available light and send it to us, even on a cloudy or hazy day. Direct sunlight would be overpowering. Charoon’s work doesn’t need it because it contains an internal light source.
"I want to be one with the subject, I want to see it with my eyes." Charoon describes his philosophy and approach to painting this way. When he paints, he says he likes to sit close to the subject, letting nothing come between him and it. He rarely draws out the composition in advance, relying instead on his eyes and the observation in the moment of actual painting. "I want to be in harmony with myself when I do my work," he said to me. "I don’t want it to be forced; I want it to happen naturally, not intellectually."
Composition, the way in which the subject is presented, is an important part of Charoon’s paintings. Sometimes it may depend on internal factors, such as shapes and lines. He rarely uses man-made objects, usually relying on the wisdom of nature to provide its own shapes and balance. But in "Bank Building and Bridge over the Chao Praya," he uses the bridge – a horizontal linear object – to unify the distant shore and the lush tropical scenery in the foreground. Extending downward in an arc from a point above the bridge, cables give a geometric effect to the painting. In the distance, the upright building adds a vertical component to the composition.
Composition may also be influenced by framing, an external factor. "Bank Building and Bridge over the Chao Praya" has two versions; one version frames the scene horizontally, harmonizing with the horizontal aspects of the painting such as the length of the bridge, the river, and the land. The other version of the painting frames the scene vertically, or upright, like a portrait, emphasizing the height of the building and the uprights which support the bridge. Framing is a way of seeking out the compositional elements in the painting and either magnifying or minimizing them.
Charoon prepares each canvas by covering it with a thin layer of cadmium medium yellow. This bright color seeps through into his paintings, between flowers and trees, leaves and petals, wherever the overlap is not exact, and allows the painting to breathe. He paints one area of the canvas at a time, and works his way across the whole picture. In order to be ready for any mood or inspiration, he prepares twenty or thirty such canvases at one time.
"I am ready to start over again every day," Charoon said of his never-ending quest to learn and create new things. "No artist is ever finished – there is always something new to look forward to. Art students can graduate from school, but artists are never finished."
Indeed, Charoon said that even though he is getting older, he won’t slow down, because there is still so much to learn. "I always have a goal, each painting is a study. I can paint the same subject as before but with a new goal." This last statement echoes the work of Monet, one of Charoon’s favorite artists.
"Whenever I get depressed, I remember some of the great masters, like Van Gogh, who had a harder life than me, but who produced great work," Charoon said. His goal is to paint for the rest of his life, never stopping. That way, he will always have something to look forward to. His use of color makes him happy to paint, and brings good feelings to the viewer. We can only hope that his relationship with painting continues for a long time.