Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Artist Feature: Erwin Lian

For this artist feature, I want to introduce another of my Urban Sketcher friends, Erwin Lian Cherngzhi. He studied art and media overseas and has experience in both natural and digital media. Recently he traveled to Bhutan for a sketching trip under the auspices of Drukair, and upon his return has undertaken the herculean task of starting a Kickstarter project to produce what he calls The Perfect Sketchbook for travel artists and art enthusiasts. But before we go into that, let's find out more about Erwin and his inspiration.

Erwin in Bhutan
Copyright © Lian Cherngzhi

SD: Hi Erwin! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic journey?
EL: I am an Artist from Singapore and a part-time lecture at the DVFX program in Ngee Ann polytechnic.

When I started off, I wanted to be a computer animator. Knowing that foundational art skills were important, I enrolled into a school (Columbus College of Art) that strongly emphasized on that. After graduation, I dabbled a little in motion graphics and visual effects. It was only when I started working that did I realize how much I missed using traditional media, so I made the transition, moved back to Singapore and went into teaching instead. Teaching allowed me to escape the mundane of clicking buttons and memorizing workflows. It also gave me time to paint on the side.

SD: I heard you studied art overseas. Where did you go for your art training? What were some of the most valuable lessons you learned?
EL: I went to the Columbus College of Art in Ohio and also did an exchange program at Otis College of Art in Los Angles. Art schools are expensive and it’s a miracle that I even graduated from College. I think the most valuable lesson I learned from college is that you do not need school to learn something. When I was in both colleges, the top talents were usually those who already “had it” or had already acquired their skills elsewhere. In a way, these talents were merely in schools to claim their “titles”. At the same time, the schools were always there to gain merit for “producing” these artists. It is funny but people who made it to Stanford University don’t really need to be in Stanford. They already had what it takes.

SD: What advice would you give to someone who may be considering studying art abroad?
EL: Budget well and do your research on the industry you want to get into. If you want to be an animator, find out where the big companies are located. A community college near Pixar will most likely have teachers from Pixar than a big college located elsewhere. Don’t be fooled into choosing branded schools. Often people don’t realize that they can get the same quality of education for way less.

SD: What is your preferred medium and why?
EL: I prefer the traditional media such as oils, pencils, pen, watercolor, acrylic, and gouache. I love them all! I do paint digitally, but not often. I like how ink and paint respond to paper and canvas much more than the feel of a plastic stylus against another piece of hard plastic.

Copyright © Lian Cherngzhi

SD: What is your inspiration?
EL: Anything and everything. It could be music, lyrics, a conversation with a friend or a stranger, or it could be that nice cheek on a beautiful face. There’s beauty everywhere if you know where to look.

SD: You seem to have a lot of drive and passion. Do you have goals for yourself as an artist? What are some of them?
EL: Not really. I don’t really have a goal except to be happy and to stay that way. It’s easy to be consumed with unhappiness if you keep wanting to be a celebrity artist, or to be famous, or to be a “kick-ass”.

SD: You recently went to Bhutan. What inspired you to travel there, and what do you like about the country?
EL: I been traveling around for a while and after I clocked America, Europe and Asia, I thought it was high time to visit the "highest" land. Bhutan, which is in the Himalayas, stood out. Since there has been so much talk about it being the happiest place on earth, I decided to check it out. I was blown away when I arrived there. Its pristine landscape and the people's symbiotic approach to the environment inspires me.

SD: How many sketches did you do there? Can you share some of your sketches with us?
EL: I didn’t count. I just went at it. Here are some sketches from my second trip to Bhutan.

Copyright © Lian Cherngzhi

Copyright © Lian Cherngzhi

Copyright © Lian Cherngzhi

Copyright © Lian Cherngzhi

Copyright © Lian Cherngzhi

SD: What art materials did you use on your trip? 
EL: I brought a small watercolor sketchbook, my Lamy 2000, some water-brushes, dried up watercolours in a palette, a spray, one "Good Morning" towel and a mechanical pencil just in case I want softer lines. 

SD: What are some of the essentials you would recommend packing for a trip to a place like Bhutan (art materials and otherwise)? Do you have any advice for people planning to travel there?
EL:I would recommend some insect repellent. During my first trip, I was attacked by sand flies. Other than that, I don’t usually carry anything fancy. On my second trip, I did bring along my easel and stool and worked on larger pieces of work.

SD: Where else have you traveled to sketch? What's your favourite place and why (if it's other than Bhutan)?
EL: I have sketched Berlin, Paris, New York, Ohio, Taipei, Kaohsiung, Cambodia, Beijing, Nanjing, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Bhutan. I may have missed some places but I really like Bhutan and Barcelona. I love Bhutan for its pristine landscape, friendly people and culture. I love Barcelona for its beautiful structure, under-rated art, friendly people and amazing FOOD!! But you know what? My favorite place to sketch is actually in the SMRT train in Singapore. It's home after all and I know it best. 

SD: You recently launched your Kickstarter project titled The Perfect Sketchbook. What inspired you to do it? Why not just use one of the sketchbooks available in the market?
EL: Every time I buy a new sketchbook, I thought to myself: “Why didn’t they consider this and that?” Eventually, I wrote in to a sketchbook company (Grandluxe) to suggest that they start a Kickstarter project. It was that simple and they actually responded.

"The Perfect Sketchbook" was something that I arrived at after trying out many watercolor sketchbooks. In order to improve on my watercolor sketches, I considered the three basic variables that would affect my work: water, pigment and paper. Since most watercolor sketchbooks contain only with student grade watercolor paper (20% cotton), I knew paper would be something I could improve on. Hence, "The Perfect Sketchbook" will be made with artist-grade 100% cotton paper. Two other features unique to the Perfect Sketchbook are:
  1. 18% photography grey tone on the backing of the sketchbook
  2. Integrated value charts on the front and back pages of the sketchbook.

These two features didn’t incur extra costs since they are integrated into existing parts of the sketchbook. A value chart can be handy for an artist to assess value (i.e. darkness and lightness) or for an educator to explain color theory. An 18% photography grey may also come in handy when an artist needs to meter for exposure.



SD: What hurdles did you have to cross in order to get it started? 
EL: There are so many... For a start, I didn’t know that only 5 nationalities were eligible to use Kickstarter, and Singaporeans weren't one of them. I have lived in the States for a decade and thought that I could pull this off easily. Unfortunately when it comes down to money, the project will be subjected to U.S income tax, which made things a little complicated. It was a challenge to get friends to support the project. I also heavily underestimated the time and work needed to pull this off.

The big hurdle from the beginning was the costs involved. Since I wanted to use paper and cover materials that aren’t available at the existing manufacturer, it became clear that I didn't have the advantage of economies of scale. Then there was the design process, the many iterations of changes, photography, and promotional video that I needed to produce.

Last but not least, calculating the right pricing after considering the production costs, commissions from Kickstarter, Amazon and reward fulfillments was challenging too.

SD: Tell us a little about your sketchbook project. What are the design considerations and what makes it different from other sketchbooks in the market?
  1. 100% artist grade cotton paper is the biggest different. Any professional watercolorist will tell that rag paper (100 % cotton paper) makes it strong and pliable. If you care about permanence or plan on using lots of scrubbing, scraping, taping, and masking techniques you should use 100% cotton paper, which can take a lot of abuse.
  2. Value charts with consideration to left and right holder’s access to them
  3. Photography grey card (these features can be viewed at the Kickstarter page)

SD: How long has it been since you launched the project? What has the response been like so far?
EL: I launched it 29 days ago. I have 16 more days to raise a total of $50,000. I managed to gather about $22,500 in 29 days and have more than 400 backers. Out of all the 32 Kickstarter projects that have originated from Singapore, The Perfect Sketchbook has the most backers.

SD: What are your hopes for this sketchbook project? Do you plan to have another production run or pitch it to an art material producer to continue production?
EL: Firstly, I hope this project will succeed so that a Singapore manufacturer would consider looking into producing quality sketchbooks. If the demand is recognized, the quality of sketchbooks available in Singapore will rise while its cost can fall.

Secondly, Singaporean artists have always been stigmatized as an unworthy lot. This perception needs to change. I have exhibited in this Kickstarter project how a Singaporean artist can work hand-in-hand with a company to forge a highly viable symbiotic relationship. If a Singaporean company can create global interest through producing a high-quality product, Singaporean artists can also be endorsed in the same breath. Art does not need to be isolated from commerce. In fact, artists and art need sales in order to survive and thrive. I hope that Singapore can one day be the home of companies that sell artistically created high-value products. Imagine a Louis Vuitton, just one not made by the French but by a Singaporean.

I have no further plans for this project unless this Kickstarter makes the cut.

SD: Do you have plans for another sketchpacking trip? If so, where (and why there)?
EL: I just bought air tickets to Italy at the end of this month. No particular reason. Just a spontaneous decision.

SD: Is there anything else you'd like to share with other sketchpackers out there?
EL: Go and back the Perfect Sketchbook now !! Travel safely and sketch a-plenty!

More of Erwin's works can be viewed at his webpage at www.cherngzhi.com.

If you are an artist or would like to buy a present for your artist friend, do consider Erwin's project The Perfect Sketchbook (Facebook page here has more interesting posts including artists who have supported the project). And please don't just buy any sketchbook off the shelf at a shop thinking it's a good gift for an artist friend. Artists can be very fussy with paper, because good paper makes all the difference, and the sketchbook you thoughtfully selected might sadly never get used. There is wisdom in the advice of seasoned artists to get the best paper you can afford (especially for serious work), even if your other materials are of lower grade. If you want to get your friend a sketchbook, it's best to ask your friend, or another artist. Here's a sketchbook made by an artist for artists, and recommended by artists. You can't go wrong with this one, so PLEASE SUPPORT!!


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