ELEVEN: When you’re going to start a painting, what are you looking for?
Yong Hong Zhong: I actually do a lot of plein air painting. “Plein air painting” is a term, I think that came from the French, it means just literally painting outdoors.
So, for the past couple of years, it was just one of those things that I thought, “Well, it’s a good way to kind of keep in practice.” And at the time, my kids were a lot younger. Just a couple of years ago, I would actually sit at my kids recitals, piano lessons, and I would just sit there. Now, what would I do for the time that I had (initially) about an hour, an hour and a half? I decided to just give myself a project to do, so I would take advantage of the time I was there and just paint whatever was in front of me. Initially, it was just kind of like whatever I could get my hands on at the time, I would just go and paint.
For the past couple of years I’ve been doing that and I started posting stuff on Instagram. I guess it just kind of evolved over the years. When I’m actually painting — this is all tied into the type of things that I did when I was at Disney — It’s always about the feeling. It could be something really simple. It doesn’t have to be this amazing landscape, or this beautiful portrait. It has to be that when I look at a scene in front of me. The feeling that I get from that — then my goal is to try to capture that feeling. Like, it could be a snow scene, or it could be a very serene waterfall. My goal is to try to capture that feeling, and then when the audience looks at the painting, they can look at what I paint based on their own experience.
I think that’s where the connection between my work and other people, whoever’s looking at it, established that connection. Rather than just take a photo, take out my smartphone, I actually take the time and really try to just strip away all of that nonessential things and just focus on getting that feeling across.
Does that make sense?
11: It does. And I’m fascinated at where the line might be drawn of someone who’s a professional photographer, or an arts photographer — Ansel Adams, or whomever. They can definitely convey a story, or emotion and feeling with their photo. So, what is it about watercolor for you that lets you communicate that feeling better than a photo?
YHZ: I spent years at Disney. I designed backgrounds for animated films, so my composition, it’s, “What are you going to tell? What kind of story?” I have developed over the years, just to simplify what is in front of me, not just paint stuff. Not to [just] paint details, paint all of the stuff that I paint to tell a story. I also like other mediums, but for the past few years I’ve been doing a lot more watercolor. I like the spontaneity that I can find in watercolor.
If you do any kind of painting — watercolor, oil, or other medium — watercolor is by far one of the more challenging mediums to get good at. I guess for me, I actually like the feeling because sometimes with oil when you put a brush stroke, it doesn’t move. It doesn’t change color. It stays where you put it. And once you lay it on, if you don’t like it, you can wipe the canvas. But with watercolor it’s more like you have a sheet of paper and your watercolor. If you start a painting and halfway through the painting [you] realize, “Oh, I made a mistake,” you can’t just wipe it away. How can I bring it back? Or how can I make the best of it? Sometimes artists will call that a happy accident, that it’s difficult to recreate.
So there is that uncertainty in the watercolor paint that I like. It’s actually not easy to control, but if you learn to enjoy the process, it definitely allows me to create the feeling that I get and not feel control.
These are things that it’s easier for me to show you rather than talk. When I teach workshops I say, “Oh, I’m going to show you.” I would break it down and demonstrate what I mean by that. Because water medium depends on how much water you have in your brush, how wet the paper is, if it’s a sunny day, if it’s a rainy day, if it’s a cloudy day — they all change the way the medium behaves. So, there’s all these things that [are] happening, and you just have [to say], “Okay, I’m going to trust this is how it’s going to turn out.” You have a lot of trust in yourself, and a lot of confidence. You really have to have a very clear idea [of] where you want to take this painting.
So, does that answer your question?
11: That is where we were headed. There’s a French term that I learned a long time ago, ‘au premier coup,’ where the first brush stroke is the right brush stroke, the only brush stroke, as a concept. I think with watercolor you’re forced into that. It is that uncertainty and that challenge, but it’s almost a little bit of a metaphor for life. You have these variables that you have to deal with, you confidently do it, and you can’t really undo certain things. Then you make the best of what you have there. You know what I mean?
YHZ: Yes. Yes, exactly. And a lot of that confidence. The way brush stroke is laid down, you can tell if it’s confident and know and trust that what they’re going to put down is going to be fine; or if it’s not fine, they’re going to turn into something. It’s having that uncertainty, and it constantly keep you on your feet. Not like with certain mediums [where] it becomes very predictable and you have a kind of routine.
So, with watercolor it’s every painting is different, that’s how I feel.
11: After a long run at Disney, what was it about Portland that made you want to bring your family here and raise them in the Pacific Northwest?
YHZ: I have to say, I’ve been to different parts of the country. I feel like Portland has just the right mixture of the city and also nature.
I spent a lot of time growing up in New York and I lived in Florida. I lived in California. So, I kind of have an idea of what each location has to offer. New York is definitely not someplace that I would want to raise my kids.
Right away I was so drawn to Portland, because of the natural beauty in Portland. It’s a city that is not so big, like New York or Los Angeles, [that] I feel like it’s very stressful. That hustle and bustle type of lifestyle is just not conducive to the type of lifestyle that I want. I want to raise my kids in more of a slower pace and really wanted to just enjoy my time with my kids, not getting caught up in that, “Oh, I got to go to a nine-to-five job, got to pay the bills.” I think Portland has that option for me.
When we went to visit Portland, right away I felt like this is the city that I want to be in. We visited Portland a couple of times and we bought a house. When I finished my last picture with Disney, I just decided it’s time to go. »