‘What am doing this for, anyway?’
This is the kind of question that crops up in the back of one’s mind unbidden as one moves through the end stages of preparing for what could very well be one’s last show for a long, long time. During those long hours of arranging scales-cum-feathers and replacing feet with talons, one tends to wonder how this crazy, caffeine-fuelled ride got started in the first place.
The answer lies in the swirling mists of time some 40 odd years ago, haha—I mean you know how ‘not enough hugs as a child’ has been given as a reason for (overly) aggressive behaviour in adulthood? It’s like that, lol. (Oh dear, someone’s been watching that Sherlock-Sigmund film again.)
I’m fairly sure mermaids were the first monsters I’d ever started drawing.
I think I was about eight, in third grade, which is when I remember drawing mermaids and fairies. You know that pad paper we used to have back in the day (where I come from, anyway)? I remember drawing a series of ‘dolls’ and one of them had bug wings on the back—wand, the whole bit.
And I remember making entire ‘mermaid cities’ on newsprint scratch paper in my grandparents’ room in that apartment they used to live in before they moved in with us. The ‘buildings’ were these giant clam shells and I had a hospital, a school, an office building and all that jazz—who knows, I might’ve become an urban planner instead of a starving artist ^_^
I guess you have to expect a little of that when you’d been reading the kind of books I’d been reading growing up. My Mom made sure we had bucketloads and shedfuls of books from all over (with ‘Posadas Children’s Library’ written in her impeccable Palmer penmanship on all the inside covers), and a lot of them had you know. Fairies, giants, dwarves—you know.
And we watched a heckuva lotta movies. We were this movie-musical-mad family and when you grow up watching junk like Grendel (which scarred me for life and haunted me on many a dark night), The Hobbit, the original Clash of the Titans and Neverending Story…you get the idea.
My first serious unicorn painting I remember doing was when I was about 12.
I’d done it up in watercolour and it was on a piece of illustration board about 20 x 30” (50.8 x 76.2cm) and I think I must’ve given it to my Mom for either Mother’s Day or her birthday. She framed it sandwiched between two pieces of glass; I’m not sure where it is now.
What I am sure of is where Mom put this watercolour I made for her back in uni—it was of this centaur family (a mom and two, uh, ponies?) turning in for the night behind some viney leaves.
I remember working on that early in the morning on the roof-deck of the building (we only had the one building at the time) where I used to sleep stretched out on four or five monoblock chairs (wow, shades of things to come, har). Mom framed that the same way as that first uni and it’s still hanging in a corner of a wall in her room above her bed.
So basically my ‘range’ of monsters at this time was rather limited mainly to fish (mermaids), horses (unicorns) and the odd bug or bird (fairies or avians), or dragon. I was basically regurgitating what I saw in the books, films and so on. And as time wore on I worried about my work becoming ‘formulaic’, as it were.
The fish always had to have these dorsal fins on their arms and there were always three fins on the tail—that kind of thing.
I was also starting to struggle with my figure drawing (still struggling today) because I was starting to think like, if I could ‘draw the monsters realistically, then they would look more real (duh)'. It would be like they really existed. (They do! Don’t mind me, lol.)
So ‘drawing the monsters realistically’ entailed research.
Just like the ancients during the BC’s before me, in order to draw creatures that don’t exist (they do ^^), I had to refer to what real creatures looked like—which was something I’d already been doing around my early teens.
I sort of had this self-study programme I made for myself where I would learn to draw, progressively, starting with butterflies. Then I figured I’d work my way up to birds, beasts and so on until I ended with people.
I kind of got stuck on the butterflies though because I became obsessed with the veins in the wings—and I was drawing them in ink using pointillism LOL. But I do remember drawing a lot of lions in pencils because I had this lion book with photos taken on safari or something.
In any case I was drawing these things as practise for their own sake; it hadn’t occurred to me until later to just ‘take the body parts I needed for grafting onto a human body’. But that’s how that eventually came about and I’ve been more or less doing it this way ever since.
Now there is a drawback to this method.
You see, sometimes I get so caught up in the details and you know, in the attempt to make it as ‘realistic as possible’, that I fall into that ‘Van Gogh’s’ trap. If I remember correctly, Van Gogh once said something to the effect that you shouldn’t be so stuck on your model, or your reference, so as to let it kill your creativity.
Sometimes, depending on the style or the technique I’m using I have to remind myself that ‘this is art and not National Geographic’. So right now, even as I continue to struggle with refining my technique (cos God knows (as well as anyone who’s followed my work) that I’ve still got a looong way to go), I’m trying to loosen up a little bit and have more fun with it.
This also means trying to break away from the templates set in place by a lifetime of exposure to ‘traditional’ monsters, e.g. when making mermaids, it’s always the bottom half that’s fish with the upper half all human. When making fairies, they’re always pretty (even though I’d seen Labyrinth when it came out I hadn’t discovered Brian Froud till much later).
It wasn’t also till much later in life when I’d feel the need to ‘return to my roots’ as it were and delve into the mythology of my own country. In a lot of ways I find the monsters at home a lot more fascinating than their foreign counterparts even if they are rather frightening.
I’m still trying to put my own spin on the way local monsters look (particularly my favourite, the tikbalang) while trying not to fall into the same ‘formulaic’ trap I faced while drawing and painting mermaids and their kin.
The advantage I have here (if it can be called an advantage) is that I got a lot less exposure growing up to tikbalangs, kapres, bakunawas and so on versus the other monsters.
So it was remembering all this which made me remember.
This is why I’m mixing modelling paste with my paint and making scales to simulate feathers at four in the morning. This is how I’ve come to turn myself into a ‘painting factory’ that mass-produces all these monsters in the middle of the night.
I ended up retracing my steps towards how I came to offer myself in the service of these monsters as a sort of ‘chronicler’, if you will. Kind of like ‘my lord, if you would but suffer me to render your likeness I can champion the majesty of your monstrous beauty among humans who know not your kind’ type-thing.
Not that the humans care (unless they’re killing them in defence of the ancients, I suppose ^o^)—but that’s why I do it. I think it’s important to, you know. Retain that childlike wonder kind of thing. Wondering what it would be like to live among creatures who were different, look different, look and act, and think a lot more differently than you.
But then, that’s something we have to do a lot in the real world these days, anyways, right?
So all this may not be completely irrelevant. Or so I hope, ehehe. In any case, if you’ve got any, you know, advice to help me make better monsters, I’d be much obliged.