Lucinda Law: Anatomy of an Artist
Watercolour painting is a patient, meditative process that encourages a certain Zen–like calm and thoughtfulness in its practitioner. One is unlikely to find the unrestrained energy and tempestuousness of artists like Pollack or Basquiat in this field, and instead of bold swabs of thick colour à la Van Gogh, shape, depth and detail in a watercolour piece can be determined by a single, carefully positioned droplet of water diffusing across paper.
Lucinda Law is a botanical illustrator and watercolourist who’s made a name for herself with the vivid, detailed delicacy of her horticultural art. She’s Faber Castell’s first appointed Singaporean Art & Graphic ambassador, and her work is much in demand with notable publications and international brands. The one-woman wonder also conducts a steady stream of workshops and retreats across beautiful locales in Asia such as Chiang Mai, and her frequent expeditions into an ever-picturesque nature, make her Instagram account a treat for the eyes.
As the late morning light diffuses in a gentle golden glow around us, we speak to the former editor and senior lecturer in the cool calm of her painter’s studio in Little India and learn about the most pivotal moments in her journey to redefining her life’s purpose and career.
I: A Purpose through Nature
“I actually went through very intensive life changes right before taking the sabbatical that has led to my current career. Back then, I had just decided to call off an engagement and a 10-year-long relationship. In the same period, my cat of 20 years that was very close and dear to me passed away as well. So it was a very trying time and I decided that I needed a break to rethink the next stage of my life, and what I really wanted to do—find a different side of me.
Something very, very strong in my instincts kept coming up. It was very resounding and reassuring, and it kept telling me: go to nature. I’ve always admired the raw wilderness of south New Zealand, so I decided to take a sabbatical from teaching at Lasalle [School of the Arts] where I was a senior lecturer in Culture & Contextual Studies for Fashion. I sold most of my belongings (including a huge wardrobe), packed a simple backpack and went. I didn’t quite know where I was headed, but I first landed in South Island where I met an acquaintance with whom I was supposed to stay with for just a couple of days.”
“On my first day there, my friend introduced me to a hippie community where he had friends. They had names like “Free-Range”, wore rainbow attire and carried their didgeridoos around, and when I first saw them, my first thought was: I don’t want to be seen with this crowd. [laughs] So I told my friend to go on ahead without me, but when I turned to walk away, I thought: You said that you wanted to travel to experience life and meet new people. But here you are being so judgmental. Go back. Because what else did I need to hold back on? I was in nature, just as I wanted to be, and meeting different communities and people could only help me to understand myself a little better. And so I headed back, and that’s how I met the “Peace Pirates”.
I was at a boat party of theirs that night when they told me that they could take me sailing into the Abel Tasman National Park, a marine national park in New Zealand accessible only by boat. We gathered a 6-man crew from all over the world, and went sailing. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. We’d hunt for seal caves and blue glow worms, played with phosphorus in a paddle boat at night or see the stars reflected on the still waters like dandelions—they were very intimate moments with nature. I ended up living on the boat for 2 and a half months. I would have very pivotal and memorable experiences with nature, throughout my entire time there. On one of my first days there, I entered the mouth of a river that started in the mountains—the source of its spring water. It was 12 degrees Celsius, and that cold plunge into pure water has always felt like my personal baptism into nature.”
“I also took time off to go to Gili Air to learn how to scuba dive and relax in the tropics. I rented a house just metres away from the sea and it was very healing just to be able to bathe in the sea every day. Bringing things that I like to read, snippets of poems and books, I’d head to the beach where I would release flowers and have a salt scrub in the sea. These experiences were really just about healing, releasing and thinking about how to take care of myself in the best possible way—what my goal and purpose in life was. So I asked myself very simple but deep questions, and each time whatever came out was: Nature. It was the answer each time, alongside the arts.”
“The strongest thought in me through this period was that nature and art will provide the best kind of well-being for people. I don’t think there are enough people talking about the benefit of art and nature. We have a lot of artists, more creative people coming up in Singapore, and this sense of a creative soul needs to be nurtured more. I wanted to bridge that gap for city people, so decided to start Within when I came back. At this point though, being a botanical artist hadn’t happened yet.”
“You carry Mother Earth within you. She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment. In that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer. In that kind of relationship, you have enough love, strength and awakening in order to change your life.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
II: Becoming an Artist
“I started doing little workshops with Within for those who were interested in connecting with nature. But I wasn’t feeling completely fulfilled and once again there was this very strong voice in my head, telling me that I wanted to be an artist and I was scared. My personal background taught me that art is a luxury; it’s not something practical.
But the instinct was so strong, I shared my thoughts with my best friend one night as we were dining along East Coast Park, and after hearing it she told me to take my shoes off, walk to the shore, stand there and declare my wish to the universe. So I did just that, except instead of shouting it out, I just stood there and quietly went: “I’m an artist.” But I had said it. The very next week, I signed myself up for a master’s programme in design, thinking that it would be good for my career. But it never really felt right. I kept getting drawn to the fine arts until I decided I had to make the switch.”
Acceptance and Meaning
“A couple of months into my course, I felt very strongly that I needed to paint again. I had always been a bedroom painter and I taught myself watercolour from when I was 17 to 21, copying from this beautifully illustrated guide called “Magic and Medicine of Plants”, which happened to land in my home one day. It was scary because it was something that was so intimate to me, and also because I hadn’t painted in over a decade. I didn’t even show much of my paintwork in my master’s application, besides a small water lily painting.
But the two broad aims of my sabbatical were: to find out what I want to do with my life, and how I could be of service to others while spending more time on my own art practice. Teaching while painting was an ideal answer. I told myself that no matter what, painting would foremost always be a source of meditation, a pleasure and refuge. That would be enough. It wouldn’t be based on any external validation, regardless of whatever happened, no one could take that joy away from me. So I started really just by picking up from where I last left off, painting little chamomiles.”
The temple bells stop but I still hear the sound coming out of flowers.—Matsuo Bashō
III: Maturity and Growth
“One of the most important lessons for me was when I had already begun painting again. My sister had sent me a link to tell me that Harper’s Bazaar was having their inaugural Art Prize competition, and the submission was due at the end of October. It was already August then.
It was nice fantasising about the possibility of winning especially given my background: bridging fashion and art would be wonderful. I remember riding my scooter at the time and thinking about how I might be able to get into painting more seriously and do it full-time. This wave of pure creative joy just cascaded down through me and I felt so happy I couldn’t help smiling. I will never forget the feeling.
But like any young artist, or given my personality, I sabotaged myself. [laughs] I waited until the very last minute to start, because I was so afraid of failure. 2 days before I was supposed to submit my work, I was sitting at my desk, trying to do a very large piece, and I felt so ashamed and despondent. I had to acknowledge that even though I had seen the same situation happen to so many students of mine, I wasn’t any better. I ended up not entering the competition and told myself that if I seriously wanted to be an artist, I had to learn rigour and discipline; to respect deadlines. That’s the only way to see any kind of result—sustained effort. And I made a promise to myself: if I ever got a chance like that again, I would do it well.
2 weeks later, I got a call from Harper’s Bazaar for their “flora and fauna” issue. I just laid on the floor in disbelief after I hung up, because I had been given another chance. It was beyond imagination. I was ready to give my 100% and even more. I worked like crazy, and it’s always been like that ever since. That was my big break and other brands started coming to me.”
On Commitment and Dedication
“When I’m not feeling 100% confident or at my best, I take a moment to remind myself why I’m doing this, who I am doing it for and how I want to do it—which is with diligence and rigour.
Having large concepts like an Identity and mission statements aren’t how you create work with longevity or understanding. Identity, like what you can develop in a relationship with someone or at work, doesn’t ground you in everyday life. I realise that you are really only as good as the last thing that you do, and that boils down to hard work.
A lot of people say that they want to write a book, they want to do this or that, but we choose to do something else that doesn’t take us closer to our goal. Those people who have follow through, have really worked towards that. I think life rewards action.”
“You need to define your own version of success. Painting brings me pleasure and peace—and spending time doing it is my version of success. I fulfil my own personal KPI. Of course, as an adult living in a very expensive city, I know that success means monetary recognition for my efforts, and being an artist and a businesswoman can be a really hard balance to strike. I’ve learnt to compartmentalise the different aspects needed of me, and I’m also very lucky that the industry has been very responsive to the work that I do.
I try to engage with my surroundings and use all my senses. I have to do that as an artist and it’s a very positive state of mind that is infectious. It makes me feel very alive and that life is worth living.”
An Auditory Journey into Lucinda’s Creative Mind Space
Lucinda’s next 4-week botanical art watercolour course will begin in June.