Creative Process: Artist James Lee Chiahan

Creative Process is a series where members of our site offer a little behind the scenes peek into their art-making. Toronto-based artist James Lee Chiahan has previously shared insights into his techniques, this time around he shares some of the thinking behind a new piece, “Into endless river” (Oil and pencil crayon on panel, 16″ x 16″, 2019).


It was inspired by this amazing old National Geographic article about this massive boat that carries 1000+ passengers through the Congo River — essentially a travelling merchant town barely floating down the river with a journey that can span several months. The one I read was printed in 1991 and I can’t find it online but you can read a more recent article that isn’t as good here lol — it’s pretty incredible.

Anyways, there was this photo of a man in a cramped coach cabin, seated among 40 others with his head resting in hand, deep in thought and/or exhausted from the voyage. It was a story about survival and struggle and people putting their all into the hopes for a better future for themselves and their family. Uprooting themselves and trading away what they know and love for opportunity. I’m privileged to have been on the receiving end of that kind of story but it’s what my parents went through and their parents before them — and those kinds of stories have always been deeply affecting to me. I never had the intention of making this into a full painting, but I had the biggest urge to sketch it out and after I did, I kinda just kept spending time with it.

I started with a digital sketch, building out the composition and major forms in light blue (which I like to do with oil paintings as well). The pose had this super heavy, architectural quality to it and the folded stripes of the shirt made for a beautiful contrast. I cropped the composition tightly around the figure to frame him in a state of discomfort and intensity.

I really liked the sketch so I started experimenting with compositional elements and bringing in more colours. I knew that I wanted something really vibrant and crazy — I wanted to somehow convey good vibes and bad vibes in the same image and let whoever’s looking at it reflect off of that. Once I felt like I had a good starting point laid out in Photoshop, I threw a grid over it, drew it out in light blue pencil crayon on my panel and got started.

This is the first painting I’ve made where most of the critical decisions were discovered digitally. Unlike traditional media, it’s basically safe from any kind of commitment and it allowed for really fast, endless exploration. You can pick checkpoints throughout the process and branch out into different options. My intention for the digital stages was to only rough out possibilities — I wanted to save a fair amount of uncertainty for the actual oil painting process. In the future, I’d like to rely less on the digital stuff actually, as it kinda obviously makes things feel more predictable and I felt like it took some of the magic away.

The actual painting process has been pretty different from what I’m used to. It’s very flat and pieced together, mostly single layer. Most of the elements have come together in a fragmented, designed way — not a whole lot of blending going on outside of the skin tones. Overall, I’m really happy with how intentional I was with this one, without having it look sterile or over-laboured (I hope). I’m excited to move on and work on more stuff, maybe similar to this one.



James Lee Chiahan’s Website

James Lee Chiahan on Instagram

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