Art by Tzeyi Koay

We guarantee that everyone you bump into in the hallowed halls of MLS is so much more than just a law student! This week, we are thrilled to celebrate the incredible artist that is Tzeyi Koay, who has shared some of the thoughts and drivers behind her art making.

What are your favourite ways to make art?

I used to love charcoal, oils, and watercolour, but the mess became unmanageable when I moved into an apartment. Plus, there just wasn’t enough space to store a huge easel and dozens of paintbrushes. I decided to pick up the cheapest graphics tablet I could find and start from there.

Now tablet and print are my primary mediums. I really enjoy the flexibility of digital art. It’s incredibly forgiving of mistakes and easy to hide. There’s no Ctrl+Z with traditional mediums. If you’ve accidentally used cerulean blue instead of azure, you’re stuck with it unless you wear a hole through the paper trying to fix it. I can be exceedingly self-critical, like any law student and I usually can’t stand the sight of my own artworks, especially if I’ve made a mistake. With digital art, I can close the file and forget it ever existed, but the same can’t be said for traditional mediums—good luck putting a stretched canvas through a paper shredder.

How long have you been using those techniques and how did you get into them?

I’ve dabbled with a lot of mediums—clay, acrylic, gouache, terracotta, ink, glass, fabric, oils, watercolours, crayon, charcoal, even floral design. Yet of all of them, I’d say digital art has the steepest learning curve. The intangibility of it can take some getting used to. It lacks the friction of paper, the density of a wet brush, the rolling texture of clay. Instead, whatever you paint appears on a screen a foot away from where your hand actually is. It was like trying to handwrite an essay using a mouse or trackpad.

Persistence is key when it comes to mastering digital art, as it is with everything. It’s like learning to read music—once you’ve mastered the basics, you can read any scoresheet that appears in front of you, but until then, the notes are just gibberish. I’m definitely nowhere near to being as good as I would like to be, but I’m improving. 

Who are the people in your images?

No one! Anyone! Sometimes my artworks are mirrored after images that inspire me, other times I make them up. Sometimes I will have a vision of what the outcome will be, other times I let my mind wander and my hands do the work. But one thing’s for certain—I rarely ever paint the people I know. Many of my friends and family have tried to have me paint them, but I prefer the freedom of painting no-one-anyone because my imaginary subjects can’t appear over my shoulder to tell me to make their nose a little smaller, or to remove the mole on their chin. The only ‘real’ person I’ve ever painted has been my grandmother, because she’s the most wonderful woman I know.

What draws you to portrait making?

I love painting the eyes. It’s the first place I start, which is relatively unusual, because it’s usually the part most artists finish on for practical reasons. But the eyes make artworks come alive, and it’s only when I can feel the soul of a painting that I know how to finish it.

Do you have a favourite artist and why?

My favourite artist is a young Italian painter named Agnes Cecile. She’s known for her abstract realism and emotive watercolours. Our art styles could not be more different—basically the only thing we have in common is that we both paint people.

I really admire how expressive her process is. She has some YouTube videos where she just splashes paint everywhere (highly recommend them by the way, her painting process is like ASMR for the eyes) and everything looks like nothing until you get to the end. I think it takes courage to paint something that looks unusual or wrong, even for a moment. I’m always really shy when I paint. Sometimes I’m even shy when I’m done.

What is the most challenging thing about making art?

It was only last year that I started printing and hanging up my paintings. In the past, I’d spot a new flaw every time I glimpsed an artwork of mine until it became unbearable. I try to remind myself that I’m getting better, and it probably isn’t the worst thing anyone’s ever seen. I think the hardest thing about being a creative law student is trying not to let the self-criticism suffocate your imagination.

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