Outdoor Painting Presents Challenges for Fine Arts Students

A blue-black cityscape of skyscrapers towering over trees; traditional wooden fishing boats bobbing on the water. The latest work from artists and students from the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) manages to perfectly capture the beauty of the Phnom Penh landscape.

What it can’t show, however, is the hard work, talent and unique challenges the artists faced painting outside. All of the artworks, which are being exhibited on Friday, were painted on the banks of the Tonle Sap on the Chroy Changva peninsula, where the artists had to learn how to deal with the people and environment they hoped to immortalize.

Painting entitled Phnom Penh at Night by RUFA teacher artist Chan Vitharin. (Siv Channa The Cambodia Daily)

Because no matter how romantic painting on the riverbank in the open air may sound, it does have its drawbacks, said RUFA professor and painter Chan Vitharin. “When the wind was strong, I’ve gotten dirt blown on my painting,” he explained on Tuesday.

Aside from enduring the elements, depicting Phnom Penh at night also meant working when it was pitch dark on the banks of Chroy Changva peninsula, in order to capture the striking skyline of downtown Phnom Penh across the water.

Mr. Vitharin and Fernando Aceves Humana, a Mexican artist and visiting teacher, would cross the bridge every few weeks with their students to paint on site. They have gone back and forth for several years, visiting the banks overlooking the river to paint the landscape and Cambodia’s timeless scenes of fishing boats.

This year’s efforts will go on display on the rooftop of the Bellevue Serviced Apartments in Chroy Changva, in an exhibition entitled “Chroy Changvar II, a disappearing context,” to reflect the realization that the beautiful scenery the painters are depicting is actually fading away in front of their eyes as Phnom Penh develops.

RUFA student Lim Bun Hak paints with a local teenager watching. (Fernando Aceves Humana)

While there are still families of fishermen living and working off the banks of Chroy Changva, their numbers have dwindled over the last decade, Mr. Vitharin said, and high rises now stand on both sides of the bridge.

A few years ago, children would gather each time artists and teachers came to paint. When they sat on the ground with their sketchbooks and paint brushes, the curious onlookers would surround them, Mr. Aceves Humana recalled.

Today, he said, “Nobody bothers us. They kind of protect us, saying ‘Ah, it’s the painters’…. The few teenagers who come, sit and watch, asking questions about colors.”

The two teachers plan to distribute sketchbooks to youngsters interested in learning and may hold an informal class at some point, Mr. Aceves Humana said.

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