It’s a little before 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon as a little girl with a braided ponytail and a crooked smile skips into the sunlit room.
Within minutes, she’s donned a paint- splattered apron and is seated in front of her easel, lips pursed in concentration as she paints an orange rainbow. The other easels down the row sport fish, a wintery landscape and Roy Lichtenstein-esque pop art. Next to her, two other young ones flip through a book containing images of everything from dolphins to Van Goghs, searching for inspiration.
We’re in the Grado Art Studio (170 Nguyen Van Huong, D2), a cheery space presided over by owner/instructor Ignacio de Grado. When the economic crisis hit Spain, Ignacio took a tidy severance package from his Project Director job in a multinational construction company and promptly moved to London, to “change the air,” as Madrileños are fond of saying. There, he worked towards an MA in Creative Arts Management, but more importantly rekindled his passion for drawing and painting.
“When I was 16-17, I was a good drawer, but thought that I wasn’t good enough to create works like I saw in fine art museums. So I opted for a ‘safe’ career. It was only later that I realized that artists only show their best works; they don’t show the things they do when they were learning.”
Finding himself doodling during boring lectures, Ignacio got back into drawing and eventually painting and honing his craft. “We tend to think that drawing and painting skills are gifts from God, but that’s a total mistake. Now I realize that you can have a gift, a talent but if you don’t work a lot at it, you end up with nothing.”
While he also paints abstract pieces, it’s in his ultra-realistic works where his animation background shines through. His studio space showcases watercolors of daily scenes in Vietnam ― a bicycle propped against a faded wall, a snoozing cyclo driver, a sleepy café ― as well as stunning real-to-life portraits. In his private studio in the back of the space, Ignacio is halfway finished with a commissioned portrait of a family in a frozen moment of serenity on an afternoon outing.
“When working in 3D animation, I used a lot of knowledge about perspectives, tones and in some ways, drawing. There are three things that define a painting where you want the observer to identify what’s on the canvas: Shape, color and tones, meaning how light and dark things are. The ability to see tones is really the hardest thing to be seen by the eyes of the artist but it is absolutely the key to success for many, many painters.” Fitting, considering that the “The Dress” debate of 2015 has taught us that tones are very much in the eye of the beholder.
Trip the light fanstatic
Opened just a few months ago, the Grado Art Studio is a place for Ignacio to share the techniques that he has learned along the way. “I always found that most of the problems that people have when painting are about technique, not ideas. All of us are creative but we may have technical limitations. So lessons here are basically about technique. I invite students to try different styles. I wanted to set up a place where I could teach the same things that I struggled with in the past. Because I’m a self-taught artist, I know the challenges people have when they try to paint on their own.”
Ignacio organizes lessons for children, teens and adults. Children learn how to mix colors, handle a brush and the stages of developing a painting. Teenagers who are thinking of taking fine arts studies may come to prepare a portfolio. The adults at the studio run the gamut of those just starting to paint as a hobby to serious artists looking to create their own collection of artwork.
“Teaching requires a lot of patience, but it’s something that I really like to do,” says Ignacio. “I share all my knowledge with my students; I don’t hide anything. And when you see someone able to paint something they thought they wouldn’t be able to do, or when kids smile, happy to take a finished painting home, it’s very rewarding.”
The Grado Art Studio is comprised of a large workspace with lots of natural light from the huge floor to ceiling windows where the group lessons are held. There’s also a sitting area served by a coffee maker, an exhibition space and Ignacio’s private studio.
“You need the best conditions to paint,” explains Ignacio. “From the light to the space to the color of the walls -everything. It took me time to find a place like this with high ceilings, fantastic light and to invest in top quality materials like the very best professional easels. But I’m happy that Vietnam has given me the opportunity to set up this kind of business.”
For now, Ignacio remains cautiously optimistic about Saigon’s art scene. “It’s developing but for the size of a city like Saigon, it’s still somewhat limited. It’s a good place to live for artists with lots of opportunities to exhibit artworks which isn’t so easy in other major cities, but there aren’t as many buyers as more established markets like Singapore and Hong Kong.”
Eventually, Ignacio wants to host selected art exhibitions as well as hold social events centered around drawing and painting. But for now, he’s pleased with running a business centered around his passion. “One of the reasons I paint is because it gives me peace. It’s a wonderful way to be present. We’re always attached to the past and the future, but the only thing we have now is the present. When I paint, I feel I’m in the present moment, not concerned about the past or about the future. It’s a great feeling.”
The Grado Art Studio offers private lessons and small group lessons for children and adults. Ignacio works personally with every student to instruct on subjects such as watercolor, oil and acrylic painting, drawing, creativity and figure painting. He also gives feedback on personal projects. Pricing plans make the lessons as reasonably priced as VND175,000 per hour. Visit www.grado- artstudio.com for more.
* Images by Ngoc Tran