Atipong Padanupong is an untrained Thai artist capable of producing extraordinary sketches and oil paintings “using basic techniques.” His style and skills developed over a decade of commercial work as a visualizer and illustrator for advertisements. This routine familiarity shifted after he quit his job to study Tibetan painting with a Thangka master in India. He returned home devoted to his art and began painting detailed scenes of ‘Khon Sod’ (the Thai version of Ramayana). A single scene took 6-10 months to make. While Padanupong may attribute this “slow” process to a lack of training in classical oil painting, it’s his commitment, patience and perseverance that let the focal point for each piece speak.
What was your childhood like?
I’m an only child. My childhood was quiet, happy and peaceful. I had 2-3 close friends in school. My friends and I were crazy about dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. My life as an artist began when I started trying to draw and paint all kinds of dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals and cavemen. Sadly, all pictures from this time are lost.
How did you learn to draw and paint?
I learned how to paint and draw at the same time that I learned to read and write. We have many fine arts technical colleges in Thailand, but I never attended one. I went to an ordinary high school and then on to university, where I studied visual communication design. There, I was taught graphic design, corporate identity design, sign & symbol design, and calligraphy. I wasn’t good at any of it. But the school offered minor classes that I loved: illustration, photography and film.
I don’t know the basics when it comes to painting and drawing, especially compared to other artists who studied academic fine arts. But I was able to gain an understanding of storytelling and picture composition, and I apply that knowledge to my art today.
After graduation, I worked for two ad companies. My first job was as a visualizer (drawing storyboards for television ads), my second was illustrating children’s books. I held these positions for more than ten years. They helped me develop my skills and discover my artistic style.
PADANUPONG'S EARLY ILLUSTRATIONS
This story is about a little boy who is scared of the dark. The night angel came to his sister and created a magic elephant to take them out exploring. Certain areas are left blank for story text.
After I quit children’s illustrations, I went to India to learn Tibetan Thangka painting. I stayed with Thangka master, (a Tibetan in exile), at Dharamsala for 3 months. Tibetan styles are a major influence on my art.
THANGDE GATSAL ART STUDIO + SCHOOL
What is your preferred medium?
Pencils on paper for sketches and drawings. Oil colors on linen frames for paintings. Can you describe your process?
I use basic methods to draw and paint. I haven’t learned much about art techniques or mediums. Even today, I still ask for the advice from fellow artist friends about their tips and tools. How long does a detailed piece of oil on linen take?
I spend at least 4 months on the simple pieces with less details. The more sophisticated pieces take 6-10 months or even a year. I attribute this to my lack of experience with fine art techniques. I believe it would take an experienced painter who has learned from a master and practiced oil painting since childhood half the time to complete a piece.
What do you think about when you create?
In terms of the concepts behind my paintings—this is a performance on stage called ‘Khon’ and, especially a small branch of Khon, which called ‘Khon Sod’. Khon portrays the real life drama of Ramakien, Thai’s version of Ramayana. The story follows the tragic events during the war between Phra Ram and Tosakanth (Rama and Ravana).
In Thailand, when a person wears a mask, they assume a role that differs from their true nature. A Khon costume is comparable to a full dress uniform. The microphone and dance routine are vehicles for emotional expression. A person wearing a Khon mask is a performer—they can’t be themselves. They must embody the role, or duty, that is given to them.
In this painting, I wanted the Khon performer to remain calm despite the intense circumstances in the Ramakien story. My characters are emotionless because they realize the mask is temporary, just like their Khon costume uniforms. At the end of the day, they will shed these costumes, dialogues, lyrics and dance routines. They will release the roles they must play and come home to themselves.
Everything around the performers is unreal. The backdrop is just a painting. The stage is a wooden floor, not the real earth or ground. The light above the performer’s head doesn’t come from the sun or the moon, but from an electric bulb. Everything is an artificial invention. By the end, the performer will realize everything around them is unreal—the curtain closes, the stage is broken down. While it’s necessary to act to fill certain roles, the characters will leave the stage and experience deeper emotional states.
Where does your inspiration for each work come from?
The ‘Khon Sod’ performing art. In ancient Thailand, ‘Khon’ was an elite, classical performance done in at the royal courtroom. Commoners are now able to view it in the modern age, but it is considered to be sacred. ‘Khon Sod’ is a smaller offshoot of Khon. It’s Khon on a budget that performs at local events such as the village market, funeral services and temple fairs. It is less sophisticated, more simple and humble. To me, it’s down to earth and much funnier.
Thai art, traditional and modern
Pop surrealism—Mark Ryden is truly my icon.
Vintage style illustration. I love the artwork of voyagers, anthropologists, and biologists from around 100 years ago. These were made at a time when photography was new and not widespread, when the artist tried to depict humans, animals and subjects as best they could. Although the many mammals, fish, insects, plants, and remote tribes that they draw were different from real life, I find it charming.
Thailand temple fair atmosphere
The atmosphere of the circus, spooky house or freak show and their vintage style promotional posters
Black and white photography
Do you create or see storylines for each of the characters and scenes you paint and draw?
My art is part fine art, part illustration. Almost every piece of mine portrays the character from Khon, which is based on the Ramakien story.
Apart from the Ramakien story line, I add many things from my own experiences—people I meet, jobs, travels, books, movies, music, TV, news, local ancient Thai beliefs, the meditation course my friend always drags me to, etc.
Do you feel that recent generations are losing touch with traditional Thai heritage?
No. Maybe it’s because I have many friends on social media who make Thai traditional arts. Many of them are teenagers. They certainly have their own style, techniques or points of view in how they make their art, but each one is rooted in traditional Thai style. I think the traditional Thai arts will survive for a long time, just with a modern twist.
What role do spirits have in your life?
I have at least 3 spiritual masters. I admire them so much. They help guide me, or my spirit, to be calm and peaceful. I am now able to easily let go of disappointment. They’ve also helped me to find a balance between focus and flow, and that’s been very helpful in painting.
In terms of ‘spirits’ like life after death… I think they certainly exist. I haven’t seen a ghost directly, but there are 2-3 unexplained moments that made me believe in them. These were not scary situations. It’s like when you go camping in the forest and hear some voices from wild animals that you’ve never heard before. The spirits talk, yell, or sing in accordance with their nature—they don’t mean to make contact with you. Any fear only comes from what’s unknown.
Do you ever feel your sketches and paintings contain spirits of their own?
I can’t feel that but as I love to draw and paint mythic and fantasy characters, I really hope each piece has its own spirit.
I strive to present a quiet, calm and peaceful central character who radiates a sense of solitude even when they are faced with a chaotic situation and chaotic characters. Their faces, devoid of emotion, indicate that their spirits are free and unable to be tempted into tangled situations. I wanted to provide the central figure with peace since I am the one who creates the the chaos around them.
If you could create an entire physical world of your own, what would it be like?
A world where it is understood that humans are not the smartest species.
What do you think art will look like in 100 years?
In the future, maybe humans will evolve to see one or two colors we can’t see them today. Or we will acquire some tools to help the human optic nerve see more than seven colors on the spectrum. Meditation is also a major factor in the evolution of the mind. Results are only found in the minds of those who meditate. It is difficult to explain what happens in the mind of a meditator to someone who doesn’t meditate. I hope the future will find some way to transfer this, transfer feeling states so the other person can clearly understand.
I think many new forms of art, traditional or digital, will come from these two developments.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I really don’t like lizards or geckos, but I love snakes.