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Saigon Artist Đoàn Quốc Takes Watercolor Paintings to Whole New Heights

As one of the few Vietnamese nationals to have been granted the title of International Watercolor Master, young artist Đoàn Quốc is constantly pushing the frontiers of his creativity to paint a new path for Vietnam’s growing watercolor art community.

Watercolor: An Art for the Fastidious

Before finding success in his five-year professional career, Đoàn Quốc began dabbling in drawing several years prior. His longing for creative outlets emerged when he was just nine years old, as he would jot down wriggly doodles of friends and classroom settings in his notebook. The young boy could not imagine that he one day would become Vietnam’s representative at Fabriano, Italy’s renowned watercolor festival, and help start a new chapter for the art form in his own homeland.

Despite being just 25 years of age, Đoàn Quốc has already received critical praise from both Vietnam and the global watercolor community.

At the age of 18, Đoàn Quốc left his hometown and moved to Saigon to study Graphic Design at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Fine Arts. It was here, after much practice, that he came to a conclusion: watercolor as a medium was the most compatible with his creative inclinations and artistic direction.

Đoàn Quốc's paintings often revolve around commonplace themes such as cityscapes or natural landscapes. In search of inspiration, he often goes on field trips to different provinces and cities and spends a great deal of time researching the representative symbols of each place. Often, this preparation process takes up more time than making the painting itself, as there is no room for mistakes when working with watercolor.

“Just one hasty paint stroke could affect the depth and the brightness of the whole composition,” he says. It’s a creative medium that requires great patience and meticulousness from the artist, but for Đoàn Quốc, “The harder it is, the more [I] like it, and the more I want to conquer it."

Not restricting himself to standard dimensions, Đoàn Quốc brings his artworks to larger canvas surfaces in a bid to stretch the boundaries of his creativity and authentically illustrate the scope of the scenes that he is recreating.

A painting in a collection called "Sài Gòn Khát Vọng Vươn Cao" (Saigon Reaching Higher).

"Sài Gòn Khát Vọng Vươn Cao" is Đoàn Quốc’s love letter to Saigon, his second home.

An artistic tribute to Saigon

Though he is a Quang Nam native, Đoàn Quốc devotes much of his thought and affection to Saigon, as it was where his dream materialized and his career took off. He said: "I have worked on different personal and community projects as an artistic tribute to this jostling yet near-and-dear city."

Among Đoàn Quốc's works about Saigon, ten are large-scale paintings, while the rest are sketches and direct paintings. Many of these evoke the appearances of city landscapes from an aerial or bird’s-eye view, with several depicting night-time scenes, when the city bathes in the warm sea of light emanating from busy streets, traffic lines and neighborhoods — a magnificent spectacle of urban life.

Saigon's night scenes are a muse for Đoàn Quốc's paintings.

“It is probably the most beautiful time of the day, and the clearest reflection of this city’s characteristics,” he says with awe. And just like that, the shimmering lights of Saigon became a prevailing visual cue and distinctive trademark of Đoàn Quốc’s paintings.

In 2021, Đoàn Quốc challenged his own creative agenda with an ambitious project named "Nơi Hội Tụ Của Những Thành Phố" (The Convergence of Cities). Instead of leaning on the familiar domain of Saigon sights, the artist kicked it up a notch by combining the scenic elements of the country’s three regions.

Each installment of "Nơi Hội Tụ Của Những Thành Phố" depicts a respective landscape of Hanoi, Da Nang and Saigon.

As the culmination of a three-month creative process, the final composition is a collage assembled from three separate paintings, each depicting a scene from the metropolitan area of Hanoi, Da Nang and Saigon. When placed together, the sub-components of each painting seamlessly integrate with one another, offering a panoramic view of a borderless Vietnam.

Đoàn Quốc said that he had proceeded with attentive foresight and attempted many different drafts in order to merge all the details without risking the composition’s overall balance. As a result, viewers can simultaneously enjoy the sight of Hanoi’s Turtle Tower, Da Nang’s Dragon Bridge, and Saigon’s high-rises and see Vietnam through the unifying lens of art.

When placed together, the scenes of the country's three regions seamlessly integrate with one another.

A broader brushstroke for the future

Young and hopeful, Đoàn Quốc harbors many ambitions. But his biggest? To see the establishment and development of a strong watercolor art community in Vietnam. In his drawing classes, students don’t learn art by taking shortcuts, that is, copying famous paintings. Rather, they delve into the nitty-gritty basics, which involve learning about art theories and honing their sense of aesthetic, to create any kind of art that their hearts desire.

A painting depicting the busy scene at Saigon's emblematic Phù Đổng Roundabout.

In another effort, Đoàn Quốc is reaching out to watercolor artists around the world to bring internationally recognized arts to Vietnam. He also strives to introduce more fine-quality materials to the local art scene to offer artists a wider range of tools to experiment with. The artist knows better than anyone that in order for the art of watercolor painting to grow sustainably and speedily, he himself has to open the floodgates so that more homegrown contemporaries can join.

He commented: “In Vietnam, watercolor is a relatively 'young' art medium.” Although watercolor was commonly used during wartime, its use was limited to sketching and drafting, never the leading material. But in the past ten years or so, watercolor painting has been gaining major traction. Relaying off this, Đoàn Quốc hopes that the development of a local watercolor community will help level the playing field and allow Vietnam's watercolor art to reach its true potential.

[Photos courtesy of Đoàn Quốc]

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