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Painting with the flow

Lifestyle  /   /  By Adrienne Dy

Many of Penk’s creations are inspired by her travels or photographs that have captured her imagination

Since discovering it, Penk Ching has soaked up painting the way paper absorbs watercolor—completely, irreversibly, and in unpredictable ways.

Known mainly as a cake decorator extraordinaire, Penk still spends most working hours on her exquisite cakes. But while she designs in fondant, she dreams in watercolor.

Most people—including her first teacher—think that painting is a natural extension of her artistic work with cakes. But “unexpected turn of events” are words Penk uses to describe her journey into art, not “seamless transition.” In fact, it feels more like a love story.

Chapter One: Forbidden love. Being an obedient daughter, she took a more “serious” career path that led her to working in finance for the United Nations, and later on, with multinational company Citibank. But the fast-paced lifestyle left little room to focus on family, so she hit the brakes and availed of an early retirement. This time, cake decorating filled the gaps. She and her sister grew a successful business, and once again, Penk was busy focusing on her career.

Penk Ching; “Homeward bound”

Chapter Two: Serendipity. While in a meeting with a cake client in Pancake House, Penk chanced on an unusual sight. “I saw this group of ladies painting. While I was talking with my client, I was already so curious—oh my god, what are they doing?” she recalls. She was ready to quell her curiosity when two of them called out to her. “They were my old clients. Join us, they said. I said, no, I don’t have time,” she remembers.

The week after that, she was there again, and so were they. “This time, they said, you’re here every week, why don’t you just join us? I said, as much as I wanted to, I didn’t have time nor materials.” By the next week, they had already bought her the paint and brushes she would need, forcing her hand to at least try it. “The materials were so expensive, it was practically an investment! I told myself, I can’t back out now,” she says with a laugh.

Chapter Three: Fate. Penk speaks of painting with such passion, it sounds more like a religion than a hobby. She gushes about the feeling of being in front of a fresh sheet of paper, brushes ready and paint glistening on her palette. But her voice softens when she explains why, of all the mediums she tried, it was watercolor that captured her heart. “It’s a softer medium, more graceful. You really have to have a slow-moving hand to do it. With oil, pastel, and acrylic, you can retouch. But with watercolor, that’s it. Accuracy comes in, and sharpness with your hands. So there should be coordination among the eyes, the mind, the hand—and even the heart.”

The painting of the bridge was from a photograph by her cousin, award-winning photographer Andrew Chester Ong; As a lover of water-based paint, Penk moves effortlessly between watercolor and Chinese painting. ‘For me, it’s more or less the same.’

Chapter Four: Fulfillment. Penk has no illusions of grandeur when it comes to her art. She has always pursued success with relentless focus, from her time in the United Nations, to her career in Citibank, to her rise as the “Queen of Cakes” in the Philippines. But she purposefully keeps ambition out of her painting. “I have no goals of being a master. As long as I am happy, and recipients of my paintings are happy. My bottom line is, I enjoy the moment when I am painting,” she shares.

The joy is evident in her work. Whether it’s her ballet series with soft dancer silhouettes, her stylized urban landscapes, or even her nature-inspired backdrops, Penk’s creations exude a certain lightness. Whimsical magnolias extend outside of their borders; ballerinas swirl in colorful tutus; wet pavements shimmer with reflections in a rainy streetscape. One particularly large scroll is a Chinese painting inspired by—of all things—the movie Avatar! The fog-covered mountains are dotted with trees and inscribed with meticulous Chinese calligraphy. Penk is a lover of details, perhaps thanks to her precision work on cakes. But she is also a master of mood creation, able to capture a moment or feeling through color choices and a few deft strokes.

Not all of Penk’s paintings have titles, but this particular one does. “The Mystical Touch of Zhangliang” was inspired by a scene from ‘Avatar.’ It took months to finish and is one of her biggest pieces to date.

Chapter Five: Flow. Penk is now at a point in her life where things are falling into place. “I went into painting at just the right time of my career, when I am not as busy and can maintain my practice,” she says. But “not as busy” is relative, especially in Penk’s dynamic world. Apart from cakes and painting, she is currently managing a potato chip business, and has recently opened a franchise of Singapore-based pre-school MindChamps.

It all flows together, she insists. The students instill childlike enthusiasm and wonder in her, which inspire her work, which then energizes her businesses. She even paints on her cakes now, and was thrilled with a Facebook comment that read, “Did you know that Penk Ching is a painter who is also a cake decorator?” The lines between her different “hats” are starting to blur, like colors that swirl together on her wet palette. She’ll have it no other way.

When Penk travels, she always carries a scroll or painting with her, as gifts to friends all over the world. “My work has reached Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hawaii, Guam, America, London,” she enumerates. “I would say this is a lifelong thing for me. Because it really makes me feel so relaxed. And it’s me.”

The artist has finally come full circle, happy and content with her first love. Will it ever be more than just a Monday affair? “Maybe if I retire,” she says with a smile. The next chapter awaits.

Photographs by Jovel Lorenzo

Read further on Penk Ching’s journey into the world of art on Asian Dragon’s August-September 2017 issue, available for download on Magzter.

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