Cuong Nguyen’s Portrait of a Young Italian | February 2013 Artist of the Month

After 10 years designing icons for Yahoo! Inc., Cuong Nguyen left the computer behind in 2010 and has focused on his art career ever since. Nguyen’s pastel portrait painting Portrait of a Young Italian was a finalist in The Artist’s Magazine’s 29th Annual Art Competition. Keep reading this Q&A to see how he began his journey in art, and what inspires him to paint.

Cuong Nguyen • San Jose, California

Cuong Nguyen, Portrait of a Young Italian, pastel painting

Portrait of a Young Italian (pastel, 10×8) by Cuong Nguyen

How and when did you get started creating art?
I was trained to be a portrait artist at the age of 10 in Vietnam. After high school, I was accepted into the Saigon Art Academy, and I had my formal training there for three years. I came to the US in 1991 when I was 21, and I decided to continue my education at San Jose State University in California. I graduated with a degree in illustration in 2000.

What media and genres do you work in?
I’m a realist painter and I work in pencil, pastel and oil.

Please describe your process.
I’ve painted my friend Michael multiple times because I find his look and his attitude to be very inspiring. For this particular piece, I liked his expression in the picture reference. I work both from life and photo reference. For this particular painting, I worked from a photo which I took of Michael when he came to my studio last year. I began Portrait of A Young Italian on Wallis sanded paper using three different shades of brown (dark, medium and light) from the Stabilo CarbOthello pastel pencil line. I built up layers of pastel to create the color I want. To control the value, I first covered the shadow regions with brown umber, before using earth-tone greens to establish a rich foundation for the rest of the skin tone. Details in pastel pencil came next, from eyes to the nose, and finally the lids. Light yellow, yellow ochre, light pink, brown, green and purple were added to complete the tonality of the skin.

How long do you spend on a typical painting? What about this one in particular?
On a typical painting, it would take a week or two to finish one, but for this particular one, it took me only three days.

Were there any surprises or difficulties along the way as you painted this work? What was your favorite part?
My favorite part was working on Michael’s eyes. He has beautiful eyes which have so many colors. Luckily there were no surprises or difficulties along the way for this painting.

What are your future plans/goals?
I believe in artistic excellence and lifelong improvement. My goal is keep continue to improve my skill.

What inspires you to create art?
Human faces! I find natural beauty in the people who surround me, and I’m fascinated by them. Faces inspire so much that I’ve been known to approach strangers to ask them to model for me.

Would you like to publicly thank any friends, family or colleagues for your success?
I’d like to say thank you to my family, friends and teachers who have believed in me and supported me for a very long time. I wouldn’t be who I am today without their support.


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