Many colors in black, white and grey

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Mac Hoang Thuong strikes one as a simple, genuine man.

Left: Mac Hoang Thuong poses with his portrait, a work called 'Lying'

It is when you see him at work or look at any of his works that you realize that he "sees" a lot more, and has the skills to show us what he sees.

A lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Fine Arts in pencil drawings, Thuong finishes classes at 9:30 p.m., returns to his home/workshop in Go Vap District and works until midnight.

The 36-year-old artist, born to a family with no artistic pretensions whatsoever in the old northern province of Bac Thai (now Bac Kan and Thai Nguyen provinces), appears to enjoy taking risks, although he sees it merely as pursuing his passion.

"Painters didn't earn much in Vietnam, especially during 1990s, when I enrolled in the school. However, I just simply wanted to follow my passion though it is not easy," said Thuong, graduate in 2001 with major in lacquer.

It might not have been easy, but it has paid off.

Since 1999, Thuong has presented his work - surrealistic oil paintings - in several group exhibitions in both Vietnam and abroad, including Chile, South Korea and Australia.

He has also won several awards, including the Incentive awards from Nokia Vietnam in 2001, Australia's 10 Young Vietnamese Artists Award in 2007, and a Certificate of Merit from the Vietnam Fine Arts Association in 2008.

Last month, Thuong held his first solo exhibition, "Gan" (close), which displayed 17 oversize pencil paintings on paper and canvas at the Cactus Experimental Art Space in Ho Chi Minh City.

Most of the works at this exhibition were sketches that he'd made at night since 2007.

There were portraits of himself, his relatives and friends as well as different parts of human body. The works contained traces of the life and stories of Thuong's father and grandfather - local farmers - expressed through their footprints on a muddy rice field, or calluses on their hands.

Above: A pencil paintings feature at the Gan (close) exhibition last month: Land

Mac Hoang Thuong is working on other pencil paintings now and invites people to visit the Cactus Experimental Art Space, 17/12 Nguyen Huy Tuong Street, Binh Thanh District, or his workshop at 22/12 Nguyen Kiem Street, Go Vap District, to look at his work.

There was one of the artist's grandmother, who played an important part in his upbringing, and passed away at the age of 90 last year, one year after he finished the painting. Sadly he did not get a chance to show it to her because it was difficult to transport the large sketch from the city to the northern province.

The grandmother's portrait, called Mercifulness, was placed opposite to a baby with an angelic smile - Thuong's 19-month-old son, the bright spot in his life.

Senior artist and critic Luong Duy Bien said Gan was a rare exhibition and different aspects of the works deserved high appreciation.

Lead is the most basic material and pencil drawing the most basic technique that people have to learn before mastering other styles of painting, he explained.

"It is so basic that few artists think of presenting them in an exhibition," Bien said at the exhibition's opening ceremony. "Almost everyone has held a pencil to scribble on paper a few times in life. The drawings will undoubtedly bring back memories for the audience, and remind them of their own passion for drawing and painting during their childhood.

"Artists like Thuong do it frequently, but it's rare to have an exhibition in which all of the artworks are done by lead (pencil)."

Thuong looked at it differently.

He said the black, white, and gray colors of lead are considered neutral and minimalist.

"However, simple pencils indeed have more colors to show off their genuine, deep beauty. It is very challenging for me to present these colors, but it's worth trying."

Bien said oversizing the portraits was a ploy that worked. "Most leaders or very important persons have portraits in big sizes. These portraits of ordinary people of different backgrounds are the artist's way to praise different destinies and celebrate the diversity in society. They are also a reflection on the justice of human fate."

Thuong said that large scale pencil paintings go along with enlarged details created by thousands interwoven pencil marks life maps - not only for viewers to focus on, but also to present the artist's talent and prevent him from carelessness."

"I often think of my life and the path I have taken as well as what I have done in the past. There has been happiness, sorrow and challenges of engaging in art.

"The drawings are well appreciated, but not many want them to be part of their collection, especially in Vietnam, where paintings for decoration purposes are most preferred.

"However, my passion gets top priority. Money will come later," Thuong said.

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