Painting pebbles: An interview with Judith Tan (Singapore)

Judith Tan
Painting animals on stones

Judith Tan has been a journalist for the last 27 years – 12 years as a broadcast journalist and 15 years in print. Today, she is an editor with a digital news platform that tells human interest stories of hope, passion, resilience and triumph. It’s a holding space for voices that might otherwise be marginalised, displaced, ignored or simply not heard. Five years ago, Judith started painting some cat silhouettes on pebbles. Painting pets and animals is now one of her favourite and most creative hobbies.

How did you get involved in painting animals on stones?

I was a science student until I was in junior college, when I made the switch to arts, though I never did any serious painting until five years ago. Mum tells me that I got the gift from my Dad. He loves painting and did a moon entrance on a wall just outside our old flat, which really distinguished that floor in the block.

I started painting on stones and pebbles in 2017. A friend asked me to join a Facebook group called SG Rocks - It was formed by a group of mothers who wanted to get their children outdoors and away from their devices so they painted stones and hid them in parks for the kids to find. Apparently this was a movement that started in San Francisco and it spread around the world.

Some of the mums were really great artists and did cartoons, animals and characters from books. One even painted the famous Japanese painting of waves called Kanagawa oki nami ura. It was so beautiful that it inspired me to look for different things to paint. I started out painting silhouettes of cats and then cartoon ladybugs on the stones. I knew it is impossible to paint people because just a fraction of a degree off, the painting would not look like the subject. Instead, I decided to paint animals. I found a site by an artist named Aki Nakata and was inspired, so I tried. My first was a ginger cat and from a photograph. Then I went on to painting pets of good friends.

Whenever my friend, Colleen, does pet portraits, they look really lifelike and I asked her how. She says she usually looks at the pet and where its eyes catch the light that is when she snaps the perfect photo. I use that technique and apply it to my paintings of pets and it works. It takes about four hours to paint one if I were to do it in one sitting, but then I might go blind staring at the photo on my phone and at the rock, so I usually complete it over a couple of days.

What do you enjoy about painting stones?

I use stones and pebbles as my medium because they are fairly flat, like if I were to paint on a piece of canvas. The stones, however, are already three-dimensional so the cat or dog have depth and seem to come alive. Painting the pets is cathartic to me and I feel happy, especially when I paint someone’s pet that has died because my stones provide some sort of solace to the grieving pawrents.

There are times when I 'see' an animal in the odd shaped stones so I try to paint what I call the 'essence' of the stone. I've painted elephants, penguins and apes that appear naturally there in the stones.

During the pandemic, I have also painted on face masks. I wanted to differentiate mine from the rest of the family's and found it fun, so have painted portraits of my friends' pets on their masks. I also sometimes paint on leather bags. A friend had seen Cherin Sim's marquage work - - and asked me to paint her Westie terrier on her "old Coach bag". I agreed and then found out it wasn't too old a bag - I was quite nervous! I've also painted on a new Kate Spade bag for a friend's daughter who sadly lost her cat to a pack of stray dogs.

What qualities and skills do you need to do this well?

Patience and a keen eye, I guess. You start to notice animals and poses in the shapes - you need a bit of an imagination, but it is like the animal is already in there and you are bringing it to life.

I didn't take formal lessons for this - I just painted. I use acrylic paint because they are not easily washed off and to preserve the painting on the stone, I spray them with lacquer. For the bags, I used a finisher to seal the painting in.

What challenges or difficulties have you faced painting stones?

Getting the stones is the first challenge, but my friends have been helping. A good friend brought me all the stones in her garden after she sold her house and learnt that the guy who bought it wanted to tile the garden over. After having painted another friend's late dog, she and her daughter bought a huge bag of stones over and carried it up to my fifth floor apartment! Recently my cousin donated a box.

Another challenge is if the stone is too porous, then the paint will not stay as the stone is too "thirsty" and keeps sucking up the paint. I was halfway through painting a porous stone and it split into several parts.

What do you see as the benefits for your health?

Painting pebbles has helped me not to take life too seriously. As a journalist, everything has to be factual and accurate and is on a tight deadline. I have to be accountable to the readers and viewers, so my work life is the fast lane and highly stressful.

Painting on stones has actually taught me to slow down and take a breather. You can't hurry art.

I find it helps keep my mind sharp and calm at the same time. It is also good emotionally because it takes me away from the everyday goings on. It is great for your mental health.

What moving or inspiring stories could you share about painting stones?

There are so many. A old classmate asked if I could paint Jesus on a stone for her friend. I could never paint a human face let alone that of Jesus Christ! But as it was for her good friend I felt I had to try. I started googling in search of a good portrait when I came across one where He was carrying a lamb in his arms, his face partially hidden behind the lamb. I knew that was it. This time I used only a pencil and sketched it out. When I was done, it didn't look like I needed to add colour so I just sprayed it with lacquer and presented it to her.

Interestingly, my cat, Truffles, seems to be able to tell which are the portraits of pets that have passed on versus animals that are still around. I put the finished stones on the floor and he comes by, sniffing and meowing, if a pet has passed. For those that are still around, he doesn't go near them. Strange but true.

There have been many times when I have painted pets that have died for people and when the pawrents receive the stones, they burst into tears. It makes me feel that I've done something good, to help them honour their pet. Even though I paint on my own, it's something that involves a social connection.

What advice would you give someone interested in getting started?

This is an enjoyable hobby for anyone and everyone. It is easy to get started. I see the children on SG Rocks painting on stones together with their mothers. Then there is one of my friend's elderly mother - she has started painting on stones and is enjoying it tremendously. All you need is some stones, some acrylic paints and something you want to paint.

There is plenty of inspiration around in nature, books or on the internet. Search 'painted rocks' on Facebook.

Just get started and have fun!

"Painting on stones has actually taught me to slow down and take a breather. You can't hurry art. I find it helps keep my mind sharp and calm at the same time. It is also good emotionally because it takes me away from the everyday goings on."
Judith Tan