Artist's talent and teaching skills lead to a brush with publishing

Columbia resident hopes to inspire budding artists with Chinese brush painting

  • Joan Lok specializes in the art of Chinese brush painting. Barron's Educational Series Books has just published a book of her work and teachings that will come out Oct. 1. On Friday, September 12, she works with a student at her dining room table in Columbia.
Joan Lok specializes in the art of Chinese brush painting. Barron's… (Photo by Doug Kapustin,…)
September 22, 2014|By Janene Holzberg | For The Baltimore Sun

The flowering branches of Mulan magnolia that grace the cover of Joan Lok's new book on Chinese brush painting appear more brightly colored than in her original work, probably to catch the eye of someone browsing in a bookstore, guesses the author.

The Columbia resident says she is pleased with the quality of paper used for the book and the way the reproductions of her original flower paintings neatly fit with the detailed instructions on the soft-cover book's 128 pages.

And the longtime federal employee is also happy her first how-to book will be available at bookshops and at a local chain of craft stores, tapping into a marketing niche.

"I am completely excited that my book is finally coming out," said Lok, who clutched the one advance copy of "Chinese Brush Painting: Flowers" that she had received. "We are just starting to arrange book signings."

The book is set for an Oct. 1 release in the United States and Canada by Barron's Educational Series. Conceived, designed and produced by London-based Quarto Publishing, it will soon be reworked for a British audience using centimeters instead of inches, among other changes. It will also be translated into other languages.

All in all, it's a successful outcome, said Lok, for a project that's been in the works on and off for eight years and began in an unexpected way.

Her youngest son greeted his mother upon her return from work one day in 2006 with the news that someone had called to inquire whether Lok would be interested in writing a book. The British woman on the phone had said she'd come across Lok's website and wanted to discuss a book deal.

That was the start of a working relationship that was intermittently bogged down by the recession that hit two years later. There were numerous conference calls, digital copies of paintings that had to be uploaded for page design, and original paintings that had to be shipped in flat boxes to Singapore, where color separations were done.

Lok self-published a book of her works in 2009 called "Ancient Spirit, Modern Flair," but this is a different type of validation, she said. Now she feels her penchant for teaching and sharing her art will take on a new dimension.

As Lok wrapped up a private lesson at her family's Glenmont home off Route 108 on a recent day, she picked up a brush and, using the wide and narrow strokes reminiscent of calligraphy, quickly painted the beginning outline of a lotus on a piece of rice paper.

"Everything is in the pressure on the bristles," she said as she painted. "Applying more or less pressure has different effects."

Maria Miller, who enjoys painting complex watercolor scenes, comes to Lok once a month from Olney to learn a new technique, she said. Lok also offers classes at Plaza Artist Materials locations in Towson and Rockville.

"I do watercolor that is very tight and controlled, but this brush is free and I like the feel of it," said Miller, who is retired. "I think you should always take lessons because you can always learn something."

Strong vision is needed by the artist, who is working from memory, not a photograph, Lok said. Sometimes she allows her students to study silk flowers to aid in the process.

"People who do not live near a teacher will find this book will tell them each step from the very beginning, and will give them confidence in the formation of flowers," she said of the step-by-step instructions for recreating 36 varieties of flowers.

Peggy Duke, a botanical illustrator in Fulton who has studied watercolor and Chinese brush painting for many years, said, "Joan is such a wonderful artist, and like any good artist she makes her art look easy when it's really very disciplined.

"I think it will be a very good and well-received book, and her step-by-step-by step instructions will make it an invaluable resource for a beginner," Duke said.

Lok, 52, said she has loved painting and drawing since she was 4, and was an industrious student who wanted to become an artist.

"But my parents were worried I would starve to death," she recalled with a laugh. So she took classes at the Hong Kong School of Fine Arts by day and studied hotel management by night.

Lok came to America in 1983 at age 21 by way of an all-expenses-paid student fellowship at Walt Disney World in Florida.

She served as a cultural exchange ambassador at Epcot, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow that had opened on Disney's Orlando campus the previous year.

She met former President Richard M. Nixon but, more importantly, she met her future husband, David Lok, who told her it was love at first sight for him. The Loks, who moved to Howard County in 2002, both work for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and have two sons.

But it is art, and specifically the art of Chinese brush painting, that has been integral to Joan Lok's identity for 30 years.

The painter asked Cheng-Khee Chee, a renowned watercolor artist and professor, to write the foreword for her book.

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