FISHERMAN FROM THE SOUTH 1 watercolour panting by Abey Zoul

GUEST ARTIST: “Painters As Storytellers” by Abey Zoul

My name is Abey Zoul, and I spent a memorable childhood in a beautiful small town called Bachok, Kelantan, one of the states on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Full of sandy white beaches, Kelantan is also rich in unique cultural heritage that are still practised today by the current generation. For example, the mystical performances, namely wayang kulit, a traditional shadow puppet play and, Menora, a type of dance drama.

After graduating from an architectural school in 1999, I spent most of my life working in a few architectural firms in Kuala Lumpur. Every evening after work and during weekends, I used to find joy in riding big bikes. In 2012, I shelved my bike and started on my journey in watercolour painting.

In Malaysia, watercolour has always been considered as an inferior painting alternative to other mediums. Hence, my friends and I decided to set up a watercolor group called Gangstawatakala. Our vision is to bring back the glorious days of watercolour.


My love towards everything that relates to heritage and culture, traditional houses, quaint old shops and wooden fishing boats, becomes the setting in most of my watercolour works. Fishing boats, primarily Perahu Kolek, is a wooden fishing boat which can only be found in my hometown and in southern Thailand. Its long history of craftsmanship is my main interest.

OLD HOUSE AT KAMPUNG BARU #1 watercolour landscape by Abey Zoul

Kampung Baru, the one and only village amidst the crowded city of Kuala Lumpur, is where my friends and I regularly spend our weekends together painting and sketching. The old wooden village houses give a rural vibe in spite of the modern and iconic steel cladding of KLCC and other modern buildings. My paintings try to capture the stories of people whose wooden houses are surrounded by Kuala Lumpur’s skyscrapers.

Painting is not just about producing a beautiful artwork on a piece of paper, it is about telling the story behind every image produced from the eyes of the artist. It is also about digging deeper through history. The more you see things to be painted, the more stories you know behind it. Hence, painters are, in a way, also storytellers.

Tools & Materials

Mistakes in choosing tools and materials often occur in watercolour. Being a fragile medium, choosing the right tools is of utmost importance. From the choice of paper, brushes, pigments as well as the surrounding temperature, all these affect the result in watercolour painting. I believe in the concept that the best tools will yield the best result in the right hands. If the best results cannot be achieved, it is you who have to improve in terms of technical skills, keen observation, level of taste and patience.


Watercolour Landscape painting by Abey Zoul

I have proudly been appointed as Malaysia’s first independent brand ambassador for QOR Watercolor by a leading Malaysian arts and craft store, Scrap’n’Crop. This endorsement to QOR however does not prohibit me from exploring other brands and pigments as an artist. My palette consist of a majority of QOR pigments which I find to be very transparent. QOR’s vivid colours perfectly matches the colour tones on my mind. QOR’s Raw Sienna for example produces a very clear golden light brown tone on paper, not the muddy golden tones of some other brands.

My Skies – I now use Manganese Blue as a base colour for skies, replacing Cerulean Blue. It is a luminous and transparent blue as opposed to cerulean which is opaque with a greenish tinge.

My Greens – My favourites are Daniel Smith Undersea Green (Dark Green) and Olive Green. Avoid Viridian when painting foliage. I often come across students’ palettes with stains of Viridian. It has an artificial green tone. However, Viridian when mixed with Gamboge or Indian Yellow will produce a very cool greenish yellow tone suitable for the painting of paddy fields.

SEA WARRIOR Watercolour Painting by Abey Zoul

My Water – I used to mix Viridian with Cobalt Blue when painting water. Now, I use Cobalt Turquoise mixed with Viridian. For boats and other reflections, I mix Cobalt Turquoise with Raw Umber.

My Shadows – Shadows are not black so do not use any black, Ivory or Lamp Black. My advice is do not buy or keep black pigments. Instead mix Mauve, Magenta and Ultramarine in different proportions for the shadows. The next time you go shopping, opt for Daniel Smith’s Moonglow which has been specially blended to create shadow tones.

My Earth Tones – When I was younger, Yellow Ochre was the colour of choice for the earth tones. It proved to be my folly as it is an opaque pigment and can easily cause muddy colours. Now the wiser, I replaced Yellow Ochre with Raw Sienna, a pigment similar in tone that gives a transparent golden earth colour.

My Glazing – As I have always wanted my paintings to have a classic look, Aureolin (Cobalt Yellow) is a must for my glazes. It is a transparent and cool yellow.

My Jewelries – Opaque Cobalt Teal, Cobalt Violet, and Cadmium Red are used for clothings, signages, traffic lights and car lamps. These tiny but important final touch-ups make the paintings “pop”.

Watercolour Brushes

Brushes are more subjective than paper. Different brush shapes are made for different tasks. For example, you cannot make a broad sky wash with a small size 3 round brush. The best brushes are made of natural hairs and notably for watercolour, sable and squirrel hair brushes are strongly recommended.

RED AROWANA pink fish watercolor by Abey Zoul

I am against advising you to buy a whole range of these expensive brushes which can sometimes be more than the price of gold, ounce for ounce! Choose appropriately within your budget. As for me, yes, I do have a stable of sables, but I rarely use all of them. If you are an Edward Seago fan, where bold strokes and simple shapes are the order, then sable may be your perfect choice.

My impressionistic style incorporates a certain level of structural detail that requires me to go deeper. Synthetic round brushes with a sharp, stiff point work better for my style but I initially stayed away from them as I considered the nylon based synthetics to be inferior. It was not until I discovered Escoda Perla, used by the Master watercolourist Joseph Zbukvic, that I started using synthetics. Perla is the best synthetic with an excellent point. Personally I use Perla size 2, 4, 8, and 12.

For pre-wetting paper, I have a round handle Frank Clarke Goat Hair “Hake” brush. A large Proarte and Mary Whyte’s cat’s tongue squirrel hair brush helps me with painting the skies and impressionistic trees. My jewel in the crown and most precious brush is surely the Leonard extra long sable hair scripture brush. This brush works well for irregular shapes such as branches, leaves and foliage. It was bought during a trip to Paris in 2015 at the Sennelier Art shop, a few miles from the Lourve.

Last but not least, is my Rekab reservoir brush bought on eBay. A perfect size 4, I can freely paint wires, cables and masts with just a stroke from the brush. What a life!

Watercolour Paper

As a watercolour impressionist, I normally use Canson, Arches and Saunders Waterford 300gsm watercolour paper with a rough texture. Both are artist grade 100% cotton rag, mold made paper and acid free. Arches is in my opinion the best and most expensive paper today with Saunders Waterford a close runner up. Saunders is more forgiving than Arches whereby you are able to make more mistakes on it due to its better lifting qualities.

FISHERMAN FROM THE SOUTH 2 watercolour painting by Abey Zoul

Additionally I use student grade 25% cotton Bockingford and Canson Montval paper for light works such as line and wash, watercolour sketches and thumbnail studies. Both are excellent cellulose-based paper and usually cost about half or less as compared to Arches and Saunders Waterford. My advice is do not use drawing paper unsuitable for watercolour painting. You will go nowhere.

Plein Air vs. Studio Work

Plein air in simple terms is open air or outdoor painting whereas studio work is the process of producing art works based on photo references or imagination inside the studio. Normally at the start of the season, I will work in the studio from subjects gathered from the previous season. On a daily basis, I will task myself to complete works based on specific themes or series.

KOLEK BUILDER Watercolour Painting

If, for example, the series I am working on is fishing boats, all other subjects like buildings, flora or portraits will not be intermingled. Upon completion of each series and when I am out of ideas or subjects to paint in the studio, I will take a “break” for three to four months without producing any new work. During that period, I will gather ideas, think, sketch, read and do research on new subjects for the next part of the season.

SULTAN ABDUL SAMAD TOWER Watercolour by Abey Zoul

Plein air activities commence and fill up the rest of the season with the break providing a fresh and dynamic mood whether to join in an urban sketching activity or going on a painting trip with friends to exotic places that I have not painted before in watercolour.

Plein air gives you the energy, mood, freshness, and also live interaction with what we are painting. In contrast to studio painting which is more relaxed and organised, plein air provides more challenges to the painter. A painter must quickly observe the mood of the subject, arrange the composition, light direction and the need to make oneself comfortable in whatever condition one is in with the tools available. We must also be strong-willed and confident when plein airing.

We need to interact with the surroundings and curious locals and onlookers that crowd around us while we are painting.

Photo of Abey Zoul painting plein air

There will be those who will ask questions and others who are ever too willing to indulge with us through the long history of the subject in focus. We need to treat them nicely and become friends with them. A great painter has to be one who Plein airs!

Thank you, Let’s paint.

Abey Zoul

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12 thoughts on “GUEST ARTIST: “Painters As Storytellers” by Abey Zoul

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