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05/22/14 Painter & Graphic Designer Paulina Ortega

Paulina Ortega’s leanings have always been fluid. Drawn to watercolor in her teens, the artist let the medium run with her every daydream, from the gamine heroines in her personal work to the beach-inspired patterns she recently collaborated on with bag label The Lost Nomad. “I dabbled in oil and acrylic when I was much younger and found that I could never achieve the fluid and almost haphazard impressions I wanted to portray through them,” says Ortega. “There was always a disconnect between what I saw in my mind’s eye and what I was able to do with thick paint.”

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Even in her commercial work, creativity flows boundlessly. As an art director and graphic designer for Singaporean creative outfit Tremendousness, crisp modern elements jive harmoniously with old-world romance, be it in branding for a clothing and jewelry label or stationery for a stylist and production designer. Instinct and imagination are paramount in Pauline’s world, most evident in the variety of projects she takes on, magazine art and wedding invites included.

Amid constant travel and dabbling in graphite and embroidery, Ortega talked to NOUS about soaking in Matisse, injecting art into advertising, and the ideas behind three of her most memorable works.

Besides stuff for your day job, can you tell us what you’ve been working on lately?

I’ve recently been collecting images of vintage travel posters and recreating them in watercolor. I’m flying to Europe in a few days and visiting a couple cities I haven’t been to before. And I think out of sheer excitement and anticipation, I thought about recreating the romantic—and sometimes cheeky—imagery from old destination posters. It feeds the pre-trip fantasies!

Was watercolor always the medium you gravitated toward?

Yes. I dabbled in oil and acrylic when I was much younger and found that I could never achieve the fluid and almost haphazard impressions I wanted to portray through them. There was always a disconnect between what I saw in my mind’s eye and what I was able to do with the thick paint. I finally tried my hand at watercolor when I was about 14 and got really excited about it. I loved how the pigment reacted to the water, often producing surprising results—how quick you needed to be and how it made everything look like a bit of a daydream.

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Any artists you were exposed to that are still an influence to this day?

love the work of Henri Matisse! There’s a sense of controlled naivety to his lines and composition that lends an almost childlike sense of wonder to his pieces. I took a course for the Ayala Museum a while back and we had a docent from LACMA dissect his painting “The Red Studio” for us. I really saw, for the first time, how shapes and lines and colors could really be manipulated to communicate a way of thinking. Apart from him, I really consider Alan Fletcher’s book The Art of Looking Sideways to be very influential. I remember opening his book when I was 16. It was probably the first month of college, and that really opened up this exciting world to me. It talked about purple cows, how 1+1 could be 3, the power of manipulating space, etc. It dealt a lot with design and art, but more than that, it presented everyday things and occurrences with a sense of wonder and curiosity.

It seems you’re often drawn to the fantastical, as well as restless, gamine beauties as subject matter. Has this always been the case?

(Laughs) You know, I never really realized my portrayal of the gamine ‘til you pointed it out to me.  I guess at some level I was conscious of it, but it was never really deliberate. I suppose it’s a reflection of the characters I loved in films, the kind of woman I want to be and can relate to, and often what I create is filtered through that perspective. I feel like I used to put a lot of weight on how I could refine my voice in my personal work, figure out what I was really trying to say. But that kind of became a roadblock for me. The past couple years, I have tried to really just go with whatever came to me, whatever felt natural. I think it’s produced a very feminine tone, with a bit of a romantic and offbeat point of view, which is really just a reflection of my own thought process and outlook.

Is your current balance of commercial work and personal work how you’d like to continue on or do you have plans to focus on one rather than the other?

Yes, actually. At least that’s how I see it for now. I love design in that it appropriates creativity towards something functional. And I love how it can channel creative thinking towards bettering everyday commerce. I mean, our lives are constantly packed with commercial exchanges, the more creatively and effectively we can go about things, the better. Personal work, on the other hand, brings fulfilment on a whole other level. It’s a realization of what I want to say, of what I feel.

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It’s a pretty tricky balance to maintain sometimes, but when I look at people like Alan Fletcher, who founded one of the most influential design firms and also produced a great body of personal work, I think there’s a chance it can be done. I also recently read about this really interesting project by Kyle deWoody. She started a company called Grey Area, where she tries to bridge the fine line between art and design. She does a lot of work with the Whitney Museum. So I think there is some merit and a lot of excitement in trying to grow both.

Is Singapore it for you or are you hoping to live in and explore other places?

I think Singapore is quite an exciting place to be in now for design. There are a tons of small designs firms sprouting up out here and it’s interesting to see how they’re able to grow that community and slowly inculcate good design into everyday situations here. But I don’t see myself here permanently. I’d like to do further studies elsewhere, and really like the idea of moving around in my twenties, picking up what I can from each place. Eventually I’d really like to return to the Philippines and set myself up there with a design shop.

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