At first glance, the face staring back at Phen Lina from the artist’s page – with its huge lips, symmetrically over-inflated cheeks, and eyelashes longer than the whiskers on a cat – was just a silly cartoon-style caricature drawn for her amusement.
But after a few moments of giggling at the absurd face that the artist drew for her, she realized that it really was an accurate – though wildly exaggerated – likeness of her. He got the shape of her face, her mouth and her hair-style spot on.
“Even though it was just a cartoon, I could recognize my face particularly my mouth, eyes and hair,” said Lina, who sent an original photo of herself to the artist – who then drew the caricature portrait for her and sent it to her via Facebook Messenger.
If you’re feeling bored, tired and a little bit fed up with life in the Covid-19 era at the moment, you might get a few chuckles out of having a caricature of yourself drawn up by the young Battambang artist Thuokna Sin.
Known for its rich culture and history, Battambang still has some of its colonial-era buildings left standing today. Some of them were featured in the Hollywood movie about Cambodia First They Killed My Father produced by Angelina Jolie.
It is also famous as the home of the legendary golden voiced singer Sin Sisamuth and today it features the Phare Ponleu Selpak circus and arts academy, which is busy teaching the next generation of Cambodian artists and performers.
The provincial town has charmed visitors with its under-the-radar but flourishing performing and visual arts scenes, both traditional and contemporary in nature.
One of the least publicized and celebrated forms of art in Battambang are the affordable and popular caricature drawings being done for tourists and curious locals, especially youths.
Even the process of sitting and waiting for a caricature artist to draw a funny portrait of you is entertaining – because of the anticipation – and the fact that you can’t see what they are busy creating but your friends and anyone passing by can.
Thuokna, 26, was born in Battambang and is originally from the Moung Ruessei district, is the artist best known for creating these caricatures and he says he tries to strike a balance between making fun of his customers while keeping them laughing too so there are no hard feelings.
“The key point for these funny cartoons is always the shape of their face and the eyes, mouth and hair. It does take skill as an artist to capture enough of what’s real so that they can recognize themselves because if they can’t then the joke [portrait] just isn’t funny,” he says.
Prior to the general outbreak of Covid-19 in the Kingdom, Thuokna had more chances to create and show his artwork in exchange for some income to support his family and continue to pursue his broader dreams in the art field.
Before the pandemic struck, he would carry his drawing pad and pencils and go from event to event, night after night, getting paid to draw caricatures of the guests as a fun attraction at various public gatherings.
Thuokna told The Post that “I was booked for a lot of different events like condo warming parties, wedding receptions, birthday parties, school parties and other celebrations all over town.”
Since many celebrations have been cancelled or banned due to Covid-19, he says he has switched to serving his customers via social media.
“If you want to have some fun when you feel upset, let’s try this fun caricature. The price is just $25 and you will get a nice frame that goes with it free of charge,” Thuokna wrote on Facebook.
Having seen similar drawings on social media by artists in other countries whose mimicry of their subjects never fails to make people laugh, Cambodians were surprised when they saw that they were now available here.
“Everybody laughs when they see their drawing for the first time. Even those who might not think that theirs is very funny are usually told otherwise by their friends. I’m always happiest when the customers are laughing as hard as their friends are about it though,” he says.
Thuokna says that it takes between ten and 15 minutes for him to complete a single person drawing and the price is usually based on the size of the paper, A4 or AO.
“Per day I can draw between 20 and 30 caricatures for people,” said Thuokna.
Thuokna has been interested in art since his childhood and after finishing high school in 2016 he decided to enrol in animation classes, but he faced challenges with his studies because he was living in town to study, far away from his rural home.
Generally, Cambodian youth depend on their families for housing while pursuing their studies, but Thuokna had no family available to him to help him continue to pursue his dreams in art.
“Living far from my family in order to study animation, I found it very difficult in many ways. I could not afford to buy food, learning materials or even rent a place to live.
“So I asked the chief of monk of the Kandal pagoda to let me stay there and I also took time to make money working night shifts because my family could not support me,” he recalls.
After three years of animation classes, Thuokna found a job in animation and set about trying to make a career in the industry.
“I love drawing and my commitment to art is very strong. I try to play my role and do my best because I love the career that I’m working in. Believe it or not, a career in art requires more patient than talent,” he says.
Thuokna began by studying regular drawing with pencil and paper in 2013 and moved onto computer animation and studied that until 2019. He says he learned a lot from an expat teacher who ran workshops with Phare Ponleu Selpak. .
While there are very few caricature artist in the Kingdom and not many chances yet for him to prove his abilities, Thuokna says “Rest assured that I can make cartoons and 3D characters for videos, movies and other programmes with a high level of skill.”
Thuokna says he is always willing to learn more and he’s trying to get to a place where he can use all of his various abilities – animation, caricature, model fashion design, cartoon design, comic characters design, body painting, canvas painting and even his hobby of making music.
Working at the Phare Creative Studio at Phare Ponleu Selpak, Thuokna never forgets to show his gratitude to all of the people around him who encouraged him, inspired him or who he learned valuable lessons from.
Despite the economic situation with the pandemic, Thuokna remains confident that his future will be bright and his days will always be filled with the work of creating art for himself and others.
“If you want to get a caricature drawn and help to empower a local artist, please contact me at 069 87 95 76 or via Facebook: Thuokna artsmall.” – Thuokna Sin