Ryan Cayabyab: Painting is like music

August 31, 2022

It’s quite surprising to know that National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab is into painting. No, it’s not due to boredom borne by the pandemic, but more of a latent gift he rediscovered recently.
Here’s his story.

Daily Tribune (DT): What got you into painting?
Ryan Cayabyab (RC): I doodle a lot — during auditions or while waiting for a meeting to start. I used to sketch, but they are not great sketches, though I did pen-and-ink whenever I had the urge. I don’t think I am good at it so I never pursued it.

Last March, I got intrigued about acrylic paints — I had never used that medium before. I know of watercolor and oil paint, but every time I’d go to a gallery and see “acrylic,” I always wondered what it was…

So, I bought a tube of black acrylic paint and started experimenting on paper. And then I bought primary colors (red, blue and yellow) and started experimenting and liking what it can do. I am not very aware of the various types of acrylic paints because right now, my interest is only on opaque acrylic paints.

DT: What kind of materials did you buy, and did you seek advice from professional visual artists?
RC: After I posted (on Facebook) some of my early experiments, my sister-in-law Bella Bonner sent me a message that she had several tubes of acrylic paints that she won’t be using anymore, and that she’d give them to me if I picked them up from her house. Additionally, she gave me three unused canvases when I did rush to her place in QC.
I went home excited because in my hands were my first three canvases I could use to paint — plus some half-used tubes of Winsor and Newton acrylic paints she picked up from abroad. From then on, I transitioned to canvas.

1983 ink sketch, Emmy with Krina at the piano.


After experimenting on the three canvases, I bought my materials later on at National Book Store, and then found a good art supply store on Maginhawa Street (UP Village) after inquiring from an artist friend, Kara Escay, whom I worked with on a project in the past three years. Together with Robert Alejandro, we were mentors for a children’s talent enhancing program.
From there I discovered other art supply stores and a professional canvas supplier. Aside from discovering how paint brands differ, I have also discovered better brushes!

DT: Describe the experience of dipping the brush into the paint and doing the first few strokes on the canvas.
RC: I am new at this. I do not have any technique at all and am just playing everything by ear, and I don’t mind the real painters telling me how to do it correctly. I have just begun to learn how important it is to differentiate between a dry brush and a very wet brush, hahaha. I made a lot of mistakes just dipping my brush into my paint. I used a round aluminum paint palette at the start, but I am quite unorthodox now and painters would probably laugh at what I use to mix my paints.

When I started, I had no idea what subject I would paint, since everything was an experiment, I would just let the brush slide. From the first stroke, I would have an idea what to do with the next stroke. I think that subconsciously I had been using a music composition technique translated into visual art — motif and counter motif, a very basic melodic technique that translated in art, maybe a dot versus a dash, a short stroke versus a long stroke.

‘Unstill life.’ Cayabyab’s very first painting on canvas.

In classical “representational” painting, you see a very clear subject matter. I am not sure how this translates into non-representational art. Rhythm in music could be translated as strokes in painting — languid and long, or short and brisk and everything in between; same as dynamics — soft versus loud and everything in between, too — as light and dark in art; and then texture — it could run the gamut of from thin to thick sonorities, while in art, probably from a single layer to multiple layers of colors.

I have so much to learn in visual arts and it is so exciting when I get the same feeling when I am triggered as in music. It is the same high — and is akin to not stopping until I finish a composition — and the same as not stopping until I get to paint that last stroke.

DT: Your first work was the “Eyefie” series. What’s the backstory?
RC: My first subject matter was “unstill life.” My subject in about four unstill life paintings were all about a falling vase and petals. Then I translated my doodles into colored art! It was fascinating. I started with the two small canvases of doodles and graduated into my very first 30×30 doodle art. Friends “mined” the paintings and I have nothing left of my first 16 or so paintings.
When I started on Facebook about a decade or so ago, I hid my identity behind a pseudonym (there is no authentic Ryan Cayabyab FB account! Even to this date.) and all the photos that appeared had only one eye, my left or right eye with whatever background.

‘eyefie #9.’

I did not expect to one day be requested to have my musician friends and other friends’ photos taken with my eyefie! So, when I bought two 30×30 canvases, I tried to paint an eyefie (I looked for eyefie shots in my cellphone) with a “designed” background. My first two eyefies had piano keyboards on them — and since I started painting reverse figures, I adopted the same idea until the last eyefie I painted.

When I finished painting my fourth eyefie, I decided that that was enough. But my daughter suggested that I should try to finish 12 eyefies. Maybe one each to represent a month? But a good friend, Raymond Lauchengco, countered and said why not 16 eyefies — just like your One album in 1981, a 16-track recording of your voice in a cappella. I took the challenge — mahirap siya.

DT: How did you deal with mistakes or things you felt shouldn’t be in the painting?
RC: I have “erased” about three paintings already! Not really erased. I covered the entire painted canvas with about five layers of gesso because I decided that what I had in mind did not turn out the way it should have. Did I feel bad? No. Not at all. Part of the process. Nanghinayang ba ako sa paint? Yes, at the start. But hey, it is only paint.
Acrylic paint, when still newly applied, can be tissued-out if you make a mistake, like lumampas yung paint, or accidentally tumulo, or you made a wrong decision. I wet a tissue paper and wipe gently or vigorously. Meron na akong technique to wipe it out. No, I haven’t googled the right way to “erase” and it is faster to experiment anyway. When the acrylic paint is dry, you can always “gesso” your mistake.

DT: How did you start selling them, like, did friends call you?
RC: I have no idea about pricing paintings. So, when my first painting was bought, I told my friend to just “name” your price. Happy siya. Happy ako. But my first major sale that put a peg on the price of my bigger paintings (36×36 and 30×40) was dictated upon by my sister-in-law. The same
sister-in-law who gave me my first three canvases and tubes of acrylic paint. Every succeeding sale was based on that price.
Paintings could be pricey. But when I was single and I had extra funds, I bought paintings. I have a 1946 Cesar Legaspi oil, a fairly large 1983 Legaspi oil, a pen and ink, and a water color of Legaspi also. I have other art pieces that I like.

DT: How many have you sold so far?
RC: I think, about 14, with five reserved.

DT: Do you intend to keep on painting?
RC: As long as I can still see, I will continue painting. And as long as I can still hear, I will continue making music. Sana I can lose lots of weight para I can dance naman.

DT: What does painting do to you?
RC: I am at peace. I like the solitude. I have come to that part of my life that I crave for more silence. And painting gives me all that — peace, solitude, silence.

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