The Making of ‘Decomposition’

If you haven’t heard, this piece was recently exhibited in my first ever group art exhibition.

It’s one of the largest works on canvas I’ve done, so I’m pretty stoked about it. The whole process took me about 5 months from start to completion – I even had a month in between where I was thoroughly uninspired and kept the artwork out of sight. Thankfully my motivation picked up again after, and I managed to complete it. I even submitted it to UOB Painting of the Year 2018 and was shortlisted, but ended up not winning.

So, now I’m going to talk about how this piece was made, my art process and learnings.


The idea behind this piece stems from the circle of life, of an endangered species. I used the tapir, which is native to Malaysia and is constantly used as the poster child for wildlife conservation campaigns locally. In the painting, you can see all three cycles of life and death – from the newborn to the adult, and the tapir skull. The mother tapir can be seen with her bones showing and flowers growing out of her, in a state of decomposition – symbolising their endangered status.


I had the idea and immediately put it to canvas, so my process isn’t terribly complicated. I sketched the layout and filled in some details and began painting almost immediately, starting with the background and working my way slowly to the foreground. What I will do differently next time:

  • Paint the canvas a neutral beige or sepia tone before sketching or painting – I had to go over a lot of white canvas spots after finishing, which was very taxing.
  • Used a light sepia underpainting to manage the tones and shadows. I found myself getting a little lost while painting section by section, forgetting what tone I had initially intended for some areas, resulting in a not very cohesive tone overall.
  • To use soft body acrylic paints instead of heavy body ones, which resulted in quite a lot of uneven sections due to some hues being a little more ‘hard’ to flatten.

Working in layers was one of the best methods to use when working with acrylics, due to their opaque quality which makes covering up mistakes much easier. You can see how this technique helps me with determining the light to dark tones for some depth in the back of the forest. It makes the flora in the forefront stand out much better.


Because I was dealing with mostly the same sort of plant-like textures in the majority of the painting, I only needed one medium flat brush to do the job, paired with a smaller, pointed brush for the details and finer lines. The only extra brush I needed was a super-fine pointed brush to paint softer lines for mama tapir’s fur, especially at the edges and in the middle where the bones begin to show. So overall, I think I didn’t have much of an issue with my tools as this painting didn’t require the creation of textures.


As mentioned above, I made a mistake working with heavy body acrylics instead of using soft body ones. These can be diluted with water to make them softer (or a medium, which I did not have on hand), but some hues are naturally harder to thin down, particularly the darker tones of green, blue and brown. I was working using a set of Daler Rowney tubes which I had for some time and was looking to finish them off – but found that I needed to buy more for such a large painting. The one thing which was smart to do was to get a larger tube of white and black – I used them quite a lot to adjust tones.

The one subject I really liked here was the baby tapir. It looks so different from its mother due to the ned for it to blend-in easily with its surroundings for safety – and so it has all sorts of spots and stripes all over its brown and beige body. The best part of this is that the natural camouflage really works! Most people do not even realise that a baby tapir is present unless I point it out to them or mention it. It really gave me a new respect and awe for nature’s design.


Most of the time, I worked on this piece at night where my mind feels more awake and I have less of a distraction from work, social media or calls. It’s also therapeutic for me after a long day of work to not think but just focus on applying colour to a bunch of leaves. I don’t know about you but I’m one of those people who find that a blank page or canvas requires a lot more brainpower to work on, so having an existing framework to paint is something I prefer. Just like with my sketchbooks, I always pre-draw some shapes/outlines of subjects in pencil, so that if I ever need to doodle to pass time, I’ll just use my ink pen to go over the existing ideas.

That said, I also enjoyed working on it during the day on those rare days where I do not have much going on. The only disturbance most of the time is from my cat Reiko who wants to be a part of everything I do.

And so, after all is said and done, the final piece!

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