By Isabel Ruehl
Julie Peng ’17 was just 6 years old when her father, William Peng, brought her to his office and gave her a pad of paper to draw on. He simply wanted to occupy his daughter while he worked, but her resulting composition of the Animal Kingdom at Florida’s Walt Disney World—where the family had recently traveled—was so “impressively real” in its precision and composition that it revealed deep talent, he said.
“I’m not sure where she got her interest or her artistic ability, but she’s got sharp eyes in terms of observing,” he said. “I was amazed at her ability to draw the objects on the paper with such accuracy.”
Nine years later, Julie’s online gallery on Facebook, the “Visual Arts Wall of Julie Peng,” had as of August 25th received 217 likes. Classmates and teachers have said the page’s success is a testament to Julie’s rapidly developing talent.
That talent has grown from a profound fascination with classical art as well as from the guidance of her out-of-school art teacher, Frank Niu, a Chinese-born artist who moved to the United States in 1990 and began teaching her when she was in the sixth grade, Julie said. She recalled roaming the expanses of fine arts museums even before then as a small child, “lost” in the paintings of John Singer Sargent, Leonardo da Vinci, Winslow Homer, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Ilya Repin.
“[Mr. Niu] likes to say I’m better at appreciating art than actually drawing, and in a sense that’s true,” she said. “I spent so much time studying classical art when I was younger because it was fascinating to me.”
Julie now spends two hours every week with Mr. Niu learning techniques in colored pencil, her preferred medium. She also enjoys oil painting, pen, and calligraphy.
Julie decided to display her work on Facebook last summer because she wanted a unique webpage where she could curate her images. Julie’s friends were first to notice the page, but it soon attracted the attention of classmates and aspiring artists—some of whom Julie doesn’t even know.
“[Julie] has the unique ability to capture the spirit of her subjects, which comes as no surprise to me at all,” Julie’s friend, Jenna Selden ’17, observed. “She sees the world in the most optimistic, thoughtful, and organic way imaginable, and her personality is as colorful as her work.”
Julie named John Singer Sargent and Leonardo da Vinci as her most significant artistic role models, the former for his classical style and the latter for his ability to use a wide array of materials.
She said she believes they influenced her favorite pieces, Cleared Sky and Dancing Girl. Cleared Sky, an oil painting that Julie said conveys ideas of personal empowerment, took five weeks to complete in 2012 and is now the profile picture of her page; Dancing Girl, a colored pencil portrait that she called “intriguing,” took three months to complete in 2013.
Julie is proud of these works because of their ability to capture one’s attention and inspire thought simultaneously. But although her self-described “realistic style” has become increasingly successful, she is still able to identify her weaknesses.
“Everyone has self-criticism, always,” she said. “And as an artist, it’s especially important to be able to tell exactly what’s wrong with a drawing. That’s something I’m often able to do but not to correct, so my teacher likes to say I have the mental capacity, but I still need to work on the actual skill.”
Julie credits her success in the “hobby” to her friends and teachers, a list including Mr. Niu as well as Art Teacher Laura Tangusso and Arts Department Head John Norton.
“In addition to being really good at representational drawing, [Julie is] also really bold with materials and brings a lot of imagination to her work,” Ms. Tangusso said.
Julie said she encourages aspiring artists to practice and focus, even when a work becomes obstinate and frustrating.
“Some days you just want to abandon a painting—like really, really, really want to give up because you’re so frustrated,” she said. “But it’s the struggling that makes you a better artist, and you just have to keep going.”
Julie will be The Spectator’s Chief Art Editor and the Point of View’s Chief of Design for the upcoming school year.