TOURISTS may recognise artist Chea Vothea from Phnom Penh’s night market, where he’s often busy sketching people for $3 a pencil drawing.
His skill has taken him from a poverty-stricken family in central Kompong Thom province to the bright lights of the capital, where he sells his intricately shaded drawings drawn from Khmer classical fables from a small stall on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
Aged 29, Chea Vothea is not one of those artists who stage public exhibitions and attract the adulation of critics with fashionable glasses and goatee beards.
Instead he’s making a steady living – rather good by starving artist standards – by drawing realistic portraits of family members from photographs.
The likeness is extraordinary, and Chea Vothea attracts nearly 20 customers each month who pay between $25 and $45 for a large pencil portrait of their loved ones.
Each can take about two or three days to finish to his satisfaction. “I think copying a photo is more difficult than sketching people, because when you copy a photo, the detail needs to be perfect,” he said.
It’s clear he enjoys his job, and knows what sells. “In my own opinion, the black and white pictures are more attractive, especially for foreigners, because it’s very difficult to make black and white drawings appear lively.”
Still, he has his family to support – his parents have also moved to Phnom Penh, where his father is a motodop driver and his mother runs a stall. He has two sisters.
Though he left secondary school early, Chea Vothea discovered he had a talent when he first visited the big city, and began studying drawing formally at Artist’s Friends Association Wat Phnom in 2002.
While studying, he was also selling his works in his spare time – and found immediately that people loved his drawings of apsaras, other mythical Khmer figures and people.
“But I didn’t have enough time to study color drawing because when I first started, people asked me to draw their portraits and copy photographs,” he said.
That doesn’t seem to have harmed his business one jot.
Chea Vothea is contactable for art commissions through his English-speaking assistant Ms Eam Sivnin at sivnin.