Mee sua is also known as longevity noodles, symbolising long life. While it's commonly eaten on birthdays and during celebrations, there's no rule against having it on regular days when you want a hearty bowl of comfort and love. My mother has been making Foochow red wine mee sua for me ever since I was in her womb - safe to say that this dish is one of my favourites, and that nobody cooks it better than her.
When Light Grey Art Lab put out a call for artists to make pieces about the dishes they love, for the FOODIES exhibition, I knew right away what I would draw.
I begin by sketching out thumbnails for different ideas. This part of the process involves a lot of "what if"s. What if I change the camera angle? What if I show a close up of the mee? What if I incorporate symbols into the illustration?
Circles have come to symbolise many things in various cultures: protection, heaven, eternity, balance. The yin and yang, two opposing forces in nature that stand for dark and light, negative and positive, feminine and masculine, are encompassed within a circle. There are circular versions of the Chinese symbols for longevity, 壽 or 'shòu', which I wanted to incorporate into the outer part of the illustration. I remember concentric circular patterns on 18th century bronze rain drums I saw in the Royal Palace at Luang Prabang, Laos, which inspire me to try a similar layout here. And the DNA strands are a reference to my background in science, as well as how deeply this dish has been ingrained in me since childhood.
This initial step of exploring, developing, and researching ideas is the most crucial part of the process. One of my teachers once said, "You can't polish a turd", which is true - the flashiest rendering and effects can't save a boring or shallow concept, or something with a fundamentally wonky drawing.
Next, I head to the computer and print off a simple template that's made up of a frame in the correct dimensions, plus outlines of circles - faster than drawing them by hand. I then sketch the placement of the noodles, chicken, and other ingredients on this template. Using a lightpad, I can ink on watercolour paper over the guide, removing the need to draw and then erase pencil lines on the thicker paper itself.
All of the above - thumbnails, research, rough drawing, inking - constitutes around five to six hours of work.
The ink lines are scanned and cleaned up in Photoshop. I throw in a texture before I begin colouring, just so I don't have to look at the harsh white of the screen while working.
The first tedious step involves using the Lasso tool to mark out flat areas of colour for different elements on separate layers. Having them on separate layers is key because I can easily change the colour of, say, the soup without affecting the ginger pieces or noodles - and I can also turn the layer contents into masks. This flexibility is why I prefer to work digitally when it comes to colouring.
I then go in with a brush to add lines, marks, and texture. In fact, for this piece, there are only three brushes I use - one from Kyle Webster's watercolour pack, another for the rough texture, and the basic round brush for blocking in colours. You don't need many fancy brushes once you find a core set that you're comfortable using. Plus, the gradient tool set to low opacity is a great way to add subtle changes in hue or value quickly.
After that, I make decisions as to what colours I want the lines to be, keeping in mind that the central circle is the focus of the piece and that the DNA strands or ingredients on the periphery shouldn't stand out too much at first. In this close-up you can see that the lines for the ingredients have been given a china blue overlay, while the ones on the noodles are a darker maroon.
A few more adjustments here and there with Levels layers, and we're done! Time to resize it for print and send the files off. The digital part of the process took around eight hours. All in all, that's about fourteen hours clocked on this piece, not including placing the order with the printing company, composing a blurb to go in the exhibition, exporting files for the web, and writing this post.
Have you ever eaten red wine mee sua? Is there a particular dish which holds meaning and memory for you? Leave a comment and let's celebrate the food in our lives!