“Just Keep Going”: an Interview with Kyle Ma

by Kayla Padilla April 11, 2023
Classical portrait of a woman on the left and a desert landscape painting on the right

Paintings by Kyle Ma on view at Hindes Fine Art Gallery in San Antonio.

At only 22-years-old, Kyle Ma has won several awards for his paintings, including the Boldbrush April Competition and the Artist’s Magazine Competition. Ma recently exhibited nine of his paintings at the Hindes Fine Art Gallery in San Antonio. He also held a workshop on how to paint flowers. Below, he and I discuss some of his paintings, including Sunlit Pastures and Percussionists.

Ma is an artist based in Austin. One of his biggest inspirations is nature, and he enjoys painting en plein air to immerse himself in his surroundings. Kyle has a bachelor’s of science in geology from the University Texas at Austin, and is currently a full-time artist. 

Kayla Padilla (KP): Can you tell me about the first time you picked up a brush, and do you remember some of the first things you painted?

Kyle Ma (KM): I would say I was drawn to doing landscapes in the beginning. And then as I learned more about art, I started to branch out and appreciate more portraits, figures, still lives. So now I want to do a pretty wide variety of subjects.

KP: I saw that you have a bachelor of science degree in geology from UT Austin. Could you tell me a little bit about why you chose to study geology and how that has informed your art? How has it made you a better artist?

KM: As I was finishing high school, I felt like I was more drawn towards one of the STEM fields. I always did better in math and science. I felt like geology was probably most interesting to me. I mean, when I was a kid, I had a collection of rocks and I feel like it’s interesting that you can uncover a lot of Earth’s history from looking at those rocks, you know? You can pick up a piece of rock and it’s often millions of years old and reflects that specific part of Earth’s history when it formed.

I always liked drawing and painting, so I did that throughout middle school, high school and then college. I realized a career in geology wasn’t right for me when I started to do research in my third year of college. It just wasn’t quite going how I had hoped. It made more sense for me to pursue art instead. 

KP: I saw you have some courses online about painting. Can you tell me about the workshops you host? 

KM: I’ve made some instructional videos, but mostly they comes from teaching workshops. For the San Antonio event, it’s tied to a three day long workshop that I’m teaching there. I do a couple of those a year in various places, just wherever venues decide to reach out to me.

KP: Could you tell me about this year’s workshop that you’re doing in San Antonio? 

KM: It’s a floral painting workshop. I think a lot of times, when students try a floral subject, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and get lost. So I try to make it easier for them and talk about the overall structure of flowers and how to use the fundamentals.

KP: Why are flowers so interesting to you? Why is that a good subject to teach?

KM: In a floral painting, you’re doing the arrangement yourself. So there’s a lot of room for creativity. I like the complexity of it. With a rose, for example, you can really take your time and define each shape and make it really beautiful. I also like the variety of colors that you can get.

KP: Do you have favorite flowers that you like to paint?

KM: Yeah, I tend to enjoy the more complex ones — roses, dahlias or peonies. Those are always really fun.

Night time landscape painting resting on an easel

A painting by Kyle Ma, on view at Hindes Fine Art Gallery in San Antonio.

KP: A lot of your paintings are about nature, which aligns with your interests as a child. You’ve said that you like to paint outside to engulf yourself in your surroundings. But you also have paintings of people. Tell me how you get inspired when it comes to painting people.

KM: Well, part of it is trying to figure out what’s unique about that person. I think it’s always good to get to know someone on a personal level; then I try to capture what’s unique about them. And then also just from a purely visual standpoint, the opportunities for flesh tones and capturing form and anatomy.

KP: Do you have a process when it comes to painting a portrait of someone? Are these people that you know or people that you get to know? 

KM: Both. Sometimes in live models sessions you don’t really get that opportunity so you show up and you do what you can. Sometimes I would hire a model and do a photo shoot or do a live painting, and you can go through the process of posing and just chatting with them. I get to know them a little bit. 

KP: The other thing I’ve noticed is that you’ve painted quite a few animals, including lions, chickens, and dogs. Do you have a favorite animal that you’ve painted so far?

KM: Yeah, there’s a big painting of cows that I did a couple years ago. That’s a favorite. I think it was just really beautiful lighting and there was a lot going on in that scene. It’s one of those paintings where you see this image from far away, but as you get closer, the more you discover these little color shifts in the blades of grass or stuff like that. That’s kind of what I like to try and go for in my paintings where, in the distance, you see an image that draws you in and then as you get closer, you’re rewarded with a little more interest. So I think that painting does that. That’s why I’m happy with that one.

Two paintings stacked on an easel, the top of a desert landscape, and the bottom a river landscape

Paintings by Kyle Ma, on view at Hindes Fine Art Gallery in San Antonio.

KP: How did you start to develop your style as a painter? 

KM: I think it developed fairly naturally — I wasn’t consciously thinking about this style. After you’ve been doing it for a long time, you start to realize what kinds of work you like more than others. And so I try to be more like the paintings that I am personally drawn to. That means going through a bunch of images through museums and online, figuring out what artists I like. I mean, with the internet, you have access to so many images. If you want to look up any particular artist, you can do it in a couple of seconds. It’s less about trying to find a style, but taking the time to refine what I like.

KP: You started painting seriously at age ten. Were you enrolled in classes, or did you play around a lot?

KM: Before I started seriously learning painting, I played around a lot with paint, or crayons, or whatever people gave me to work with. I think through that, they saw that I had an interest in art, so when I was ten, I started enrolling in classes and started to learn new fundamentals.

KP: It’s great you got such an early start. What’s something you haven’t painted yet that you’d like to try?

KM: I don’t know if there’s any particular genre I haven’t touched yet. Probably just places that I haven’t been to yet. I would love to go to Italy and do some paintings of that area, or Spain. I just want to experience more parts of the world and try and get that feeling of wherever I’m traveling onto canvas.

Two paintings stacked on top of each other on an easel, the top a view of the riverwalk, and the bottom a still life with pumpkins

Paintings by Kyle Ma, on view at Hindes Fine Art Gallery in San Antonio.

KP: There’s a painting of yours that’s really captivating called Percussion. Can you tell me what inspired this work?

KM: It’s from a photo. I’m not sure, but I think it was from New York. I look for opportunities to find subjects that sometimes people don’t necessarily think of painting, but are interesting visually. So it’s one of those times where after I got an image, I came back to it. I was looking for ideas, and I decided to come back to that idea and see where I could go with it.

KP: I’m curious if you draw inspiration from other art forms or media? Do you ever listen to music while you paint, or do you ever get inspired by watching a movie or a show?

KM: I listen to music when I work. I don’t know that I draw inspiration from it. It just gets me through long painting sessions. Sometimes you’re painting a cityscape and there are 20 cars to paint. Music always helps.

KP: What types of music do you listen to when you’re painting? 

KM: I’m actually from Taiwan originally, so mostly Chinese music. 

KP: So you started learning how to paint when you were around ten years old and you’ve been doing it ever since. What is the longest that you’ve gone without painting? 

KM: So I’ve always been pretty consistent. Probably a couple months, or after my last class in college geology. We had to go on field camp. And so I wasn’t able to do any painting during that. And then you know, obviously, when you’re in college, sometimes the assignments start to pile up. For the most part I don’t think I’ve had too long of a break.

Photo of the artist Kyle Ma posing in front of a window with trees in the background

Kyle Ma

KP: Do you ever have creative blocks? How do you get out of them and back into painting?

KM: See, I don’t know if I have the best advice for it, but sometimes I just go on a cold streak where several paintings in a row don’t quite turn out. I usually just keep going. I try to assess what went wrong. And then eventually, I’m able to break through. I know I’ve had friends who have had burnout or artist block a lot worse than I’ve experienced. So I can imagine there would be times where “just keep doing it” isn’t the answer. Sometimes taking a break is helpful to try to figure out what works best for you. Like, do you want to keep trying or do you want to take a break for a little bit, do something else and then maybe come back in a week.


Kyle Ma’s exhibition is on view through April 15, 2023 at Hindes Fine Art Gallery in San Antonio.

Kayla Padilla is the 2023 recipient of the Critical Writing Fellowship with Contemporary Art Month, San Antonio

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