He started painting at the tender age of five. He had no inkling what it was that he was doing, which was doodling something akin to ancient cave paintings. His muse was the buffalos and cows of his ancestral home in Thalahena. It was meant to be a record of all the animals that he encountered while on his solitary excursions in the village.
“I couldn’t write, so this was a means of record-keeping,” reminisced Shanaka Kulathunge, a medical doctor by day and painter by night, or any other time of day he could spare for his hobby.
When asked whether his parents did not discourage him from studying art, lest he would not focus on more academic studies, Kulathunge said that it was his parents’ unwavering support that allowed him to study art while also studying to become a doctor. “I used to draw on the walls as a child. If I didn’t have anything to draw with I scratched with my finger nails,” said Kulathunge, a doctor attached to the Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children. Young Shanaka exhausted the supply of drawing books, provided by his father, in no time.
He studied bioscience for ALs and entered the Colombo Medical Faculty in 2002. “I was undecided what I wanted to do for ALs. I didn’t know what I could do in the form of ‘work’ if I studied Art for ALs. At the time not doing bioscience seemed like such a waste.” If he were to make the decision now, Kulathunge said that things may turn out different. But he has no regrets. After all, the medical profession is not without its benefits. Other than being an economic safety net, being a medical doctor has made him more successful as a portrait artist.
The study of anatomy in bioscience has rendered a touch realism to his art that only a doctor can pull off. “The study of the skeleton, musculature and shape of the skull comes in handy when painting a figure. In fact, most professional artists, such as Michelangelo for example, have studied anatomy.”
He first studied art under Lional Ranaweera at the age of eight and later, in 2001 at the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts under Chandraguptha Thenuwara. Kulathunge said that two of the best things that happened to him was entering Vibhavi and meeting Chandraguptha Thenuwara. He says that studying under Thenuwara helped him hone his skills. “Chandragupta Thenuwara is one of the best in the field, an artist with a firm foundation. It was great exposure.”
His infatuation with human figures, pronounced in most of his paintings, is no doubt the influence of his guru Thenuwara and the result of years of academic drawing study. In fact, academic-type painting is a salient feature in his work. His penchant for figurative art owes to his medium; oil paintings. His mediums range from watercolors, oil paint, acrylic paint, charcoal to simple pencil sketches. “But oil painting is ideal for portraying the aesthetics of the human figure,” explained Kulathunge.
When asked whether he uses models in his paintings, Kulathunge explained that he draws inspiration from real life characters. “I have used friends and even labourers I have seen working by the roadside, in my paintings.”
His time at the Chettikulam Base Hospital in Vavuniya between 2012 and 2014 afforded him a perspective of life he had not been exposed to before. The move from city to village provided the necessary isolation and spare time he needed to do more portraits, a form of art he showed keen interest in at the time. “Post war Chettikulam was much different from Colombo. The people, the kids, the environment, everything was different,” said Kulathunge. And these became the subject of his portraits.
When asked how he made time for painting with his busy schedule, Kulathunge said that post graduate studies and private practice were sacrifices he made to make time for painting; sacrifices he does not regret making. “But the money I make from selling paintings makes up for private practice.” Although he says that he does not paint with the intention of making a buck.
“It’s not about the money. My ability to paint is unique to me and therefore more important for me than private practice.” He opined that work that does not involve money making intensions have a greater chance of becoming successful works of art and in turn has a greater chance of getting sold. “Besides, there are some paintings that I’m emotionally attached to, that I don’t want to sell.”
His painting ‘Mara Parajaya’ (Defeat of Mara) done in 2000 for the Royal College annual art exhibition, is one such painting he doesn’t want to part with. Although his artistic abilities manifested early in life, it did not firmly establish itself until this critically acclaimed exhibit. In fact, it was a turning point in his life, with many appreciating its artistry and spurring him on to further study art. “I didn’t even know what oil painting was at the time. I hadn’t even grasped the medium properly,” said Kulathunge, with a hint of wonder
in his voice.
Kulathunge thrives as an artist at an age when most medical, legal and engineering professionals rarely show any interest in art. This he pointed out, is a flaw in the system. “No one can survive doing anything mediocre. If you are a doctor you have to do a post grad and private practice.” He also pointed out that the education system instills fear. “Parents think, ‘god forbid my kid will turn into an artist!’ This is because the education system has not done much to inculcate appreciation of art in the people. As a result one can’t survive on art.”
He further pointed out that in foreign countries artists have no problem making a living off selling their artwork because people who are capable of appreciating good works of art pay well to buy paintings.
Kulathunge emphasised that art does not enjoy its rightful place in Sri Lankan society. “Besides, patronage for art is also inadequate.” He pointed out the difficulty of procuring a gallery for an exhibition. “The National Art Gallery is in a state of dilapidation and the Lionel Wendt is too expensive for the average artist.”
Kulathunge observed that hypocrisy of artists themselves is to blame for the plight of the Sri Lankan artist. “It’s every artist for himself. They try to go it alone and never stick together. At the end nobody gets anywhere.” He emphasised that this mind set has to change for the artist to prosper.