Updated: May 25, 2021

Sri Lankan artist SENAKA SENANAYAKE describes to Aashna his history, inspiration, process and love behind his art

"I want my paintings to talk... everyone from a street sweeper to a university professor should be able to relate to my art." (Senanayake, London)

Title: Macaws

Size: 4 Feet x 3 Feet

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Year: 2018

PC - Patrimonio Gallery

By the time Senanayake graduated from the prestigious Yale University with a degree in Art and Architecture in the early 1970s, he knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life creating art through paintings and sculpture.

This was, some critics might argue an afterthought; a formality that did not need an announcement. Because Senanayake had already achieved a considerable amount of fame in his formative years; starting to paint as a child and even holding a solo international exhibition in the US at the age of ten.

His graduation from Yale would be the catalyst in setting the wheels in motion for the phenomenal success he has realised to date with a steep career graph that has made him one of the most sought after and influential artists from South Asia in the past thirty years.

His paintings are nature-centric delving into the roots, blossoms, foliage with intensity in thought and colours only somebody who loves nature and loves life could create with precise imagination as well as passion. Senanayake has been hailed for bringing to life the kaleidoscope landscape of Sri Lanka in all its glory. His distinctions as a Sri Lankan painter of modern abstraction have been a continuum since 2005. He has devoted his voice and brush to protest against the continued deforestation of the Sri Lankan rainforests and supporting the need to re-plant trees to counterbalance rainforest lands lost to the development of tea plantations. Thus, with the intensity of thunder and focus of an eagle Senanayake had brought the plight of the Sri Lankan rainforest out of oblivion to world attention. In tandem, his paintings displayed the Sri Lankan vast lost heritage through his art which is a form of modern cubism and Impressionism finding its nucleus meshed in reality.

Some label Senanayake as a modern colourist inspired by Paul Klees and his timeless theories on colourization dating back to theories of Goethe, Runge, Delacroix and Kandinsky.

"I love vibrant pure intense colours."

The idea of colours about movement and how they interact with one and another is an oxymoronic “expected unexpected" colour theory that teaches you rudiments of colour pigments, intensity and mixing.

"Any artist will tell you that the results can be as random as the infinite combinations of colour mixing"

“I use multiple layers to achieve an effect which is as individual as each combination of colour in each layer of paint applied on the canvas."

Senanayake lives in Colombo and he works from a studio next to the house he grew up in and which has been the foundation for a meteoric career spanning 60 years.

From the dreams inspired in the garden of his childhood home filled with leaves, the open-air courtyard smelling of fresh flowers and sweetgrass, buzzing with the hum of bees and shimmering with fluttering butterflies: Senanayake's journey as an artist has taken him to the world and he has brought the world home. His world-class studio is built in the garden which inspired his dreams.

Title: Butterflies

Size: 4 Feet x 4 Feet

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Year: 2013

PC - Patrimonio Gallery

My conversation with Senaks Senanayake from his studio in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

AA: You started painting when you were very young....

SS: I started painting when I was six. I had my first show when I was 7 years old when I was in primary school. Our teacher had a very good program. She put wrapping paper and would take gouache and put it up on the wall. Then, the teacher would ask the children to make animals and make art that would be put on the wall for display. This was lots of fun.

Eventually, I started painting with poster colours on paper. My father's friend was the chairman of the Art Council of Sri Lanka. When he visited, he saw my paintings hanging on the wall. He suggested to my father that we organize an exhibition of my work at the National Art Gallery and that is how my art career started. So I had a one-man show. And one thing led to another: through articles on the exhibition, communications on the show, my career gradually picked up from there.

In school, the Principal got an idea and suggested that I make paintings for an exhibition to be auctioned with the money to be put towards the development of a new swimming pool for the school. And so I painted some paintings which were exhibited in Colombo at an art gallery and it was successful as the entire collection was sold.

Then I met a gentleman from the Smithsonian Institute visiting Sri Lanka, He was impressed by what he saw. He thought I was a genius and requested to visit my studio.

He got me thinking and we had a long chat. At that time I was in the eleventh grade. He asked what I wanted to do with my life. In our society at the time in Sri Lanka, people wanted their children to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, or accountants because that was what the family members took up professionally also. I w do something creative like architecture. I like doing many things like writing articles-because that is creative- I thought.

He said he saw new talent in me. He suggested that I become an artist. But there was no arguing with my family, so I set my goals on trying to get into medical schools..... A writer from the 'Christian Times Monitor' Publication wrote a wonderful article on my paintings. After the publication of the article, we heard from an Art Gallery owner in San Diego who wanted to exhibit my paintings there. Sri Lanka was becoming an international port at that time. So that got me thinking again about art once again. Our education system is such that one had to choose one's discipline immediately. Thus, I wouldn't be able to continue taking art subjects at University. Then, someone suggested I think about studying in the States. But from Sri Lanka, very few people went to the States they usually went to Australia or Malaysia. Then I wondered how I would be able to afford to study in America. Somebody told me, in America, they give scholarships to foreign students outstanding in their field. So applied for scholarships to some universities: Yale and Princeton. That was a wonderful opening. The year was 1968 and I got the opportunity to go to the States to do my degree. So in the American system, the course is integrated and I had the freedom to take a lot of art courses in addition to the required subjects. The undergraduate degree gives you time to think and decide what you want to do. That is how my art career took off. I got invited to participate in a lot of exhibitions in America and various countries. At one point I was invited to show one of my paintings....and I was re-invited by the Indian Government at age 13 and I did a series of exhibitions. In a capsule, this is how things started.

Title: Desert Scene

Size: 110 cms x 80 cms

Medium: Gouache on Paper

Year: 1958

PC - Patrimonio Gallery

AA: At Yale, you experienced protests, women's liberation movement and student demonstrations? Tell us about your experiences?

SS: The 1960s was one of the most exciting times in American universities... There was the anti-war Vietnam movement and there were demonstrations throughout the country and on all campuses. The national guard came and demonstrations throughout the country became filled with students challenging the establishment so things were volatile and violent at times. I had a roommate who was involved in the SDS/ Student Democratic Society. It was a far-left organisation and he was involved in organising all kinds of strikes...

There were no copy machines back then so we used a lithograph machine to make posters. Because of my roommates' heavy involvement in all types of demonstrations. I participated in some demonstrations at the start and even went to Washington DC with my friends to join a protest against the Vietnam War. Until one day the head of the department warned me as I'm on an international scholarship and I should not get involved in American politics. Being on scholarship I was scared to get into trouble so I did not participate in any further movements. The powerful black movement was an important event in American history and the late 1960s, it was an emotional time in America because of racism and inequality. Unfortunately, this is what is happening in American politics even today.

There was an uprising you could say... it was a movement against established prejudices and there was a lot of activity. You could say it was a revolution and it was a very interesting time to be studying in America. In my first year of University in 1968, I had the opportunity to experience this as well as being in a co-ed education system for the first time. So that was something new.

At that time there were 900 students in our first-year class at Yale; 24 were international students; with 4 students coming from South Asia. One Indian boy, one Pakistani boy, one Indian boy from Kenya and myself. That's all. Much different than today where there are a lot of foreign students on campuses.

Title: Afghans

Size: 106 cms x 130 cms

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Year: 1963

PC - Patrimonio Gallery

AA: Yes, that is true. In recent times, there are a lot of international students studying in the US.

SS: They did not know where Sri Lanka was... most people thought Sri Lanka was a part of India. They didn't know there was a country called Sri Lanka.

AA: You have said these experiences at Yale have shaped your art. Can you tell us in what way?

SS: Well before attending Yale I was completely self-taught and I never had an art teacher. I did modelling, I learned techniques; sculpting; I was working with famous art professors and brick-makers. I was gaining experience. I gained proper training. Learning how to explore: learning how to draw nature and do sculpture from nature. I got guidance and valuable access to age-old techniques. Lots of new artists don't learn to draw and paint. I feel abstraction should be made from the reality of nature. In abstraction, you are taking reality from nature. Abstraction should be based on realism. Today many new artists take shortcuts. The younger people don't take the time to learn the basics of how to draw and paint... Even the great masters like Picasso based their abstraction on realism and went through a long process of a lifetime of evolution. Even some of the top abstract artists in India base their artwork on this principle. This is my thinking. I am an artist with traditional thinking.

“I'm very much an old school artist”

AA: You experimented in sculpture as well at one time?

SS: I did a lot of sculptures at one time. I used to do the metal casting and moulding by myself. A lot of artists do the designing but have craftsmen to do the actual moulding and metal casting. I like to mould the sculpture and work on the design and metal sheets myself. But I find it difficult to do everything myself now as it is time-consuming.

AA: What materials have you experimented with?

SS: I have worked with cold cast bronze. It's made out of clay and then you cast it. Cold Casting is the process of fibreglass adding very fine metal powders to resin to produce a very realistic metallic appearance to a cast. I have done copper sheets. I have done many things over the years so I have concentrated on painting and I have fun doing that.

AA: I read that it takes 3 weeks for you to complete a canvas.

SS: I use a lot of colour and texture. I work in a way where there are so many layers of colour so it can not be copied. Even if I want to copy my work I can't do it. The process is such. I can't remember all the colours applied. Layers of colour, plus the brushstroke is also in a certain manner. I work in watercolours and love doing sketches.

Title: Lotus

Size: 3 Feet x 6 Feet

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Year: 2004

PC - Patrimonio Gallery

AA: A lot of your work is based on rainforests...

SS: In the last 20 years I have been inspired by many things. I have gone through many phases in my life. There was a time I was interested in Buddhism and in University I was inspired by nature, I was inspired by the beauty of Sri Lanka: the life here and people.

About 25 years ago a cousin who was an environmentalist wondered if I had visited the Sri Lankan rainforests. I had visited the jungles of Kororustodu and parks. When the British ruled Sri Lanka they destroyed the original rainforest. After demolishing the rainforest they planted tea plantations.

They were smart and they kept a large patch of rainforest cause they realised it is what brings the rain. After all, Sri Lanka is an island.

So when I visited the rainforest with my cousin I got excited seeing the foliage, the earth and the skies. The British had left behind a pristine area of Sri Lanka which many people did not know about. I decided to paint the rainforest and I spent some time focussing on reviving the interest and the importance of the rainforest to Sri Lanka's ecosystem.

After independence, it was important to replant trees that the British had destroyed. I thought about what to do. I'm not a politician. I felt the only way to bring about change is if the young people did something about it.

That was my thinking ... This goes back to 20 years when my wife and I visited Sai Baba, who said “happiness is a sandwich between two unhappinesses”. So I decided I could make a negatively portrayed rainforest or a positively portrayed rainforest. The more I got involved we decided to show what happens when we cut a tree. I wanted to bring awareness among the young in a nutshell. I know the government is doing its bit for climate change but we citizens must also bring about change and my contribution is through my art.

Title: Glorious Rainforest

Size: 5 Feet x 7 Feet

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Year: 2010

PC - Patrimonio Gallery

AA: Do you get involved in community education as in schools? Do you do shows in


SS: I always do exhibitions at art galleries near schools and we invite schools ... I inform them that nature displayed: butterflies, plants, birds are educational. I point out the shape of leaves and foliage. I would like to get kids to be interested in art related to nature... A large number of students attend. I hear the kids ask the teachers about the paintings .... commenting they have never seen birds like that. You might be interested to learn that there are 80 species of just hummingbirds. Everything I paint does exist in nature! People don't realise the vastness of nature. So getting kids curious to know more about my paintings is a giant step in exploring art and enriching future artists. I hope I leave that behind through my work that it gets children interested in art and different types of art.

Title: Humming Birds Paradise

Size: 5 Feet x 7 Feet

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Year: 2018

PC - Patrimonio Gallery

AA: You have done work representing coral reefs. Please discuss this area you have explored.

SS: I used to go snorkelling and see the beautiful coral reefs of Sri Lanka’s coast; now it's white due to global warming. So it's a frightening thing. We have to be conscious of protecting our world. So I consider myself an environmental artist so this is my new thing.

AA: You have mentioned your house is full of your works from the past 60 years. Also, that you gravitate towards Impressionism, cubism and colonists, I was wondering if there are any artworks or artists that have inspired you?

SS: Many artists have inspired me. So many things inspire you at different stages. I love the era of Impressionism, cubism and the artists that emerged from that time. I don't relate to the nouveau ultra-modern art.

And I am inspired by people like Gauguin, Van Gogh and Picasso and Renoir, who to me are still very exciting artists and truly represent the importance of colour. They were also the people who started the colourist movement.

One of the Colourist who taught at Yale ( before my time) was Joseph Albers and his star pupil was Richard Lytle who taught me the principles of colour art. He taught me what happens when you merge two colours. There is so much to learn in colour theory and this helped me in my work immensely.

AA: What message do you have to younger artists?

SS: Please try to understand the fundamentals of art. Then you will become a great artist. Then you will understand why you are doing something. The art movement comes from something established. Damien Hirst, when he creates a new movement or style it's a reaction. It comes from something already established.

Title: Blue Deer

Size: 77 cms x 105 cms

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Year: 1975

PC - Patrimonio Gallery

AA: Lastly, are there any upcoming shows or exhibitions?

SS: Hopefully, a show in Mumbai which is scheduled for December and the curators are from London paintings exhibited will be the larger canvases so we are looking at warehouses. Some other exhibitions in India and Sri Lanka but due to covid, the show schedules are uncertain. My exhibitions have to be attended due to the multi-layers, the beauty and the power of the effect of metallic colours. You can't see the luminosity in photographs or online. The gold colour looks like mustard. You miss the shimmering effect in a photograph or print which gives a flattened out effect. In real life you see shimmering gold coming through. So it feels different.

AA: I agree it's not fun. Even the size of the work feels different. It's not fun to see the paintings online because you do not get the feel of the depth or size. Hopefully, your exhibition in Mumbai takes place in December.

SS: GOGA from London are organising the exhibition but they are currently looking for warehouse space.

AA: Sounds very exciting. Hope to see you in Mumbai.

SS: Please stay in touch with a lovely conversation.

In closing, an observation: when speaking to Senanayake who has reached the wise age of 70, one cannot be anything but enviable at his forthrightness and dedication to his craft that has not waned with time in energy, concept or brilliance. Some might argue, his best work has been art representative of the rainforests and the coastlines

His paintings have appeared in over 100 exhibitions internationally to date with Senanayake participating in many group shows in India in addition to holding solo exhibitions.

In the last few years, his artworks were exhibited at the India Art Fair, he collaborated with India- based auction house SaffronArt, Art New York (2018) and was one of the notable artists at Art Miami: "Modern Masters and Senaka Senanayake" where his paintings were grouped iconic luminaries: most influential South Asian painters of late 20th century; Sayed Haider Raza, MF Husain, FN Souza to name a few.

Title: Elephants Bathing

Size: 4 Feet x 6 Feet

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Year: 1994

PC - Patrimonio Gallery

Next, you can view his work this summer in London. He will be participating in "Modern South Asian Art 2021" to coincide with London Gallery Weekend in June 2021. As he mentioned in his interview, he hopes to do a solo exhibition in Mumbai at the end of the year depending on the pandemic situation in both countries.

From his paintings from 1967, "Sugarcane, Work, Bathers" to his recent homage to the countless species of amazement in nature as in his 2020 painting "Hummingbirds" He has founded a paradise that might have been lost in history if he had not envisioned it.

In the words of the master artist himself...

”I want to depict happiness through nature and make time stand still."

Through his work, Senanayake has truly found a world of happiness, peace and fulfilment and a lost paradise on earth in Sri Lanka.

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