Drawing zodiac animals for the Lunar New Year is an ancient and complex pastime linked to principles of feng shui.

"Ky Mao" (Cat year of 1999) painting by Nguyen Tu Nghiem

In some Eastern cultures, it is believed that every person ever born has their own zodiac animal that supports their entire life’s journey and influences their personality. After living for 60 years, a person would have experienced all the challenges of the five elements: Metal – Wood – Water – Fire – Earth. They would have gone through trials and tribulations, tempered themselves with fire and water, and earned their old age with pride. Thus, drawing a zodiac animal that conveys the inherent characteristics of a person’s birth year is quite a challenge!

To draw a zodiac animal is to draw the year’s representative animal. Any art student can draw an animal in their own way, either in a stylized or realistic style. The extent to which the animal is idealized will vary depending on the artist, but as zodiac animals are usually symbolic, few people paint them realistically to avoid being crude.

"Quy Mao" (Cat year of 2023) painting by Minh Tran

As the new year approaches, people draw zodiac animals as gifts and for fun. Capturing the essence of zodiac animals is not easy. To portray the zodiac animal of one’s birth year takes a lot of research. It takes a person 60 years to live a full sexagenary cycle. The sexagenary cycle is based on the combinations of the Earthly Branches and the Heavenly Stems. The Earthly Branches consist of 12 different animals that make up a 12-year zodiac cycle. These animals include Rat, Buffalo (or Ox), Tiger, Cat (or Rabbit), Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Each year corresponds to an animal. The Heavenly Stems have 10 stems, which are ordinal numbers from 0 to 9. Each stem corresponds to an element of Metal Wood – Water – Fire – Earth with two consecutive stems having the same element. It would then take 10 years—each year is represented by a different animal—to complete a Five-Elements cycle and 12 years to complete the zodiac cycle. Because of this difference in cycles, the element of the Tiger year in the 10-year cycle can be Yellow Tiger, which can change to White or Black Tiger in the next 5-year cycle.

An understanding of the Earthly Branches and the Five Elements helps the artist paint the year’s zodiac animal according to feng shui principles and portray the characteristics associated with the year. The colors and structure can change to demonstrate the delicate movements of the universe. The late artist Nguyen Tu Nghiem belonged to the famed Sang – Lien – Nghiem – Phai quartet, the second generation of modern Vietnamese artists. Famous for his painted zodiac animals, Nguyen Tu Nghiem always studied the feng shui elements before applying lines and colors, and never merely recreated an animal’s appearance. Collector Tran Hau Tuan remarked: “The art of Nguyen Tu Nghiem has an intimate relationship with the style of folk art, religious art, etc., silhouetted by spirituality and colored by the vestiges of time.” (from The Art of Nguyen Tu Nghiem in the Thu Giang Collection).

"Ky Mao" (Cat year of 1999) painting by Nguyen Tu Nghiem

In Vietnam’s art scene, artist Pham Viet Hong Lam is also famous for his highly decorative sets of zodiac animal paintings. Some artists even devote themselves to creating complete zodiac collections. Vu Dinh Tuan’s wood-block prints were created over several years with many unique printed variations. When artist To Chiem paints zodiac animals, he often takes notes on each animal’s form and traits since these are its most recognizable aspects, before laying down his ideas for the painting. In preparation for Quy Mao (the Year of the Water Cat, celebrated in 1903, 1963, and now 2023), the artist Le Tri Dung introduced a collection of Quy Mao zodiac animal paintings in the colors of the Five Elements. According to Mr. Dung, folklore considers cats as esteemed mascots that bring luck and good things. Cats represent the virtues of persistence, perseverance, cleverness, and patience. Feng shui beliefs say they can even chase away evil! Le Tri Dung’s 2023 Quy Mao cat paintings celebrate family reunions, motherly love, and cats in the Five Elements. They convey wishes for a lucky and joyous new year.

"Cats of Asia" painting by Vu Dinh Tuan

With an understanding of how zodiac animals change according to the five elements, perhaps artists’ portrayals of them can be more diverse, in-depth, and intriguing. When studies of form are paired with an understanding of the Heavenly Stems and the Earthly Branches, as well as the mysterious transitions of the Five Elements, zodiac animal paintings may take on a prophetic aspect.

It would be interesting to present someone with a zodiac animal painting as a map of their fate. This would elevate a zodiac animal painting to a new level worthy of its true value.