Leicester-based artist Aaren Zhai has captured his daily life with his Welsh corgi MiTuan in a charming series of illustrations that any dog lover will be sure to identify with.
Titled Hi! Mituan!, the series depicts his first real pet as an adult. And given that Aaren has spent a lot of time and energy with her since she came into his life, it makes sense that MiTuan would become an adorable subject of study. "She was there for me during many difficult times," says Aaren. "She was an emotional support for me, which made me want to draw something for her."
Unlike a conventional drawing, though, these illustrations play with scale. Aaren himself shrinks down while MiTuan balloons up. This reflects the fact that while in real life, MiTuan relies on her own, Aaren's inner world is actually intricately tied up in her well-being. "In the illustrations, the tiny me often lies on her body and draws energy."
Bought from a doghouse in 2017, MiTuan is now six years old. Although, as Aaren suggests, she did not have the easiest of starts. "When I first met her there, she was being stepped on by her siblings and had a helpless look on her face, so I took her home," he explains. "As she has gotten older, my friends think she has a very similar personality to me, which I now think is wonderful."
Perhaps this similarity is unsurprising once you see how close MiTuan and Aaren are in their daily life. Everything from daily walks to games of tug and war is documented in the illustration series, as well as how she stares at him while eating and patiently waits for him to go to the bathroom. "I wish I could document more of the details and feelings of my life with her; they are cosy and gently wrapped up."
Another part of the success of the illustrations lies in Aaren's art style. Although he finds it hard to define himself, his friends are quick to praise how unique and flowing he appears. "My styles often change from project to project, as if they were customised for each one. But in terms of the mood underneath the image, they are relatively uniform, probably because I want my work to convey a sense of peace and fun."
Beyond these illustrations, Aaren has also created a comic strip themed around the seasons. "Instead of documenting real life, the comic series takes everyday life as a starting point and adds some imagination to make the stories more enjoyable and interesting to watch."
When creating his illustrations and comics, Aaren normally writes down some keywords for a scene in a memo. These then turn into drawings when he gets the chance. "I also take many photos and videos of MiTuan when I spend time with her, such as her movements and gestures, to reference when I draw."
However, one key element of MiTuan is curiously missing from the illustrations: her eyes. "I think the eyes can express a lot of feelings, happiness, sadness or something else altogether," says Aaren. "I was trying not to limit the viewer to the image, and I hope they can understand them based on their emotions at that moment.
"I've also received a lot of comments from people saying that they feel peaceful and joyful after seeing the project, and most of them who have dogs feel that they get a lot of empathy out of them."
With the series going down so well with dog lovers, Aaren is keen for the series to continue. In fact, he sees it going on forever. "This is because it is based on my love for MiTuan and the memories of living together.
"I hope to be able to expand the story in more forms and let more friends join in the party. It would also be great to jump away from everyday life and hopefully extend it into something more fantastical. I would like to draw for comics, a form of expression I'm really enjoying right now. And for the Hey! Mituan! series, I've already made some products such as self-published zines, calendars and prints."
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