Doug Saball of Unity started painting before he could spell, creating art by copying images in his father’s Field & Stream magazines. He is a newcomer to Chinese brush painting, however, and he came to it in an unusual way.

“My goal was to learn Chinese painting as a form of stress release,” he said.

Saball is an Environmental Specialist II for the state’s Department of Environmental Air Bureau. Last fall, he was among the state employees and retirees selected for the ME First wellness program, which helps those at risk for health problems take positive steps to improve their health. In addition to painting, Saball is taking tai chi classes at a gym and has changed his eating habits. In the months since starting the program, which has a large component about nutritional eating, he has lost more than 100 pounds.

“I have already cut down several meds in half and might get off them, according to my doctor,” he said.

While the way he eats and exercises is a big lifestyle change, making art is not. As a child, he won many a county fair award for his art works. He remembers having colored pencil picture contests with his cousins during family gatherings.

“Art and creativity run in my family … my grandfather and great-grandfather made violas, violins and cellos in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” he said.

Saball must have inherited some of those musical genes as well, as he plays guitar, mandolin, fiddle, practice-bagpipes, tin whistle and, for Society of Creative Anachronism events, a historical replica of the Sutton Hoo lyre. The weak economy has put a damper on his playing out, but he has kept his hand in the visual arts over the years. In 2001 and 2002, he and his oldest son Jonathan Saball of Searsport created entries for the Belfast Bearfest. The first, “Brookie the Bear,” got the top auction price of $2,600 and currently resides at Anglers Restaurant in Searsport.

Saball’s decision to try Asian brush painting was informed in part by his college years studying under Leonard Craig at Unity College. He graduated in 1983 with a bachelor of science degree in environmental science.

“If I had continued for one more semester, I could had a bachelor of art in fine art/watercolors. But I didn’t have the extra $8,000 for the semester,” he said.

Saball said he has been interested in Chinese brush painting ever since he saw TV’s “Kung Fu” as a teen. Last year, he investigated some supplies through, but found them inferior. Searching the Internet further, he came across the California-based Oriental Art Supply. He used some of his income tax return to invest in an artist set, chip colors, brushes and sample rice paper.

The Huntington Beach store is managed by Christina Ja-Shin Yeh-Panza, daughter of Ning Yeh from China who, as a young child, learned his family’s tradition of Chinese brush painting. Last summer, Yeh-Panza offered a 100 Sheet Challenge, wherein participants purchased 100 sheets of their selected rice paper for a study project and painted everyday. There are more than 100 different types of rice paper to chose from, said Saball.

“With Ja-Shin’s help, knowing that my project would be trees, waterfalls and landscapes, she sent a variety of sample rice paper. I chose the ‘ma’ rice paper designed for landscapes,” he said.

He also acquired some step-by-step books in Asian brush painting from OAS. He discovered an affinity for the gong-bi “fineline” style of painting, which is very labor-intensive and highly detailed.

“Each painting took me about 40 hours, plus the Chinese style of ‘wall paper’ mounting with thicker rice paper at two hours each and cutting and matting for an additional two hours each — total about 44 hours each,” he said.

A final bit of detail is applied via a traditional chop, a carved signature stamp that Yeh designed for him.

“I carved the seal/chop out of soapstone I got from the Common Ground Fair. The design is the Chinese symbol for ‘spring,'” said Saball.

Saball finds his landscapes close to home, albeit taking a little artistic license along the way. His “Spring Falls” painting depicts seasonal waterfalls about two miles behind his house, in the woods. They say that writers should write what they know, and Saball’s similar approach to his subject matter has paid off. Earlier this spring, “Spring Falls” won third place in its category in the OAS art contest; another painting, “Spring Blossom Trees,” placed first in the public-vote contest.

“Under advisement of the store manager, I entered the beginner class since I have not painted ‘Western’ watercolors in over 18 years. Plus the Chinese style is totally different from what I have done in the past,” he said.

Saball, a born-again Christian who also attended New Brunswick Bible Institute near Houlton, said his artistic ability comes from God and that he does not embrace the spirituality associated with tai chi, which was recommended by his doctor as a way to stretch and relax.

“I must say that I am fascinated with the Asian culture and their dedication to family, which could be utilized in the United States,” he said.

With incentive money he received from ME First for his success thus far, Saball recently purchased some authentic “silks” for his tai chi practice. He said his job is likely to be cut in the new fiscal year, so the wellness lessons learned thus far may become even more important.

“For me, the meditation (on the Bible), tai chi and art help me cope with life’s stress,” he said.

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by email to