The Story Of Gavin Aung Than, Founder of Zen Pencils, Seems To Come From An Inspirational Comic Book

In The House

A young Australia-based graphic artist, after eight years of being in an uninspiring job, wakes up one day, decides to quit and takes the big risk. He grabs his pencils and draws cartoons, making everyone fall in love with his colourful portrayals. A kid, whose childhood was immersed in comic-strips and comic-books and who soaked them all in like a sponge. Here’s, the founder of Zen Pencils, Gavin for you.


Gavin Aung Than Zen Pencils


I am a guy working for industry big shots for 8 years, the job makes me feel “safe and stable”. I am great with cartoons, and I love following quotes by some phenomenal people, especially those by Theodore Roosevelt. Why in the world, would I quit everything and start a blog, considering the risks? Was there something missing?

Yes, something was missing. My job was safe, stable and paid well, but was also boring, monotonous and unfulfilling. My whole life I had dreamt of being a cartoonist and had been trying to get my comics published or noticed online. It was going nowhere. I was going nowhere. So I wanted to try to do something bold and creatively fulfilling while I was still relatively young.

What if I am someone who hasn’t worked in the industry at all? Suppose, Gavin, we go back to 2002-03. I am guessing that’s when you graduated. Then if you had a chance, would you have started Zen Pencils right away?

No, I wasn’t ready then. Even if I had the idea for Zen Pencils, I wasn’t skilled enough or web-savvy enough. It would have failed. I was meant to start Zen Pencils exactly when I did, my years of work experience and cartooning practice were essential. You always pick up useful knowledge on the way to your destination.

You have said that your parents did not approve of your choice of career. How did you convince them or manage a settlement? How do they feel now?

Like many Asian parents, my mum and dad would have preferred me to become a doctor, lawyer or an engineer. It was drilled in me from a young age that I was expected to go to college and get a good job. I know they were just looking out for me and didn’t want me to live a hard life economically, like they did. I always loved drawing. My dad was a printer so he had lots of paper in the house which I could draw on, but my drawing wasn’t encouraged very much - it was always seen as a nice little hobby, but no one, including myself and my parents expected me to make a career out of cartooning. Because I showed promise artistically, they encouraged me to go into architecture. I wasn’t interested in that, but I fulfilled my ‘good son’ obligations and went to college, studied design and got an acceptable, steady job as a graphic designer. They trusted that I knew what I was doing by the time I wanted to start Zen Pencils, and were worried but knew that they had to let me do what I had wanted. Now, of course, they tell people they knew I would be a cartoonist all along and that I get my talent from their genes!

A short video about Zen Pencils created by Another Beautiful Story

Are you thinking of creating something in a graphic-novel format involving stories from the lives of a selected few famous personalities over the years, TR? And will you venture into famous movie quotes and dialogues to increase viewership?

Not at this stage. I’m very happy with the Zen Pencils format at the moment. I don’t do any quotes to ‘increase viewership’. Creating something to please other people will not be your best work and will make you hate yourself.

Could describe the entire birth-cycle of a piece of art you create. Everything, from thoughts to technique. How much time does it take?

I usually read the original quote over and over again and then just carry it in my head for a few days. I’ll think about it while I’m doing other things or start doodling until an idea comes to me. Once I have a general idea for a story, I’ll sketch it out very roughly and then keep refining it. Once the final drawing is done on paper, I scan it in and then add the words and colour on the computer. For a complete look at my process, you can check out my ‘cartooning process’ blog posts on the Zen Pencils website.

What is the best story/ experience that you have heard from your fan who got influenced after reading your cartoons?

There are so many wonderful stories I hear from readers – I can’t name just one favourite. There was the most recent reader of the month, who was suffering from depression and bipolar disorder. He said one comic, in particular, helped save him from suicide. Another guy from Malaysia was inspired to open his dream café and decorated the walls with Zen Pencils posters. A young man from India was so motivated by the Ithaka comic that he quit his job and went travelling, then returned home to open his own travel agency. These are just a few stories that come to mind.

Bill Watterson has been your inspiration, right? “You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood.” And “Here I am, waiting for the bus. Eleven more years of school to go. Then college, then maybe graduate school, and then I work until I die.” are some of my favourites. What are your most admired ones of his work, apart from the one you use to describe your passion?

Again, it’s so hard to name just one. I think his whole 10-year run was of an incredibly high standard. It’s just an amazing body of work. I do have lots of other cartoonists I admire, but yes, Watterson is definitely up there at the top.

Back here, in India, art is hardly considered as a career. The element of risk has to be always kept the minimum. People who try to break the chains or venture out don’t get, erm, let’s just say support from family and friends. What would you like to say to the ones who are trying to follow their passion or have thought so but lack the courage and motivation?

I don’t want to give people a false sense of hope or the idea that it was easy. There’s so much fluff online at the moment about ‘living your passion’. Look, I was in a privileged position that a lot of people are not in. I had a house I could sell, which gave my wife and me some financial security for a while as I got Zen Pencils off the ground. It was very scary, but I had support from my wife and I knew that if it didn’t work out, I could crawl back to my old job, tail between my legs. There are no easy solutions or shortcuts and your first attempt will almost certainly fail – I had started a number of comic strips that failed before Zen Pencils. It’s incredibly hard, requires you to work harder than you’ve ever worked before and sacrifice your social life, and possibly even some relationships. If you understand all of that and are still eager to try, then go for it. It was the best thing I ever did.

The Bill Watterson quote which Gavin finds similar to his own story

Gavin at the World Domination Summit in 2014

The Ones We Like The Most:

Sir Ken Robinson: Full body education 

Ayn Rand: The question 

Richard Feynman: The universe in a glass 

Christopher McCandless: Into the wild 

Amy Poehler: Great people do things before they’re ready 

Chris Guillebeau: 11 ways to be average 

Louis C.K: We don’t think about how we talk 

Alan Watts: What if money was no object? 

Sophie Scholl: The fire within 

Kevin Smith: It costs nothing to encourage an artist 

J.K. Rowling: The fringe benefits of failure 

Dean Karnazes: There’s no struggle in our lives 

Carl Sagan: Pale blue dot 

Philippe Petit: Impossible is possible 

Calvin Coolidge: Never give up 

Hunter S. Thompson: The happier man 

Neil deGrasse Tyson: The most astounding fact 

Muhammad AlI: A true champion 

Neil Gaiman: Make good art 

Phil Plait: Welcome to science 

Shel Silverstein: The Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas 

Robert H. Goddard: The rocket man 

Rudyard Kipling: If 

Theodore Roosevelt: The Man in the Arena 

Robert Fulghum: Inconvenience or problem?

Take me to Zen Pencils Archives