Painting with Measured Strokes

A career in the visual arts has long been stigmatised as a job with low prospects and erratic pay. How then does one become a successful professional artist? Dr Chew Kim Liong, a contemporary Chinese painting artist, tells us how it can be done.

By Clara Chua

Singapore is becoming a city of possibilities. Once upon a time, artists were perceived to be “struggling street performers”, people who relied on the goodwill of others to make ends meet.

These days however, people realise that an artist is more than that. The arts scene in Singapore has witnessed remarkable changes in recent years. Various institutions such as the National Arts Council (NAC), Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), LaSalle-SIA College of Arts actively woo young talent and nurture them into the next big thing.

The launch of Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay, the Singapore Tyler Print Institute and The Arts House at the Old Parliament, mark a sea-change in public attitude towards the arts. It’s clear that Singapore now actively seeks to become a vibrant hub for artists from any part of the world.

From mathematics to art

However, local contemporary Chinese painting artist, Dr Chew Kim Liong, points out that an arts career in Singapore has long been possible — it’s simply a road less travelled. He is himself a good example of an artist who turned professional long before the government’s push to promote the arts.

Other distinguished artists have also helped to pave the way, such as Cultural Medallion winner, Ong Kim Seng, who is famous for his skill in watercolour paintings. Thomas Yeo, Choo Keng Kwang, Chua Ek Kay, Wee Beng Chong and Iskandar Jalil are also prominent examples of successful professional artists.

“The key to success for any painter,” stresses Dr Chew, “is to build an impressive portfolio and identify your niche area — that is very important.

”Dr Chew’s particular niche is his creation of a unique style that integrates Mathematics and Art. This is an unusual approach to art that Dr Chew is uniquely qualified for — his first degree is a BSc(Hons) in Mathematics from the National University of Singapore.

In fact, Dr Chew once taught Mathematics at secondary schools. Even then, he never abandoned his dream of becoming an artist. “While I was teaching the sciences full-time, I carved up a separate career in the arts,” says Dr Chew, who is now the Dean of NAFA’s School of Visual Arts.

He pursued a PhD in Fine Art (Research) at the prestigious Goldsmith College in London, and has the distinction of being the first artist in Singapore to hold such an advanced qualification.

East meets West

The creation of art is not a dry intellectual process. Dr Chew points to the importance of cultural awareness, philosophical understanding, aesthetic study and a general knowledge of both the sciences and the humanities.

He strongly believes that a healthy dose of sincerity is vital. “Who you are as a person ultimately transpires in your paintings,” he says.

His passion for art started when he was still a young boy. “I had the pleasure of spending my childhood in an isolated rural community situated at the edge of a jungle in Johor Bahru. As a village urchin, I spent part of my early life doodling images of nature and animals in the sand pitch by the stream,” he recalls fondly.

Dr Chew also recalls how he first learnt to write using the Chinese brush during his early years in school. As a result, he developed a strong affinity towards this “marvelously versatile Chinese cultural tool.” This was the beginning of his fascination with Chinese painting that carries on till this day.

He combines calligraphy and painting, incorporating traditional art practices and contemporary art processes, blending the East and the West, all the while seeking a harmony of form and spirit, past and present.

Technically, Dr Chew strives to achieve controlled, yet harmonious, splashings of varied Chinese ink and colours. He creates a rich mix of dry-wet, dispersed-concentrated, bright-dark and light-heavy effects by using a self-developed technique of “pigmentising-and-alumising” heavy colour created with a mixture of colour flakes from mineral and vegetable sources.

Painting for a living

When asked about how much a painting fetches, Dr Chew replies that “painters typically get between hundreds to thousands for a piece of work.

”Furthermore, depending on the size of the work, the medium used, and the artist, some paintings can easily fetch tens of thousands if the artist meets a collector who is willing to pay the price.

Dr Chew sells a lot of his works through public exhibitions and word-of-mouth recommendations, and his clients include public organisations, private collectors and restaurateurs.

So much effort goes into the start and finish of each work of art that Dr Chew takes great care to ensure that they would all end up in good hands.

“I prefer not to sell my paintings to complete strangers,” he explains. Over the years, he has compiled a large database of his art collectors. “It is important to know how each of my artwork is being treated.” Furthermore, not all of his paintings are for sale. “Sometimes I paint for friends and ex-students and give them away as gifts for weddings, house-warming, etc.”

His success did not come overnight. It took several long years for Dr Chew to build his profile as a professional painter. He won his first accolade in 1986, and continues to receive praise for his innovative works today.

One particular highlight in his career came in 2000, when the Cape of Good Hope Gallery approached Dr Chew to put up a solo art exhibition. The exhibition was entitled: In between Natural Figuration and Spiritual Abstraction. Besides adapting ancient pictographic writings into representations of pictorial forms, Dr Chew also used the unusual technique of layering mathematically positioned strips of papers to the paintings, to create illusions of three-dimensional space, virtual matrix, as well as paintings within paintings.

Today, he is sought after as an arts consultant, a visual arts resource panelist to various organisations including NAC, and judge of numerous national and international art competitions.

Advice for young artists

Dr Chew’s advice to young artists in Singapore is to “get yourself schooled formally in a well-established institution such as Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.” NAFA, as well as LaSalle-SIA College of Arts, offer relevant courses that prepare them for a career in the arts. These institutions also actively engage industry partners to help showcase the artwork of graduating students.

“There is nothing more important for an artist than putting your works out on display,” emphasises Dr Chew. Exhibitions and competitions are valuable platforms for artists to get recognition for their talent. When you’re still young and unknown, such opportunities come by only very rarely, so you cannot afford to let any one of these potential breaks slip away.

Such platforms include the Singapore Art Awards sponsored by the Philip Morris Group. This competition takes place once every two years. There is also the annual painting of the year competition organised by the United Overseas Bank Group to showcase local talents.

Always be versatile

He is also a big believer of humble beginnings. “Start small. Don’t be overly ambitious, or disappointed that your career did not turn out the way you’ve originally envisioned.”

“It is important to remain versatile and adapt to the world’s ever changing demands,” continues Dr Chew. For example, although his works have traditionally being framed and hung, he is open to having them featured on the Internet or printed on mugs, textiles and wrapping paper.

“While striving for uniqueness, an artist has also to be versatile. Approach the world with an open mind and allow your audience to appreciate what you have created from their own point of view.”

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