Learn Chinese brush painting from the master

Straits Times journalist Olivia Ho takes up the challenge of learning traditional Chinese brush painting from master painter Tan Khim Ser, founder of Singapore Life Art Society. Will she be able to do well enough for an art exhibition?

I am staring at a splodge of black paint. In my mind's eye, it was a bamboo leaf, slender and arched. Instead, my brush slipped and now here is the splodge, squat and dark on the cream paper.

Beside me, veteran painter Tan Khim Ser's brush dances across the paper, dashing off leaves and dragging to form shoots.

Mr Tan, 75, is giving me a crash course in traditional Chinese brush painting. It is a taste of the classes that The Straits Times (ST) and the Life Art Society, of which he is president, are offering next month as part of the ST+ news with benefits programme for subscribers.

At the two-day course - worth $400 - Mr Tan and other society members will teach 100 participants how to paint bamboo, lotus, little fish, goldfish, orchids and dogs, since it is the Chinese Year of the Dog.

At the end of it, participants will get to display their works in a charity exhibition, which will also feature pieces by Life Art Society artists. Proceeds from the sales of these paintings will go to the ST School Pocket Money Fund.

I have not done much painting in my life, unless you include walls and floors. Being exhibition-ready seems a distant prospect for me at this point in Mr Tan's Tiong Bahru studio, labouring over my haphazard bamboo.

"Painting good bamboo is hard," says Mr Tan kindly in Mandarin. "It is said to take 100 years, and then only if you practise every day. You're not doing so bad."

Veteran painter Tan Khim Ser has been teaching painting for 50 years.
Veteran painter Tan Khim Ser has been teaching painting for 50 years. ST PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI

  • BOOK IT / CHINESE BRUSH PAINTING CLASSES WITH MASTER TAN KHIM SER

  • WHERE: Singapore Press Holdings News Centre, 1000 Toa Payoh North

  • WHEN: June 11 and 18, 10am to 5pm (participants must attend both days). To sign up for a place before May 21, download the SPH Rewards app, look for the giveaway in the "Rewards" section, save the deal to your e-wallet, press the "Go to website" button on the "Details" page and tell us why you want to take up Chinese brush painting. Participants will have to buy a painting kit on-site at $50 from the Singapore Life Art Society.

Mr Tan, whose signature subjects are his angel fish and crystal lotus, founded the Life Art Society, a non-profit organisation to create greater awareness of local art, in 1972. It now has 650 members from all walks of life.

He has been teaching painting for 50 years and estimates he has instructed thousands of people - now, including my hapless self.

After struggling through small fish and lotus - in which I produce what looks like two orange commas with eyes and a muddy assortment of water blooms - I begin to hit my stride with goldfish.

Things are beginning to make sense to me - how to twist the brush to produce different strokes; the way each subject is distilled from a profusion of details in reality into the barest assortment of lines; and the use of negative space. Although, honestly, I am not doing so well on the negative space.

"Your fish are king-sized," notes Mr Tan, as my strokes sprawl hopelessly across the paper despite my best efforts to rein them in. "It shows that you have a lot of boldness," he adds generously. "That's your quality."

He hopes his classes can lower the barrier of entry for laymen, who might otherwise find the art too daunting. "I would like everyone to be an artist. To be an artist is Singapore is not so easy. People say you can appreciate art but you can't eat it.

"Singaporeans are not so good at appreciating art because those with knowledge of it are few. There is a great need to promote it, especially among the younger generation."

At the end of the day, I still do not feel anywhere close to being able to paint for an exhibition. But as I watch a day's worth of paintings dry, it no longer feels impossible. A feat surmountable, perhaps, with a lot of practice.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2018, with the headline 'Learn Chinese brush painting from the master'. Print Edition | Subscribe