Becoming an artist in Singapore often means taking the road less travelled. But to do so amid an ongoing pandemic means taking a road never travelled, and calls for an artist ready to overcome unprecedented difficulties.
Singapore-based artist Tunku Khalsom, who has been painting all her life, started selling her art through her company TKA (Tunku Khalsom Art) Pte Ltd two years ago.
Ms Khalsom studied Art at her A-Levels and Interior Architecture at university, but decided to pursue the former as a career after admiring the artwork created by fellow artists on Instagram.
"I kept seeing all these amazing artists on Instagram, creating these incredible pieces, and selling them," she says.
"I've always loved creating, no matter what it is, and I thought to myself, I'd like to try that." And so she did.
Bringing her childhood into her art
Ms Khalsom started with small art pieces, incorporating bold and colourful expressions inspired by her childhood in Malaysia. This approach became her signature style, and these bold colours soon made their way across larger canvasses and projects.
The artist, who is half-Malay and half-English, was born in Johor Bahru and grew up in Kuala Lumpur. She moved to Britain in 2000 and lived there for eight years, before settling in Singapore later in 2010.
"Having had the opportunity to live in a few different places," she says, "has helped open my eyes and expose me to different cultures."
"Growing up in Malaysia, especially, has been an inspiration for my work. Everything there is so vibrant and alive - the people, the food, the jungle, the beach," she adds.
"That's something very prevalent in my work, in my use of colour."
But her current home Singapore, too, has impressed her with its architecture and lush greenery.
"Art may not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of Singapore, but look at how beautiful this country is. Everything is designed with an aesthetic in mind. It's hard not to be inspired when you're surrounded by such amazing nature and design in such a small place," she muses.
As she worked on larger-scale pieces, she began receiving commissions from collectors from all over the world who discovered her work through Instagram.
Invitations to exhibit her work from galleries in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur started to pour in, leading to greater exposure, and even more clients.
Within the short span of two years, Ms Khalsom has sold paintings to collectors in Britain, the United States, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Brunei, Philippines, Australia, and Greece.
Since most of her commissions come from Instagram, Ms Khalsom prioritises the popular social media platform to engage her audience.
"Most people like to know a little about where their art came from. So, on my page, you get to see videos of me at work and also snippets of my life, which I think they appreciate," she says.
Despite launching her career during the pandemic, Ms Khalsom says the journey has been "pretty great" as she gets to work from her home studio and manage her own time. Displaying and selling her art digitally also means that she can easily connect with customers and art-lovers all over the world.
"It also helped that people were not spending money on travels, so some of that went into improving their homes, like investing in a beautiful art piece," she says.
She has since presented a number of solo exhibitions, and is currently creating new pieces to be showcased at Gardens by the Bay in the coming months, her biggest project yet.
The paperwork behind the painter
However, with success comes new challenges. She soon found herself grappling with shrinking floor space as her art pieces got bigger, as well as facing difficulty in purchasing certain art supplies. These hiccups, though, pale in comparison to her biggest challenge: the sheer amount of administrative paperwork she has to deal with.
Being an artist is often over-romanticised - not many consider the mundane paperwork behind the painter.
Post-sales documents from clients and suppliers that had to be input manually in a spreadsheet became too labour-intensive and took her away from creating art.
"If I didn't keep on top of things, I'd find myself with a whole stack of invoices and receipts to input. It wasn't fun," she adds.
It was then that Ms Khalsom recalled how her previous company had used cloud accounting software Xero for their own accounting purposes, and decided to turn to it as well.
Today, she relies on Xero to help her keep track of all sales and expenditures, managing cash flow across different currencies. The software also generates her business invoices automatically, while keeping lists of clients and suppliers for quick reference and recall.
Says Ms Khalsom: "It's now easy to stay on top of everything that is coming in and going out, as Xero imports all data automatically. This makes it simple to get my books ready for my accountant to file at the end of the year."
An artist of the modern world
Equipped with features such as the easy scanning of receipts and addition of invoices into accounts, many small- and-medium-sized enterprises use Xero for their accounting purposes.
And since the cloud accounting platform enjoys direct feeds to major banks in Singapore, Xero allows businesses to keep track of their receivables and payables more easily - without having to pore over bank statements. This does away with a lot of the manual data entry and book balancing often required with business transactions.
And as Ms Khalsom has experienced, Xero keeps track of payments from various platforms and in different currencies - a great benefit especially for businesses operating in multiple countries.
"Whether you are taking payments directly from a bank, or PayPal, in Singapore dollars, US dollars, or any other currency, it's all visible on one dashboard," she explains.
Ms Khalsom can now focus on expanding her business in the coming years. Her goals are rightfully ambitious: to share her art in more corners of the world.
She also plans to offer more "affordable" art pieces and collectable prints - which will be sold in higher quantities, unlike one-off, unique pieces of artwork. Using digital software will make selling art in larger quantities much more manageable.
Her advice for other artists? Find whatever it is that sets your work apart from everyone else's.
"Art is such a subjective thing, not everyone is going to like it, and that is totally fine," she shares.
"Put yourself out there, meet new people, you never know when you might meet someone that will give you an amazing break."