Artist Tan Choh Tee turns to still life painting in the pandemic

SINGAPORE – Oil painting master Tan Choh Tee has switched to painting more still life since the Covid-19 pandemic started two years ago.

While he used to travel around the world to capture different landscapes about four times a year, the pandemic has kept the 2006 recipient of the Cultural Medallion award in Singapore.

Now, Tan, who turns 80 this year, finds inspiration around his house and studio. Vases, glassware, fruit, flowers and garlic cloves all come to life with his masterful strokes.

His fans can find a collection of both his old and new works, comprising landscapes and still life, at his upcoming exhibition at gallery Nanman Art from April 30 to May 25. About 30 pieces will be on display.

Though he is revered for his landscape paintings that have become a historical record of Singapore’s cityscape, he has moved on from depicting locales such as Chinatown and the Singapore River. “I do not want to paint the same scenes again and again,” he says in Mandarin. “Numbness will set in.”

Even when art collectors request another work of the Singapore River, he remains unswayed by commercial demands. He stays true to his artistic belief that one has to be stirred by something before it can appear on canvas.

“Singapore River is not the same to me any more,” he says. “It does not trigger any strong feelings in me now.”

While the old buildings and street scenes had much soul, the modern skyscrapers today all look the same, with little colour, character and charm, he adds.

He started learning sketching from famed artist Liu Kang in 1958. In the same year, he enrolled in the part-time refresher course of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa).

In 1960, he began studies in the Department of Western Painting of Nafa, where he was taught by pioneering painters such as Cheong Soo Pieng, Georgette Chen and Lai Foong Moi.

After graduating in fine arts in 1962, he joined the then famous Far East Publishing House of McGraw Hill, doing binding, layout and illustration for 13 years, while still sketching on Sundays or when on vacation.

He painted the sights and scenes in various parts of Singapore, but soon found it hard to catch up with the country’s rapid development. Buildings and shops were vanishing faster than he could capture them in his paintings.

This led him to quit his job to be a full-time artist, even if it was hard to make his passion his livelihood in the early years.

To further improve himself, he went to Beijing in the 1980s to study oil painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts.

He is still evolving after more than 60 years of honing his craft.

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