Arts News Singapore

Art What!: Aaron Gan on winning the 2015 UOB Painting of the Year and the practicalities of being an artist

When Aaron Gan participated in the 2015 UOB Painting of the Year competition, he did it to prove a point – that watercolour as a medium had a future, and deserved a greater level of respect. When he ended up winning the Gold prize for Painting of the Year (Established Artist Category), his point was more than proven.

“When I was a kid, I always liked animation and also Chinese art, and at home, we always had a few pieces of Chinese paintings hung on the walls,” he says. “I was always very good at copying and replicating say, Looney Tunes characters, and in fact, I’m completely self-taught. Now, I’m still trying to further my craft and forge new ways forward, challenging the norms of the medium.”

Unlike typical artists however, Aaron has a fiercely practical side to him, having graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Western Australia in 2003. Even if he had given up a corporate career to pursue art full time, he knows that the artist life remains a struggle, and never minces his words in our interview.

“I fully recognise it’s rarely sustainable to be a full-time artist in Singapore,” he says. “How do I know this? Just ask your friends how often they buy art. The likelihood is already low, and repeat sales even more so. Imagine how many paintings you need to sell just to make a living wage for yourself, and that’s not even counting how much you need to spend on materials and other costs. How can an artist survive?”

“And in Singapore, the only contemporary artists we talk about are either from overseas, or older local artists. Hundreds of art students graduate each year, yet we continue to talk about the same ten artists over and over.”

Starry Starry Night, which won the 2015 Gold prize for Painting of the Year (Established Artist Category)

Pessimism aside, Aaron is thankful for the opportunities that winning the prize has netted him. “Winning gives you a huge opportunity, from exposure to the prize money, but not many people know how to take full advantage of that opportunity,” says Aaron. “It’s sort of like being given an F1 car as a prize but having no idea how to drive it, which ends up in a lot of people crashing it. For me, I was lucky that I had a lot of stars that aligned that gave me a stream of support to make the most of it.”

“You have to think about art like an independent business, where you have to market yourself and your work to the world,” he adds. “It’s easy to become an artist but hard to sustain it, because you really need to put yourself out there and sell yourself to all these galleries. At the end of the day, you do need to find a path that works for you, whether you want to be recognised, or you want to make money, but you can’t force people to accept you and your work.”

“I do think it’s not impossible to succeed in the arts, the system works, but it’s a very narrow path that only so many people can reach, and it’s important that people thinking about pursuing it as a career are aware of the potential pitfalls,” says Aaron. “To me, what’s most important is that an artist builds up his base and recognition. It’s like dropping enough anchors and making enough connections that you become established in the art world and keep the momentum going.”

While Aaron sees himself as practical, others might instead perceive him as a sellout, with a large number of commissions under his belt, from works for government bodies, to corporate clients. “As long as someone is willing to buy my work, by all means. Even if it’s a commission, if it serves a purpose or brings joy, why not? Not everyone has the opportunity or ability to do that,” he says. “Anyway, collectors are very understanding, and everyone knows you have to make a living, and have to do what you can to survive.”

“My advice to young artists out there: money is not the endgame, but how much money you have or earn will affect how you play the game,” he concludes. “There will always be a sacrifice involved, whether it’s money or your own integrity to your work, but for me, the priority has always been to ensure I make enough to take care of my family, because only then can you pursue your dreams without financial pressure.”

View the full gallery of winning UOB Paintings of the Year here You can also visit the UOB Metaverse Art Gallery. More information available here

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