Aaron Gan’s Inspirations

In 2015, Singaporean Aaron Gan’s “Starry Starry Night” became the first ever watercolour artwork to clinch the Gold award in the UOB Painting of the Year competition.

This emerging largely self-taught artist walked away with this honour by creating a painting that arose from a complex web of inspirations that took 30 years of his life to weave. The first drew from his childhood fascination with looking at the stars.

“One of the philosophies of star gazing is about having the surroundings very dark to see the stars. Like my army days in outback Australia at night, where when I put out my hand, I couldn’t see my fingers,” adds Aaron.

Then there was the distinct memory of doing very badly for an art exam during secondary school, where the topic was on similarity as inspiration for a painting, and Aaron had then decided to make a nice picture by painting all his squares exactly the same.

“I didn’t understand why I had failed until 5 years ago, when another art teacher said this theme meant painting the same subject matter in contrast of, say, texture,” he elaborates.

So now knowing that his secondary school art teacher had not understood what he was thinking then, and had not bothered to find out why he had done so, Aaron became determined to make “Starry Starry Night” into a watercolour with all its squares exactly the same.

This resolution was further cemented by a self-imposed challenge: to not conform to what the art community preaches about avoiding painting subjects with square shapes at all cost, and about enthusiastically embracing those composed of triangles and circles.

“When I want to make a break through, I make things even more difficult,” beams Aaron. “So I set myself yet one more challenge: I aimed to shatter the 2nd basic art principle of avoiding the center composition and of using the ¾ one instead.”

That he thrives on trying the new to push boundaries can be seen in his daily choice of paints and brushes; picking those he has not previously worked with.

“Each blue has uniquely different pigments and minerals. So I don’t know what the painting will look like (as I don’t know how) the new blue will react with the other colours, or how it will react when it makes contact with the paper,” Aaron explains.

This constant unexpectedness means that he himself has had to react as he paints, honing his instinct in the process to a point where he is able to say today, “Give me any brush, give me any colour. I can make it work as I go along, as I already am the brush. Like the swordsman being able to survive without the sword as he is the sword.”

This philosophy of applying watercolours as a cultivation and reflection to look inwardly, to turn himself into a brush has meant improving by leaps and bounds in the way he wields this basic art tool.

“In the beginning (my art) was very raw and yet powerful. In my 2nd year, it became quite refined. You can see that (my brushstrokes are) more controlled (as) I know when to let go,” Aaron shares.

Through the 3rd and 4th years, he has come to achieve technical competence in bringing into reality the visions that have all along been in his mind; ones that 5 years earlier, he would have had no clue of how to execute.

“With watercolours, you can literally see the brushstrokes. And most of the time the one stroke that makes the painting is the last stroke that goes onto it,” Aaron further confides. “And most artists would dread putting that last stroke for fear it would damage the whole painting. So they hesitantly do it while I do mine with growing confidence.”

Yet his brushstrokes are not the only area in his artistic practice that has dramatically evolved. His enduring love for Chinese ink paintings had firstly inspired him to watercolour in the long scroll format for his 1st solo exhibition.

“It (had given) me a lot of compositional freedom, as I like painting emptiness and peace, the Zen part. With the traditional square or rectangular format (in western watercolours), the emptiness is harder to bring out,” Aaron clarifies.

Even then his earlier art were more westernized; like a westerner putting watercolours into a Chinese painting format. Now his watercolours have taken on a slightly more ink painting style as well; shifting marginally more into the Chinese aesthetics.

But his paintings remain un-Chinese by destroying all notions of what the subject should be; depicting dancers, the chef, the streets, buffaloes, fish, birds, raspberries, grapes, papayas, mushrooms – cutting geographical boundaries in the process; all for the fun of making life as art.

“And by choosing what I have not painted before, I can improve my art,” adds Aaron.

His choices are taking watercoloured paintings anywhere and everywhere they have never been to too, which he attributes to the mixed experiences of living life as a Singaporean, with its accompanying exposure to many different cultures. For one, by being Chinese, he knows how to aesthetically and emotively paint the emptiness. And as a 2nd result he loves Chinese culture; reading a lot on Tao, Zen and Confucianism.

At the same he likes reading a lot of things foreign – be it Hinduism, Islam and many other religions and philosophies; or manga through all its Japanese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong-ish and Korean forms; anime; and cartoons and comics like Garfield, Calvin and Hobb, Spiderman and Batman. Thus exposing him to many different visuals.

Then there are the life encounters that build Aaron’s character. Like the one where he sees his mum-in-law feed the cats every evening, and of the one stray who goes up to her 15th floor each day to eat and drink. Watching that kitty jump up on the window sill made him wonder if it would be thinking of fish. And so he was motivated to paint the whimsical “Look! A Fish!”

“Aaron paints a lot of different styles and genres, and everything under the sun. But when I look at a group of paintings by different artists, I can pick the ones done by Aaron Gan,” says one Singapore-based collector of his works of art.

“That’s because I throw myself into the painting. Every brush stroke represents me – the weird way I use the space, the strokes, the rawness, the colours while controlling the aspects – all allow you to see me inside my art,” Aaron makes clear.

His choices are driven by his Chinese belief that “paintings must be joyous, something positive to put at home as symbols of prosperity, abundance and good feng shui” as well. Hence, his works are definitely not about social commentary, nor about challenging the notion of what art is in contemporary society.

“Many in general are about finding hope, light and happiness in the darkest hour; something where people will be happy to come back home to,” Aaron emphasizes.

Hence, in his upcoming 5th solo show, “Joy”, with UOB, his Chinese style monochromatic watercolours have innately progressed into giving liberal splashes of vivid colour to the naturalistic background, while keeping the central character, which represents you and I, in black and white – all as gentle reminders that when we are truly in such beautiful surroundings, we too should “stop and smell the flowers”.

Delight in immersing yourself in such artistically inspired happiness at Aaron Gan’s “Joy” exhibition at UOB Art Gallery, 80 Raffles Place, Singapore 048624 from 1 September to 3 October 2016.

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