Journey To Becoming A Full-Time Artist

Journey To Becoming A Full-Time Artist

“I have been asked typical questions like ‘how long did you take to finish this piece of painting?’ And as always, I would reply ‘25 years and a few hours’,” said Ng Woon Lam.

In June 2008, a chanced visit to a fine art gallery in Tanglin shopping center, Singapore – gave me a glimpse of an artist’s 25-year journey to becoming who he is presently; a full-time artist, a fine art advisor and also a gallery owner who has sold hundreds of artworks mainly in the United States, South Africa and all over the world.

Li Fine Art is Ng Woon Lam’s gallery which have been representing established 2nd and 3rd generation Singaporean artists namely, Ang Ah Tee, Ong Kim Seng, Tong Chin Sye, Teng Nee Cheong, Ng Woon Lam (himself), Koeh Sia Yong, Tia Kee Woon, Wee Shoo Leong, Khor Ean Ghee, Lok Kerk Hwang and many other renowned local artists.

“Do you buy paintings ?” was the first question I asked Woon, upon stepping into his gallery while he was painting. With an expression that reckoned if this question came from a fine art novice, he answered, “Yes we do, but we determine the value of paintings based on the national and international recognition of the artist; practically we showcase artworks and paintings and don’t purchase them.” This ‘unusual’ answer had somewhat brought awe and disappointment to my expression, or whatever most emerging artists could name it, as I was reminded of how my artist friends have their works rejected by galleries that are not willing to purchase them, irregardless of how good they claim their works to be.

Seeking to be enlightened, I probed further, “wouldn’t an artist’s skills be the most important criteria of assessment for his paintings to have commercial value? I think the artist’s skills are reflected very clearly by his/her painting – just looking at it can make one realize the level of skills.”

Woon replied, “Our gallery promotes the works of artists who have traveled a very long journey of unwavering perseverance and determined pursuit for their artistic endeavours to becoming full-time artists.” This reply instantly changed my perspective to positively look at rejection which an artist can get. Enlightened, I said, “I appreciate your gallery’s endeavours, as I suppose that there is no shortcut to an artist’s journey in getting his or her success of being recognized. Well, can you recommend some gallery spaces that exhibit works of emerging artists?”

“I’ve to admit that it’s often not easy for their works to be accepted by most galleries, and if new artists are really serious to become successful as full-time artists, they have to possess perseverance, strong passion and knowledge that develop great skills in producing quality artworks, which possess the merits to be showcased in their solo exhibitions worldwide. In fact, I took more than 20 years of honing my painting skills before my dream as a full-time artist could be fulfilled.

“My journey to becoming an established artist is a process which took years and prior to that I didn’t have a formal qualification in fine arts.  Four years ago, I was in my 10-year engineering career that could support my family. My journey to becoming a full-time artist is a process that have involved passion, focus, perseverance and discipline; every evening after work, I would return home to paint. For 20 years, I have refrained myself from watching movies and even TV shows because I believe in dedicating my spare time in realizing my dream which I has since I was 12. While I paint as much as I can in my spare time, I seek to acquire more knowledge of improving my painting skills through reading various art books and painting everyday. Among the many art books I have read, there are several art history books that could comprise over 1000 pages. As you can see, honing my painting skills is like a continuous journey which requires passion, hard work and patience,” said Woon, originally a Malaysian who relocated to Singapore at an age of 21.

Woon’s dream was beginning to be realized in 2006 (through 2007) when he participated in several exhibitions, winning several national and international awards (see Exhibitions and Awards).

His paintings were also accepted to be showcased in The American Watercolor Society’s International Juried Show and The Oil Painters of America.

“I learnt a lot from local artists especially artists in Singapore Watercolour Society. My most important mentor here was Mr Gog Sing Hooi, late president and founder member of Singapore Watercolour Society,” Woon adds.

Chicago by Ng Woon Lam

Chicago (29"x21"), Watercolor on Paper

In 2004, Woon received partially sponsored bursary from the National Art Council to study fine arts at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago then New York Academy of Art from 2005 to 2007. Over there, he observed how the institution and the country have placed strong emphasis on the education of young children in nurturing them to become artists. Art education and facilities have been offered free to young children – part of the country’s strong focus on developing the creativity of children in their young age.

Since then, Woon lived with his wife in the US for about 3 years and during that time, they have sold many paintings – and Woon even joked, “the UPS guy almost became part of our family.” His paintings and articles have been featured in art publications (as listed below). His most recent article, ‘seeing with fresh eyes’ was published in International Artist (April 2007 issue).

In 2006 with a vision to promote the works of Singaporean and Malaysian artists, as well as nurturing local talents to gain success in their art journey, Woon returned with his wife  to Singapore to run their gallery (at Tanglin) and teaches private painting classes.

Subsequently I found myself enlightened by an insightful conversation with Woon, especially his positive outlook of the Art market where artists (of any race, levels, age and nationality) can be offered equal opportunities to receive sponsorships and worldwide recognition for their works, as long as they demonstrate great skills, discipline, passion and determination in producing quality artworks. At the same time, he has also maintained his realistic views on the opportunities for success in the art scene, by not giving artists-to-be the delusions they can obsess themselves into.

To Woon, creativity is truly about having the right skills, good judgement, strong knowledge and capability in producing artworks with the aesthetics that invoke high level of appreciation, high quality print, and speed as well. He believes a good painting has to be worth the value the collector is paying for – the correct painting process and high quality art materials must have the remarkable quality that can self-preserve itself to last a life-time, besides being just a painting that has satisfied the senses.

One of his notable works that was awarded 1st Prize by Singapore Art Society in the 2007 National Exhibition, is ‘Animals Crossing Brooklyn Bridge’.

Ng Woon Lam Painting

Animal Crossing Brooklyn Bridge, 29"x21" , Watercolor on Paper

It was a story of an MTA (New York City Transit) strike in the winter. It was about 0 degree C. Mayor Bloomberg walking across Brooklyn Bridge together with many New Yorkers to get into Manhattan to work. That was featured in the news. The animals here represent the diversity and richness of New York culture. That kind of well reflects the great success of New York art scene.

In Woon’s other painting ‘Singapore River and Reflection’, he designed the direction, size of the boat together with the placement and different intensity of the reflections. The complex interaction of each subject matter here allows a viewer’s visual sequence to happen according a properly planned speed and direction. Therefore, whichever angle or corner, a viewer enters the image, will still lead his/her vision sequentially across the whole composition. “This is the power of visual language,” said Woon who believes that a painting process involved a lot of understanding of visual process and sequential behaviours of a viewer.

Woon’s words ‘25 years and a few hours’ is not for the faint-hearted but a statement of inspiration, which means “25 years of effort and perseverance in learning to achieve the speed of producing one great piece of painting in less than 2 hours,” – and an encouragement for those who are determined to leave their careers someday to afford a transition to becoming full-time artists.

Singapore River and Reflection, Watercolour on Paper, 53cm X 73cm Private Collection

Exhibitions and Awards
Year 2007

• Artworks were auctioned together with 3 other artworks by Mr. Khor Ean Ghee at Raffles Raffle Charity for Elderly 2007
• 1st Prize Award in Singapore Art Society National Open Juried Show 2007
• New York Academy of Art, Master of Fine Art Diploma Show 2007 at 111 Franklin Street, New York, NY 10013
• New York Academy of Art, Copy of old masters’ paintings in Metropolitan Museum Exhibition
• American Watercolor Society ( AWS ) 140th Annual International Juried Exhibition 2007 — Jury of Selection : Janet Walsh, Louise R. Cadillac, Lalit K. Masih, Barbara Nechis, Stve Rogers (Invited Juror), Jada Rowland, at Salmagundi Club, 47 Fifth Ave, New York City, NY 10003 from March 27 to April 22, 2007
Venice Impression
Watercolor on Paper

Year 2006
• Painting selected for New York Academy of Art ‘Take Home A Nude’ Exhibition and Auction Show in New York – hosted at Phillips, des Pury & Company. The artist donations are curated, and juried headed by Eileen Guggenheim
• Work on Paper — Drawing Show curated by Professor Edward Schmict at New York Academy of Art
• American Watercolor Society , 139th Annual International Exhibition Jury of Selection : Janet Walsh, Judi Betts, Nessa Grainger, Mel Stabin, Betsy Dillard Stroud, Alan Wylie (invited juror) and Travel Shows.
• Louisiana Watercolor Society 36th Annual International Juried Show
• San Diego Watercolor Soceity 26th Annual International Exhibition 2006 and won tbe C2F/ Connoisseur Art Matercial Co. Merchandise Award
• Watercolor Art Society of Houston ( WAS-H ) International Show 2006
• Oil Painters of America ( OPA ) 15th National Juried Exhibition of Traditional Oils 2006
• California Watercolor Association 38th Annual National Juried Exhibition


Never Let Me Go – a tragic dystopian tale


Watched ‘Never Let Me Go’ last night. The film was memorable to me due to the heartwarming acting and story idea. I have agreed with a review that it is beautiful and haunting but find the ending seemed too tragic to appreciate.

Watching the film has brought me tears though the story idea of creating clones to be donors is not a new idea. Even if the story is meant to be just a dystopian fiction, I will not support any idea of creating a clone who can be a human like us and has to donate his/her organs just to save us from dying – this is as good as murder in my personal opinion.

At one scene when Miss Emily, the headmistress of Hailsham boarding school, told Tommy and Kathy that the love deferral for couple has never existed. My instant reaction to her answer was anger and disbelief – and for a moment, I felt that she and Madame should be tried for even being partly involved in some inhumane and murderous experiment, although the creation of that school and fate for clones might not be according to their own wills (i.e. they could just be employees or participating in an experiment to research if clones have souls and feelings or just to raise clones as future donors to their sponsors). They explained that the Gallery is created to challenge the ethics of the creation of donors, and if clones have souls. Miss Lucy, the form teacher of Kathy and Tommy was actually fired for revealing the truth about the fate of the clones whom she taught.

I suppose the creation of donors is still much debated today (one of the issues could be the big question on ethics), while the scientists are currently researching on the possibility of using stem cells as a means to extend the human lifespan or cure critical illnesses. If the existence of evil and good clones is possible in the hypothetical sense, I personally still feel that they deserve to live on as long as they want, just like anyone of us (whom I feel has no right to dictate that a ‘real’ human should deserve more to live than a clone should). Perhaps Kathy (the protogonist of ‘Never Let Go’) says it all about my opinion on that; in the movie when she was contemplating the ruins of her childhood, she asked in voice-over whether her fate is really any different from the people who will receive her organs: after all, “we all complete“.

I personally appreciate Kazuo Ishiguro (author of Never Let Me go) and Caspian Tredwell-Owen (author of the Island) for creating such meaningful story ideas that challenge the ethics of organ donors’ creators.

While I can’t say that ‘Never Let Me Go’ is a fantastic film since this is subjective, I’d say it’s a recommended watch. It’s a successful movie and story in my personal opinion, since it had effectively brought some viewers to tears, as well as some reflection about one’s will to live lingering on their minds.

Budget Luxury Trip – Episode 1

Beaches, nature, great food, night markets and a myriad of dazzling shopping options are what makes Penang an affordable luxurious getaway. The colorful Georgetown, the beaches at Batu Ferringhi, the skyscape overlooking from Penang Hill, mystifying Kek Lok Si….. make Penang one of the ideal choices for photographers who just need a budget trip to make fascinating sunset and landscape shoots.

Shopping in Penang and Cost of entire trip (inclusive of accommodation and travel fares)
A 3-day tour of Penang can cost as low as S$250 provided if you are careful with your wallet. Learn to bargain whenever you are shopping and are tempted to make any purchases, you can expect to be quoted any price for certain items – so do not look desperate. Some vendors may jack up the price if the tourist demonstrates a sense of urgency in buying the item especially electronics goods like film or battery for his/her camera or phone.

Gastronomic Delights Exceeding Expectations
Foodwise… can expect to be spoilt for choices of good food. During my first trip to Penang, food there exceeded my expectations if I compare that in terms of taste with the food I had in Thailand, England, Paris and Zurich. Of course, my definition of Penang food being more delicious can be very subjective. This could be perhaps relates to my 33 years of growing up with the South East Asian cuisines in Singapore – Penang offers a different version of laksa, char kway teow, dim sum, wanton mee, etc. What had fascinated me about the food in Penang is that their tastes are not so generic. Penangers tend to be creative in adjusting the taste of their food, in contrast to the similar, bland kind of taste you can get in Singapore where many different stalls can produce the same generic taste of laksa. And if you are a coffee lover, you’d be very delighted by the taste of Penang coffee which tends to leave your tastebuds wanting more. Generally, coffee is a must-try in Penang whether you are a frequent coffee drinker – Penang is well known for good coffee.

The Fascinating Aroma of Roadside Stall Penang Coffee

Penangers seem to love drinking coffee. Coffee is served almost everywhere in Penang and at anytime of the day. Good quality Penang coffee can often be found at small roadside stalls, mobile hawker centres, coffee shops, clubs, hotels and even at fine dining establishments. Coffee is drunk to wake up, to get a lift during the day, before and after meals, and also during the wee hours of the day at numerous 24 hours cafes and restaurants.Due to the unique roasting process, the type of coffee popular with Penang coffee drinkers can only be found in Malaysia, Singapore, and parts of Southern Thailand. Traditionally, the coffee beans are roasted over a wood fire roaster. The combined roasting and caramelizing process produces a special aroma with the right degree of bitterness and body much revered by the local coffee drinkers.

As cited by a Wikipedia source that Penang is situated amidst the greatest Robusta coffee producing regions in the world, namely Sumatra and Vietnam, Penang coffee is naturally primarily Robusta based. The quality of Robusta beans does vary tremendously over the regions, and the best Robusta beans, feeding upon the enriched volcanic soil near the Krakatoa volcano, can be found in the Lamphong District of Sumatra. It is also the same area where Kopi Luwak (reputed to be the most expensive coffee in the world) originates.

If you are looking for a good time to visit Penang, I would recommend Chinese New Year which is the only time of every year when Kek Lok Si lights up and looks colourful.

Penang Hill
Another attraction to visit is Penang Hill – this one was very memorable due to my experience of going up to the mount of the hill which is really very high above the sea level. Kek Lok Si, Penang Hill, Botanical Garden and Batu Ferringhi are within a rather close proximity to one another – and they are must-visit places in my opinion. I’d spend more time in Batu Ferringhi and Penang Hill if I get to go to Penang again. I have to admit that my tour of Kek Lok Si was the most exhausting one, since it is the largest temple in South East Asia and did took me and my friends the whole day exploring it and taking photos of the decorative lights till 11:30pm when all the public transport stopped operating and we had to get help from a police station to find us a taxi to send us back to our accomodation in the Hutton Lodge.

Batu Ferringhi
(Description coming up)

Moments of life in a Soap


Artist Highlight: Paulo W. Tamburella
Written by Cindy Chak

Elderly man sitting still

Elderly man sitting still.

An elderly man seated on a stool facing a bucket of water under a tree flooded by 12000 soap bars, has roused much attention from onlookers to stop and spare a few minutes to observe what this performance is about. Some continue to look on and take pictures out of amusement or curiosity. The expressionless face of the man and his still posture, undisturbed for minutes to almost an hour, is definitely perturbing. Those who noticed this stillness might be left pondering for the message that this art installation seeks to communicate, with the expressionless face and motionless state of an elderly man, surrounded by 12000 bars of soap – all under a tree.

Motionless as the man might seem to be for what can seem like several minutes to almost 30 minutes – that takes on your patience. But hang on if you are about to leave.

Elderly man bending down to rinse a towel

Elderly man bending down to rinse a towel.

Unnoticed (at random times), he bends over the bucket in front of him to pick up and rinse a towel to cleanse himself. Instantly after this series of motions, he is back to his expressionless and motionless state. This whole cycle could randomly reoccur in repeated motions. What does this tell you? Or you might even reflect on how this action relates to some part of your life that has been recurring everyday, even causing you to develop apathy from repeating the same series of motions daily.

As I reflect longer on the elements of the installation with a still performance, I not only realize how much it really relates to certain stages of a person’s life, but also find myself discovering the philosophical inspiration of the artworks created by Paulo W. Tamburella, the artist who orchestrated this performance-based art installation known as ‘Fei Zhao’ (soap in Chinese).

Despite the fact that his participation in Singapore Biennale 2008 is only his first stint in Singapore, where he is staying for barely a month, Paolo has reflected his remarkable grasp of the hectic, activity-driven Singaporean lifestyle, through his ‘soap’ performance-based installation as well as his natural ability to inspire enthusiasm and team spirit amongst his art assistants.

On a nice Saturday evening having coffee at The Coffee Connoisseur (TCC) back in September 2008, I interviewed Paolo with an attempt to decipher the story from his ‘Soap’ installation. According to him, the installation seeks to ponder on the effects of consumerism over nature, involving a human role being caught up by the cares of the world that encompass materialism, daily consumption of available resources and random repeated actions that transcend youth and time.

Cindy: How did you start your arts career?
Paolo: I started by chance with no formal education from an arts school, I was in London and find myself living in a place with many artists and so I started to work in the arts. I also created crafts or art installations out of fun when I was a kid. Then I was invited to do a show in 1994 and then this becomes my job.

Cindy: What is your specialty area?
Paolo: Art installation, performance and sculpture but I work also with video. I like to work with different media. I believe more in ideas and process than in having a speciality.

Cindy: How did you participate in Singapore Biennale, and were you inspired to come here?
Paolo: I was invited to exhibit my work here. And since arriving here to work on my installation, I have felt very well here. The work that I’ll realize will be a performance based installation featuring an elderly man sitting under the tree inside the yard, surrounded by a flow of soap bars that would be joined and shaped together.

Cindy: Why do you choose soap as the medium to work with to complete your installation. What impact does it have on your installation, or what role can it play in your installation?
Paolo: Soap is a very common material that many people in the world consume in their lives, and it is symbolic of the mundane human actions that are recurring.

In order to create a stronger expression of the human actions (accumulated in time), I try to use as many soap bars as possible to surround the man and the tree. This installation seeks to reflect on the cause, process and effect of Consumerism that involves our daily activities and their residue. While the role of every soar bar is to represent the moments of life, it also symbolises the traces of what we left behind from our actions.

Cindy: What important role would the tree play in your installation? What are the important elements of your installation that communicate your idea?
Paolo: As the focus is on the relationship between human actions and nature – so the important elements are the tree, the man and the soap. Representing nature, the tree is a strong element, and even visually, a beautiful element.

My idea of the installation is to create a controversial performance that could leave the observer pondering on the influence of Consumerism over us , while it revolves around our lives. The performance is also a reflection on our lives that are at times mind-boggling: if we find balance or conflict (clash) between having to deliver and staying still in the middle of all that soap (or moments of life.)

Inactivity is also an important part of the equation – the expressionless face and motionless posture reflects inactivity. Inactivity could probably be a time of reflection for some who will question what are they doing with their actions, for instance, is washing a simple process even if it is an ordinary action? What do we consume in the process of doing something? And what should we achieve from our actions? And how much attention we give to our actions? And how many times do you do things that you don’t even realise?
My installation also relates to humans making things that leave traces (represented by pieces of soap) behind.

Cindy: Among your many interesting projects, they tend to reflect on you as a well-informed, philosophical, enthusiastic explorer of various exotic cultures other than your own, particularly reflected by one of your art projects called ‘The Football Hunters’ that was realized in India in 2006.

Paolo: I work in an international context. My work relates often to places I visited. The project in India for instance was a real adventure. I travelled for 40 days on a truck, looking for punctured soccer balls. To look for soccer balls was a way to explore Indian society. To analyze the different way Indians, especially in the rural areas, keep objects that in the western countries would be trashed away immediately. The final result of
that project was a big patchwork made of 400 soccer balls opened and stitched together and I also filmed a documentary called
‘The Football Hunters’.

‘Fei Zhao’ for instance, tends to relate more to a very activity driven society in Singapore, with the strong emphasis to deliver or achieve something, and on getting social acceptance. To add to the relevance, a local man is chosen to play the role of the elderly man. The idea is to create something controversial that questions if we let things consume us, or if we consume the things. For people in their activity-driven lives, can they find the moment of inactivity to reflect on their actions if they have consumed something, or if their actions (or moments of life) have consumed them? Or do they give attention to what they consume or what consumes them?

Cindy: Why do you pick an elderly man instead of a young man to play the role?
Paolo: The elderly man symbolizes time and how time is witnessed by the traces we leave behind, such as soap bars.

Disclaimer: This article has been rewritten for further clarity by the original author, who had her previous version published in the Singapore Biennale 2008 Newsletter –