I met the bubbly watercolour artist Dawn Tan when I was in Melbourne, and what a thrill it was! As a full-time artist with a part-time job teaching children art, she hails from Singapore but now calls Melbourne home. She’s a sweetheart for meeting with me on short notice (it was Chinese New Year eve) and we hit it off instantly! Read on to know more on how she started her teaching career as a gutsy 16 year old, and how her conversations with her mother resulted in the scrumptious watercolour food paintings that she’s well known for. You can follow her on Instagram (where I guarantee you’ll turn green with envy at her adventures!), and do check out her website for more of her in-person workshops and classes.
I was swooning over the pictures you took on your recent trip to New York! How was it?
I wish I was still there!
Right from the start, my husband Darren and I knew we wanted to go to New York for our honeymoon. We were even more sure of our honeymoon destination than the wedding venue itself! We wanted to go there for the artists, the makers, the studios and shops. Funnily enough though, we didn’t see enough small shops. We couldn’t find them over there because the place is so big! Unlike over here where the good stuff is clustered along streets (like Gertrude street), theirs is really spaced out and far in between. A lot of locals mentioned there wasn’t a street or neighbourhood that has a centralised indie shopping street. But we did managed to go to a few studios at Dobbin Mews like Odette (and I bought a few pieces!) and also MCMC Fragrances. I followed Jennifer of Odette on Instagram and it was great to see her studio to chat with her! I love her work, and have been a fan for many years.
I also managed to meet up with Helen Dealtry – I bought a scarf and had a great time talking to her. We both run workshops and we were talking about the business side of it. It was so much fun!
How did you and Darren meet?
Darren came to Melbourne before I did. He completed his studies here and then he started working. We met at a pre-departure briefing at university; he was a senior and he was giving out advice to juniors who were about to go to Melbourne for studies. He was also my neighbour at my student accommodation and that’s we got close. We started cooking together and that’s how we fell in love! It’s now 7 years since!
Was there a reason you decided to stay on in Melbourne?
I didn’t plan to stay! I’ve always thought of studying for 3 years and then head back to Singapore. But before graduating I decided I really liked it here. I love the culture, the lifestyle, and I felt that it would be a great place to raise kids. The school here has a lot more emphasis on play-based learning, while Asian schools are more geared towards rote-learning, like math and science. And while this may have changed over the years, I like the fact that in Melbourne the school system places emphasis on other subjects like sports, art, and music. Both Darren and I were not academically strong, so we both suffered a little under the system back home. For example, he wasn’t good in Chinese (a main subject in school) and I was terrible in mathematics and science. We were both below average and we don’t want our kids to feel the same way we did. Besides, I love the weather here too! While some might not like the unpredictability, I love it!
You do a lot of in-person workshops here. Do you do them anywhere else?
I did one in Singapore a few years ago. It sold out really fast. My family lives in Singapore so I just want to spend time catching up with them instead of doing work! Also there’s a lot of limitations when it comes to buying supplies. I can’t get them in certain places and it’s tough for me to haul them all the way from Australia. I like to have a bit of quality control when it comes to supplies.
You run your workshops from home. Tell me a bit more about it.
I did it from home because of convenience. I used to do workshops at different places – at Harvest Textiles (now defunct), at restaurants (they provided the ingredients and pizzas, we drew the pizzas!) and we managed to promote my workshops as well as promote the restaurant. We also did them at schools, but when I hold my workshops outside, I found that I had to haul along a lot of stuff. I like to show people my work, and not just the prints – I love showing the originals. So while prints and originals look alike, people like seeing the texture, water and layers. So I would have to carry quite a fair bit and traveling with such a heavy load is no fun and tiring!
Doing it from home just makes more sense. It gives me more time. I have classes set up on Saturdays so I’ll set things up on Friday (which is when I work on my freelance projects) – I’ll tidy the house a little bit and get things ready for the workshop the next day.
How did you get into teaching?
I come from a family of teachers, so I’ve always loved teaching.
I knew that I wanted to be a teacher when I was in secondary school. People used to tell me that there wasn’t money to be made teaching art lessons in school. So instead of going the academia route, I studied graphic design, just to see how it all goes. Turns out, I didn’t really like the subject at all – but I like talking and sharing. So after my course, I told my mom that I’d like to come to Australia to experience a different country, a different lifestyle and culture, and to bring back home new ideas. But while I was studying graphic design in polytechnic, I was already teaching in a Japanese art studio as an assistant art teacher part time. They didn’t pay me, but they provided me with transportation.
How did that happen?
I volunteered. I just walked in one day and told them that I was looking for experience and so would be alright if I came in to help and assist with some of your classes? They said yes, but then felt so bad because they couldn’t pay me! Imagine a random, strange 16 year old who just randomly went into their shop – with no experience and was just a total noob – and asked for a job. But after a few months they started to pay me and also I started to teach my own classes. And through that, I realised that loved teaching. I like getting my hands dirty. Children inspire me (and I hope I inspire them!) I find that it’s a nice feeling. So ever since then, I started teaching on and off.
I used to be a traveling artist who taught kids too. I’d go into a child’s home and basically give moms 2 hours of freedom to do their laundry, cook and relax while I’m sitting there with their 3-year old kids! I stopped because lugging around supplies was really tiring after a while, plus there were requests to go to places that were a little too far out.
I’ve had people tell me – if you work hard, and you do as many job as you can and earn as much money as you can, you can retire early. Which can be true, but it takes the joy away from doing things.
In terms of sharing and teaching art, I feel there’s a limit on how much I can do before your body gives way.
What’s your schedule like?
I teach art for children 3 days a week, I have 2 days where I concentrate on my freelance work and on some weekends I hold workshops for adults. So there’s that balance. There’s some who ask why not teach an adult workshop every weekend, so that you can earn more money? But they don’t understand that it’s tiring and I’d much prefer put my energy into creating quality classes and workshops rather than focus on quantity.
I also used to have a problem saying no. But over the years I’ve learned that your health is important. I was that kid who wants a spot on the deans list, so I said yes to anything. I had a partial disc protrusion because of the time I spent on art. Since then, I’ve had to be mindful of how I spend my time. My back is now my alarm clock – I can’t spend too much time sitting down because if I did, I couldn’t feel my legs! It just reminds me that I couldn’t take life sitting down – quite literally.
How did you discover watercolour and to decide to focus on it?
My mom and dad saw I liked art a lot, so when I was in kindergarten, I started doing weekend art classes. When I was 12 my teacher said we were going to do watercolours. She whipped out a set of fancy, proper watercolour paints and brushes. So I started to realise that watercolour is pretty cool. But I didn’t really like it art first. So for the first 2 years of my watercolour learning, I started painting still life set ups. I loved the medium, but every weekend we had to paint the same things. A bunch of grapes, a bottle of wine, draped velvet, all in different positions. And we would paint it over and over again. For a 13 year old it was pretty boring. On a Sunday too! I’d rather spend the weekend hanging out with friends. I love art, but I didn’t mind it, but after a while I hated it. I couldn’t do perspective drawing so still life was a nightmare. I started hating watercolour and stopped using it for a year and half after because by then we were learning about acrylics.
But then in polytechnic for my final year project I found my watercolour palette again and found that it was really good because I could use it quickly, and it dried faster compared to acrylics. And since then it stucked and I really love it. The more I use it, the deeper I fall in love with it.
How often do you paint?
I paint everyday if I can, except for Sundays. Especially when I’m not teaching, I can paint from morning to evening. My husband would come home in the evening and I’d realise that I had forgotten to cook rice for dinner!
Why did you start painting food?
The reason why I started painting food was because I rebelled against my mom. I was never a skinny child – she used to call me all the time and ask about what I was eating. Because of that, I started to draw the food I ate, on an A0 size of paper. My teacher at the art school I was at (VCA) said that it was great – not many people painted food so they told me to take the idea and run with it. They were really great at critiques and were very honest. I love being straight to the point and to be told me what sucked and what didn’t. They were very encouraging.
I was looking at a lot of works by Andy Warhol and I was also doing a paper on pop art and consumerism. So I was wondering a lot about food and what we consume – so that’s how it all started, back in 2009/2010. I couldn’t stop until now. I wasn’t even painting food when I was younger. When I was in polytechnic, my final year project was painting a children’s book based around animals!
Who inspired you when you first started?
When I was in polytechnic, I used to like Lisa Congdon’s work and also Kate Bingaman-Burt. The both of them were very cool. Both of them were trained in fine arts but their work had a very illustrative quality to it. It made me realise I could make a living out of illustration rather than having to paint portraits with oil paintings.
I find that art needs to me more interactive and funny, sometimes.
Like the David Shrigley exhibition.
Yes, exactly! That was so funny. The live drawing was so funny! I like that sort of stuff because it’s funny. So even if people can’t relate to it, it makes them interested in art.
Or at least question it.
Yes. Rather than just a painting. There’s nothing much to talk about.
Any artist who’s a favourite at the moment?
These days, I don’t have a favourite artist though. Recently, I’m inspired by the old masters, like Henry Matisse and his paper cut outs – I didn’t really like his work until I saw his exhibition in New York. It’s pretty cool because his mind is interesting. I like the way he thinks and how he mixes his colours. And also Quentin Blake because his art is spontaneous. I love spontaneity. I love letting my mind wander. It’s also why I love the school that I’m teaching at – their curriculum is based on letting your mind wander, and to let nature inspire you.
That’s why I always take my kids out to be inspired by nature. To be inspired by things you see.
What would be your advice who wants to get into watercolour to make it work?
Go for it and just try. Go out and buy books, or go to classes where people teach. Learn different styles of watercolours – there are different styles and techniques, and at the same time discover your own style. Like what I tell my students; I’m going to teach you the same things, I’m going to give you the same brushes, paint, and materials. But at the end of the class, you’ll all come up with different paintings. Not because of your skill, but it’s because of the way you hold your brush, the way you control the amount of water, and the colours you choose. It defines you and it’s your style. Be open to that and don’t be afraid to try.
My watercolour skills used to suck. It used to be cakey and dry. But over the years, I just kept trying. People always think that watercolour is difficult, because water flows everywhere. You just need practice. The more you paint, the more you’ll get better at it. You’ll know how much water to use, and that’s how you learn.
You’ll only get better the more you paint!
You’re happy where you are – was there any point in time where you wanted to become a full-time artist?
After uni I was working for myself for a year. I really liked it because I had a studio space and I was a morning person. I liked the life! I did a lot of work back then too. However, I was a worry-wart, and being Asian, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to sustain myself financially so I started looking for part time opportunities. I wanted a part time job as well because it can get lonely working in the studio by myself 5 days a week. So I started teaching and in many ways, I prefer the schedule and flexibility I have right now. In many ways, I am a full-time artist – and a part-time art teacher! I like being able to split my week up between my part time work and full time artworks. It helps my mind organise better.
Thanks so much Dawn!