Mr Tan Choh Tee is a famous Singaporean oil painting artist and winner of the 2006 Singapore Cultural Medallion. Born in Shantou in 1942, he came to Singapore in 1955 and loved painting since childhood. In 1958, he started learning sketching from Liu Kang on Sundays and enrolled himself into the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). In 1960, when his father passed away, Choh Tee moved out of the big family and lived alone and supported himself. In the same year, he officially entered the Western Painting Department of NAFA and was taught by some pioneer painters like Cheong Soo Pieng and Georgette Chen. Knowing he was on part-time work and study, Soo Pieng introduced him to an antique shop at Orchard Road for copying painting, and the remuneration fee for one piece was about a few dollars.
Later, Tan joined McGraw Hill Far East as a book designer for 13 years. He would go out to sketch every Sunday or on holidays. The place he visited most was Chinatown. He painted the Singapore River, Chinatown, Amoy Street, Joo Chiat, Katong, Rochor, or Serangoon, the old warehouses, grocery stores, coffee shops, roadside stalls, and kampongs in places like Little India and Lim Chu Kang. Streets had been renovated and old buildings demolished, his paintings have now become memories of local people. The recording speed of the brush could not catch up with the rhythm of urban development. Old shops disappeared overnight, the indescribable pressure eventually made up his mind to be a full-time painter who would spend every single day painting.
It wasn’t until nearly 10 years ago that his life improved substantially. There was a saying in the art market: pay the painters who are still alive. In Singapore, the art market is relatively small and the road to success is more difficult. Even a famous artist like Tan, who finally enjoyed due honor, status, and earnings in his life, had gone through a bumpy road for long, stumbling like walking on thin ice. He once said, “To become an artist, you must have perseverance, with the spirit and determination at heart and a strong sense of mission. Otherwise, there will be no chance.”
Tan’s paintings may seem dim and fuzzy at first sight. Upon careful observation, one may see that they have some kind of inner light, distinct layers, and clear textures, which hide rich connotations and infinite mysteries.
His transition from Impressionism to Expressionism is natural and taken with serious consideration. Also, he has a special sensitivity and preference for color and attaches great importance to the grayscale concept. In his still-life paintings in recent years, in addition to increasing the arrangement of background colours to enhance the atmosphere and to guide the tone of the works, he also carefully avoids the effects of light and focus. In addition to visual cohesion, the main tone tends to be downgraded. The objects in the painting are deliberately structured according to the subtle feelings of the painter. The red, white, and even a few vague Chinese characters, as well as the used paint pinched by fingers, are all expressions of forbearance, with a little bit of self-splitting, insertion, and extraction as well.