“I hate chips,” the Melbourne-based watercolour artist and teacher Dawn Tan says of the salty snack that often features in her work.
“I think it’s really funny that people love chips and I’m like, ‘Eh’. That’s why I paint it.”
The delight Tan draws from the irony of painting a food she dislikes points to the playful disposition she’s known for. Effervescent and positive (“I’m all sunshine all the time”), Tan is impossible to dislike—mostly because she herself is so eager to please, in the most complimentary sense of the expression.
“I guess I paint chips because I think people like them,” Tan says.
“The inspiration for a lot of stuff I paint comes from [my husband] Darren and his love for all these weird foods that I don’t like. I just paint it because he gets so happy. And I'm like, ‘OK, I'll paint it—for you, for you’.”
Tan’s generosity in her art also manifests in her work as a teacher. Sharing her distinctive watercolour style in classes for both children and adults, teaching art is something that gives her as much pleasure as the act of making art itself.
“I kind of found myself teaching unexpectedly and realised, ‘Oh, I actually really like doing this’,” Tan says, her eyes widening.
“I really liked this feeling of, ‘I’m so tired after a whole day of teaching kids. My hair’s dirty, my whole body is covered in paint—but I’m happy’.”
But it’s this natural inclination towards sharing her craft that has come back to bite Tan in some devastating ways. She’s not shy about expressing her disdain for shameless copycats, exhaling dramatically when the topic is raised. A particular source of ire? A former student who launched an illustration business using Tan’s distinctive style and subject matter, and with whom she now finds herself competing.
“It took me a long time to get over that,” Tan sighs, adding that people have suggested to her that she ought to consider abandoning her art teaching enterprise. It’s an idea she’s quick to veto.
“I’ve been criticised in the past when I’ve shared too much, but I just love sharing! That’s the thing—I love sharing a lot.”
This is an understatement that’s perhaps most evident in the existence of her career itself, which Tan credits to her online visibility and word of mouth reputation.
“People found me because I was sharing my work, mostly [through] my blog,” she says.
“Even when I was 16, 17, I was constantly putting my work out there.
"That’s why sharing is important!”
Hailing from Singapore, Tan moved to Melbourne in 2008 to pursue a fine art degree at the Victorian College of the Arts. She quickly found her place—and, of course, Darren—both of which keep her firmly rooted to her adopted home, an Edwardian cottage in Yarraville that doubles as her studio and classroom.
Tan’s dreamy, sketchy aesthetic has held her in high demand since graduating from university more than half a decade ago. She quickly built a following thanks in large part to her graduation project, a series of soft, large-scale food sculptures. It all came to a head around five years ago when illustration agency Jacky Winter Group signed her. Since then, her work has featured in titles like Frankie Magazine, Smith Journal and Hooray Magazine, the latter of which featured her work on its issue 12 cover in June last year.
Tan’s path seemed mapped out from an early age, when she first showed a strong inclination towards art. Hailing from a creative family, the young Tan was imaginative, entrepreneurial and excelled at art—selling handmade zines, completing commissions and holding small art shows—amid claims she was “bad at pretty much every other subject” in school.
“Coming from an Asian background, if you’re not good at studying you’re pretty much doomed for life,” Tan jokes.
“But I think because my parents understood and were surrounded by creative people within their family, they thought, ‘OK, let’s let our daughter explore art’.”
Besides, she says, “I don’t know what else I would do!”
Despite Tan’s relatively quick rise to prominence, she grapples with fear and self-doubt—traits she insists are common among artists.
“Even as a very established artist, you sometimes think about things like, ‘I’m releasing this bunch of new works, I’m not sure if people are going to like it’, or what people are going to think,” Tan says.
“There’s always all these fears—will people buy my work? What happens if I have an exhibition and no one comes? What if no one buys my art?
“But I just go for it anyway. If you dwell on it too much or worry about it, you never get anywhere.”
She adds: “It’s good that I have a husband that just tells me to go for it!”
And her hopes for the future? For now, Tan is happy with her modest lot in life.
“I hope I improve in my skills. I want to be a better teacher, a better painter,” she says.
“But I’m content with what I’m doing now. I don’t really want to change that for being a big-shot artist.”
Virtual pep talk
“Put your work out there. Advertise yourself and be shameless. I promise it won't hurt!
“Just go for it. Just do it. If you hesitate, if you worry too much, if you think too much, doubt yourself too much—you’ll never get anywhere. You’ll become very sad and very sour, like a plum. If you just do it—just do it—nothing is going to kill you.”