Hong Kong Homies is a series where we get deep real fast with Hongkongers.
Benson Shum, painter
My family is from Macau, and we came to Hong Kong in the 70s. I’ve liked drawing since I was little — I always enjoyed art classes — but my family was poor and I didn’t go to a good school, so there was never a chance for me to cultivate my interest back then.
When I came to Hong Kong, I got a job. Since I was earning a stable income, I started paying for amateur classes in sketching, painting and subsequently more advanced classes in perspective drawing and life drawing. After that, I enrolled in some part-time art courses at Open University, but they later cancelled the program.
After that, the university referred us to a distance learning bachelor’s degree program in interior design, so I signed up. From the program, I learned about the history and the many styles of western art and experimented with different techniques. We would get a lot of assignments every week, so after work, I was always busy researching and trying to come up good ideas to put into art.
I would say that through the vigorous practice, I had an artistic breakthrough. I gained an understanding about beauty in general, beauty in interior design, and perspective drawing. But I never finished the program because my parents got sick and I had to focus on taking care of them, which left me no time to make art. I was only a year away from graduating.
During that period of time, I met the master of oil painting, Wong Chung Man. He’s very established in the field and is the chairman of the International Fine Art Artists Society in Hong Kong. The government asked him to join in the meetings on the West Kowloon Cultural District when they were planning it. I never formally became his student or took any lessons from him, but he was very fond of me and so he let me follow him around to paint.
We go around Hong Kong to do life drawings on the weekends, very often in Kowloon Park because there’s always pretty trees and flowers to draw. We spend the entire day there until we finish our painting of the day. He shares his wisdom and thoughts on art with me — things he doesn’t tell others. I’d say I’ve absorbed his teachings very well too.
You can learn a lot of drawing techniques at school or from textbooks, but when it comes to the mastery of colors — for example, the way that colors are influenced by sunlight — it’s something that words cannot explain. Master Wong would give me some pointers, but he would tell me to meditate on them and try to understand it in my own terms.
When I mix colors, I don’t necessarily try to achieve the exact same shade that I see with my eyes — when inspiration comes, a concept develops in my head and I will just go with it and create the painting according to my inspiration. I’ve gotten a lot better at it playing around with colors, but it is an aspect of art that you can spend your whole life working on and never perfecting.
I like life drawing because there’s so much more life in the process of creating and in the final product than if you draw based on a photo. Art is a form of expression and so when I see something beautiful, I process it in my mind and try to translate it into art. Beauty is what I pursue when I’m making art — the kind of subtle beauty you perceive from the heart and that I want to enlarge through my paint brush. To me, creating art has nothing to do with social activism or politics.
Despite being passionate about my art, my job has never been art-related. Art has always been something I devoted my time to after work. Even if I were to start now, I’m too old for anyone to want to hire me now anyway. The market prefers younger designer — though I believe many don’t have the artistic foundation that I do.
But honestly, you simply can’t earn a living as an artist in Hong Kong. The city doesn’t value artists. There’s generally a twisted attitude in Hong Kong where kids are enrolled in art classes during the summer because parents think it will be enriching for them, but when exams come, they make their kids stop so that they could focus entirely on their studies. There are many people like me who only rediscover their passion for art years later.
Even though there are more art galleries and exhibitions nowadays, there are still so many different art forms that need promoting — like Chinese opera or experimental art. There isn’t a lot of budget left for us painters. Our generation of artists rely on each other to share studios or classrooms to get together and paint.
A few days ago, the master told me that working hard to earn a living at a job that isn’t my passion doesn’t mean that I don’t belong to art. The money that I earn working hard can be used to sustain my passion. Life is not ideal, most people don’t get to work in jobs they love.
My parents didn’t realize I could paint well until I painted a portrait for my mom where she looked gorgeous. I’ve also gifted a painting of some rocks in Australia to my brother who’s living there. I came across a really nice landscape when I was visiting, but I didn’t have the materials to draw it then, so I took a picture and started painting when I got back to Hong Kong, and then mailed the finished work back to him.
Recently, I painted a landscape of Peng Chau for my nephew who lives there. Everyone in Peng Chau was clapping that day when I was working on it. I’m quite pleased with the painting myself. The scenery itself was very nice, but a nice painting also involves a number of other factors. Anyone with basic skills in art can draw out a scenery, but something would be missing without inspiration guiding you. That’s when everything falls into place and you discover more to put into your painting. I haven’t given it to my nephew yet though ‘cause I want to put it in the [International Fine Art Artists Society] exhibition this July first.