“Immersing myself in art is like losing the edges of life and finding myself again at the end of it.”
-Dr Desmond Gan-
“Late Night Life”
When I first meet Dr Desmond Gan, it is clear that he is a private man, almost reticent about divulging his personal details. At the same time, his eyes light up when I ask him about his art. Here is one man who pours his heart and soul into every stroke onto the canvas, and despite his private nature, he loves to talk about his art.
Dr Gan is an artist, but he does not use old-school canvas and paints. His easel and canvas is his tablet, and the modern-day stylus is both his pencil and paintbrush. And yet, looking at his works, they can be hard to distinguish from those done the traditional way.
During my interview with him, my first question to him is: “Why do you draw? And colour?”
The moment the question leaves my mouth, I cringe inside, because I had forgotten what author Rick Riordan once wrote: “You might as well ask an artist to explain his art, or ask a poet to explain his poem. It defeats the purpose.”
And like other artists, Dr Gan paints because it comes naturally to him. It is a passion, a compulsion, an integral part of his being.
“Steve Jobs” (traditional drawing)
Dreaming the painting
“When I was young, my parents would take me to watch Disney movies at the cinemas,” he tells me. He developed a fascination for the movie posters displayed in the cinema. “I loved to scrutinize the artwork.”
Like many Malaysian children, he did not have many opportunities to explore his interest back then. He concentrated on his studies, pursued medicine, and eventually became a general practitioner. It was only when he established his own private practice that he found the time to focus on his artistic inclination.
His initial foray was in oil painting, which he enjoyed due to the strong, vibrant hues one could create with oil pigments. However, Dr Gan soon became concerned about the effects of turpentine and other chemicals found in oil pigments on him and his family. He also found himself spending a considerable amount of time cleaning up his palette and brushes after each painting session.
It was time for a change, and he found it in digital art.
Painting the dreaming
“I find digital art to be a very forgiving platform, it is 100% chemical inhalant free and I can have all kinds of brushes using just a tablet and stylus to paint on,” he says.
Dr Gan lacked formal training, but that did not stop him. “I am a self-taught artist, thanks to the number of tutorials one can find these days on YouTube.”
He also found an online community that welcomed and embraced a fellow artist.
“I belong to a group of artists in Deviantart called ECE which stands for Emotive, Conceptual, Expressive Art,” he shares. “Every piece of art that we create has some emotion attached to it. I treasure my works because of these emotive elements. Without them, my art, at least to me, has no value.”
Initially he used photo elements, manipulating them to create his artworks, but he soon transitioned to painting on a blank digital canvas. “Photomanipulation techniques, I feel, served only as a crutch or stepping stone before going fully into painting from scratch which is of course more challenging,” he explains. “I still do photopainting every now and then but my emphasis these days is more on painting. Having said that, I sometimes rely on phototextures to add realism and speed up my work.”
Know your digital art jargon
- Photomanipulation. The art of modifying existing photos using various techniques. It can range from simply removing some wrinkles on the person’s face to more complex photopainting.
- Photopainting. This describes the art of using existing photos and touching them up to create your own paintings. For example, you can transform a photo of your sweetheart into a superhero by changing the clothes and even adding a weapon into the hand!
- Digital painting. Dr Gan’s current preferred method of expression of his creativity, this involves using a computer graphics software to create an art from scratch. The software may allow for techniques and styles that are not commonly or easily done in traditional painting, so the result can sometimes be different from those created the ‘old-fashioned’ way.
A typical artwork could take one to two days to complete once the inspiration strikes him. Dr Gan spends his lunch breaks and any other free time he has to sketch, draw and paint his dreams and inspirations into his electronic canvas.
“To make my art more expressive, I like to paint movement,” he tells me. “Movement or dynamism can be created in many ways: from the character pose, flowing fabrics, hair blowing in the wind, sparks from a fire. Even a slight tilt in the image may do the trick.”
He believes that he has some distance to go, though, before he can consider himself an accomplished artist. “It is said that an aspiring artist needs to practise for 10,000 hours to be an expert,” he tells me. “I'm very, very far from reaching that goal!”
I suggest to him that perhaps he is selling himself short, and he only smiles at me in response.
And falling... Fly
Dr Gan’s choice of artistic genre is fantasy. “Today, I'm more interested in painting in the genre of fantasy character or environment,” he says. “Although it is great to paint portraits, fantasy lives in my veins. It challenges and excites me; I've built a huge visual library of images over the years that I find useful and have categorized them accordingly.”
He elaborates by adding, “For example, under landscapes, I have winter scenes, volcanic environment, mystical forest, trees, seascapes, castles, etc. I'm still not comfortable painting vehicles, robotics or sci-fi environment, but I’m learning to paint those as well!”
His muse and inspiration is his beloved wife, who is also an artist – she creates origami hand works and beadworks, some of which are proudly displayed in Dr Gan’s clinic.
Profession and passion
At the surface, medicine and digital fantasy art seem to exist in two different worlds. I ask Dr Gan how he reconciles his passion with his profession.
“I love medicine, as it is a noble profession and I also get to meet people from all walks of life,” he says. “Art is a way for me to add colour to my life and soften its edges – it is a way for me to communicate my emotions and find balance in my life. After completing a painting, I feel energized and reinvigorated to go back to the real world and help my patients!”