Working From Home with Travel Sketch Artist Erwin Lian

Singapore-based artist Erwin Lian journeys the world with his sketchbook. Here’s how he maximizes his time in the studio between travels. 

By Allison Malafronte
Divisions by Erwin Lian, watercolor on cold-press paper, 19 x 11

Where is Erwin Lian when he isn’t journeying around the world painting on-site sketches in watercolor and pen-and-ink, or teaching travel-sketch workshops in such destinations as Japan, Indonesia, and Bhutan? He’s at home in Singapore, painting in his studio, organizing workshops in the States and planning his next exciting adventure. His travel-sketching and plein air painting occupy about 80 percent of his time. But the other 20 percent is dedicated to his studio practice— where there’s still plenty of painting taking place. 

Goldfish by Erwin Lian, gouache and watercolor on hot-pressed paper, 8 x 11 ½ 

Immersion is Key

Snow Leopard by Erwin Lian, watercolor on cold-pressed paper, 11 ½ x 8

The subject matter Lian explores in the studio covers a lot of creative ground. He paints sketchey urban nocturnes, abstracted figures, animals, botanicals, light-filled interiors and still lifes. As one might expect, landscapes inspired by his travels and on-site sketches also provide frequent subject matter. Sometimes Lian works from the visual information he collects in his travel sketches and other times from his memory. That’s why he stresses to his students the importance of having a fully immersive experience.

Botanical Gardens Singapore by Erwin Lian, watercolor and gouache on cold-pressed paper, 14 ½ x 7 ¾ 

“When traveling, I feel you have to strike a balance by participating in non-painting activities as well as sketching and painting,” he says. “Enjoying the food, talking to locals, or simply strolling through a square and taking in the details is as important as the artwork you’re creating on-site. It’s really about immersing yourself in the country and culture in as many ways as possible. Then the art you create carries not only the visual imprints of your travels but also the personal memories.” 

Cyclist in the Hood by Erwin Lian, watercolor on cold-pressed paper, 12 x 9
Sunset by Bukit Batok by Erwin Lian, watercolor and gouache on cold-pressed paper, 14 x 9

Exploring Media and Subjects

In contrast to the quick, 30-minute sketches that fill his travel sketchbooks, Lian’s studio work consists of a more methodical process. He still prefers watercolor as a medium, but he experiments with oil in the studio. Oil paintings are something he doesn’t do on-site simply because of the more complicated setup and transporting logistics. In addition, he also works with acrylic and has been exploring digital media as well.

Gardens by My Hood by Erwin Lian, acrylic on hot-pressed illustration board, 31 x 11
Blue Poppy of Bhutan by Erwin Lian, watercolor on cold-pressed paper, 11 ½ x 8

In recent years Lian has also been perfecting his approach to botanical painting. After a prominent retail store in Singapore asked him to teach a botanical-painting workshop, he began adding botanicals to his workshop repertoire. In his travel-sketching workshops he teaches artists how to quickly respond to a scene while dealing with moving crowds, changing light conditions and unexpected environmental factors. By contrast, for his botanical workshops, Lian enjoys the reprieve of a controlled, comfortable environment where he teaches a slower, more precise approach to painting. By maximizing both his time on the road and in the studio to the fullest, Lian achieves the ideal artistic balance.

A Study of Roses by Erwin Lian, ink and watercolor on hot-pressed paper, 11 ½ x 8

For more on Erwin Lian and his process for quickly capturing on-site information in watercolor and pen-and-ink, check out the article “Total Immersion”  in the July/August 2020 issue of Artist Magazine. To see more of his work, visit cherngzhi.com or his Instagram.

Allison Malafronte is an arts and design writer, editor and curator based in the greater New York area.

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