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The New Horizon - Portraits by Oliver Sin

by Joderber, November 20, 2019

Self portrait and courtesy by Oliver Sin
Dark and mysterious eyes, haunting glances, engaging eye contact, expressions of sweetness, arrogance, innocence, provocativeness… definite focal points hover amid hair or beards that are fading away.  Oliver’s portraits are very different from photo realism. They incorporate mystery, expression, and evocative feelings through high value contrasts, soft and hard edges, and a strong sense of design. They are highly artistic and interesting to “read” and to appreciate again and again.


Photo Courtesy: Oliver Sin

In the most recent PSA (Portrait Society of America) international competition, Oliver Sin’s “Bob”, a straightforward vine charcoal drawing of just the head, won the Special Merit Award.  There were only three award-winning drawings while most of the others were, unsurprisingly, large, multi-figured oil paintings infused with metaphoric meanings designed, it seems, to win art competitions.

Photo courtesy: Oliver Sin

In the meantime, upon the request of Quarry Publisher, New York, he was working on his new book “Drawing the Head for Artists — Techniques for Mastering Expressive Portraiture”.  It just became available this past August.

Photo courtesy: Oliver Sin

He also recently became the new spokesman for Nitram Charcoal! It is a great honor for artists to be associated with a famous art product in this manner.
Born in Hong Kong, Oliver loved to draw since he was just a three-year-old boy.  Even then he already preferred drawing portraits. As a teenager he became fascinated by architects such as Charles Eames and modern architecture like that seen in Amsterdam and Germany, and dreamt of becoming an architect.  

Since 1990 he lives in San Francisco.  He applied for the School of Graphic Design in SF AAU (San Francisco Academy of Art University) but after viewing his portfolio the director told him his major shouldn’t be graphic design.  Oliver was heartbroken. He was, however, advised to check out the School of illustration. He had no clue what illustration was, but once there he felt right at home. Henceforth, he studied art with a focus on children’s book illustration.  After graduation, armed with strong technical skills and innate creativity, he worked for LucasArts Entertainment Company and 3DO from 1996 to 1999 and became a successful and famous computer games concept artist.

Why, upon realizing that portrait drawing/painting was his true love, did he decide to leave that fantastic job with its stable income? He knew it would be a difficult path and that he would have to start from ground zero?  At difficult times without income he worried how to pay rent, tax…. At one point he even had to work in a laundry. It seemed giving up was so much easier than carrying on.

Why, then, could he not give up?  Art has become a part of his life; a path of no return.  Not doing art means wasting his life. In portraits he can explore the models’ feeling, joy, sadness …, express the inner soul through the eyes, and capture the fleeting beauty of youth in its prime.  With the elderly, each wrinkle attests to a life well lived, paths taken, and stories unfolded.  For years, whenever he could, he would practice more than six hours a day.  The studio became his refuge where serenity blankets him warmly and he can quietly listen to voices from his own inner realm.     

Portraits by Oliver Sin:

Photos courtesy: Oliver Sin
Outside the studio he brought his sketchbook everywhere.  No doubt the sketches are of figures: art students working with sodas and backpack on the side… people sitting in coffee shops... kids in kindergarten….  He loves observing little kids. They are very cute with their big heads and disproportionate limbs, and they don’t mind making all kinds of funny expressions.

Photos courtesy: Oliver Sin

I greatly admire his confident, powerful, clean lines in sketches and demonstrations that took him as little as five minutes.  The clean lines resulted from his training in illustration while paying attention to design. Chuck Pyle, Director of the School of Illustration, points out how Oliver “transformed his animation drawing and design sense to include lush value and shape based portrait drawing” (AAU News April 2019).

Photo courtesy: Academy Art U News

Photo courtesy: Academy Art U News

Following his passions, he maximized any chances of learning and continued honing his skills.  With great perseverance and effort, his works have been award winning, published in art magazines, and have drawn more and more attention from SF AAU and the public (even though he didn’t graduate as a fine arts major).  Since 2001 he has been teaching portrait painting and layout design at the School of Fine Arts and the School of Animation and Visual Effects in SF AAU.  In 2014 he was invited to participate in the Academy’s 19th annual Fine Art Auction.  Three of his paintings were sold, and one reached $1500 which was unusually high. In recent years he teaches more and more at workshops in museums and art leagues in the Bay Area.  

He’s been recognized as one of the best art instructors who knows how to draw AND how to impart his artistic experiences and methodology in teaching.  Many artists have felt blessed and grateful because they experienced great improvements and breaking throughs while under Oliver’s mentorship.

Despite winning awards and international recognition, his life went through phases of upheaval and struggle.  Ironically, some of those most successful, award winning works were, in fact, done in his darkest days. By diving into portrait drawing he managed to escape the gloom.  Art has given him new strength to carry on.

During his artistic journey, masters that inspired him the most include Nicolai Fechin, John Sargent … and among contemporary artists he considers Zhaoming Wu, Henry Yan from the AAU and Chung-Wei Chien, a world renowned, award-winning watercolorist from Taiwan, as his most inspiring mentors. 

His advice for artists is to listen, observe, and practice.  Observe as much as possible the works from masters and learn from them.  It is very helpful to see the steps of how they created their art works. “Practice makes perfection! … Painting is a never-ending process of challenges and learning.  A true artist is driven by the never-ending desire to create art … Through art and expression, we have an effect on the world we live in.”

Regarding drawing portraits, it is crucial to learn the mapping of perspective plane changes, such as differentiating the top plane from the bottom plane and the side planes of the nose, in order to better understand facial structures and create stronger 3-D effects.  After that, the most helpful guide is to look at shapes. Perception of shapes and forms and the negative space between and around them help us figure out the mistakes, how to correct, and refine the form. Of course, one also needs to devote to abstract design and composition.  Sometimes, after the head is done, he would use tracing paper and work on the shoulder line or the form of the hair mass … repeating this process again and again until he’d find a satisfactory resolution.

He also advises reading one of the most inspiring books for art students — “Art Spirit” by Robert Henri.  He re-reads it from time to time. Each time he reads it he understands more from its passages.

Oliver remarked on his award winning “Bob”:  “I look at the piece and I see it as a landmark to remind me that I’ve been there and I can deal with it and survive.” 

It seems this “landmark” heralds the beginning of new experiences, more recognition and teaching beyond San Francisco and the Bay Area.  Next year he will have a busy schedule teaching workshops all over America and Europe. In particular, he has been invited to teach in the Florence Classical Arts Academy for a whole month!

It’s a new horizon!  A whole new world awaits him!

Oliver's Instagram: @oliversin