Oliver Sin – Artist Spotlight

Oliver Sin has been lauded by the prestigious Portrait Society of America; his portraits of Virginia Woolf and Emmy Noether were commissioned by TIME magazine for its 2020 Women of the Year covers; and he’s a sought-after teacher, at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco (his alma mater) as well as internationally. Yet the path to becoming the artist he is today has, at times, been extraordinarily challenging.

Oliver is teaching Expressive Portrait Drawing on June 18th – 20th 2022 at Raw Umber Studios.

Read below for an insight…

Oliver shares a day in his working life.

“I’m a morning person. I don’t need to set an alarm; my mental alarm is 6.30. I get my coffee, my breakfast, and then I draw every day.

I have been studying art since I was three years old. As a kid, I had no idea why I was so into art: I just knew I enjoyed doing it. After school, I had to go to my parents’ factory, not the playground, so they could watch me doing my homework. After I’d finished, I couldn’t go outside or watch TV. What could I do to pass the time? Play with the cat or have a nap? So I’d pick up a pencil, cut up an envelope, and draw on it: inside and out, front and back.

A teacher cannot teach you everything. It’s your life – go out and get inspired.

My parents have retired – my dad just turned 90 and my mum is in her early 80s – but they were workaholics. They wanted to make money to give their kids a better future, and I’m grateful to them. I remember they told me a story of what they sacrificed. They swam from China to Hong Kong and arrived with nothing. Imagine a person having to sneak out of China in the middle of the night, knowing they might die.

I have been living in America [Oliver is based in San Francisco] since 1989. It’s so easy for English speakers to say, ‘Oh, I love you!’ Or for teachers to say to students, ‘That’s good!’ And sometimes we say it casually: we don’t mean it; we sugar-coat things. Asian-Chinese culture is very different. I have never heard from my parents, ‘I’m so proud of you’ – even when I showed them my TIME magazine covers – but I cannot judge them. I always remember that story they told me, about swimming to Hong Kong.

I’m very humble and down-to-earth inside; I know there are more thunderstorms coming.

I’m a very disciplined person. If I have to teach in person, usually it’s 9-5; or I do grading after 3pm. Work is work, but every day I will do some of my personal art: things I want to draw for a project or an art competition. I might find a model who inspires me – someone I talk to on a bus and end up asking their permission, ‘Oh, can I draw a portrait of you?’ It could be a movie, music, or a visit to the museum. It could even be cake that tastes good and reminds me of something my grandma used to make me. I don’t have a clear image of her in my head – I don’t even have a picture of her – but maybe I’ll draw someone who looks like a grandma.

As I tell my students, you have to go out there and search for those things yourself. A teacher cannot teach you everything. It’s your life – go out and get inspired.

Right after I graduated from the Academy of Art University, where I studied to be an illustrator, I worked for George Lucas on Star Wars (Episode 1). It was definitely one of the biggest highlights in my art career. In my 20s, I maybe had a bigger ego. Now I think, ‘I’m not George Lucas. I’m just a person who worked for George Lucas.’ Not a big deal at all.

Actually, if you’d met me 10 years ago, you would definitely say, ‘Oliver had a big ego’. But something happened that turned my life upside down. I had depression at the beginning of 2017; I ended up in the middle of a dark tunnel. Every night, I’d go to sleep full of a fear that haunted me. My hands would shake. I had to cover myself with blankets, the heavier the better, because I felt so insecure. I went to the church, the temple; I went to Chinatown to get herbs to deal with anxiety. I went to the library and tried to check out 55 self-help books. I was devastated when the library said, ‘You can only check out 50 books’. I’d say, ‘Please, please! I need 55!’

My mission now is to aim for a much higher objective in my drawing so that, when you look at it, you can feel the spirit.

I cut out all my friends because I knew they could not help me – when you are devastated, nothing will help. I was so afraid to talk about the problem. I felt so ashamed of my life.

Now that I’m in the process of healing, I can talk about it. I don’t want to say anything silly, like, ‘Thank you for depression’; but I’ve turned into a brand new person. And it has elevated my art to another level. Before, I was an artist keen to draw beautiful faces. Technically, I had no problem; but emotionally, soulfully, they were not there. It’s like when you look at a headshot of a person: not every photographer is able to capture the person’s spirit – it can just be a pretty picture. My mission now is to aim for a much higher objective in my drawing so that, when you look at it, you can feel the spirit.

My perception of the models is different, also. Before I draw, now I like to talk to them, hear their story and embrace it. I’m a messenger through art.

I love myself now, and I didn’t know that was important.

My close friends all feel sorry for what happened, that depression attacked me. I was a bird with a broken wing. But they would also say they find the new Oliver more lovable. I love myself now, and I didn’t know that was important.

Art can be a very lonely job. I tell my students: It’s not teamwork; you don’t communicate with other people. For me, it suits my personality. I was born in July – I’m Cancer so I’m very independent. Just like a cat! My personality also means I can eat the same thing every day. My friends say, ‘Why do you order the same again and again?’ I say, ‘I’m in my late 40s. I know what I like!’

Sometimes, in the afternoon I will go hiking – it’s always sunny in San Francisco!

I say to myself, life isn’t just about work; life isn’t just about art. I need to find a balance. During the depression, I found I liked to go to nature; I liked to go to theocean. Go and see animals, the sky, the clouds. If you’d asked me in my early 20s, I’d have said, ‘Why would I waste my time doing that!’ But we need to go out into the world, and it’s free.

Before I draw [the models], now I like to talk to them, hear their story and embrace it. I’m a messenger through art.

Last month, I went to the Portrait Society of America to pick up a signature award – it’s like the Oscars for artists. I was on stage twice. I was happy and I appreciate the recognition of my hard work. But I’m very humble and down-to-earth inside; I know there are more thunderstorms coming. I know it might happen anytime soon. I don’t let myself get overjoyed.

Sometimes I like to make myself overwork because I still can have a hard time sleeping. I cannot change that; I have to deal with it. So I tell myself positive things before I go to bed, like: I will have a good night’s sleep.

I’m so glad I earned a second chance to become a better version of myself. I’m not saying I’m perfect – I have a lot to learn; but every day I learn something better and better. And I’ve become that better person based on my friends’ support. I would like to thank them from the bottom of my heart; I would like to thank all of my students.

I would also say, Thank you, Life. One day we’ll turn back and see that everything happened for a reason.”

Oliver is teaching Expressive Portrait Drawing on June 18th – 20th 2022 at Raw Umber Studios.
We’d love to have you at our studio! Check out the event page for more information.

Check out his work on Instagram here.

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