What's In Your Bag Series: Alvin Mark Tan

Posted on April 23 2018

The trend of snooping around in people’s bags never gets old. If you grew up reading the now-defunct Urban Magazine (given out with Thursday issues of The Straits Times), you would be familiar with the ‘What’s in my Bag’ feature on the back of every issue. The person featured on the page varied every week - there were actors, professional athletes, designers, and the list goes on.

Similarly, the ‘What’s in Your Bag?’ series on the BooksActually blog will feature various individuals from Singapore’s arts scene, hopefully providing some insight into what being an artist is like.

Alvin Mark Tan is a traditional oil painter, urban sketcher, and videographer. La Kopi, his latest publication, was launched at last year’s Singapore Art Book Fair, setting off the La Kopi Trail - a series of events held at different cafes to explore his artistic journey and to appreciate coffee culture. His other works include Thirty Days on the Camino, Ciao Firenze, and Figuring Out. His oil paintings can be found on his website, Alvin Mark Studio.

Having hosted events with him on the La Kopi Trail, we noticed that he is never seen without his backpack. We spent some time with him to get a picture (or in this case, pictures) of what exactly lies within the monstrosity that is his backpack. 

Want to hear it from the man himself? You should also check out the ‘What’s in My Bag’ video he made. (Thanks Alvin!)


Oil Painting

Alvin: “The most important thing in my bag would be my canvas board - without it, there’s nothing I can paint on. With the board, I would need the paints, and with the paints, I would need brushes.”

Top, left to right: Odourless Turpentine, Paints, Canvas Board (28cm x 35.5cm)


Alvin: “I used to carry around tubes of paint but they became too bulky and heavy, so I carry my paints in these little containers instead - it helps to save space.”

Alvin prefers using a canvas board with a Campitura (earthly brown tone) because it is easier to fill in the negative space on a toned background, as compared to a white canvas. Turpentine is used to thin down oil paints especially if it has been dried out for awhile - it can also be used to clean brushes.

Bottom, left to right: Tripod, Brushes, Paper towel Roll, Linseed Oil plus a Liquin mixture, Easel Box, Groundsheet


When painting outdoors, Alvin sets up his easel box on the tripod, usually on the groundsheet if the ground happens to be less than ideal (for instance, somewhere sandy). If you’re observant, you’ll notice that the groundsheet he uses is Mickey-Mouse themed - Alvin’s a huge Disney fan! After completing the painting, he applies a layer of the Linseed Oil-Liquin mixture to his oil paints, which serves as a quick-drying medium to speed up the paint drying process.

His video details the paints he uses, and he demonstrates how he sets up his oil painting equipment. There’s also a time-lapse of him completing a painting!


Sketching Materials


Left to right: Sketchbook, Watercolour Kit, Ink, Portable Brush, Pens, Filler Brushes, Water Bottle


For his sketchbooks, Alvin uses Moleskine’s Watercolour Sketchbooks - he has one sketchbook for every country that he goes to. He uses the White Nights watercolour kit from St Petersburg Watercolours, which is more compact as compared to common 12-pan kits. His pens and ink supplies include the Jin Hao 650 Fountain Pen, Signo Gel Opaque Pen in White, a 2mm Mechanical Pencil, and the Super 5 Ink in Darmstadt (Black) and Dublin (Olive Green). For brushes, he uses the Tintoretto’s travel brush for his watercolours, and has Pental Brush Pens as filler brushes when he needs to fill in large amounts of Black or Vermillion. Other supplies (not pictured above) include an eraser, a Daler Rowney watercolour postcard pad, sand pad, and an airsick bag.

He also brings along a small water bottle along for his watercolouring, but the airsick bag comes in handy when he doesn’t have one around. The waxy interior of the bag makes it ideal to hold water, and he can simply fold down the sides of the bag and fill it up with water.
To find out more in detail and a variation of what he carried to Ireland, check out his Travel Sketch Tools video.


Video Equipment


Clockwise: Sony Action Camera, Clamp, Selfie Stick, Tripod, Drone, Drone Battery, Drone Remote


For his videos, he uses a Sony Action Camera to capture his painting and travel videos. The selfie stick is great for his travelling vlogs, and the clamp comes in handy for time lapses of his painting process. He recently got a drone, the DJI Mavic Pro, which he connects to his phone - he can give commands for it to follow him or to hover.

As he frequently paints outdoors, he also makes sure to have a water bottle and deodorant in his backpack - he likes to be presentable when meets people!



You travel a lot for your work - you studied oil painting in Florence, you attended last year’s Taipei Art Book Fair, and you will be going to Ireland to do a mastercopy. What do you usually bring when you travel?

When I travel overseas, this (backpack) would be it. Of course I would bring my clothes, miscellaneous items, but this is as condensed as it can get. Because when I’m in Singapore, when I’m moving around and painting scenes, that’s how I would be in Thailand, Indonesia, or Malaysia. So I’m usually walking on the streets with that (backpack) - if I cannot carry this in Singapore, I wouldn’t be able to do that overseas.


Are there any difficulties you encounter when you travel?

Yes! When I need to go to the toilet, I have no one to leave my bag with, so that gets tricky at times. I can’t just check into a public toilet and leave my bag outside and expect it to still be there. I would have to pop into a cafe, order a drink, then use the bathroom in the cafe where my bag would be more safe. If I’m in a tight area, somewhere crowded - like China or some places in Singapore - I can’t paint because I can’t set up. In that case, I would whip out my sketchbook and sketch instead of oil paint. Occasionally, I forget to bring something important - I was just in Bali and went all the way to the beach, then found out that I forgot my Titanium White paint tube. You need white to paint - you need white in almost everything - the sky, the sand, the sea - you need that white to be mixed with other colours. So my forgetfulness makes it cumbersome at times.


Have you ever had to improvise for paint?

When I forget to bring things like my medium - pure linseed oil, mixed with liquin - which helps to hold the paint, gel the paint and dry the paint. If I forget to bring that, then I would have to use the turpentine I have to thin down the paints - it’s not good, but it’s a makeshift thing. When I was walking on the Camino in Spain, someone stole my pencil case - with my pens and all that - so that was key. I found some twigs along the way and I bought a carving knife, and carved it into a fine point. I managed to find some Indian ink in a simple bookshop, and I dabbed and inked my way until I found a proper bookshop selling regular pens. When I don’t have my tripod stand - little things that I tend to forget - I would have to paint near a spot with a table or some sort of a platform, where I can put the easel box on the platform and paint. It restricts the angle that I can paint, but at least I have something to paint on.



What’s the most memorable place you have been to?

You know how, for everywhere that we travel, a place has a certain aspect that hits us? For the Camino, it was the journey that started it all for me. The Camino really freed me from the chains of being in Singapore and just allowed me to say ‘Hey, you know what? Singapore is really small, you need to just go out and make it happen’. That one journey that I travelled, it was a walk that was about 800 kilometers long - probably the distance from Singapore to Penang. I walked and there were some days I was in big cities, passing through towns, and there were days when it was just nothing - just the sky and the dirt path. Those were the days that allowed me to crystallize what I had to do, because there were no distractions - no wifi, just nature and myself, walking. It was actually coming back and making the book which made me realize that the biggest thing I had let go of was actually Singapore. I always thought ‘I have to stay in Singapore, something big is going to happen, the next big thing is going to happen and I’m going to be right here’, but then I realized, it’s just not going to happen. But the trip allowed me to let go and the first thing I did was to go train myself in art, and that’s when I left for Florence, and I was there for three and a half years. The Camino was the catalyst, the push that started everything.    


With all the items in your backpack, is there a specific item that holds a special meaning?

My easel box - it’s interesting because that was how I got really active on Youtube. There’s this easel company called Strada Easel, and they came up with this competition last year, and I won it. That allowed me to purchase the easel, and the easel is really portable. That has allowed me to bring things overseas to paint - like everything in this bag - and to travel more because I’m always trying to find a lighter way to travel. I think the easel box means a lot because I won it, and it pushed me off in another direction - in this whole video making thing of my art and my travels.



What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on an art show - it’s a group show that’s happening in August. I’m getting the paintings churned out right now. I’m also getting ready to head over to Ireland to run two workshops at this festival called ‘Art in the Open’. It’s going to be a long journey, so I’m doing a couple of other things too. In Dublin, I’m going to the National Gallery of Ireland to do a master copy. Before the days of the internet, artists who wanted to get better would go to museums and they would copy off old master paintings. They would set up an easel right by the painting - a small area would be given to them - and they would just paint for a couple days or weeks. Now with the computer and the internet, it’s so easy to have a print out and make a copy of it. Back then, one way of improving yourself in painting was to make copies in museums, because that’s where all the original master paintings are. I actually tried calling the National Gallery of Singapore, and they had no clue what I was doing at all. So I thought ‘okay, nevermind, I’ll go over (to Ireland) and make a video and show it to you’.

There are other projects I do that fund me along the way - murals, for example. I’m looking forward to my projects because those fund me as I make these trips. There will be other trips too - sketching and painting trips - which I have not pinned down yet. For now, my mind has been focused on my studio, just getting it up and running. Something has also been brewing since I moved in here (the studio), I have been thinking of working on a book about Katong. My grandparents used to look after me when my parents worked, and they lived here in Katong. I grew up here as a toddler, so a lot of things are familiar yet a lot of new re-developments have happened. I’m trying to revisit the spaces that I have been to, or lived in, and trying to figure out if I can make something out of it.


1 comment

  • Alvin Mark Tan: April 23, 2018

    Thank you, BooksActually! :D

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