Photo & People

Hand-Painted Movie Posters: Turnaround artist

When it comes to turnarounds, few are better at it than Singapore. It was born just a little more than 5 decades ago, and back then few thought it would amount to much; with its lack of natural resources and limited land.

But against all odds, this tiny red dot just off the tip of the Malaysian peninsula has turned itself into an undeniable world leader; thanks to the discipline and industry of its people and the guidance of visionary leaders.

Singapore’s story bears striking similarities to the life of one of its proudest sons. Mr. Ang Hao Sai, the turnaround artist in this tale, is one of Singapore’s last masters of hand-painted movie posters and billboards.

Mr Ang speaking about his art

EOS 5D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens, f/5.6 56mm,1/10sec, ISO400

Mr. Ang’s passion for art clearly shows in how intense and absorbed he becomes every time he speaks about it.​

As a student, aside from excelling at art, he struggled academically. His teachers dismissed him as someone with limited potential, and didn’t think he would amount to much.

He left school at 13 to apprentice at Lam Kok, an art studio specialising in movie posters. He devoted himself to his work – willingly enduring verbal and even physical abuse; and a grueling schedule that required his team of 7 to complete up to 50 movie posters in a single week. All so he could learn and grow and continue to do what he loves.

Through discipline and industry, he soon had a successful art studio of his own, turning the unremarkable future his teachers predicted right around. As times changed, he shrewdly foresaw that technology would replace his skills and adapted his art studio to also provide digital printing services. He also kept his artistic abilities in demand by creating giant paintings for event backdrops and other advertising media. The studio, now more focused on the printing business and run by his eldest son, still thrives today.

photos from Mr. Ang's younger days

EOS 5D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens, f/4 24mm,1/195sec, ISO2500

Some photos from Mr. Ang’s younger days, taken with his wife and children.​

But this, to Mr. Ang, was not the most important turnaround he pulled off.

A deeply patriotic Singaporean, he is immensely proud of all that his nation has achieved. However, he laments the lack of development in Singapore’s arts and culture.

Around 2010, being semi-retired, he finally found time to create his own artwork. He decided then to turn all the skills he developed in the now-defunct movie poster painting industry toward creating a distinctively Singaporean art style. Since then, he has created over a hundred paintings depicting Singapore’s history.

photo of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew sweeping the streets

EOS 5D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens, f/4 24mm ,1/195sec, ISO2500

Mr. Ang shows us a photo of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew sweeping the streets to set an example for Singaporeans – an image which he says is a good representation of the kind of leader Mr. Lee was.​

Mr Ang's painting of Mr Lee Kuan Yew sweeping the streets

EOS 5D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens, f/4 55mm,1/4sec, ISO1000

Mr. Ang’s painting of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew sweeping the streets. He added stray dogs in this painting as a personal creative touch.​

painting of Singapore during a heavy downpour

EOS 5D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens, f/8 24mm ,1/100sec, ISO6400

Mr. Ang pointing out a detail in his painting of Singapore during a heavy downpour as he describes his inspiration for creating that painting.​

He painted street scenes and moments from everyday life, past and present; key developments and awe-inspiring cityscapes; and portraits of the nation’s leaders. In each and every piece, one could see his profound love for his country; his great pride in how far it has come; and his eagerness to contribute to it in the best way he knows how.

In a way, this traditional painter is still creating hand-painted movie posters. Only these come from the heart, and tell the most epic story of all: the meteoric rise of Singapore.

When asked what the highlight of his career is, he visibly swells with pride as he recounts the time when 50 of his paintings of Singapore were chosen to be exhibited for its 50th National Day celebrations. The paintings earned much praise and admiration from many government ministers. He also felt deeply honoured when Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew himself made a request to view his paintings. And he definitely cannot forget the time he was invited to dinner at the home of former President S.R. Nathan, who graciously accepted a portrait Mr. Ang painted of him.

paint and tools that Mr. Ang uses

EOS 5D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens, f/4 24mm ,1/5sec, ISO100

The paint containers and tools Mr. Ang uses, with a few of his paintings in the background.​

Coming back from the collapse of his profession to earn recognition from the leaders he so reveres, he feels he has truly achieved success as an artist. And at 66, he says he could finally take things easy as he settles into the comfort of his twilight years.

However, speaking to him in his art studio, we see the fire that still flares up in his eyes when he talks about art; the vigour in his movements as he is overcome by passion; and his still-growing body of work. And we strongly suspect he is far from done painting the story of Singapore; or writing his own legend alongside it.

Mr. Ang's painting of an old street scene

EOS 5D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens, f/8 24mm,1/4sec, ISO1600

Mr. Ang’s painting of an old street scene of neighbourhood kids crowding around a push-cart that screens movie clips for a fee.​

Mr. Ang's painting of Singapore's old Cathay Cinema

EOS 5D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens, f/8 24mm,1/32sec, ISO6400

Mr. Ang’s painting of Singapore’s old Cathay Cinema during its heyday, with the Cathay Hotel in the background.​


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EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM

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Photographer’s Note : hand-painted-movie-posters

For this shoot, our main goal is to capture Mr. Ang’s genuine feelings and passion for art. While it helps that he gets very animated as he speaks about the subject, the tiniest nuances in expression captured at the wrong moment will result in an unusable shot.

To solve this, we sought quality in quantity; snapping as many shots of him as we could from as many angles as we could, to catch that tiny split-second when the full depth of his feelings is expressed in a single frozen moment.

It was also important for us to include enough relevant details in the background to emphasise his story, without overwhelming the main subject himself. All other elements should be cropped out, or toned down so as to disappear from the viewer’s eye.

When shooting individual paintings, we posed them next to dozens of others to convey the feeling that it is one frame in an entire showreel of scenes from Singapore’s history. We thought this nod to film is an apt way to showcase Mr. Ang’s work, given his original vocation.

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