If you are daunted by the idea of picking up a set of watercolours and standing before a blank canvas, you are in good company. For many Malaysians, creative exercises come to a screeching halt after secondary school when art block paper is traded in for Excel spreadsheets or Word documents. Somewhere in that exchange, the uninhibited inner child burrows deeper in and is rarely seen again.
In recent years, however, cities around the world have seen adults embrace a return to creative expressions. Instead of investing in tools that might only be used a few times or attempting to go it alone, social art sessions encourage participants to rediscover the joy of letting loose in a relaxed environment with a drink in hand and the supportive camaraderie of friends or strangers. We talk to three KL brands that are reminding urbanites that we once found the idea of a blank canvas thrilling, rather than terrifying.
Brew N Brush
Some 50 people attended a social painting event one night at a bar in the US. Among them was Phuah Whay Ying, who carried that experience with her when she returned to KL. No artist by any stretch of the imagination, she nevertheless wanted the thrill of letting loose on canvas in a social setting, and established Brew N Brush in 2016.
“There are many names for this sort of activity — sip and paint, drink and paint, et cetera,” she says. “I didn’t want the focus to be on drinking here to make it friendly to all Malaysians, but the setting and option to have a drink in hand do help people feel more relaxed and uninhibited. I personally don’t like school and couldn’t imagine doing this classroom-style.”
Instead, Brew N Brush hosts its sessions at the funky Knowhere bar in Bangsar on Saturday afternoons and Marimbar The Rooftop Bar in Petaling Jaya on Sunday evenings, ending just in time for sunset.
“I’m not naturally artistically inclined but I enjoy trying new things, especially to fill a weekend,” says Phuah. “You want to do something fun but also productive. I hadn’t touched art since I left school, but after my first social painting session, I thought, if I can paint, anyone can. I think the thing that holds us back as adults is fear. After being away from art for so long, I didn’t even know where to start. Do you dip a brush in water first and then the paint or the other way around? It can be intimidating, which is why I hired professional artists who are well versed in painting and can teach a class of up to 20 students.”
Keeping the numbers small allows teachers to offer some degree of personal attention to participants. Each session has a specific image as an aim, with themes spanning landscapes, portraits, impressionism and even famous paintings. While participants have the freedom to add their own flair, newcomers are reassured by the step-by-step format that sees teachers walk them through the composition. Acrylic on canvas is the preferred medium as the paint dries quickly and is more forgiving of mistakes as they can be painted over. A glass of wine or soft drink, complimentary with the RM130 fee, eases any tension, but Phuah finds that participants usually forget about their drink an hour into the session, some even absent-mindedly dipping their paintbrushes into the beverage. Children usually complete their paintings quickly, but adults often struggle to even begin.
“I love watching people go through a session for this exact reason,” says the finance graduate, who assists the growth acceleration of start-ups by day.
“At some point in adulthood, we become perfectionists who were terrified of mistakes, setting impossible standards for ourselves. But in an activity like this, I feel like we shouldn’t have rules, you should be free to create. You will see people take ages to put a single dot on the canvas, because that one dot can ruin everything if it’s not right, but by the end, of the session, they are far more comfortable and confident.”
The sentiment must resonate widely as Brew N Brush is not only popular for hen and birthday parties but is also engaged by institutions such as the Netherlands embassy in KL to organise team-building exercises. An annual collaboration with Alliance Française for Le French Festival, now in its sophomore year, draws a steady crowd with its French artist theme. Participants tackled a piece by Monet last year, enthusiastic despite the tough subject matter.
“We were one of the earliest players in the scene, so getting this off the ground was tough,” says Phuah. “But we grew slowly and organically, and the industry now is a lot busier, which is a good thing. I’m looking to expand geographically, with outposts in Ipoh or Penang. I just want people to be more creative and enjoy themselves in the process. A nice ambience, friendly faces around you and the final sense of accomplishment all feed a great experience.”
Knowhere, 50, Jalan Maarof, Bangsar, KL; Sat, 12-2pm. Marimbar The Rooftop Bar, Level 35, Pinnacle PJ Tower A, PJ; Sun, 4-6pm. Call 011 5632 1060 for more info. Join classes here.
A Space To___
Perched on the first floor of a row of shophouses in Damansara Uptown, A Space To ___ is as flexible as its ambiguous name suggests. Weekdays, it is a co-working space favoured for its ample sunlight and proximity to abundant dining options. Come weekends, it converts into a hub for creative release with a variety of art and craft workshops.
Conceived by marketing and communications consultant Steph Lai and graphic designers Lim Weisan and Mojo Lim as a venue to meet clients after the trio quit their respective jobs to freelance, its name was left intentionally unfinished to hint at the endless possibilities of an open space. Even from the outset, art was going to play a role here.
“I used to work with Mojo, who knew Weisan from college,” says Lai. “Although I knew nothing about art, we used to take art breaks at work, a half-hour or hour of our own time when we would speed draw or do something fun artistically. We continued to do that after we resigned, get together to jam a little, but some of the cafés didn’t have conducive lighting and we would have to keep ordering items to secure our place there for a few hours. That’s how A Space To ___ came to be.”
Large windows, a minimalist overtone enlivened with artworks and a shelf filled with postcards, prints and other crafty bric-a-brac create an environment that is at once stimulating and serene. Resident cat Panda prowls the floor, looking for that perfect nap spot. The daily walk-in fee for the co-working space is capped at RM18 while the craft workshops are priced between RM150 and RM230.
Lai runs bookbinding workshops, Mojo organises the neon light box sessions and Weisan oversees the rubber-stamp carving classes. Teachers are brought in for other activities or hire the space to run their own workshops, which span everything from chocolate truffles, candle, soap and jewellery making to sketching, illustration and watercolour sessions. The co-founders also organise offsite activities for corporate clients, such as a recent leather-making workshop for Adidas customers.
“Art has become a trendy weekend activity, which is a nice departure from mall-based pastimes like catching a movie,” says Weisan. “You can join a workshop with friends or take it as a solo activity.”
“That’s especially true for the bookbinding sessions,” says Lai. “Many participants come alone and say they are introverts. I think it’s a good way for them to attempt something new or interesting in a quietly social environment. Bookbinding isn’t very common here. I started pursuing it as a hobby because I could never find books with the right paper and covers for myself, and then began running workshops.”
“Neon light box classes aren’t easily found in KL either — I think this might be the first,” says Mojo. “I came across these light boxes online and liked the idea. Our first theme was dinosaurs, which was a lot of fun. We map out the process so it’s easy to follow. Now we have a mixed medium approach, where you can paint something and then incorporate neon light elements into the piece. It takes one to three hours, depending on the complexity of the design.”
Rubber stamp carving too seems to be a niche activity, and Weisan keeps the class to no more than five participants since the detailed work with a sharp knife can be tricky.
“This is exactly what we envisioned when we first opened A Space To ___. It was going to be a combination of all our interests, and the versatile space facilitates that,” she says. “We are going to continue expanding our art agency, which is behind these workshops, and find a greater variety of activities for people to try.”
“I firmly believe that you don’t need talent to enjoy making art,” says Lai. “I was terrible at it when I first began, but I’m now addicted to watercolours. The important thing to remember is that you don’t need to please anyone with your work. You’re doing this solely for yourself.”
109A, Jalan SS 21/37, Damansara Utama, PJ. Mon-Fri, 10am-7pm. Call 03 7732 2166 for more info. Join classes here.
Art & Bonding
One of the most fascinating business stories to emerge from the scene is that of Art & Bonding. Stephy Lew and Philip Chan co-founded the brand in 2016 when they despaired of weekends spent mindlessly trawling the neighbourhood malls. Belgium-born Chan grew up with wide exposure to art and wanted to recreate that accessibility in KL.
Art & Bonding is an events-based studio with a beautiful sunlit first-floor location in Sri Hartamas. “People would purchase sessions according to the subject they enjoyed painting,” says Lew. “We have a group of professional art teachers who take turns conducting the classes, and the studio expanded to hold up to 55 people.”
Over the years, the portfolio of products increased. The usual potpourri of classes (RM130 each) involving subjects like landscapes, whimsical images and reproductions of iconic paintings, such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night, grew to include glow-in-the-dark paintings and neon paint parties conducted in an entirely UV-lit studio (RM190 each). The couple discovered that people were travelling down from as far as Genting Highlands to participate in their sessions and in response,founded Sip & Paint Malaysia, a separate venture that organises offsite painting sessions as part of a complete entertainment package.
“We collaborate with venues to offer a painting session with a meal and drink to reach a wider audience,” says Chan. Weekly workshops are now organised at SOULed OUT Ampang and Hubba in Mont’Kiara, priced between RM130 and RM140.
“Each has its advantages,” says Chan. “The studio experience is more private, with good lighting and sans the distractions of a restaurant or curious audience. The Sip & Paint sessions are more sociable.”
“In fact, people find the Sip & Paint format more relaxing,” interjects Lew. “The painting portion is fully guided, so you don’t need to know what you’re doing. The art jamming sessions at Art & Bonding are more freestyle, although teachers are at hand to guide where necessary.”
A separate room at the studio allows groups of up to 10 to book a private space for themselves. Corporate clients are increasing too, with the largest session to date comprising over 100 participants.
“Our bestseller for the corporate events is the Pablo Picasso: Paint Your Colleague theme,” says Lew. “Staff will sit side by side and paint their colleague Picasso-style, then explain why they chose certain elements to describe their partner.”
“It’s a more personal and revealing exercise than bowling,” says Chan. “You find the hidden depths in people you work alongside but never really knew.”
The latest feather in their cap is Yellow Easel, an art academy that stemmed from a demand for greater art comprehension. Through the activities of lifestyle brands Art & Bonding and Sip & Paint, a new wave of art enthusiasts sought a platform to learn more about its technical aspects. Chan and Lew established Yellow Easel right across the street from the Art & Bonding studio and hired principal artist Sophia Ng to develop a syllabus for all age groups and experience levels.
School-going students from age five onwards could gain exposure to 18 different media works, progressing not just in the practical but also theoretical understanding of art. “As they get older, we help them form their own style and create a portfolio in addition to teaching them to distinguish good art and understand what makes an icon,” says Ng. “It’s a comprehensive, holistic education.”
Meanwhile, the weekly adult classes focus on a particular medium — watercolour, acrylic or sketching — with participants progressing in techniques over the span of a year. There is no obligation to sit through the entire course, however. Students — the oldest in their 70s — can opt out whenever they please, choosing to grasp just the foundation or intermediate techniques if they have no interest in acquiring advanced skills.
“Many of our students come here to release stress,” says Ng. “We have formed a real community around these weekly sessions, and two of our students are stroke patients in recovery who enjoy the independence and tangible accomplishment of the lessons. It’s a wonderful space to be in.”
Now that they have created a complete ecosystem of products — a studio, lifestyle brand and academy — Chan and Lew are looking to export this triumvirate beyond Malaysian shores.
“There is definitely a market out there,” says Chan. “Our first Valentine’s Day session had maybe 10 participants. By the following year, we had to turn couples away. Social painting has become a more natural option as a pastime and people are discovering an interest they never knew they had. I think we could really do this.”
3F, No. 22, Jalan 25/70A, Desa Sri Hartamas, KL. Tues-Sun, 10am-11pm. Call 010 650 1212 for more info. Join classes here.
This article first appeared on Feb 17, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.