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Humans of Hong Kong: Painting a thousand words with Brendan Fitzpatrick

By Catharina Cheung 18 August 2020

Welcome to Humans of Hong Kong, a brand-new story series on Localiiz that takes a deeper look at the many colourful characters and unique personalities that call our beloved city home. We hole up with Brendan Fitzpatrick in his relaxing Aberdeen studio, literally watching paint dry and chatting about artistic inspirations, Asian preconceptions, and the importance of having a visual focus in art.

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“I was born in Hong Kong and lived here until the age of seven. I went to the Peak School because my mum was stationed in government quarters nearby. She wanted to make sure I was bilingual, so in the morning, I was sent to an English-speaking nursery and then in the afternoon, a Chinese nursery. I think that really starts what your idea of having a Chinese tiger mum can be like!

“She taught me Cantonese with my popo but after my popo passed away, I stopped speaking it, and it sort of dropped off. My curly hair throws people off, but it has allowed me to avoid questions of why I’m not a fluent Cantonese speaker!”

“Some of my most vivid memories are of visiting the wet markets in Wan Chai with my popo and helping her pick up provisions for family feasts. You’d have about 30 to 40 people in this 450-square-foot apartment with plastic folding tables and plastic folding sheets on top. You knew you were done at her house when she would bring out the sliced oranges. That was basically the curtain call, the academy music starts playing, and you walk off the stage.

“Then my mum took me to the UK for my education. I was at boarding school, my mum moved back when I was around 12, and ever since then I’ve been spending my time pretty much divided fifty-fifty. Each of my long holidays I would be back seeing my Chinese family, but it was only since I finished my art education that I was able to focus on coming back to Hong Kong properly.”

“I guess you could say I was always on the artistic spectrum. I was in school when I first noticed that it wasn’t normal for everyone else to be cramming their margins with drawings and doodles. I first wanted to make sure I was going to please my mother when I was in my teens, so I thought that with all this creativity and wonder for design, that I would become an architect. After my first internship, I realised that architecture wasn’t quite the way that I thought it was going to be.

“In the beginning, there was definitely that Asian pressure to do something more ‘traditional.’ But then my mum was quite ill, and that’s when elements in her mind started to recalibrate, and I think she had quite a few moments of introspection that were along the lines of what it really means to pursue a passion. She instilled in me an idea that I should genuinely pursue what it is that I wanted to do, and not take the second option. So with that in mind, after I finished school and was encouraged by my teachers to continue down this path, that’s when I started.”

“It was through physically handling some of Rembrandt’s work in Oxford that I saw his genius not only in [etching] but also in painting. As soon as I saw that an artist who I respected was able to straddle two fields and not just hyper-focus on one, that’s when my attention started shifting.

“I always knew that I wanted to paint in this manner, so my first interactions in art school were actually ones slightly with conflict. I was looking for anyone who could teach me what I so needed, but I wasn’t getting exactly what I wanted, so I kept moving from place to place.

“I started off in [Central] Saint Martins [in London], but opted not to continue. Some teachers directed me to the Royal Drawing School, or what was then the Prince’s Drawing School, where again, I studied for a year until I was taken aside by a teacher who told me that if I really wanted to study painting, I shouldn’t be doing it there. He directed me out to Italy, to Charles Cecil’s studio.”

“I was there in Florence for four years. I only intended to do three, but after my third year, I was approached and asked to become one of their instructors and start teaching as well. My last year was perhaps my most important. It was at that point that I realised the best way to train yourself when it comes to painting is not to spend forever on one project and try to get it perfect, but to try and complete as many decent projects as possible.

“Your eye is always going to train up faster than your hand is able to. But just breaking through that wall and not letting it stunt your growth, making sure that you view yourself on a timeline, and that you see your own progression, that you are growing and not plateauing—that’s the most important thing.”

“The most important instances that feed into my work stem from interactions with other people or interactions I have with things that people have made. You really have to go outside and, like a hunter-gatherer, collect something to bring back into the studio to refine into an idea or a product.

“Some of my darker pieces that look closer to the Renaissance style were all produced in Florence. Pieces that I created in London tended more towards the twentieth-century painters that were stationed there that I was looking at. And now that I’m here, a lot of my colour palette has been affected by the colours that I see in Hong Kong.”

“I think that to highly render every single element of a piece within a painting is to not really have a good sense of what the focus is. What I try to do is to direct the focus of the viewer to what I think is the most important. There’s a visual focus, and everything else is in the peripherals, and I’m trying to do something of the same effect when I’m painting someone.”

“One of the key points that I’m trying to communicate is the narratives of the people that we come across, and how much of it is not only open to interpretation but can also deeply resonate with us in its specificity. Very often people find something in the gaze of the person on the canvas and it resonates in them with some life event or an emotion that they’ve been holding on to.

“My work is always focused around people. No matter what painting style, I’ll always be a figurative artist, but I think that this emotional connection that we have is the crux of all of my work.”

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.