Sukhpreet, self-taught artist who loves to paint ordinary people, celebrations


The only class Sukhpreet Singh(Above photo), 52, enjoyed in school was the drawing class. He was so good at it that other students would seek his help, making him feel like a leader. He was certainly much happier in drawing class than he was in math or science.

The well-known artist from Punjab, India, was in California recently for an exhibition on ‘Sikh history in America’ at the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Singh knew from the time he was in elementary school what he was good at and what he wanted to be on growing up, but it wasn’t easy for his parents, who hoped he would be a doctor or an engineer, “like the typical Indian parents”.

To fulfill their dream, he did choose science over the arts but could not handle it and quit BSc (pre-medical) and took up a low-paying factory job until he established his painting career.

“I sold my first painting for just Rs13, of Sohni Mahiwal (or Suhni Mehar, one of the four popular tragic romances of the Punjab-Sindh region) in 1984,” he told indica, smiling at the memory. And now? He laughed, saying he can “afford to buy wine and cheese and feed my family”.

A professional artist for 35 years now,  Singh has hosted exhibitions around the globe. This was his third visit to the U.S., the first being in 1996, when, too, he had held an art exhibition.

Singh’s artworks are mainly oil on canvas or acrylic. He believes in telling a story through his paintings. He said in the past three or four years he has been using acrylic a lot more when traveling as it dries within half an hour and can be carted anywhere after a couple of hours.

He also trains art students and amateur artists on his travels. “They ask questions and even I learn from them,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I think I am still a learner.”

Interestingly, Singh himself has never been to art school or had formal training. “It’s a natural talent, self-made and self-taught,” he said, thanking his parents for not letting him enroll as that might have curbed his instincts.

Talking about the early challenges he faced, Singh recalled that he always needed to buy materials, but his parents were not always ready to fund him. “It’s not like buying a flute,” he said, “a one-time investment. You have to buy colors, you have to buy canvas, paints, brushes, so for struggling artists it’s hard. And parents think you are off track. My father was a government employee.”

His parents worried that their only son (Sukhpreet has a younger sister and no brothers) would not be able to make a decent living. “But it all changed eventually on growing up as an artist,” he said. “They were very happy seeing my interviews on TV and traveling to other countries.”

He still paints for three or four hours each day. “At one point you feel like you are just writing a letter,” he said, referring to the ease with which it comes to him now.

He recalled how he would go to movie halls with friends and be mesmerized by the creativity in the posters in the foyer while they would watch the movie inside. “Today, when I look back, I feel happy I have a natural talent,” he told indica. “I learned from nature. Before I used to paint village lives. Every five years, I change my topic, featuring childhood games, then spiritual subjects like the Golden Temple.”

Given that, his body of work is diverse, ranging from classic to contemporary, spiritual to political. He also loves painting ordinary people, like what has been happening with Covid-19 and the farmers’ protests outside Delhi.

He also focuses a lot on colors and likes to visit places and events, even crowded gatherings. “I have to be on site, watching people, watching what is going on,” he explained. Most of his paintings are based on observation, characters and people. Some of them have taken over a year, but the artist said he found the process “enjoyable”.

“I love to paint poor and common people,” he said. “They are the pillars of society that I find in India. I love to paint natural, organic and celebration. There is so much sorrow around, so I like to do celebrations.”

On visual art going digital, Singh agreed that a lot has changed since he began. “It was difficult three decades ago to buy color; these days artists are doing better,” he said. “There are admirers. You just have to travel farther to find them and knock on their doors. If you do good work, you will get your returns. People love art today and pay well.”

Explaining the difference between the type of painting he does and a digital artwork, he said. “When you talk about digital paintings it’s a picture, but when looking at a painting as a physical object, it is not just the colors and the composition, you also see the texture and how you have engaged with it, how the brush strokes were made, all that adds to the experience.”

He urged parents to let children play with colors and not worry too much about the future. Children want to express themselves through art, he said.

On his dream project, Singh said it would be to paint a wedding procession (baraat in Hindi) with the groom on horseback and his sisters feeding gram to his mount. “I want to paint a huge united celebration,” he said. “Togetherness is happiness. I am an artist who loves to paint everyday people and celebrations.”

Singh, who travels regularly for exhibitions, said he gets to meet extraordinary people on these journeys and returns home invigorated. “If Guru Nanak could travel 38,000 miles (in his era), why not me?” he said.