Veteran Singaporean artist Ong Kim Seng takes viewers around some of his favourite South-East Asian places in his latest exhibition in Kuala Lumpur.
One aspect of art is capturing moments, preserving the essence of a time forever, according to veteran Singaporean watercolour artist Ong Kim Seng.
Taking me around the gallery in Kuala Lumpur where he’s holding an exhibition, Ong pauses momentarily before a work from 2012, a row of shophouses in Singapore’s Little India, recalling how he had to sit on the opposite side of the road to capture the right angle.
“Many of these type of houses in Singapore now have been renovated in full. They’ve lost their feel of the past. These, however, still maintain their ambiance. You can still see them today,” Ong says.
“Some of the areas around us are slowly changing. So before they actually change, why not capture them?”
Change is probably a concept that Ong is familiar with. The 69-year-old artist worked a variety of jobs before taking the plunge into full-time artistry in 1985, having previously worked as a bill collector, welder, policeman and graphic technician, among others.
Today, he is one of the most sought-after artists in this region, with his collectors including Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, the Sultan of Brunei, and former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan.
“You have to work very hard and consistently practise what you know. And you need to know what’s going on in the art world. Participate in as many exhibitions as you can, especially group ones,” Ong says about making a go of being a full-time artist.
“The first thing an artist must do to make himself known, is to become known to other artists in the community. They can give you opportunities and introduce you to the public.”
Ong is also an avid traveller, having painted in disparate and exotic locations, and works featuring stunning scenes from Bali, Nepal, Malaysia and, of course, his native Singapore, are on display at the Different Lands … In Watercolour exhibition, Ong’s second solo show in Malaysia.
Different Lands features 29 watercolour landscapes painted by Ong over the past three years, all of which are up for sale. Among the places featured in the works are Singaporean landmarks like Pagoda Street, the Singapore riverside, and Armenian Street; as well as foreign locales such as the Ubud Market in Bali and Bhaktaphur City in Nepal.
According to Ong, places in Asia inspire him. Bali and Nepal, especially, are among his most frequently visited countries, he says, as there is such a variety of subjects there for him to paint.
“I’ve been to many places around the world. But I feel these are places I feel people could get accustomed to. Which is why I didn’t feature paintings from Serbia, or Romania, or Albania,” Ong points out.
Apart from collecting foreign entry stamps in his passport, Ong has also been gathering accolades. The artist was the first Asian outside the United States to be awarded membership in the American Watercolor Society (AWS) in 1990. He was made a Dolphin Fellow of the AWS in 2000, and has since received six awards from it.
In 1993 his work Bhaktaphur was the first Singapore watercolour painting to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. In 1994, his work Bali was auctioned by Christie’s in Singapore, and his works are now auctioned annually in Singapore and in the region.
Ong is also honorary president of the Singapore Watercolour Society, an arts advisor to the Singapore National Arts Council, and a life fellow of the National University of Singapore’s Centre of the Arts.
It’s an amazing resume, especially for a man who never received any formal training in art – Ong has certainly come a long way from a boy who used to take charcoal from stoves to sketch on newspapers!
Now, he works primarily in watercolours, carrying his art supplies around in bags and rucksacks almost anywhere he goes. Most of his work, after all, is painted completely on the spot, instead of in a studio from reference.
“With watercolour, you can’t wait. With watercolour, it has to be spontaneous, it has to be completed within the time you are there. You have to catch the freshness of colour,” Ong says. His smaller paintings, he says, take up to two to three hours to complete, while bigger ones can take longer.
Painting on location also comes with occasional challenges, it seems. Once, while on a trek in subzero Himalayan weather, Ong had to contend with frozen paint and brushes while completing an artwork. Even in balmy Singapore, the weather has interfered: a freak storm hit while he was working on his painting of Singapore River, Singapore 2014, and forced him to take shelter.
And then there are the entrepreneurs: “I was painting that farmhouse over there,” Ong says, showing me Ubud, Bali 2013. “And suddenly this lady came out of it and wanted to collect money from me! She said it was her place, so I had to pay to paint it!”
Ong paints in a style that, interestingly, combines Realism and Impressionism – he paints (in a realistic form) what he wants to see, not what he can actually see.
“We paint adaptations of a real scene. In terms of colours, in terms of addition or subtraction, there is always some modification to the scene. Sometimes there can be things blocking a picture. Too many trees, or power lines, or road signs and advertising billboards. All these can be taken out to create an interesting composition,” the artist says.
“Photographers, they may have to hunt around and around to find a suitable angle to take photos without any of these things. For painting, we can do this at our own preference and liberty.”
Different Lands also features two Malaysian landscapes: Sekinchan, Malaysia, 2013 is a scene of fishing boats docking in Sekinchan, Selangor; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2014 features a row of shophouses.
“I liked the morning scene, the shadows of people preparing to start their day. Mornings are the best time to paint, because of all the light and shadows. They create all sorts of interesting designs in a painting,” Ong says about the second painting.
Are there any locations he particularly hopes to paint in future, I ask?
“I would like to explore South America if possible. I’ve never been to that part of the world. Peru, Chile or even Bolivia perhaps. I haven’t even been to Mexico. It’s a very picturesque country to paint, I hear,” Ong says.