Ong Kim Seng was born on 10 June 1945 in Singapore, and his name is synonymous with watercolour in Singapore. A self-taught artist who has exhibited around the world, his collectors include Queen Elizabeth II and Kofi Annan. Ong made history for Singapore in 1990 when he became the first Asian member to be named on the register of the American Watercolour Society, following the winning of important prizes administered by the organisation in the last two years.
Today, Ong continues to paint, exhibit and teach.
The only son of a washerwoman and single mother, Ong Kim Seng grew up in Tiong Bahru, a district which would feature as a subject in his paintings. He started his education at Radin Mas Primary School where he won an award for his art in his first year. Before this, Ong sketched and doodled as any child would. Winning the award made him realise that his interest in art could be more than just a hobby.
When he went to Pasir Panjang Secondary School, he joined the art society where the members would go on weekly excursions to places such as Pulau Blakang Mati (now known as Sentosa) and Mount Faber to draw and paint. Ong proved himself a talented artist and was featured in the newspapers for winning several awards in the Annual Inter-School Art Exhibition in 1960. Though Ong showed talent in art, his mother was opposed to her only son being an artist and would tear up any of his paintings that she found. But he remained passionate for his art and continued to paint in secret.
Largely self-taught, he honed his early skills with a painting group led by the artist-lecturer Chia Wai Hon during the 1960s. They would meet every Sunday at the Red House Bakery building at Bras Basah Road and then head to the Singapore River where they would paint. The group, which included pioneer artists such as Choy Weng Yang, Lim Cheng Hoe, Ong Chye Cho and Chan Chong Swee, would greatly influence Ong in his art.
During those years until the 1980s, Ong earned a living plying his trade in a variety of different careers from advertising to bill-collection, welding and technical work. In 1985, he decided to become a full-time painter.
Ong’s works are rich in local colour – whether referencing old shophouses and alleyways of his birthplace in Singapore, or the sun-filled village-scapes remembered over the course of his many trekking expeditions across Asia. Ong’s style is described as post-impressionistic and naturalist, and marked by the observation of luminosity in a particular (often romanticised or exotic) place, bringing to life nostalgic scenes with quick and spontaneous brushwork.
In 1983, Ong received the Paul B. Remmy AWS Memorial Award by the American Watercolour Society, which led to more awards, eventually resulting in him being named a Dolphin Fellow with the society. Up till today, Ong is still the only Dolphin Fellow that is not from USA. In 1991, Ong received the Cultural Medallion.
Ong sold his first ever painting in 1962 for $120. He managed to locate it when the owner of the painting emailed him from Virginia, USA in 2001. Wanting to keep it for its significance, Ong bought back the painting for $4,800. Today, Ong is collected internationally. In 1993, he became the first Singapore watercolourist to be represented by the auction house, Sotheby’s, in a sale in Hong Kong. He has participated in numerous solo and group shows in Singapore, the Asia-Pacific, Europe and the United States.
Ong holds fast to his philosophy that art is an ongoing activity that does not end, and still continues to paint every evening late into the early hours of the morning as part of a regular daily regime.