Watercolourist Ong Kim Seng was barely 17 when he started his Sunday plein air (open air) painting sessions with some of Singapore’s pioneer artists in 1962. They included the late Lim Cheng Hoe, Chen Chong Swee and Ong Chye Cho.
They usually spent the day painting in the city area, including on the banks of the old Singapore River, where landmarks such as Raffles City, Marina Bay Sands and Shenton Way’s business district had yet to exist.
More than 50 years on, Ong, who will celebrate his 70th birthday in June, still keeps his Sunday outings, but with his contemporaries such as Seah Kang Chui, president of the Singapore Watercolour Society, and the society’s other older members.
“I have witnessed the changing Singapore cityscape as the country develops and prospers by painting the scenes in the city continually for the past few decades and am amazed at how they have been transformed,” says the 1990 Cultural Medallion winner, who is staging his latest solo exhibition, Nostalgia In Transformation, at Ode To Art in Raffles City.
The show, which opens to the public tomorrow, features some 40 of his recent works, several of them large ones measuring 120cm by 90cm, which depict the heart of the city as it is today.
As seen in West Bank, Singapore River, skyscrapers now surround a cleaned-up Singapore River; and in Elgin Bridge, the old shophouses and former godowns are now eateries and pubs in Clarke Quay and Boat Quay. Both works were painted last year.
He says the larger-scale and aerial-view paintings give his works on the city a fresh perspective. “They enable me to incorporate as many details as possible and explore a new painting style and concept as well,” he adds.
To the discerning, Ong also uses different colours to distinguish the new from the old, which have now come together as a “commonplace sight for Singaporeans”.
“Some of the old buildings are still around, such as those I painted in Chinatown and Little India recently, but with new coats of paint on them today, they look like old ladies wearing make-up,” he says.
In his essay on Ong published in the commemorative book for the exhibition, Singapore art writer and artist Choy Weng Yang wrote: “Kim Seng has demonstrated that with the element colour, he had the ability to enrich his art in various aspects, such as history, culture, environment and atmosphere, to further enhance his works.”
Several of his paintings at the show also depict the city in the old days, which he painted from photographs, such as North Boat Quay, another large work measuring 120cm by 90cm which he painted last year, to provide contrast to the changing cityscape.
He points out that one painting of the container port in Shenton Way – which he also did last year – showing skyscrapers from the Central Business District mushrooming in the background, depicts a vanishing scene.
“The port is moving to Jurong eventually and, like many other city scenes, it will be gone and so it is worth capturing it on painting for memory’s sake,” he explains of the 110cm-by-90cm work.
Still in a reflective mood, he observes that the Singapore art scene has evolved to become more vibrant and colourful.
“We have more artists now – many are foreigners who are attracted here to paint and live – and standards have gone up many notches over the past 50 years too,” says Ong. He was the Singapore Watercolour Society president between 1991 and 2000 and was conferred as a Dolphin Fellow by the American Watercolour Society some 15 years ago.
Prices of artworks, including Ong’s, have gone up manifold, too, over the years.
“In the 1960s, my works were sold for only between $80 and $120 each,” he recalls.
But now, his works at the Ode To Art exhibition have price tags of between $6,000 and $20,000 each, depending on their sizes.