Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore

A moment with … watercolour master, Ong Kim Seng

The only Asian artist outside the United States admitted into the American Watercolour Society

A mere kampong boy in an atap house, Ong Kim Seng had no idea he would one day become one of Singapore’s most prominent artistic icons and watercolour masters. Staying true to his subject matter and medium of choice, his paintings have already gained recognition both locally and internationally.

A former advertising apprentice, policeman, industrial welder and audio-visual technician, Ong Kim Seng’s journey is no less remarkable, especially without any formal training.

As part of Ode to Art’s new series of intimate tea sessions that allow the public to get closer to artists and their stories, we spoke with Ong Kim Seng about his artistic style, influences and perspectives on the development of our tiny red dot:

LifestyleAsia (LSA): How did you get started in art?

Ong Kim Seng (OKS): Since young by nature I painted and I drew very often. When I was young I can say there was more drawing than painting because at such a young age I could not find any good source other than pencil drawings and charcoal drawings. I used to stay in those squatters areas, in atap houses so we used to burn wood and then I took the charcoal from the stove to draw on newspapers.

Past primary school, secondary school and the leftist organisation — Equator Arts Projects, I joined another group of painters who leisurely painted every Sunday. Some of them were people like Lim Cheng Ho and Chan Chong Swee, established painters of today. Looking over their shoulders, and learning their way of painting has helped me evolve to be the painter that I am today.

The humble Ong Kim Seng poses in front of his favourite painting, Welders in Jurong.

LSA: You’ve been a Singaporean artist for a while now, what are the challenges you faced?

OKS: The present problem that we have now and I am sure that many other Singaporean artists will agree with me is that we have a very niche market. Basically because we are very small, with only 5-6 million population. And out of that, how many would actually come forward to buy our art? Local artists don’t command that same demand as compared to the thrive for foreign artists’ work.

LSA: Having been in the art scene for a while now, do you think that Singapore has an identity when it comes to art?

OKS: Well, there is definitely an identity within Singaporean art. Say what it be, but there is no definition. If you want me to define Singapore art, I won’t be able to clearly define. Its just as when you see a Singaporean artist’s work, you would have a feeling that it is indeed Singaporean.

It’s just like the way we talk or body language, you would just feel that kind of Singaporean value incorporated into the person’s work. You don’t have to have artists drawing the Merlion or Raffles Hotel as long as it has that essence of culture and creed of being truly Singaporean.

LSA: What is your personal take to the constant development of our country, having painted cityscapes to landscapes for a long time?

OKS: It’s funny you mentioned that because I had an exhibition in 2008 or 2009 called Heartlands. It was about the housing board and the development. I painted and focused on the changes that were made. It was an old painting painted on an old spot and I painted half of it on that same spot, but in present day.

That exactly shows what kind of change have taken place and development our country has taken. From the atap colony in Ang Mo Kio to a boat repair yard where the condos in front of Zouk now stands, its really sad to see these changes.

LSA: A lot of your paintings are light and doesn’t play on a lot of emotional extremes. What is it that you want your viewers to feel when viewing your work?

OKS: Some critics called my paintings “Naturalist Impressionist” form of painting — it is at the same time impressionist, same time naturalist. I don’t paint what I really see, I paint what i want to see, what I want the area to be. I add certain touches to make the painting alive. Eventually my way of painting has evolved to how I feel about it, from what I actually see. That is what impressionist about — painting how you feel about the landscape.

Ode to Art, 252 North Bridge Road, Raffles City Shopping Centre, #01-36E/F, Singapore 179103, +65 6250 1901,

By: Pat Elicano


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