(Top) First layer. Demonstration painting at the Taman Aman lake. (Bottom) Hey Presto! The finished painting.
“He (Ong Kim Seng) is versatile in his use of colour, rhythm, and imagination; and there is freshness and vitality in his composition and technique, whether depicting the soaring clouds of the Himalayas, or the steaming tropics of the bay of Singapore.”
– Dong Kingman, 1985
This is a priceless and inspiring encomium indeed, coming from the great watercolourist Dong Kingman (1911-2000). It was given during Kim Seng’s second meeting with Kingman in New York. Years later, the twain met again in Kim Seng’s home country, Singapore, and they even did the ritual of painting the Singapore River together.
It was in 1985 that Kim Seng decided to become a full-time artist, after having painted seriously since winning the 1st Prize in the Singapore Port Authority Open competition in 1974. The decision was sweetened by a golden handshake from the Colombo Plan Staff College where he had worked as an audio-visual assistant.
Today, at a spritely age of 74, Kim Seng is a watercolour legend in his own right; world-class with a metier of a resplendent golden-earthen palette, a consummate compositional flair and light epitome.
Ong Kim Seng. Focal point, light and dark areas, and filtering the overpowering greens at the Taman Aman lake in Petaling Jaya.
Ong Kim Seng.
Prestigious awards attest to his pedigree, such as the Singapore Cultural Medallion (already! In 1990), and NINE awards from the American Watercolor Society (AWS) since 1983, being then the first Asian outside the US to be so honoured, and which culminated also in the AWS’s Dolphin Fellow, in 2000 (his last AWS was in 2015).
His other notable international awards include Master of Asean Watercolourists (World Water Media, Bangkok, 2014) and Top 25 World Watercolour Artists (Greece, 2017).
His growing stature saw an acrylic on canvas, Nepal, set a personal highest price of HK$725,000 (RM384,105) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s April 3, 2017 auction, while a watercolour also on Nepal fetched a premium of HK$87,500.
Since 1975, Kim Seng had been to some two dozen countries on painting expeditions, either solo or in groups, and international exhibitions and instructional workshops, each spending up to 18 days.
It was Kim Seng who exposed Nepal to Singapore artists fascinated with 28 paintings by him of rarefied mountain-scapes painted under sub-zero temperatures from his 18-day trek up the Himalayas in October 1978. He had since made at least 10 more trips there. The exhibition at the Asia Art Gallery, Singapore in 1979 was an unqualified success. As for Bali, he made the first of at least 10 trips there in 1975 with three Singaporean artists, including Gog Sing Hooi (1933-1994).
For one who is self-taught and from an impecunious background – his washerwoman mother supported the family since his cobbler father died when he was eight – Kim Seng found his voice through his numerous paintings abroad, experiencing the different palpitations of light and shadows.
He held the brush for the first time at the age of 14 in an unscheduled painting trip to Bukit Purmei Temple. He picked up the finer points from art classes at the Pasir Panjang Secondary School and at the Equator Art Society, and from Sunday painting excursions under pioneer artist Lim Cheng Hoe (1912-1979).
Amoy-Street. 40cm x 50cm.
Lushan, China. 38cm x 53cm.
Shwedagaon Temple, Myanmar. 38cm x 53cm.
His painting itinerary thus far reads (not in chronological order): Indonesia, Nepal, Bhutan, Italy, India, Turkey, France, Wales, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, China, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Lithuania, Romania, the Netherlands, Greece, Australia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Tibet (three times). Of course, Kim Seng knows every nook and cranny of Singapore, then and now rendering it with his perspicacity and revealing the inherent beauty – whether natural, architectural or street scenic.
His out-of-print Mastering Light & Shadows in Watercolor (International Artist, 2003), is one of the most comprehensive instructional how-to watercolour manuals ever, and is now a collector’s item.
Kim Seng is a watercolourist nonpareil with an instinctive taste of colours, a dextrous handling of brushes, dancing to the mutability of light and shadows of exotic and familiar places and the enlivening elements. His brush range entails #10 pure Kolinsky sable, #8, #6, #3, #0, and for the bigger areas #12 round brush and a two-inch flat brush, with a quality repertoire of cold-pressed aquarelle paper, mainly Schut 300gsm and Arches 850gsm (based on per 500 sheets). The paper sizes vary considerably, with a standard of 53cm x 75cm, mostly done plein air, but the painted can stretch to a mural dimension of 1.5/1.8m to 2m, which are largely painted indoors!
He is known for his superb draughtsmanship, finicky with details and yet adroit in washes of vegetation or mountains in the distance.
Nepalese Village. 38cm x 53cm.
North Boat Quay. 38cm x 53cm.
Xitang, China. 38cm x 53cm.
Morning offering, Bali. 53cm x 75cm.
On June 15, Kim Seng hosted his first Malaysian watercolour paid workshop with step-by-step watercolour demonstration at Taman Aman in Petaling Jaya, followed by lunch and talk cum indoor street-scene (of Temple Street, Singapore) painting at the nearby Awe Gallery and Restaurant, owned by his restaurateur and graphic artist daughter Dora.
Generally, he keeps to his stock repertoire and modus operandi: After locating a vantage point, he determines the focal point (even if there are two, one is necessarily stronger than the other), light and dark areas and imagines the finished painting. His sketch, which avoids being too detailed, is usually a good guide.
“Paint what you want to see, not what you see,” he avers, leaving out the “ugly” distracting electric towers and water spouts. Contrast is important, too, and for the Taman Aman work with its overpowering greens, considered a fugitive colour, he had the options of “substitute colours” and mixing with other colours, for greater efficacy.
He is not brand conscious when it comes to colours, preferring to cherry-pick what is most suitable for his purpose, usually limited to eight or nine colours. Like for his “antique earth” colours of golden brown for painting Kathmandu, Tibet, Yunnan and some parts of Bali, he circumambulates around a palette of burnt sienna, raw sienna, burnt umber, raw umber, sepia and olive. Colours vary with culture and in tropical and temperate climates, and it takes experience and a certain elan to capture a colour endemic to place like the blue in the Blue Mountains, for example. There’s an occasional distraction, where he dwells on the bold and snazzy Californian Style, as far back as a 1975 Balinese work.
Temple Street, Chinatown. 38cm x 53cm.
Sentosa Cove. 38cm x 53cm.
For Kim Seng, it is his passion for watercolours with the alacrity and intricacies of light, his astute power of observation and skilful execution and dextrous play of colours which imbue his works with a nostalgic yet timeless quality.
Colours are contingent to intensity, luminosity and contrast, and at the end of the day, the litmus test reads: harmony of tonal values, unity of colours and an overall balance of composition, and the resultant vibrancy and impact.
People placements and relative proportion are important, sometimes acting as a focal point, adding colour and humanity to uninspiring scenes.
Few knew that Kim Seng was also involved with the leftist-leaning Equator Art Society, from 1962-1965, painting in oil and had two works from the period in Singapore's National Gallery. One other notable work records the Laju ferry hijacking incident from January 31, 1974 to early February. He gained access to 38 Oxley Road, the residence of Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew, in a commission by Lee Keng Yang.
Kim Seng is also known to be an able organiser, having run the Asian Watercolours 1997 in Singapore and helping out in others like the Shanghai Maestro, besides being sought after as a judge and star demonstrator at prestigious watercolour festivals all over the world. He was president of the Singapore Watercolour Society (1991-2001), and since 2001 has been retained as its honorary president. He has been art adviser of the National Arts Council since 1998 and was named its Supporter of the Arts Award in 2001.
His works are in the collections of national institutions as well as dignitaries such as England’s Queen Elizabeth II, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, and former prime ministers/presidents of Japan, Thailand, China, South Korea, India and the Philippines.
Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.