Second-generation Singaporean artist Koeh Sia Yong might be better known for painting that depict social realism here in Singapore, but a recent solo at The Art Fellas gallery, “The Women of Koeh Sia Yong” showed a rare selection of his portraits depicting women from a by-gone era. Visiting him at this Kampong Eunos studio, the 77-year-old tells Gallery & Studio how portraits of the female form had helped him hone his skill with the brush.
Photos: Eddie Teo and The Art Fellas
You’re well-known for painting scenes that reflected your social commentary of historical moments in Singapore. Can you tell us more about how the portraits of women that featured in “The Women of Koeh Sia Yong” feature in your artistic oeuvre?
Drawing those women was actually a way of training. Painting the human figure is one of the toughest techniques to master in painting and I was working on them to hone my skills. Knowing that is a fundamental toward being able to create other different types of work.
How did you select the pieces for the showcase?
They were a selection of female portraits that spanned my 50 year career. I’ve got European-style nudes to Balinese women and even Samsui women as part of my social realism collection. There are also partial nudes from those areas, painted from models sourced from the region.
What was it like painting these women?
It was a little awkward at first, seeing a women naked and in front of the canvas. My heart would be racing. Over time, it got better.
How did you approach these portraits?
The approach has always been rooted in realism, but with the portraits of the women, it was also an opportunity to experiment with different painting techniques and methods.
How much of the paintings are a reflection of the way you view women and the world?
A lot of it is based on what I see in the present. But at the same time, the mind is working to determine the structure and composition within the painting and even define details like colour and elements in the background.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in painting nudes?
It’s definitely representing the human body and form accurately. The more detailed it is, the tougher the process as I’d need to consider the depth of colours, shadows and contours of the body. As I use colours to contrast the convex and concave elements in the human body, that’s a real challenge.
Tell us more about the other mediums that you work with.
I enjoy painting images that depict social realism. I started out with woodcuts, And from there, I’ve gone on to work with watercolour, acrylic and oils. I’m primarily trained in Nanyang style painting.
Can you tell us more about this Nanyang style painting?
It isn’t so much of a technical difference as it as a stylistic preference. Nanyang style paintings typically depict daily life and the cultures that made up the Southeast Asian region of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and even Indonesia—the geographical region. Much of it centres on local people, cultures and landscapes as the subject matter. It shows the ‘flavours’ of the region. It’s part of my preference for the genre of social realism, where much of my paintings are steeped in the culture of the places I’m in.
In the last 50 years, what are some signatures in your work that collectors can recognise as uniquely yours?
Having been doing this for so long, people who are familiar with my work will be able to recognise my work from the vibrancy of the colours I use, and my brushstrokes.
In the last 50 years that you’ve been a professional artist, what are some pet topics which have remained closest to heart?
Growing up in the 50s, we were a lot poorer than we are now and life was way harder than it is today, and we could experience the daily struggles that everyone was going through. As artists, it’s our responsibility and mission to reflect this life and society as we knew it in our artwork. It’s something that Western artists did as well.
What was it like starting out as an artist?
Starting out as fresh graduates from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, no one would be buying our artpieces. So I had to make ends meet as a cinema poster artist before working in advertising, and even illustrating comics in magazines and newspapers. Much of my work then was given away as gift. It was only in the 80s, after some 10 to 20 years that my work began to sell.
How did your parents react to your decision being an artist?
They never really said anything. My father has a friend who was then working in Shaw Brothers and that friend had reassured my father that he’d be able to help me with out with a job painting movie posters or billboards. At that time, jobs were scarce and we didn’t really have a choice.
Many of your paintings depict outdoor scenes. How much of your painting is done indoors and how much of it is done at the scene?
Being outdoors allows for a more intimate connection and interaction with the place. It will make a difference as it will help me get a better ‘feel’ of the location. Of course, I’d still love to be painting outside, but with my age, I tire more easily these days.
What have been some of the most memorable moments in your career?
It’s hard to pinpoint specific ones because at different times in my life, there were different things that left an impression. But some of the most poignant influences was the Japanese Occupation during the World War II. My work is generally steeped in politics and I like to show the social reality of the time. The era of the Japanese Occupation was something that really left a deep impact because there were many people around me that were affected by it.
What advice would you give to young artists entering the fray?
I think we should respect that they have their own perspectives and their own creative processes. They might find their own niche and succeed there. There must be a commitment towards progressing and improving.
As an artist, you’re always looking to get better. How would you describe your progress?
I’m hoping to be able to produce a masterpiece. A painting (or two) that can garner international acclaim. Unfortunately, that, to me, is still work in progress as I’m not there yet. I’ve yet to receive an award for my work (jokes Koeh).