Words: Rossara Jamil
Photos and Art Images: Albert Tan and Ode To Art
Multi-award winning Ong Kim Seng is a self-taught painter whose love of drawing sparked in childhood. The 69-year-old master watercolourist still spends each day painting and divides his time between travelling and teaching. An active member (and first Asian member) of the American Watercolour Society, Ong has also had his works auctioned by Sotheby’s and Christie’s. He talks to Gallery & Studio about facing obstacles in pursuing one’s passion.
How would you describe your work?
I always have a strong inclination for light and shade. Light and shade are the souls of a painting. It allows you to see details, by creating a combination of dark colours in the dark areas. In the light areas, it’s all the tonal values. A picture must also have a focal point. All the lighted area will lead to the focal point, so you’ll straightaway look at the focal point.
You held several jobs in the past, including welding and serving in the police force. But you kept on painting.
When I was working, I was already sketching and painting. If you were a policeman, most of the time, you’re doing police work. You don’t have enough time, and at the end of the day, you’re quite tired. When I began training as a supervisor at the National Semiconductor, I had off days that gave me enough time to paint. I had a better salary so I could also buy painting equipment. In those days I didn’t know paintings could sell. Until one day someone came along when I was painting outdoors and asked if I would sell the work. Of course I said yes and quoted $100 or $80.
How was your first sale with a gallery owner like?
You’d feel so happy when people want your work. The first time a gallery owner came to my house and asked to buy some of my works for his gallery, he bought about 10 pieces. Then I gave the rest, about 17 paintings, to him. You can get very sad and disappointed when no one wants your paintings.
Recently, you went back to oil paintings. Why is that so?
Some gallery owners requested that I hold an exhibition that’s different because I’ve been working a lot on watercolour paintings. I’ve also been doing oil on commission basis. So why not do an oil collection and show people what you do? It was very well received.
What kept you going despite the obstacles?
Everybody faces obstacles in this life, some more, some less. In painting, every day it’s just a piece of paper. It’s how you express what you have absorbed and digested on it. You won’t know what would happen. It’s what inspires you and motivates you to think. For me, it’s something new that I’ve produced, my very own and I’m proud of it. This kind of pride in the work that you do every day will keep you going.
How did you sustain your passion while you were a student?
I improvised certain things. I didn’t have enough money to buy oil paint, so I drew. In secondary school, sometimes my teacher would buy painting equipment and paper for me. In primary school, I had no means, so I would use charcoal to sketch on newspapers or old exercise books. I didn’t go to any art school.
Tell us about the best advice you’ve received.
Californian watercolour artist Dong Kingman said that it’s most important to have your name known and make it as simple as possible. He told me that people would remember me as Ong, which is a name simple and easy to remember.
You’ve received a lot of awards. Which ones mean the most to you?
Most important is the Silver Award [at the National Watercolor Exhibition] in Fuzhou, China. It was a nationwide exhibition and with China having such a big population, I considered that very important, as well as the awards won in USA and Australia. The Cultural Medallion too.
What advise would you give to young artists?
You have to keep going, in spite of what happens. In spite of downfalls. You can save on other things, but not on what you’re passionate about. Some might feel like giving up half way, but just persevere and carry on. I’m not an example, because I did a few turnarounds, doing the wrong things, before becoming a full-time artist. Now, it’s easy to get information. All you have to do is go online to get instructions. Why give up? You should be able to survive.
This article first appeared in Vol 2 of Gallery & Studio.