Sunday, January 6, 2013

Colours of Ong’s Life

(Review of Watercolourist Ong Kim Seng's Book Mastering Light and Shade in Watercolour, published in the NST in August 26, 2006)

THIS is definitely not a book on watercolour painting for beginners.

But if you have mastered the basics, then Mastering Light And Shade In Watercolour will surely make a good reference.

Master watercolourist Ong Kim Seng does not waste time with the nitty-gritty in his book. Instead he sweeps you off in a single stroke to a visual adventure on his type of vibrant watercolour techniques.

The watercolour pieces that Ong painted from his overseas trips are visual delights.

This 128-paged hardcover is a storehouse of painting tips and styles that you will discover as the renowned Singaporean painter takes you through the intricate aspects of the aqua medium.

In Chapter One, under Tools of Expression, Ong briefly skims through the brushes, colour and paper - three key areas that most watercolour instruction would cover in boring detail.

Not Ong. Here, he only tells you the essentials not as an instruction but perhaps as a anecdote, sharing with you about the types of brushes he uses, the paper he prefers and his palette of colours, stopping short at the brand.

If you wondered why he didn't share with you his favourite brands - as I have seen in many watercolour instruction manuals written by art mentors of the west - perhaps this might enlighten you: "I prefer moist tubes but I don't stick with one particular brand because I like experimenting with colours from different paint companies.

Sometimes working with only one brand can create an overdependence on that brand and if through circumstances some colours are no longer available, this can be frustrating." Chapter Two takes the reader on a journey of discovery of how Ong deals with his works in specialist topics such as how light and shade (or shadow), tone, colour, contrast, shape, size, line, texture, and perspectives, can add life and vibrancy to your painting.

The light conversational-style of instruction, peppered with anecdotes of real-life situations Ong encountered during his painting trips, makes this book a gem, as much as the colourful pieces he did.

Ong starts each section with an Action Plan segment - a summary of possible options to take before you lay the first wash. These are crucial signposts that will lead you through the thicket of techniques about to be revealed in each of his work - be it composing for luminosity and contrast or working with shadow shapes.
To ensure easy understanding of the nature of light and luminosity, Ong indicates the direction of the streaming sunlight in each of the painting in discussion.
He also teaches you how to approach your initial sketch of the scene you are about to paint with a shadow plan - something I do not find in most watercolour painting books that I have read.

Although the main theme is about mastering light and shade, which are hallmarks of the artist's works, Ong shares more than just the technicalities of watercolour painting with his readers.

He also talks about true-life experiences that are hard to come by unless you paint outdoors often.
For instance, in one of the chapters, where the author talked about his work entitled Village in Peliatan, Bali, he said: "I was watched by a pack of dogs barking from a distance. I often carry a pack of biscuits with me when I paint outdoors, and I gave them a few to pacify them. They stopped their barking and I was able to paint." Such an anecdote (lots of them in this book) is invaluable to artists embarking on plein-air sessions.

Chapter 8: Critiquing Your Work is a revelation. Says the artist: "Knowing how to judge your work is just as important as knowing how to paint. It is best to critique your work by yourself and not seek the views of others. The moment you seek advice means you are not sure where the fault lies." And he goes on to teach how you can narrow down possibly problematic areas and improve or even salvage your work. This chapter rounds up the first theoretical half of the book before Ong embarks on the hands-on section.

There are altogether 10 interesting demonstrations by the artist, each showing how he approached the subjects he discussed in the earlier chapters.

Each of these shows the different stages of work - from sketch to final painting - and how each scene, under different climatic condition, is painted, step-by-step.

Although there are many watercolour instruction books, this one is unique not because it was written by a renowned artist who has won many international awards but because it is by an Asian artist.

I say this because most watercolour instruction books are authorised by artists in the West, who for most part of their lives, lived and painted in a much different climate - unlike in the tropics where colours are much more vibrant, livelier and brighter.

To paint the colours of the tropics in a medium as challenging as transparent watercolour, one needs to master the light and shades in scenaries that we are so familiar with.

 This Ong has done remarkably well.
Mastering Light and Shade in Watercolour will certainly make a good companion and an indispensable guide to any watercolourist embarking on his painting journey

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