Cultural Medallion Watercolourist Ong Kim Seng Will Never Retire from Painting

Falling in love with your job is easy, but staying in love with it is no easy feat. Hat tip to Ong Kim Seng for managing to do so for the past 30 years.

His artistic journey was far from smooth. Having lost his father at a young age, his mother was a pillar of support, but they did not see eye-to-eye with regard to his passion for art. Many a time, Ong had to paint on the sly, either at his friends’ homes or on newspapers. Despite the odds that were stacked against him, the self-taught artist stayed true to his unyielding passion and vision.

To him, “Art is a continuous journey. There may be pitfalls and times where you get stuck. It is up to one to choose a path and go along with it.”

Today, he is undeniably one of Singapore’s most prolific watercolourists. Accolades aside, he placed Singapore on the world map by being the only Asian artist residing outside of US to be admitted to the American Waterlour Society (‘AWS’).

As a plein-air realist painter, he stays true to his subject-matter, but continues to add an element of intrigue to it by varying the vantage points of his paintings. A fan of nature and traditional architecture, Ong often travels to Bali, Tibet, Nepal, Italy and more, in search of new subject-matter. Out of all these countries, Nepal strikes a chord in him the most, since it has the highest mountains in the world and plenty of culture to offer.

Refining his technique over the years is a tedious task. He alludes it to life – where our experiences shape us and make us who we are. To him, an artist with profound experiences can draw a straight line that looks interesting, despite it just being a straight line.

“Satisfy yourself first, and be a judge of your own painting” – Ong Kim Seng

In a world where buildings get torn down and rebuilt in rapid succession, the whole city has become flattened into what Ong dubs as ‘chocolate boxes’. The beauty he sees is the change, or nostalgia in transformation which is expressed in Ong’s oeuvre of work at Ode to Art that charts Singapore’s journey of transformation over the years, and what remains in the modern era.

From The Esplanade, 2013 / Water Colour on Paper (30 x 40cm)
From The Esplanade, 2013 / Water Colour on Paper (30 x 40cm)

Pockets of old architecture in Emerald Hill pique Ong’s interest, which he visits time and time again. To vary things, he ascribes a different meaning each time he approaches a new painting. His favourite style is the timeless, muted monochrome style, but notes that the bold, vivacious ‘Californian’ style is popular amongst buyers. Another aspect of his career is giving back to charity, which he does regularly by contributing paintings to charity auctions.

Being an artist has its perks too. In his line of work, Ong had the privilege of meeting visionaries such as Auung San Suu Kyi and Dalai Lama. Auung San Suu Kyi’s love for watercolour painting was ignited during her house arrest, upon hearing of Ong’s arrival in Yangon, she was inclined to have a hearty lunch conversation with Ong where they discussed everything under the sun. Ong’s audience with Dalai Lama was a memorable one too, where Ong was struck by how down-to-earth and humble he was.

Looking forward, Singapore’s art culture is something that progresses and matures in tandem with societal taste. Many people comment on the absence of an art culture in Singapore, but as Mr Ong notes, the appreciation of beauty is not static, it is constantly changing and it is up to society to take it forward.


Ong Kim Seng’s new series of work “Nostalgia in Transformation” will be exhibited at Ode to Art gallery from 9 – 14 April 2015, in celebration of Singapore’s 50th birthday.


Explore latest trends in contemporary culture


Explore latest trends in contemporary culture