SINGAPORE - Unknown to many, one of Singapore's most celebrated watercolourists Ong Kim Seng had actually started painting in oil when he was a 14-year-old student at Pasir Panjang Secondary School in 1959.
His first work in oil, Merdeka Bridge, which he painted a year later, won top prize in the school's art competition.
It was among the eight oil paintings he did in the 1960s which he donated in 2011 to the upcoming Singapore National Art Gallery.
Ong, who was guided by the school's teachers and its art club to dabble in oil, switched to watercolour when he started his Sunday plein air (open air) painting sessions in the late 1960s with some of Singapore's pioneer watercolourists, including the late Lim Cheng Hoe and Ong Chye Cho.
The self-taught artist has not looked back since, winning awards with his watercolour paintings and getting the Cultural Medallion in 1990. A decade later, he won the Excellence for Singapore Award from the Singapore Totalisator Board and the Dolphin Fellowship conferred by the American Watercolour Society.
Ong, now 68, often wondered what might have been if he had stuck to oil. Since the early 1990s, he has been painting in the medium again, slipping one or two of his oils occasionally into his solo exhibitions.
Two of his oil paintings, one of a Balinese scene and the other of Kathmandu, were sold by Indonesian collectors successfully at Sotheby's auctions held here in 1996 and 1997.
His first oil painting show, Ong Kim Seng: Travel Journal In Oils, which opened last Sunday at artcommune gallery, came as no surprise to those who have been following him and his works.
The question posed by many at the show displaying 24 of his oils was: Why are you painting in oil now? Ong, who is married with three children, said: "Everyone in my Sunday group in the late 1960s painted in watercolour and so I went along. I also found paper and watercolour cheaper and easier to carry around than the easel, canvases and oils."
Besides, he added, Lim, the best watercolourist in Singapore then, was painting with him every Sunday.
Ong said he preferred watercolour as it was a more challenging medium to him. "You have to paint faster and exercise good control of the water and colours to do well in the medium," he said.
"You often can't leave a watercolour painting incomplete, then go back to complete it later. In oil, you can take a longer time to finish a work."
Still, he found watercolour painting had its limitations. One was the size of the works, which could only be as big as the sheet of paper.
The earliest work in oil at the current show is Singapore River Mouth (1992), which he would have found harder to do in watercolour because of its size - 120cm by 100.5cm.
But he said at the show's opening that he would never abandon watercolour painting for oil.
He said he wanted to feel how painting in oil is like after years of painting in watercolour, especially for scenes that he had done in watercolour.
So expect familiar scenes in oil at the exhibition such as Portofino, Italy, which he did last year following his original watercolour version in 1995.
Ong says: "They are all my paintings, whether in watercolour or oil. I am like playing the same piece of music using two instruments, first with the piano and then the violin now."
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