ONG KIM SENG
“Painting outdoors is always unpredictable. Even if you’re an experienced painter, it can be a challenge. You never know what you might encounter when you set out to paint. Still, it’s much more interesting to paint what is front of you than it is to work from a photograph or an image on a computer screen, where you have to make up what lies hidden in the dark areas of the picture.
“I’m inspired by a variety of subjects — cityscapes, seascapes, parks, gardens. I look for scenes with contrasts in value and color. Basically I’m quite a traditional transparent watercolor painter, so light and shade is important to me. I need good sunlight with strong shadows. It might be a simple scene, but if I can see that the colors will be an absolute draw to viewers, I know it will make a good painting.”
“People’s imaginations are limited. And because nature is fickle, the scenery at any given moment will not be repeated. Through the process of plein air painting, though, we can experience the beautiful colors and unique compositions of nature and try to capture it for ourselves and others.
“If I can stay on site for enough time, I finish the work completely. Being able to feel the weather, the sounds of birds and the river flowing, and the relaxed conversation of the crowd at the scene forms a happy picture. If the time is rushed, I take a few photos of the scene with my mobile phone, draw some black-and-white or color sketches, and then return to the studio to make a formal work.
“In Malaysia, we’ve always had many on-site plein air activities and outdoor painting competitions organized by the government or schools, most of which are designed for art lovers and students to take part. Normally I participate in more than 20 domestic and foreign plein air events every year. When I’m home, I join other painters on weekend mornings to paint together. We meet for breakfast, then pick a favorite corner to set up and sketch. When we’re done, we get back together to share experiences and take a group photo.”
“Plein air is popular in Sweden, and more and more artists are coming to it. But it’s a challenging country for painting outdoors. We have a dark, cold winter that lasts six months, and in the summer, the light is often very strong or changes too rapidly. In the summer, I typically spend two to three months painting plein air in Sweden — most of the time in the Stockholm archipelago, but in the north of the country as well. In the wintertime, I often travel abroad to warmer countries to paint or work in my studio on large-format paintings based on my smaller plein air pieces.
“Outdoors, I work on 11 x 15 or 22 x 15-inch sheets, and I’m usually done in one go. Water directs the watercolor painting process to a great extent. Once the process is started, it’s best to stay with it until it’s complete. Typically, I make a few paintings at a location to see how the composition works best in different light.
“I look for subjects that allow me to express my creativity and my specific knowhow, where I can test my virtuosity. A well-composed image will make the spectator look at the image closer, pause, feel curious. Image composition is about harmony between various elements so that they work together to form a whole. I don’t want to tell to the spectator what I’m feeling, but I hope that my painting awakens his own feelings or at least provide’s a moment of relaxation when he can feel close to the landscape depicted in my watercolor.
“Nature is the best teacher. Painting only from photos, I would lose my sensibility. It would be impossible for me to paint landscapes staying only in the studio.”
“In India, plein air painting is very popular. There are many small and large events that support watercolors, especially plein air. As the IWS [International Watercolor Society] India president, I’ve organized five International Watercolor Festivals, in which many Indian and top foreign artists participated. We had plein air sessions and competitions as part of each.
“I also travel frequently to different countries for workshops and exhibitions, and I love to plein air paint in those places. I learn so much from painting outdoors, particularly figuring out what to add and what to delete from my compositions. In general, I’m drawn to cityscapes with figures in action, but I also love to paint harbors and boatyards, which also have great energy.
“Of course, plein air painting can be a challenge, and sometimes the weather is not favorable. The perfect day for me has not much wind and good sunlight. I find morning light the best for painting. If the conditions aren’t good for finishing a piece on location, I’ll make a sketch and go back to my studio to paint. In either case, my aim is always to capture the mood and atmosphere of the scene.”
“Russian artists love to paint in nature. You can easily find organized workshops and outdoor demos, with the exhibitions held after presenting a wide range of views and techniques.
“For me, the ideal conditions for plein air painting are sunny weather and not many people nearby. I like to paint near the sea and in the mountains, where there is complete calm and silence. In the open air, I make sketches or quick studies, which I can turn into larger paintings back in my studio. But if I’m really inspired, and the atmosphere is good, I can finish a big piece on site. Generally, I find that if a piece is drawn well, it will sell, whether it’s done in the open air or in the studio.
“In plein air, the artist’s worldview, visual acuity, and sense of color are formed. The practice consolidates the obtained theoretical knowledge of the artist, and also develops it. The artist merges with nature and tries to portray it the way she feels it.”
Inspired to take your watercolors abroad? Find out how you can spend 10 days exploring and painting New Zealand, September, 2022.
Many years since I attempted watercolor — maybe it’s time to try again.