30 Years Sketching Penang

Translated by Ryan Ng

In light of the recent Movement Control Order (MCO), I decided to use my free time to compile and re-evaluate the artworks I have done over the last three decades.

My sketching journey began when I was in secondary school. Besides being an active member of Chung Ling High School Art Society, I also sought private lessons from artists outside of school. I had two teachers – Dato’ Tan Chiang Kiong and the late Mr. Tan Lye Hoe. I still remember Mr Tan Lye Hoe saying to me, “The stone lions outside Tan Kongsi* are amazing still-life subject to practice. The lions should appear three-dimensional. You need to draw as though you are a sculptor – every stroke must be concise and powerful.” That was my introduction to sketching and the start to my artistic journey.

*Tan Kongsi is a clan temple that used to be a place of dwelling in the 19th century by the Chinese Hokkien immigrants who share the surname, Tan.

As my secondary school only offered Science and Commerce subjects, I did not have the opportunity to study fine art. Reluctantly, I became a Science stream student. I did not enjoy all of my subjects but biology, and that was only because I love watching fishes in the aquarium! My only escape from my dull subjects was the weekly meeting of Chung Ling Art Society. I remember vividly the little art room underneath my school’s clock tower. There were two hallways entrance to the room. We only used the left hallway because we used the right-side one as a pottery studio! I remember the plaster sculptures that were displayed in the room for drawing practice. I used to laugh when the mischievous students make undergarments for Venus out of little cloth strips.

Every Saturday, the art society’s meeting was from 9 am to 12 noon, then the few of us would go to George Town for lunch and watch a movie. We used to admire Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-wai, even though we did not understand his films half the time! I suppose we just enjoyed the simple lifestyle and company of each other.

Besides Saturday meetings, us ‘art fanatics’ would often have on-location sketching on Sunday mornings. We would excitedly set off in our motorcycles, giving our juniors a lift along the way as some of them either did not have a license or just had very strict parents. These experiences I had sketching with my friends are now memories that I hold very dear. It was a time of genuine happiness, as we focused on ‘playing’ more than serious drawing. It did not matter how ‘good’ we were, so as long as we were having fun.

It was then I fell in love with the practice of on-location sketching. This practice has become a habit that has stayed with me until this day.

Selected pencil sketches from the 1990s. Drawn in a Daler-Rowney A4 sketchbook.

Pencil & Graphite

I decided to pursue architecture after graduating from secondary school. I then became a little busier and was sketching less frequently. Thankfully, I could still hand-draw all my design sketch and even use watercolour washes in some of the presentations. My architectural training provided me with a deeper understanding of space and further informed my approach to drawing them.

After my degree, I worked as an architect for a little over a year before switching to the graphic design until this day. From 2001–2005, I made lots of graphite drawings of Penang, my hometown, in quarter imperial format (28 x 38 cm). Looking back at those works, most buildings and street scenes are no more. One of the more notable places is Sia Boey market, that now exists only as a collective memory among old Penangites.

I think my drawings have become my way of keeping a diary. With no words, every drawing functions as a diary entry. As I flip through old works, memories of emotions, weather, and the occasional conversations with passers-by resurface in my mind and warm my heart. It always seems as though they just happened yesterday.

After collecting a number of drawings, I held my second solo exhibition, My Sketches Diary in 2002 at Ching Lotus Humanist Space, Penang. I invited my teacher, the late Mr Tan Lye Hoe as my guest of honour.

For more drawings from 2001-2005, click here.

One day, I had leftover long-format cartridge paper following a graphic design project. Not wanting the paper to go to waste, I decided to use it for sketching. I was immediately faced with a problem – I could not draw a complete street scene. All of a sudden, multiple dilemmas presented themselves: drawing the sky would mean giving up on the ground; drawing the ground would make the upper half of the street non-existent; I could always minimize the entire scene, but I would have to give up detail! This was all very challenging, and at the same time very exciting. My happy coincidence encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and think of newer, more dynamic compositions.

I started asking myself questions and rethinking my approach to drawing. “Why must the whole of a building be drawn? I am free to decide what I draw!” That conclusion led to my mini epiphany – that ‘selecting and discarding’ (subjects) is more important than ‘filling up’ (the paper).

I began to take a new approach. I no longer started a drawing by sketching the entire building. Instead, I started by forming composition in my head before starting with a point on paper. I found it freeing to let my lines flow in all directions from a single starting point – from up to down, left to right, my lines endlessly changing and evolving. I was freed!

My hand could then follow my heart.

I found my newly discovered method very fitting for depicting the street scenes of Penang. I made many drawings in a similar style during 2009-2010.

For more drawings from 2009-2016, click here.

In 2009, I exhibited a series of long format sketches of Penang, titled Line-line Cerita, cerita meaning story in Malay. I also compiled drawings from several years and published my first book Sketches of Pulo Pinang. This would not have been possible without the help of my friends. My appreciation goes to Lee Khai for editing, to Tan Yau Chong for translation and proofreading, and to Lee Khai, again, Tan Lye Hoe, Tan Yeow Wooi, Khoo Cheang Jin and Ambiga Devy for contributing to the writing of the book.

Kiah Kiean’s accomplishments in art are expansive. Among the many are his streetscape sketches. He has a sensitive perception for buildings. With his exaggerated yet balanced form and his seemingly chaotic yet emotive lines, he brings the streetscape, especially old buildings, he sketches to life. Each modest or even dilapidated old building seems to come alive with vigour, proudly showing off.

Khoo Cheang Jin

But Kiah Kiean’s sketches are not direct, realist representations of the old buildings and street scenes of George Town. They are always imbued with his passion and affection toward his home city. By representing the buildings and street scenes with a twist, he is in effect expressing his affectionate impressions of his subjects.

In the sketches, Kiah Kiean embraces his subjects, be they buildings or street scenes, with strokes of thick and thin lines in so powerful a manner that the subjects are somehow twisted. Such an affectionate embrace of his subjects is always interesting and very often touching.

Tan Yeow Wooi

Dry Twig & Chinese Ink

Following the publishing of my book, I got into contact with a Taiwanese artist, Professor Carton Chen. Professor Chen is a retired lecturer from the National Yang-Ming University in Taiwan, and a co-founder of Urban Sketchers Taipei. In 2011, during my vacation to Taipei, I received a very warm welcome from Professor Chen and his fellow art friends. We immediately hit it off and started sharing about our own art practices. I remember Professor Chen telling me how he draws with an ink-stained twig. He explained how he stores his ink in a little jar containing a sponge for convenience, reducing spillage and improving ink control. I was fascinated.

The following day, I went sketching in Tamsui District with some Taiwanese artists. During the session, I tried out Professor Chen’s twig pencil technique and fell in love with it instantly.

After returning to Penang, I made many monochrome sketches with dry twig and Chinese ink. I mostly used smooth surface paper in 2011-2012.

For more twig and Chinese ink sketches from 2011 and 2012, click here.

I had my fourth solo exhibition Line-line Journey in 2011 and released a book under the same name, Line-line Journey.

Last Christmas Eve, I was thrilled to receive a present from a faraway friend. Penang Black & White, a collection of postcards by Malaysian artist Ch’ng Kiah Kiean arrived in the mail. His lines are a rich artistic language that tells stories of old towns washed pale by time. His lines are dense in some areas and sparse in others, generating contrast and rhythm like the most beautiful melody.

Ung Vai Meng

To me, through the lens of Kiah Kiean’s drawings, I am able to see the lands and structures of Malaysia – the little tropical former British colony. Even though KK rarely draws people, it feels like I can see the little alleyways where different races live in harmony. It is as though I can feel little glimmers of life that peek through KK’s strokes of dense and sparse and dark and light. There is life in the window panes and roofing that provide shade and shadow, there is life in the cracks of the old, chipping structures that somehow possess a sense of grandeur. With a bold hand, KK presents both extreme precision and spontaneous transformation, creating a seemingly endless interchange of streetscapes and negative space.

雷驤

Eventually, I started to realise that smooth paper does not work very well with the ink-dipped twig as it lacks friction. My strokes were not very easy to control and it constantly seemed like my twig was slipping. I started using traditional watercolour paper, and I found cold pressed paper to be my favourite. I also prefer Saunders Waterford over other brands as the paper is yellowish, giving it a vintage impression. Besides, it is easily obtainable in Penang. Saunders has remained a personal favourite up until this day.

When I started using ink and twig, the greyish tones in my drawing were created through either rubbing a blunted twig on paper or painted on with diluted ink. The blunted twig could only cover small areas. Though diluted ink could solve the problem I still felt it wasn’t enough.

I then gave myself a challenge. What if I managed to create a method with undiluted ink that could cover wide areas in greyish tones with controllable depth and contrast? The initial concept came from traditional Chinese brush painting’s cun-fa (皴法) a method using dried ink to paint mountains, rocks, and tree bark, creating textures and depth. After many experiments, I discovered I could create my desired effect with stiff-bristled stencil brushes that are dipped in ink then dried. I did it! I called this technique ‘dry-washing’.

Artist statement edited by my good friend Song Gang for my solo exhibition Ink-Between.

I started using dry twigs and Chinese ink to draw in 2011, beginning with “dots” and “lines”, but I had to use diluted ink in order to achieve a grayscale “surface”. Later I found that the ink midtone surface can be achieved by rubbing ink with a dry brush on watercolour paper. I call this technique “dry wash”. With this technique, the drawing method with pure ink and twigs has become more complete. Ink-Between represents my dialogue with the traditional ink painting, with an attempt to re-think it and give it a new interpretation.

Ink-Between

For more dry twig and Chinese ink drawings from 2011-2019, click here.

Chinese Ink & Watercolour

It was a long and very much monochrome journey from graphite pencils to twigs and ink. At some points during these years, I have experimented with colours, only to find them difficult to control and easily overdone.

These are old sketches I did with pencil and light watercolour washes. Due to the paper being only semi-water absorbent, I could only use watercolour sparingly and quickly so as to not damage the drawing.

Sometime in 2011, I started applying watercolour to my dry twig and Chinese ink sketches whenever suitable. Then, I used watercolours from secondary school that were long untouched. Most colours had already dried up, so I had to add water to it before every use.

Seeing five colours leave the eyes blind; hearing five sounds leave the ears deaf; tasting five senses leave the mouth numb

Laozi

Eventually, I bought a new watercolours. My artworks became a lot more colourful. They began to border gaudy, and I was confused. Laozi claims that ‘five colours make one blind’. It seems like my excessive colour usage has left my eyes confused and the focal point unclear. The rich pigmentation of my new watercolours has now covered the unique lines of my twig pen.

In the beginning, I blamed this failure on my watercolours being of too high a calibre. Eventually, after a sharing session by artist Ng Woon Lam on colour usage, I then realised my mistake was because I lacked understanding in colour application. My brushstrokes were not confident enough and a little too sloppy, resulting in colours mixing with each other, complicating the painting. I started re-learning watercolour. My colour usage became more minimal, and my strokes more confident.

Inspired by colour filters in photography, I also explored the possibility of selective colouring.

For more twig drawings in colour, click here.

The Magical ArtGraf

During a workshop and trip to Paris in 2017, in an art store near the Pantheon, I stumbled upon ArtGraf, a brand of water-soluble graphite that was produced in Portugal. Its contents are similar to that of regular graphite, but it can be applied with a brush due to its water-soluble nature.

I had already come across ArtGraf product in Italy sometime before that, but it never occurred to me that graphite could be applied with a brush. I think simple solutions are often easy to overlook and sometimes, all we need is just a little pointer! Now, I use it together with pencils as I can have both the fun of pencil and brush.

My interest in graphite was sparked again. Only this time, I added ArtGraf.

The once-bustling Sia Boey market is now converted into George Town’s recreational park. Despite the change, the old tree remains constant.

For recent pencil sketches, click here.

As an artist, it is so common to be met with bottlenecks whether in terms of media, format, or subject matter. I believe this to be the artist’s challenge and daily homework. Every breakthrough should be celebrated, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. The artistic journey is one that has to be taken alone, as no one is as sensitive to changes in your artworks as you.

Below are my recent twig and Chinese ink drawings, some coloured. Here, I used a harder twig and thinned the tip to allow for more variations in thickness and line quality. This little change has allowed me to accommodate more detail in my drawings.

For more recent dry twig and Chinese ink sketches, click here.

Now, I select brighter and more transparent colours. When applying, I try to minimize brushstrokes as well.

For more recent dry twig and Chinese ink drawings in colour, click here.

Conclusion

I believe my artistic journey of 30 years can be divided into three periodic timelines – Pencil & Graphite, Dry Twig & Chinese Ink, and Chinese Ink and Watercolour. However, this was not a linear process. In between there were experiments, there were failures, but thankfully all of them could be overcome. These 30 years are just a beginning. I am well aware I still have a long journey ahead of me.

Perhaps it is because I’ve lived on an island for too long, or that I’m not very adventurous by nature, whether it is studying, working, or making art, I have always stayed in Penang, my little island. It was sketching that brought me out of my comfort zone, allowing me to visit new places and make lifelong friends along the way. Writing about my 30 years of sketching seems to me like completing a huge diary, a diary dedicated to my homeland.


To the teacher advisors of Chung Ling Art Society, Mr Chai Chuan Jin, Dato’ Tan Chiang Kiong and the late Mr Teoh Leong Ban, the individuals I first had the privilege to be led by. Thank you for being my inspiration and foundation.

To my sketching buddies who I cycled with – Yik See, Mow Sern, Kheng Hong, Kheng Jin, Meng Sin, Hun Meng, Kean Eng, Guan Long, Chih Ning, Kok Hooi, Chin Soon, Siew Ho, Take Huat, Choon Ping, Siew Wai, Swee Aun, Chok Yan, Kar Keat, Seng Khiam, Fook Long, Kean Jin & Wei Teong. This journey started from you, from us. Thank you for your companionship, thank you for the memories I will forever cherish, and most importantly, thank you for making art fun for me.

Special thanks to Ryan Ng for your time and effort to translate this article.



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