The Singapore Watercolour Society (SWS) was established on 18 August 1969 to promote watercolour painting in Singapore and provide local watercolourists with greater opportunities to showcase their works. The society has since held exhibitions regularly in Singapore and overseas, while several of its members have won awards and garnered international recognition.
Background and establishment
The interest in watercolour painting in Singapore emerged due to the influence of British watercolour sketching and illustration. Furthermore, watercolour painting was taught in schools during the colonial era, thereby influencing some pioneer local artists in this medium, such as Lim Cheng Hoe.
As early as 1962, Ong Kim Seng, Chen Chong Swee, Ong Chye Cho and others, led by Lim Cheng Hoe, met on Sundays to paint outdoors. They gathered often at various areas in the city-centre, particularly by the Singapore River, for their sessions.
In order to improve the quality of watercolour painting and create greater awareness about the practice, the group banded together to form a society. In the early years of the SWS, members were predominantly from the Chinese-speaking demographic.
The SWS was established on 18 August 1969 with 13 founding members:
- Chen Chong Swee
- Gog Sing Hooi
- Ho Yee Ping
- Leng Joon Wong
- Chan Soon Yean
- Chin Chun Wah
- Ong Chye Cho
- Loy Chye Chuan
- Sim Kwang Teck
- Khor Ean Ghee
- Lim Cheng Hoe
- Lee Choon Kee
- Koh Tong Leong
The SWS founding members and pioneers in watercolours sought to incorporate local and regional elements in their works, particularly with the choice of subject matter, leading some art critics to label them as artists working in the Nanyang style. They often painted depictions of everyday life, cultural scenes, historical buildings and disappearing landscapes. Over the years, however, watercolour painting has come to include more diverse styles, content and mediums. For example, the subject matter may take a more abstract turn instead of the traditional focus on the “visible world”.
Objectives and organisation
The SWS has four main objectives: to pass on to the next generation the practice of watercolour painting in Singapore; to foster a conducive environment for professional watercolourists to share ideas and build relationships; to assist watercolourists in developing new techniques and styles; and to promote watercolour painting in Singapore.
Membership into the SWS requires approval from a membership committee set up in 1992, so as to maintain the members’ standard of watercolour painting and to ensure their active participation. Those who do not meet the “stringent criteria” for membership can join a programme organised by the SWS to improve their artistic skill.
Exhibitions and other activities
Society members, largely self-taught, usually gather on Sundays to paint and to discuss their practice. Through mutual criticism and discussion, as well as exposing newer painters to the accomplishments of more established artists, members learn more about the art form. The tradition of regular outdoor painting in the SWS has been upheld since the time of its founding.
In December 1970, just a year after its establishment, the society held its first annual exhibition showcasing the works of 16 members, at the Victoria Memorial Hall (known today as the Victoria Concert Hall). The event was Singapore’s first major watercolour exhibition. Since then, the SWS has been organising its annual exhibition, which showcases the works of its members and invited artists.
In 1990, award-winning watercolourist and SWS co-founder Ong Kim Seng became the first Asian outside the United States to become a member of the American Watercolor Society – a significant achievement for a local artist. Ong was elected president of the SWS the following year, and held the office for the next decade. In 1994, the SWS further expanded its network when it joined the Asian Watercolour Confederation (AWC). The same year, the society held a commemorative exhibition, Watercolour Visions: 25 Years of Watercolour Painting in Singapore, at the then Empress Place Museum Art Gallery. The show displayed works by watercolour pioneers and SWS founding members Chen Chong Swee, Lim Cheng Hoe and Sim Kwang Teck, among other artists.
In May 1995, the SWS moved into its new premises, known as the Watercolour Resource Centre, on Hongkong Street, where exhibitions, talks and classes were held.
In December the same year, one of SWS’s founding members, Ong Chye Cho, participated in the President’s Charity Art Exhibition, during which two of his paintings were bought by Tommy Koh, then chairman of the National Arts Council. The SWS then participated in the first Asia-Pacific Watercolour Painting Exhibition in Taipei, Taiwan, in August 1996, and has since then been invited as a participant every year. The same year also saw SWS stage their 26th annual exhibition, which featured some 100 works by 54 members. In October 1997, the SWS hosted Asian Watercolours ’97, the annual exhibition of the AWC and the largest watercolour show in Asia. It not only marked the first time the society organised such a large-scale event, but was also the inaugural AWC show in Singapore. Held at Tourism Court, the premises of then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now Singapore Tourism Board), the exhibition featured some 174 paintings by artists from 13 Asian countries.
Due to insufficient funds, the Watercolour Resource Centre on Hongkong Street closed, and the society moved into its new home at Telok Kurau Studios in March 1997 under the National Arts Council’s Arts Housing Scheme. The SWS has invited overseas artists to its Telok Kurau premises to give talks on the medium.
In September 1998, five SWS watercolourists – Lim Leong Seng, Ong Kim Seng, Tong Chin Sye, Keong Hean Keng and Chan Chang How – were selected to exhibit their works at the biennial Flemish Watercolour Days international art show in Belgium.
In 2001, 38-year-old Seah Kam Chuan replaced Ong Kim Seng as the new president of the SWS and was joined by an almost entirely new committee made up of younger members, most of them in their 30s. With more than half of the SWS members aged above 50 at the time, the society sought to renew itself by handing over the reins to the younger generation and thereby also attracting younger members. The same year, the society launched its website so as to have a wider reach.
The SWS has also been organising the National Junior Watercolour Competition since 2007, held in conjunction with their annual exhibition. The young participants are from schools and community centres. Additionally, the society holds watercolour talks and painting demonstrations in association with the National Arts Council, and conducts watercolour painting classes for schools.
Seah Kang Chui has been president of the SWS since 2008.