Ng Woon Lam has studied under some of the great watercolor masters of our time including Singapore Master watercolour artist Mr. Gog Sing Hooi and Cheng-Khee Chee. Ng is greatly influenced by Chinese calligraphy and the work of Gog Sing Hooi, and he works to find balance and harmony in his painting process. Ng is currently a teacher at Nanyang Technological University's School of Art, Design and Media, and he is an American Watercolor Society Dolphin Fellowship (AWS DF).
What are the general steps of your painting process?
I emphasize a lot on the process because that is the way how I am able to come up with new ideas all the time. My process generally includes line sketching, which helps me find interesting shapes, followed by a tonal study. The tonal study is the most important aspect during this design stage. It helps me discover the right mood and the appropriate transitional edges.
Sometimes, I may do some color testing. However, because I am quite confident that my color theory framework can help me resolve any problems that come up, most of the time I will just work and adjust the colors along the way.
What thinking do you do before you begin a painting? What choices do you want to have made before you begin? How do you go about making them? (Do you do tonal/value studies, color studies, etc. Why?)
When I choose my subject matters, I look for shapes, colors, stories I can tell, mood of the place and some special things that interest me. Sometimes, I like to add in my personal imagination too. Sometimes I will push my limit by solely working with imagination without references.
Why plan so much before you begin? Why not just make those decisions while you're in the painting itself? What does planning free you to do later?
Many laymen may think when we do things randomly we are very creative. In fact, it is just the reverse. The reason is, when we do things randomly, we will fall into our common habits. Everyone has a fixed build. Everyone has a certain way of using brushes or likes certain mood and colors and many other factors that constrain him/her to work within a certain comfort zone. If we do a repeat of ‘random’ actions, we will end up finding ourselves doing the same thing over and over again. Therefore, to think out of the box, I need a structural framework to help me discover areas that I have not touched on. That is how planning actually makes me more creative.
You’ve made these choices about the direction of your painting. Now it’s time to paint. What are you focused on in the painting part of the process itself? What choices are you making while painting?
When I have my tonal study and shape layout, I have pretty much the space design finished. I now know the mood and storytelling power are there. I will continue to explore interesting colors while I am working. I use color theory I derived from Munsell Color System to help me. It assists me by telling me all the subtle differences between color patches by comparing their three attributes, namely tone, hue, and chroma. These differences will further complement my tonal planning. That allows me to make subtle adjustments since the final paintings are generally larger than the tonal studies, which therefore require more sophisticated variations. Color attribute differences further enhance the subtle differences and hence create richer edge quality.
Many artists think of watercolor as primarily a transparent medium. How do you use opaques in your work? What have you found they bring to your watercolor paintings?
Many watercolor techniques were developed from oil painting. I use from wet to dry, thin to thick pigment during painting. That allows me to create more variations like old masters working in oil. I work with opaque, semi-opaque, transparent and semi-transparent paint. I work with both wash and drybrush technique. And the paint and paper technology today are so high that we can make any kind of adjustment. Therefore, we are not constraint by the transparency of watercolor. We are able to get back the same brightness working either in transparent or opaque manner. So I take advantage of everything I have. The optical results of mixing transparent, opaque and semi-opaque layers in drybrushing (scumble) and glazing manner enrich the range of edge quality and subtle color range.
How do you approach shapes in your work? When you’re looking at a scene in real life or in a photo, how are you organizing shapes and then plan to physically paint them?
I look at shapes from a design point of view. I use them to create a dynamic design by varying their size and geometry. Also, through overlapping them with different color attributes (tone, hue, and chroma), I could use them to depict different depth of space, hence creating a good sense of 3-dimensions.
When you are looking at a scene en plein air or at a reference photo, what is your process for choosing an approach to color? What questions do you ask yourself to help you get to a final palette for a painting? Is it based on strength of light? Local color? Mood? Energy?
I choose colors to work with based on my planned mood, weather condition (including different lighting conditions) and personal preferences. Sometimes, I just choose colors to make myself happy, and there is no other reason. However, even if I choose the colors of my preference, I still depend on my strong practical knowledge of colors to resolve color issues along the way, when I am painting. Munsell Color System is so far the best practical system I use to handle any color issues I face.
What do you mean when you talk about finding and using a color rhythm in your work? How do you choose a color rhythm?
Color rhythm is the dynamic design of colors. When we choose a color scheme, for example, when I use a happy color scheme that has many high chroma colors like pure cadmium red, cadmium orange, cobalt blue, and brilliant green, the image will not be held together easily. This is like each pure hue has its strong voice.
When they are placed together, they are all too loud and form noise instead of a piece of music. To resolve this, we have to design intermediate transitional colors (some weaker red, orange, blue and green – namely tinted, shaded or brownish version of these pure colors) to connect these pure hues together. It is like designing intermediate sound to connect the loudest sound together to compose a piece of music.
Similarly, if we work in a reverse manner with just a single color like blue, we also need to find some other versions of blues that carry some other hues to enrich the blue. Otherwise, we will have a boring mono-hue blue without any tonal difference. This issue is seen in many beginner painters and digital painters when they start with tonal paintings without a good understanding of the relationship between tone and colors. That can be understood well by looking into the comprehensive color space vectors in Munsell Color Space.
Color can feel overwhelming. Where do you suggest students begin when studying color? What advice do you give them?
1, Master of the tone of each color.
2. Know the actual hue difference between colors. Don’t depend on color wheels sold in the market because they make an assumption that each hue work similarly, while in reality, a practical color space is asymmetrical (Please refer to Munsell Color Space). Therefore, we need develop practical understanding of each hue by physical mixing them, if we do not have strong color theory foundation based on an asymmetrical color space, not the symmetrical color wheels in the market.
3. Master all the browns and know which brown is nearer to which pure hue. Many students actually do not know that:
(a) Black is practical nearer to dark blue, hence mixing black with yellow ochre, a dull green is obtained.
(b) Dark brown is nearer to purple because dark brown is a mixture of red brown (nearer to red) and black (near to blue). Or we can say dark brown is a dull purple
These will help students master browns and black/grays (transitional colors) well and improve their sense of color design, especially the subtle richness of colors.
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