Lim Cheng Hoe: Paintings of Singapore

Lim Cheng Hoe. Watercolour. Boats by the waterfront
Lim Cheng Hoe. Watercolour Boats by the waterfront

On our way back home from Australia I discovered  paintings of Singapore by Lim Cheng Hoe (1912 – 1979) at the National Gallery.  His watercolours are captivating. They have a sense of confidence and spontaneity that is the sign of a true watercolourist.

I love finding the work of an artist I wasn’t aware of before, and in this case, there is so much to inspire me. I did a bit of research on this fascinating artist who is well-known in the art world of Singapore.  Although he discovered his love of art while at school, Lim Cheng Hoe could not afford to become a full time artist.  He spent his working years employed as a clerk and painted in his spare times. On Sundays he could be found painting with a group of fellow artists at the Singapore river and other popular plein air locations around Singapore. From all accounts he was always welcoming and greatly encouraging towards newcomers to the group. He had a reputation for sharing his knowledge generously, and is possibly best known as one of the founders of the Singapore Watercolour Society.

His paintings on exhibition

The National Gallery is a set in the old Supreme Court building and is well worth a visit. Staff are incredibly helpful and keen to offer information about the exhibitions. Photographs are permitted, as long as they are taken without flash. I was therefore able to take photographs of the paintings I felt gave a good feel for Lim Cheng Hoe’s style which I have used in this post. The only issue is the fact that in some paintings, there is a visible reflection of the gallery lights, for which I apologise.  All paintings in this post are watercolours by Lim Cheng Hoe.

Painting Materials

His love of plein air painting was legendary and his painting kit quite simple. By today’s standards, he achieved a huge amount with very little.

Lim Cheng Hoe – perfecting watercolour

Always dissatisfied with his work, he invested a huge amount in perfecting his art. He would often going back to the same place a number of times to paint the same scene in different ways.  One method he employed to challenge himself was to paint one version in landscape orientation and another in portrait.

Singapore River (Portrait orientation)
Watercolour. Singapore River (Portrait orientation)
Watercolour. Singapore River (Landscape orientation)
Watercolour. Singapore River (Landscape orientation)

His dramatic skies were masterful and he was not afraid to let the watercolour merge and blend on the paper, sometimes even leaving the marks of rain or blooms to become part of the final work.

The Estuary
Watercolour. The Estuary
Watercolour. Attap and Nets at Kukup
Attap and Nets at Kukup

His use of colour could be bold and dramatic at times.

Not Titled. Sunset Beach
Not Titled. Sunset Beach
Not Titled. Sunset
Lim Cheng Hoe. Watercolour. Not Titled. Sunset

Many of his paintings showed his ability to use soft wet-in-wet technique to evoke the atmosphere

Lim Cheng Hoe. Watercolour. View from the Hilltop
View from the Hilltop
Lim Cheng Hoe. Watercolour. Nocturne
Lim Cheng Hoe. Watercolour. Misty Morn at Singapore River
Misty Morn at Singapore River
Lim Cheng Hoe. Watercolour. Kaleidoscope

True to the maxim that more of the watercolour is created before a brush touches paper, he placed a lot of emphasis on composition, and long after his fellow artists had started painting, he would still be walking around to find the perfect spot from which to paint the scene.

Written word

Diaries were as important as the paintings themselves. He was a meticulous taker of notes and documented every day in the closely written pages of his diaries.

This, written when he was just 18 years old, records events of his daily life.  Apparently, he made meticulous records of events and of his painting sessions at the river.

The discovery of Lim Cheng Hoe has been a highlight of my trip and I will be looking out for more of his work from here on.

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