Lightly painting one brush stroke of brown watercolour after another over a different shade of brown, Chong Kok Leng was about to complete yet another piece of art on an owl. It is part of a series on the nocturnal bird of prey that has recently fascinated the self-taught artist. Chong, who has chalked up nine pieces of a varied species of owls over a period of a few months, has always loved painting birds and small animals because they are ‘alive’ but it was only not too long ago that the owl has caught his fancy.
Chong described how one day he woke up and the proverbial light bulb went off above his head to paint owls. Inspired, he began to research on them on the internet, reading up on their species, habitat and other facts. He also watched countless videos on YouTube, to learn their flight movements. Sometimes, this homework that Chong does online isn’t enough for him. For more common birds that are found locally, Chong prefers to visit pet shops in Ipoh, riding his Demak EX90 motorcycle from Chemor, about thirty minutes north of the capital city.
He said, “Observing real birds and animals gives me a better sense of how they behave. Sometimes, I will take a few photographs of them to be reviewed at home over and over again, before I put brush to paper.”
Growing up, Chong has always loved to draw and paint. His biscuit baker father and seamstress mother were very encouraging, seeing how among their four children, Chong was the only child who showed an interest in art. However, when Chong wanted to pursue a course in Fine Art after Form 5, they could only afford to send him to a college in Ipoh, which unfortunately did not offer Fine Art. Thus, Chong was forced to enrol in graphic design, which he graduated with a diploma. Shortly after graduation, Chong found a job as a graphic designer at an Ipoh firm. It lasted all of six months. That was in 1997. Long story short, Chong’s heart wasn’t in the field at all.
“I am someone who likes to work at my own pace, doing something that I love, which is painting,” Chong declared, short of admitting to be an introvert, as he put in the final touches to his owl painting, marking the end of six days of work. Building a career as an artist, Chong has disciplined himself to paint daily at his neat desk in a corner of his sparsely furnished bedroom-cum-workspace in his parents’ humble home in Chemor, which is decorated with Chong’s paintings hanging on the wall. He clocks in at least six to seven hours from 8am.
Having been a full-time artist for the past two decades, Chong concedes it is a rocky path for artists in the country, partly due to Malaysians’ weak spending power and general lack of appreciation for art, compared to Westerners. Nonetheless, his word of advice to budding artists is to follow their passion. “If you think that art is what you want to pursue, don’t let anyone or anything stop you. The path may be challenging, as it may be for many other careers, but it is extremely rewarding,” the 42-year-old bachelor spoke from personal experience.
Even with twenty years of painting under his belt, Chong continues to learn from veteran artists, adopting their techniques, putting a personal touch, and turning them into his own unique style. Chong’s art previously sold for as much as RM380 for a 6in by 6in piece up to RM8,800 for a 4ft by 6.5ft in size, to appreciative buyers. For Chong, every day is a learning process, especially now that he is moving beyond his favourite medium of watercolour to oil. Unlike his past artwork on birds and small animals, for oil, Chong is feeling his way around Ipoh landscapes and landmarks of yesteryears.
Having hosted two solo exhibitions in Ipoh in 2001 and 2008, Chong is currently boosting up his portfolio for a future third solo exhibition, although no date has been set yet. As for the theme, Chong couldn’t be more tight-lipped. “All will be revealed in due time,” he teased.
Meanwhile, a handful of Chong’s art pieces are on display at KooKee IpohOldTown, waiting for new owners. On Sundays, Chong makes it a point to drop by at KooKee from 9am and stays until 4pm, to be on hand to explain about his artwork to anyone who cares to enquire, finding joy in sharing his creations.
Note: An edited version of this article [No flight of fancy] was published on 15th July 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.