When the World is a Water-coloured palette

Watercolor is an alchemical medium – colors mixing with water, joining with it, being extended by it – creating new life where none had been before.”

Joseph Raffael

Lim Cheng Hoe’s water-colour depiction of the Singapore River is simply my most favourite image of Singapore’s trading artery in the 20th century. This one was painted in 1962 and it hangs in the National Gallery of Singapore.

Notice how the colours bleed into the paper and shapes, forming an abstract, diluted representation of life by the river. The hazy effect—a smudging of colours—is caused by diluting watercolours with more  water than needed: it lends this piece a dream-like quality. The block of yellows and dots of blues are still so distinct, it feels like this piece was only completed yesterday. Uncannily, the blotching of water stains does remind one of water. But could the boat be a clue and we are reading Lim’s visual narrative using our personal experiences to make connections? Does anyone feel that this could be a Chinese landscape painting? 

I love anything rendered in watercolours. Perhaps, it is because water colours were the first art materials I used in childhood and they are reminiscent of an idyllic past. Watercolours were easy enough to find—boxes with lids that contained circles of colours. They were economical too—great presents for birthdays. A plastic cup for water, a crude brush, and some paper—it doesn’t have to be of good quality either—were all you needed to keep a child interested in art occupied for hours. I painted flowers, houses, grass, sampan boats (much like what you see in Lim’s piece), and stick figures with skirts and trousers to fill in with watered down hues. 

In Singapore River, Lim has managed to capture a proverbial everyday scene in the early 60s. It’s a Romantic imagination of this river. Lim painted en plein aire, outside, in the humidity and heat that cleave themselves to this nation-state. In my imagination of how Lim painted, the scene in my mind’s eye is hardly Romantic. I know the reality of living in the tropics where sometimes, it is just too hot in the day to be out and about. I also know that when Lim was painting, the River was a convenient source for tipping one’s rubbish and waste. The stench must’ve been strong. But the inclination to capture a scene, documenting a way of life then, must’ve been stronger. 

The Singapore River still exists. It’s a cleaned up and less smelly version. In fact, there is now no stench at all. The Romantic imagination captured all those decades ago has now materialised and become reality. Today, a Disneyesque version of the boats in Lim’s painting ply the water, ferrying tourists from one end of the river the the other. 

As many know, art forms a very important part of my life. I’ve chosen to focus on picture books because it is often the art between the pages of the book that I’m drawn to. That’s not to say that I disregard the story or the writing. I find, more often than not, when the writing is wonderful, good art inevitably follows. These two modalities in the arts come hand in hand. 

When Penguin Random House Southeast Asia acquired Mina’s Magic Malong last year, I had no idea that the illustrator would be a water colourist. A picture book author does not have control over these things. Once the manuscript is written and handed over to the publishing house’s editorial team, it’s time to let go and work on your next project. It’s the house that chooses the illustrator. But to add to that, because I believe in the hocus-pocus way life can meander, it is also the work that chooses the illustrator in a cosmic kind of way. Creation works on multi-levels and is multi-layered. And, who knows how the Universe makes so many things happen.

The process with Novita Elisa was a unique one because she was PRH’s subsequent choice. There were some complications with the first choice, details of which I’m not privy to share because I don’t know them. It was such a relief to see the proofs for the book and to see that Novita Elisa got the story of Mina’s Magic Malong. The bonus for me is that her artwork for the book was completed in water colours. Hence, this gives the picture book a vintage feel. There are similar qualities I see in Novita’s work that draw me in to Lim’s: the running or smudging of colours on the paper, the vibrant flashes and blotches of colours, the nostalgia. 

Well, folks, like I said, when your manuscript has been submitted, it’s time to let go. Following my own advice, I did just that and have started on my next picture book. I wonder who the illustrator will be this time.

Mina’s Magic Malong is found in all good bookstores and on Amazon. 

Mina’s Magic Malong gives voice to an often invisible group.”

Emily Lim-Leh