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Published: Monday December 30, 2013 MYT 2:08:00 PM
Updated: Monday December 30, 2013 MYT 2:49:44 PM

Graphics touch to watercolour painting

Chong's piece on Pasir Penambang, Kuala Selangor.

Chong's piece on Pasir Penambang, Kuala Selangor.

PETALING JAYA: Chong Fei Giap is an artist and watercolours are his favourite. But you won't find Chong taking a brush and working on his canvas.

Instead, he uses a laptop and digital drawing tablet to "draw" a watercolour feel to Malaysian shoplots and back alleys, hanging telephone wires and fishing villages.

In his "Colour of Scenery" series, Chong features closely-constructed wooden buildings stacked one on top of the other with roofs of corrugated metal and peeling multi-coloured paint.

An illustration of a fishing village in Penang.
The idea for the series first crossed Chong’s mind when he visited his father’s hometown, Kuala Pilah, during the All Souls Day celebration with his family.

“Many years ago, my grandfather owned a sundry shop. When we went back, my father told us stories of growing up in the small town.

“My grandfather was forced to sell the property when he ran into financial problems but my father has since bought the shop,” shared Chong.

“That’s when I got the idea of drawing kampung scenes. However, I wanted to try it on a digital medium and introduce a new feel to traditional artwork,” he said of his pieces, which can take a while to complete.

An illustration of Malaysian-inspired buildings.
Chong said he would use 3D software to render shapes into buildings and then use photoshop to fill in colours and details.

His “Color of Scenery” series was undertaken as a personal project while running a full-time job as art director in  graphic design start-up, Running Snail.

“Although commercial work brings in money, I would get bored if I just stuck to commissions. As an artist, you need to spare a bit of time to do your own stuff - to enjoy yourself,” added Chong, who enjoys listening to radio talk shows while he paints.

“An artwork usually takes a few weeks to finish. Sometimes longer, because I draw on an on-and-off basis.

"Occasionally, a drawing is left for weeks before I touch it again!” he said.

An 'alley' in Ipoh.
So as not to leave any detail out, Chong takes pictures of the places he visits to be used as reference. He believes that he may have found his area of specialisation through “Colour of Scenery”.

“Before this, I did a lot of game and concept art while also exploring different genres to find my niche.

"I realised that I wasn’t very good at game art and knew I had to try something else,” he explained.

“After completing the first piece of “Colour of Scenery”, I discovered that it was a style I was comfortable with. Before this, most of my artwork was dark and monotonous. This series is different because it is a lot more vibrant and bright.” 

To produce the artworks, Chong travelled to Kuala Pilah, Seremban, Kuala Selangor, Puchong, Penang and Ipoh to take pictures.

The Komtar building in Penang looms in the background of a row of wooden houses.

Feeling particularly fond of Penang, he has dedicated the second part of his illustration series to the state.

“I like Penang a lot and  go there for work occasionally. While I was on assignment, I made sure I take many pictures to bring back to KL with me,” he said.

In “Colour of Scenery”, girls in school pinafores make an appearance, either day-dreaming or going about their daily business.

According to Chong, they serve as a connecting factor to the art pieces.

“I wanted something to link the images together and thought it would be nice to include them. It brings to mind the thought of someone who is travelling around Malaysia.”

The schoolgirls featured in the series represent his two other colleagues in the small design company, Audrey Chew, 23, and Jacqueline Koh, 22, explained Chong.

The series has gone on quite a journey from an initial idea inspired by a hometown trip. The images have since been posted and reposted in websites around the world.

“The illustrations were shared in quite a few countries and the posters usually credit me as ‘The Artist from Malaysia’.

"I even remember seeing one image posted along with Arabic commentary!” said Chong who is surprised and flattered by the attention.

Chong fondly remembers old red and yellow cable cars from Genting Highlands in his piece.

Chong does not mind that others used his images without his permission. Rather, he is delighted that they are loved and appreciated.

“I will keep drawing because people have said that they like the work I produce.

"Of course, it is normal that after all the effort put in, we are satisfied with our own pieces but it really has a cheering effect on me when I know that others enjoy seeing it as well,” explained Chong on his motivation to continue in his art.

The path to his dream job was no walk through the park. Being the eldest of three siblings, Chong met parental disapproval when he told his family of his ambition.

“My father owns a sundry shop and my mother helps him with the business. They are very traditional and thought that in order to succeed, I need to own my own business, own my own company, not draw.”

“However, after I won a few design competitions in secondary school, they realised that I have talent and allowed me to pursue art. Now they are OK with my choice after seeing that I can make ends meet and fend for myself,” said Chong, whose two other siblings are also designers.

At the beginning, Chong’s art was mostly self-taught. He only received professional help when he enrolled in art college The One Academy.

For inspiration, Chong looks to magazines and other artists’ work.

“I really admire [Japanese film director] Hayao Miyazaki’s work. I wanted to create something with beautiful backgrounds, village scenes and fantasy elements. These are all commonly found in his movies,” he said.

Contrary to what others might think, Chong is not a big fan of comics.

“I have a hard time reading the speech bubbles. When there are lots of words, I would skip through the pages but I really enjoy looking at the accompanying pictures,” he said.

When asked what he liked drawing most of all, Chong answered that he had a fascination with cable cars.

“I went to Genting Highlands with my family when I was about four or five. I can’t remember anything about the trip now, the only thing I recall was the yellow and red cable cars. I thought they were fascinating.”

A quick glance through the series will show many drawings of mini markets, influenced by his childhood surroundings.

“When I was young, I was always at the pasar. This is my childhood. Now that I’m living in KL, I don’t get to see it often. If I have time or if I need some ideas, I will visit old town Seremban and find old memories. It’s a very inspiring thing.”

For now, Chong is focusing on his work in Running Snail, illustrating for editorial projects and school books.

“We went through hard times in the beginning because clients were not consistent. Now, things are getting better,” he said of the company he runs with Chew and Koh.

Due to the nature of his work, Chong finds himself spending most of his time at work with his colleagues and the resident office pets, two fish and a hamster named Muffin.

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