Monday, July 17, 2017

Dancing Lines, Part 1: Ch'ng Kiah Kiean

7/14/17 KK giving a presentation on his tools and methods.
Seattle-area sketchers – and, as it turned out, many people who came from out of town, including as far as Costa Rica – had a fantastic opportunity this past weekend in the Dancing Lines workshop. Sponsored by Urban Sketchers Seattle, the workshop brought in Penang, Malaysia, artist Ch'ng Kiah Kiean (better known as KK) and New York City artist Melanie Reim. I’m very grateful to USk Seattle for making this opportunity possible. It was like having a mini symposium in our own backyard!

The two-day workshop kicked off Friday night with a meet-and-greet and presentations by the instructors at Daniel Smith’s Seattle store. To give all 30 workshop participants time with each instructor in each of two locations, the students were divided in half, and both groups met with both instructors each day. For better continuity in helping me document what I learned, my blog posts will cover each instructor’s curriculum instead of the chronology of the workshop days. Today’s post will focus on KK; the next will cover Melanie.

On Saturday morning at the Seattle Center, my group met with KK, who started off with an introduction to his simple tools. Well-known in the USk community for creating amazing paintings with nothing more than a twig and Chinese ink, KK generously provided each of us with a stick. These were no ordinary twigs from a jasmine tree; they were hand-prepped by his own father, who has helped prep hundreds of such twigs for KK’s workshops. He also gave us a small sponge in a plastic box for “dry ink” toning and a small jar with gauze to hold ink for his primary drawing method.

Carving jasmine twigs into drawing instruments.
Demonstrating various lines he is able to get with a single twig.

Here's the way KK carves his twig "nibs."
KK coached us in carving the ends of our sticks into a nib shape. Surprisingly, he usually re-carves his own twigs before beginning each sketch to customize the size of the “nibs” for the subject matter and to freshen the points. He also demonstrated how he uses inexpensive commercial stencil brushes to scumble tone on drawings. Seated at shady picnic tables behind the Museum of Popular Culture building, we practiced using our humble tools. He advised us not to hold the twig like a pencil but more like a piece of charcoal or upright like a brush.

After that bit of practice, we walked around to the front of MoPOP in the shadow of the Space Needle. KK gave us a full demo by sketching those two Seattle icons, and then it was our turn. 

Demo at the Seattle Center.
KK's finished sketch of the Space Needle and MoPOP.

Although I wasn’t new to KK’s twiggy methods (I saw his demo at the Paraty symposium three years ago but haven’t practiced twig sketching in quite a while), scumbling with a stencil brush was new to me. I like the soft, charcoal-like tones I can get from it, and if the stencil brush is small enough, it can also be used to help form the shapes (as in the rounding of the crazy, organic MoPOP building fa├žade).

7/15/17 My humble attempt at the same
subject matter with Chinese ink, twig, stencil brush

The second day my group spent the afternoon with KK at the Pike Place Market. In a similar format to the first day, he began with a full demo of his drawing and painting methods. Sheltered in a quiet, windowed spot inside the new MarketFront (our temps in the high 60s were a bit chilly for this Malaysian!), he made a magnificent panorama of the waterfront view. This time he added subtle color with watercolors. I tried to learn as much as I could from observing his process, but honestly, I simply enjoyed watching him the way I enjoy a magician’s performance: Even if I don’t know what’s going on, it’s sheer pleasure seeing how he wields his simple materials.

Sketching the waterfront through the window at the Pike Place Market's MarketFront.
KK adds touches of watercolor to his finished drawing.

His completed masterpiece.

Our exercise for the rest of the afternoon was to again practice using our tools and techniques learned the previous day and add color if desired. I picked a scene similar to the one I sketched a couple weeks ago when I visited the MarketFront with USk, but this time I focused on the skyscrapers to the east instead of the viaduct and waterfront. Although I felt cramped by the 5 ½-by-8 ½-inch sketchbook I had brought to the workshop with a twig “nib” much fatter than my usual fountain pens and even markers, I was happy with the tones I achieved using nothing more than the twig, stencil brush and Chinese ink. (I used my usual water-soluble colored pencils to add spots of color.)

7/16/17 Chinese ink, twig, stencil brush

As a segue to my report of the sessions with Melanie Reim in the next blog post, I want to show you a couple of photos from the end of our first workshop day: A sketch made by KK and Melanie simultaneously! Right-handed Melanie and lefty KK sat side by side on the ground in front of the huge glass flowers marking Chihuly’s Garden and Glass museum. I applaud their courage for taking on this challenge that was as much performance art as urban sketching! The fabulous collaborative sketch will be auctioned at the Chicago symposium next week, so if you like it, place your bid!

KK and Melanie: dueling pens and sticks!

This uniquely executed sketch will be auctioned at the Chicago symposium!


  1. You are so lucky to have these two wonderful artists do workshop there. What a warmup for Chicago!! Melanie does come out sketching here on Long Island fsrom time to time. I haven't seen her yet this summer.

    1. I wish I could visit NYC just to study with Melanie for a longer period! Stay tuned tomorrow when I post my summary of her part of the workshop.

      - Tina


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