WITH ITS vast waters, diverse mountain ranges and wide variety of flora, China’s Yangtze River boasts of the most breathtaking daybreaks in Asia. Reminiscent of dawn breaking quietly along the river, the works displayed at James Onglepho’s 29th solo exhibit were as awe-inspiring as any sunrise.

Presenting the latest batch of his lotus flower and landscape pieces, the artist, together with some of his collectors, opened the show at the Asia Art Gallery last April 24.

Since his first exhibit in 1959, this contemporary Filipino master had always captivated his audience with still-life works that reflected his Chinese heritage. Lotus flowers and landscapes have become his preferred subject in the world of realism, making this his mark in the local art scene.

Since 2007, Onglepho has been holding his annual one-man exhibit in his gallery at the Mall of Asia. But the artist stressed that the way he crafted this year’s batch of artworks was different from the previous years. This year, he pays more attention to detail as well as colors and composition.

For his florals, Onglepho played with shades of magenta, violet, purple and blue, inspired by lotus flowers he chanced upon when he traveled to Macao, Shanghai, Taipei, Beijing and Hong Kong.

“The lotus flowers of China, Taipei, Hong Kong and the Philippines are different in color. Here in the Philippines, our weather is hot, so most of the lotus flowers here are pink or red while the lotus flowers of the other places range from violet to magenta to white,” he said.

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Onglepho also stressed the compact compositions, which he believes to be an essential trait of an excellent painting. In “Sharing,” for example, the artist shows lotus flowers in different stages of bloom. The strategic placement of the flowers added to the artwork’s overall flair and leads the eyes from one point to another.

“The angling of the elements in the painting should guide the viewer and never permit sight to veer away from the canvas,” he explained.

For his landscape pieces, he strayed from his standard oil on canvas, and used colored pencils, a refreshing change. The imagery is similar to the mountain ranges that run alongside the Yangtze River. Many of the mountain s’ peaks would often be likened to the lotus buds which are endemic to the provinces that the river passes through.

Although the evolution of his works may have been untraceable to the untrained eye, the artist was still able to capture the atmosphere of life in small villages that depended on the river as their means of living. The concept of his pieces may be seen by others as passé, but his style still remains distinct in the way the artwork instills a sense of calm and quiet, while showing the dynamic bloom of blended colors.

“No one will be able to exactly copy my work because my technique is different. It’s a secret,” Onglepho said.

Thirst for learning

Unlike most artists who seem to be married to the features of their artistic expression by their middles ages, this veteran has never been afraid of daring himself out of his comfort zone. Believing that inspiration should be innate, he paints everyday as if to invoke a continuous flow of ideas.

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It was in 1964 when he was first inspired by the lotus flower, urging him to perfect his genre. He attributed his skill to his formal training at the University of Santo Tomas where he majored in Painting. A classmate and close friend was fellow Chinese-Filipino Ang Kiukok (now a National Artist) and his teachers included Victorio Edades and Vicente Manansala (both to become National Artists later).

“I have a deep sense of gratitude towards UST. Had I not entered UST, I wouldn’t have become a professional,” he said as he expounded on how much he learned during his four-year stay.

Being an established visual artist does not stop him from trying other forms of art.

“He is a frustrated photographer. He even has his own DSLR but he hasn’t figured out how to use it yet,” Germaine Ong, James’ granddaughter laughingly shared during the event. “He also drives us to school,” she added, musing about how active her grandfather still is.

This octogenarian also contributes to a Chinese newspaper and has recently finished writing a book in Chinese as well. Despite his drive, there were those days when his age inevitably slowed him down. In fact, it was only after his second eye operation in 2009 that he was able to paint free of troublesome vision problems.

“Before, I had a hard time using certain colors because of my eye problem, but today, my eyes can already see as clearly as yours,” he beamed.

Many have tried to imitate his works but James Onglepho knows better than to take this in offense. He considers this as a challenge to bring something new to the table every time he paints. Being an artist of his stature and experience, he has remained confident in his talent, transforming even at a stage where metamorphosis is most difficult for any craftsman.

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