With multiple awards and gallery and museum shows already under her belt, oil painter Hiu Lai Chong only resigned from her full time career as a video game artist last year. She is a resident artist at VisArts in Rockville and paints there full time when she is not on a plein air outing. When she is able to set aside some time, she gives painting workshops for students and will be teaching in the Curacao Plein Air Festival in late August 2011 and a three-day painting workshop in November at VisArts.
"You have to work harder than anyone else and then you will get better," said the artist who has produced well over 100 paintings in the past year. Although her studio is covered in paintings from the last two years or so, most of her work is away on loan.
"I am always in competition with myself. If this painting is better than the last painting, what more could I ask for."
She also has fun with it:
"Plein air painting is like going on adventure or exploring. When you are painting full time, you are exploring full time."
Chong tends to get personal with her subject matter. She prefers to paint outdoors where there is action and things are constantly changing. Racing against shifting light conditions and undeterred by snow or blazing heat, she does quick study paintings, which she takes back to the studio and scales up in greater detail.
"Camping at Sky Meadow," which won First Place in the Washington Society of Landscape Painters 97th Awards Banquet, was one such study. She blew up the painting later in order to better capture the expression on the faces of the figures.
"I was really captivated and moved by the way one man was reaching out to fuel the fire and felt that it was important to show the expression on their faces. I also thought that the contrast between the gun in the foreground and the peacefulness of the rural scene was interesting," said Chong.
Another one of her plein air paintings "Across from Train Station" won the 3rd Prize in the 2010 Cranford Plein Air Quick Draw.
"I don't know who would paint stop signs at an intersection," said Chong. "I think I won because no one else would paint this subject. It caught my eye, and I'm using it to express my own personal mood and feeling."
The painting makes use of a distorted perspective, significantly foreshortening the crosswalks leading up to the muted train station in the background albeit its potentially mundane subject matter.
"Travelift," which won Best in Show in the 2010 Paint Annapolis outdoor event also makes use of an expanded foreground. It is part of Chong's extensive marina series.
"When I was doing this painting, one of the workers in the marina came up to me and told me how happy he was that I was painting such an important piece of machinery, which is used to lift boats in and out of the water for routine repairs. I really felt like I was a part of what was going on around me that day. It was sweltering hot, I could hear the clamoring of the hammers, and I could smell the grease on the ground."
She has painted many local waterfront scenes including views out to Reagan Airport from Alexandria, Tilghman Island and the St. Michael's Maritime Museum. When discussing her love of boats, marinas and life on the water, Chong sympathized with sailors:
"Just like artists, sailors get better at what they do through practice, regardless of weather conditions."
It is this kind of reverence for what she paints and sensitivity to her environment that allows Chong to capture the light quality and inherent movement of any given place with delicacy and attention to detail. She does not seem to mind hot or cold weather.
When she moved to Gaithersburg about ten years ago, she went out to the train station in Olde Towne and painted the train. Last winter, she revisited the locomotive on a snowy day and painted the steam engine sitting out on the tracks covered with snow.
"It was like revisiting a friend," she said.
"It was before they put the red nose on it," she reminisced. "I feel like trains are alive. They are like a person when the steam comes out. They are so picturesque and remind me of the Industrial Revolution. They are an icon of an era, so to speak. The internet, which is the icon of our era, is invisible. It's very difficult to paint. Trains are visible."
The painting, titled "Snow Day," was featured in the Oil Painters of America 20th National Exhibition.
"Baseline Array" and "Sea of Clouds" were painted from photos she took above cloud level on the top of Mauna Kea Volcano National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Hawaii.
"I felt like I was in a surreal place. The setting made me think of the relationships between humans and nature. There are just so many unknowns out there, and so little we know about the universe."
With a low horizon line and looking up to the sky, both paintings evoke a sense of wonder and perhaps even futurism.
Chong received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Art Insitute of Chicago with a Fellowship Award. Prior to her time at the Art Institute, she studied art at the Jockey Club Ti-I College in Hong Kong and Applied Science at Navarro College in Texas. She confirmed that art was her true calling while on an internship through the Art Institute's New York Studio Program, which provided her with a studio to work in and an internship near Wall Street in New York.
"Seeing everyone going to work in business suits and working around the clock, I realized that I really wanted to do something I would enjoy. All the foot traffic around the New York Stock Exchange inspired me to make a film - 'Grid Lock'," said Chong.
Although she spent many years working a creative job in an office, Chong is now dedicating herself to producing more work and participating in shows.
"When I first got to VisArts, the Gallery Director, Brett Johnson, gave me a solo show in the Spotlight Gallery, which was wonderful. I travel a lot so I can't teach much, but when I do teach, I try to share the influence of my own teachers with my students."
Chong took classes at the Art League of Alexandria with Ross Merrill, a painter and Former Chief of Conservation of the National Gallery of Art.
"He had a lot of insight into the work of the Old Masters. He was a plein air painter. Sadly he passed away last year. His influence and career makes me think: Don't waste time. Go full swing with it."
Chong also studied with Ed Ahlstrom at Montgomery College. As one of her first teachers in this area, he gave her the direction she needed to take off.
Her influences include: John Singer Sargent, Rembrandt, Chao Shao-an, Richard Schmid, David Leffel and Nelson Shank's Studio Incamminati. Robert Liberace, Rick Weaver, Danni Dawson, Ted Reed, Sara Poly, Ross Merrill, Ed Ahlstrom, Sandra Dowd and Tom Sale are some of her past teachers.
She is a member of the Portrait Society of America, Signature Member of the American Society of Marine Artists, a member of the Washington Society of Landscape Painters, Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painter Association, and the Chinese Culture and Art League. Her paintings have won awards and been shown in museums around the country including the Academy Art Museum (Maryland), Coos Art Museum (Oregon), the Biggs Museum of American Art (Delaware), the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts (Maryland), the Buffalo Naval Park Museum (New York) and the AnHui Museum in China in "Ten Artists of Greater Washington, D.C."
She has gallery representation with McBride Gallery in Annapolis, Maryland and South Street Art Gallery in Easton, Maryland.
To visit the artist's website, click here.