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Water-soaked colors

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Cheng-Khee Chee says soaking his paper before he applies watercolors gives him a beautiful soft effect, while also giving him great flexibility as he paints. The Duluth-based artist uses the technique to illustrate a new picture book called "Noel." (MPR photo Stephanie Hemphill)
One of Minnesota's best-known watercolor artists has just published a book for children. It's called "Noel," and it's a free-flowing poem by Tony Johnston about the sights and sounds of an old-fashioned Christmas. The softly colored paintings are by Duluth-based painter Cheng-Khee Chee.

Duluth, Minn. — Cheng-Khee Chee has been developing watercolor techniques for decades. He regularly wins top honors in national shows. A few years ago he agreed to illustrate "Old Turtle," which became an instant classic.

Since then, he says he's had dozens of requests to illustrate more books, but he's been very picky.

"Noel" is about a Christmas bell that calls people out of their homes to sing and dance. Cheng-Khee Chee says this book spoke to him.

"Because of the sounds and scenes and joys and spirits of Christmas is all there, and vividly expressed in the poems," he says. "So I could immediately identify that type of feeling, because of living in the U.S. for 43 years, and certainly raising four children, going to all kinds of Christmas activities. And this reminded me of all those things, so I said I would do it because those activities seem to be very colorful."

But Chee doesn't usually include human figures as central themes in his paintings.

"So would be challenge to me, but I said, 'Well, it's about time that I do something different.' So I took the challenge."

Chee says the snowy night is a perfect subject for his "saturated wet-paper technique."

"Before I paint it, I soak the paper, saturate it with water, and paint it wet, really wet. Because then I can make changes very easily. I can wipe out and repaint it, wipe out and repaint it," says Chee. "This is quite contrary to theory of watercolor. People think of watercolor once you put paint on paper, you cannot make changes. To me, it's not true anymore, you see, provided you soak the paper." Chee says he usually uses this technique when he paints improvisationally.

"Like when I paint fish, because years and years of study of fish, this is the Chinese way, you memorize every move, all the colored shapes and all of that. And then when you come to paint it, you don't have to look at the fish to paint," says Chee. "How are you going to ask the fish to stay still in the tank? So you rely on memory, because you observe, and you know every aspect of the fish."

Chee says that kind of painting creates a powerful emotional connection between the artist and his subject. He says children deserve art where the feeling is clear. He says he did the illustrations in "Noel" just as he would any work of fine art.

"Children -- they are just a blank piece of paper, they will soak up anything. Why not give them the best story, the best literary work and the finest paintings?"

"Noel," with poetry by Tony Johnston and art by Cheng-Khee Chee, is published by Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing in Minneapolis.

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