LORETTE ROBERTS SAYS is more surprised than anyone by the success of Sights and Secrets, a coffee table book of her watercolours and sketches of Hong Kong. Sandwiched between the works of John Grisham and Wilbur Smith on Dymocks' best-sellers shelves for weeks, Sights and Secrets has sold more than 5,000 copies since its launch a year ago and a fourth print run is a possibility.
Its success has inspired the launch of a new book and accompanying exhibition, both entitled Colours and Characters of China. And Roberts is bemused. 'Publishing books was never really my intention, and it came about because I wanted to assemble a collection of memories and places that my [construction executive] husband Bill and I could reflect on if we ever left Hong Kong,' the Briton says. 'Usually my paintings are sold [for about $10,000 apiece] and that is the last I see of them. Friends joked that if the first book didn't sell well, at least I would have a stockpile of ready-made Christmas presents.'
Like its forerunner, Colours and Characters of China focuses on people, places and objects painted and sketched in Roberts' unique style.
Anyone who has visited Beijing, Shanghai, Xian or Guangzhou would quickly recognise the major landmarks in the book, but the artist is fascinated by their small details and surroundings. 'Of course, China is such a vast, diversified country with so many fascinating facets that it was difficult to know where to start in terms of how to illustrate daily life or capture the mood of different places,' Roberts says.
Panoramic vistas of city scenes appear next to cameos of children, animals and old women in the street or wet markets. She says the selection of the book's images was based on work that closely observes the relationship between ordinary things and ordinary people. 'I tried to capture everyday events that most people take for granted,' Roberts says.
The artist travelled around China, mainly on public transport, for several months over the past two years. 'You meet so many fascinating people. Every journey was a mini adventure,' she says. Roberts says she sipped tea with elderly village women who looked after their grandchildren while the toddlers' parents worked, and watched young couples and businessmen visit ancient temples.
She was also invited to put down her camera and brushes and join in a village festival near Xian, one which takes place once every 20 years.
Roberts says many of the paintings and sketches in her latest book are the result of her inquisitive nature.
'In each of the cities I visited in China, I was overwhelmed by the interest that was shown in what I was doing,' the artist says. 'I felt that the people wanted to share their environment. On several occasions, I was invited into people's homes, offered guided tours and, by one gentleman in Shanghai, the promise of something slightly more.'
Whether she focuses on artefacts and objects, people, ancient culture or simply curious juxtapositions, Roberts says her love and fascination for Hong Kong and the mainland began just hours after she arrived in 1992 from England, where she began her professional career as a botanical artist.
'I like to look at everyday life with a light-hearted perspective which turns the perceived mundane into the magical, and both Hong Kong and the mainland have lots of examples of this,' Roberts says.
Temple dragons to dogs, cats and chickens, letterboxes, calligraphy, signs and doors festooned with lucky symbols are some of her favourite topics. 'I like the way everyday objects or items in nature come together to form interesting compositions,' Roberts says.
Very often she sees a configuration of items such as postboxes or brushes that merge together in such a way that they look as if they have been deliberately assembled.
'For some strange reason, I find humour in multiplicity or repetition of items, particularly if [they] have been discarded or thrown together,' she says.
Having painted in the Middle East, the US and Africa, where her husband worked, Roberts is fascinated by texture and form, and has also made studies of diverse subjects such as rope, boats, doors, birdcages, graffiti and signs.
'A few years ago, I remember standing on the edge of the Rift Valley in Kenya, admiring the vast expanse of land, but it was the small colourful stones that lay at my feet that really absorbed my interest,' she says.
Roberts, who has had commissions from the likes of Laura Ashley, Safeway, Fenton China and Webster Fine Arts USA, says that as with Sights and Secrets she has taken a hands-on approach with the design and content of Colours and Characters of China.
'Publishing the first book was such a steep learning curve, particularly following up with signings and events such as taking part in the Hong Kong Literary Festival,' she says.
To add further interest, a small snail is hidden in each of Roberts' paintings and sketches, a tradition she started more than 20 years ago.
'Being someone who likes to travel but also enjoys being at home, I've always admired snails because of the way they carry their homes around with them,' she says.
An exhibition of original works and prints from Colours and Characters of China and Sights and Secrets (both $225) is at Picture This, 9 Queen's Rd, Central (tel: 2525 2820), 11am-6pm, except Sun and Mon. Tel: 2525 2820. Ends Oct 16