The particle tracking flow visualization method (PTFV) and particle image velocimetry (PIV) are used to obtain a clear picture of vortex evolution on the suction surface of an impulsively started NACA 0012 wing. The experiments are conducted in a towing water tank. The formation, evolution, and shedding of the vortex system on the suction surface are observed and analysed by streak pictures of particle images. Five characteristic vortex evolution regimes are identified in the parameter domain of angle of attack and chord Reynolds number. The pathline patterns, instantaneous streamlines, and vorticity of various vortex evolution processes are presented. Stable vortex shedding in the wake is eventually established after the initial period of complex vortex evolution on the suction surface of the wing. Various types of instabilities in the wake, e.g. instability wave, surface vortex shedding, and bluff-body vortex shedding, are found to correspond to different evolution processes of the surface flow. The shedding frequency of the vortices is correlated and compared with several conventional results. Topological critical points, separatrices, and alleyways are identified and discussed to elucidate the unsteady structure of the instantaneous streamline patterns. The topological rule for the number of singular points is verified.