Artists harbour a need to get things right – truthful even. And yet we are constantly on the lookout for fresh approaches: influenced by what we observe, hear, read in books and on-line. I see it all the time. It’s why plein air convention events are so popular these days – until Covid-19 came along any way. I once knew an art teacher that requested that her students put down their paint brushes and walk all the way around a barn building, so that they could better understand the structure, experience the effects of years of wear and tear and imagined history. I read about another instructor who asked his students to study a model and then leave the room to create a drawing based on their recollections.
Before I can put paint to a blank canvas, I need to have a sense of place, a memory perhaps from somewhere deep that compels me to paint. The appeal of painting plein air is especially strong to me because the countryside is where I spent much of my youth. It’s part of the process and memories run deep. I get the impression that the process of abstraction has similarities without a mold to follow.
So when I visited Ayles Boat Yard at Merrickville, recently, on a search for subject matter, I held no preconceived ideas. After checking and getting permission, I strolled through the boatyard and came across Pocahontas standing on blocks alone, looking proud and forlorn. One of the workers looked up from across the yard and pointed out that the boat had been built in Germany after the Second World War. Because there was a shortage of brass at the time, he explained, the builder substituted iron nails which can rust. She made her way to America and after many years of service ended up here. As the workman spoke, I began to appreciate the beautiful lines of the hull and upper deck. I tried to imagine where she had been over the years. And I shuddered to imagine what it would have been like to stand at those windows in a North Atlantic gale.
I waved a thank you and grabbed my paints and canvas. I had a story to tell.
Plein Air Ensemble has been hosting painting trips for serious - minded artists for 30 years. I should know – I am proud of the fact that I had a hand in organizing it with two friends back in 1990 and running it for the first 13 years until others took over the reins. And I will always cherish the many friendships and adventures we shared along the way
The other day, in my studio, I came across Old Quebec 16x20, painted in 2013, on the last of three trips to Quebec City. I dusted the canvas off, sat down, and let memories of those adventures come pouring back. I clearly remember searching out a protected spot for my easel, out of the way from pedestrian and vehicle traffic, then striving to capture the exhilarating feeling of the day as I painted Old Quebec. Absolute magic!
But let’s go back a bit: many will recall the trips to Quebec City and the wonderful boutique hotel where we stayed, with the grand piano in the dining room, only a few city blocks from the Old City Gates. On our first visit the hotel manager met us at the entrance on Rue Charest, then arranged for a bus tour of the city - and sat up front to give us a running commentary! Each morning we would leave the hotel to go out and sketch and paint and photograph, discovering winding cobblestone streets, ancient alleyways and 400 year- old historic buildings; we also picked out intimate restaurants for extended lunch breaks, making sure that we were back in time for le tableau d’hôtel and music into the night. On our last evening that same manager arranged for a reception in the foyer so that his invited guests could view our work. Several pieces were purchased on the spot! The following morning, after breakfast and bidding everyone goodbye, we set off for the long drive home, savoring the memories and our treasured creations stored carefully in the trunks of our vehicles.
Anyone that has been on one of these PLE adventures knows how they work: The five-day trips (including travel time) every spring and fall without a break - until this spring, that is, when the fully subscribed trip had to be cancelled due to the pandemic virus. Over the years we have traveled to destinations as far away as Charlevoix and the Eastern Townships of Quebec and closer to home in the Laurentians and Ottawa Valley. While there is never a shortage of camaraderie and sharing among the artists, no formal instruction is offered – everyone is expected to work independently.
I look forward to more Plein Air Ensemble adventures under the capable hands of artists, Mary Moore and Tom Lillico. Until we can finally get back to painting without all the Covid 19 restrictions, I will rely on my memories to accompany me at my studio easel.
Note: Sadly, the unique Royal William Hotel on Rue Charest no longer exists: a casualty to progress.
One of my favourite locations to paint is Spencerville, Ontario, an hour’s drive south of Ottawa. Our MAA Plein Air group has been there numerous times. The first thing that strikes you as you enter the Village is the South Nation River, flowing over the dam at the historic Spencerville Mill.
I was there a couple of weeks ago.
Before getting my paints and easel out of the back of my beloved van, I spent some time walking around the Mill, just getting the feeling of the day. First, I checked out the river flowing lazily past my feet, feeling the power there that has energized the Mill for generations. Soon, my attention is drawn to the mirrored effects in the water. The more I look, the more I am engrossed with the depth of the colourful dark tones in the water glazed over with sky blues and slashes of reflected warm sunlight. I see myself standing before my easel, brush in hand, wondering how I can do justice to this experience. Then I know it’s time to setup and paint.
Later in my studio, I exchange distractions of changing light and shadow outdoors for the steady light and peace of my studio. I pick out a larger canvas and using the design from my plein-air sketch and fresh images in my head, I begin, influenced as well by years of observation. I paint, content knowing that what I am painting is my work and trusting that it will be the best that I can do.
Finally, I sign it.
Brigadoon Entrance 11x14 #220546
We were painting in the village of Oxford Mills last week. I drove passed the well-known Brigadoon Restaurant. I have great memories of meeting friends there to enjoy the wonderful food and ambiance, including my wife and I sharing a memorable New Year’s Eve dinner.
The Brigadoon looked like it was just waiting to welcome guests, with colourful flowerpots hanging from every post on the long verandah; the beckoning entrance bathed in noon-day sunshine contrasting with the doors and bay windows in shade.
We hope it will be alive with conversation and laughter again soon.
Spring Comes to Blakeney is a 30x30 canvas just finished in my studio from a second sketch painted at Blakeney, ON on the Mississippi River. ( Not to be confused with the mighty Mississippi in the USA). Sadly our Manotick Art Association group outdoor painting trips have had to be postponed until some later date when the coast is clear from the Corona-19 virus threat. I have now painted several times outside always driving by myself and observing the required social distancing.
The large canvas format gives me the opportunity to use larger brushes and make improvements to the original composition. This painting has the feeling of early morning sun lighting the rushing rapids. I wish I could paint the sounds too.
Abandoned to Memories 11x14 acrylic. Saint John the Baptist Church, Pierces Corners, ON. First day out painting just felt great, social distancing and all.
We live in a wonderful place called Amberwood Village, nestling close to shops and stores that are a part of Stittsville life, within the greater City of Ottawa. Upon driving through the entrance, you find winding streets in a parkland setting with multiple walking paths, a jewell of a golf course and a creek that wanders through wooded green space. Most days I use the trails for exercise and to watch for painting opportunities.
The painting shown here, Poole Creek Foot Bridge, is the result of numerous walks over the past three weeks along the Poole Creek pathway, close to our home. Stopping along the way, I take time to experience the moment - the ambiance of this magical place. The painting is a composite of my impressions of the creek in early spring run-off, the multi-shades of new growth and the trees and underbrush in full bud, all reminding me of the promise of another Spring. My senses heightened specially now, during this time of the pandemic, when we worry if things will ever return to normal.
Mother Nature, taken for granted far too often, is a constant we live by, even if each season brings uncertainties from one year to the next. It makes us realize that we play a small part in this universe and that we will be back to ‘normal’ – sooner if we each play our part.
April 27, 2020
Just finished in my studio. Gift to Generations 24x30 acrylic depicting the feeling of early spring run-off that we are experiencing. I have plenty of time in my studio to not only paint but also re-evaluate my work: sorting, repainting and touching up. Each canvas that I pick up, invites recollections from past painting trips and the friends I painted with over the years. For a while the times and concerns of the outside world drift away. And with the respite comes renewed hope and longing for new adventure when these trials have passed, as I’m sure they will.
May everyone stay safe and healthy and be kind to your neighbours (at a distance).
How often do we pass up an opportunity simply because we are stuck in our own patterns? I have been guilty too often myself. As a child I was open to all ideas including fantasy and make believe. Now, as I grow older, I know that I have adopted certain perspectives on life in general and art in particular that aren’t easy to change. I watch my seven-year old granddaughter, lying on the floor with a colouring book, carefully applying colours totally different from reality (a red cow, green sky). I ask myself, why not? Getting too old for imagination? I hope not.
Whenever I am asked to comment on an artist’s work or a group of artist’s paintings at a meeting, for example, I listen carefully. I start in by asking questions, hoping to determine what advice might be helpful. When I hear defensive walls going up such as “but, it’s not finished yet” or “that’s the way it was” my impulse is to be polite and move on. But when an artist asks, “How would you handle this subject?” or “I think I need help with design, don’t you?” my instincts tell me that they are looking for some fresh choices and I am pleased to be asked - especially when I feel that the artist is sincerely interested in my take. Quite often a simple question, turns into an interesting discussion.
Art is so personal. Relying on years of teaching and painting experience, I explain how I would approach the painting, offering possibilities to correct problem areas, perhaps suggesting ideas for a more dramatic approach by tweaking the composition – all in the form of choices for discussion. Even if the artist decides to reject any or all suggestions, in the end, they are farther ahead having seen their work through the practiced eye of another artist. Simply by asking.
It’s a two-way street of course. I get a lot of enjoyment from organizing the Manotick Art Association Plein Air program for example and dealing with the occasional request from a struggling artist. Each time we paint together I get to observe different painting approaches, I check out the latest art gizmos, and I try to understand how the others make time for their art with their busy lifestyles and commitments. It’s amazing.
Happy painting and exciting new choices,