On a quiet back country road, late last fall, just as the sun was setting, I drove past a stand of pines; their boughs laden with fresh snow. I pulled over and got out to take a few minutes to breath in the fresh air and experience the light show effect of the last stages of sundown with the orange sky creating a backdrop to the visual drama. I could feel the interaction of the orange and blue complimentary colours, pulsating from the cast shadows.
Within minutes the light was gone, like a final curtain, and I shivered as the temperature dropped. The fleeting image of the warming sun remained in my mind, like some forgotten adventure: could it be the time when, as a teenager, I walked home alone in the dark after pick-up hockey at an outdoor rink, or years later, stopping on the last run down the ski hill at Mont Tremblant, in awe of the sundown?
When I returned to my studio, I chose a 24x30 canvas and placed it in a portrait attitude on my easel. I squeezed out acrylic paint: phthalo and ultramarine blue, cadmium orange, yellow and white. Then, with a 2 inch brush and sweeping strokes, I roughly painted the colours that were registered in my mind’s eye, like some story from the past enfolding.
In the following weeks I continued to follow my instincts, modifying colours and minimizing detail, all the while purposefully taking time away from the canvas in order to reassess the progress. At some point, when I ventured back into my studio and re-examined my painting, my mind said “that’s it. You can stop now.”
While no painting is ever perfect to my mind, there comes a time when it feels that my story has unfolded and it's time to let others draw their own impressions.
When was the last time we paused to breath in the fresh air and savour the wonder of our natural world?
I have been asked about PAE recently. Unfortunately I have no news. I ask myself, are too many of us regulars just getting too senior? Charlie
Just thinking about it brings back memories. I recall the time when we came up with the idea of a painter’s weekend some 30 years ago. Andrew Lyall and Pierrette Dulude-Bohay (who are sadly not with us anymore) and I were having a coffee and chatting about art. We commiserated with each other that we had been painting (watercolours) for a number of years but hadn’t had the opportunity to teach; wouldn’t it be nice to go away with other artists for an extended weekend, where we could practice giving some lessons?
We found accomodation at Calaboge Peaks, chose dates and invited our artist friends to sign up. The weekend came around and much to our amazement, we were fully subscribed. Some of the 30 artists were more advanced artists than us! There were beginners too, eager to learn, so the three of us taught watercolour painting for three days. What we noticed, though, was euphoric artists returning from painting each day with stories of hilarious plein air experiences! So back we went to more coffee time! Next time, we decided, no more teaching, everyone should work on their own, including us. We called ourselves Artists Painting With Artists.
It was a great formula. We never advertised, just spread the news by word of mouth and recommendation. We travelled as far away as Charlevoix, QC (where we met and befriended nationally-renowned, Bruno Cote), Quebec City and the Eastern Townships, and Montebello and more.
We organized Spring and Fall trips for 10 years and then other artists took over the organization responsibilities. At some time, due to the fact that some of us brought musical instruments for a music night, the name got changed to Plein Air Ensemble.
What great memories,
Melancholy dressed in a mantra of regal tapestry.
Bittersweet dreams. A time to rest and a time for thanksgiving,
closure; knowing that peace will come with the sleep of winter.
We paint the glorious colour with a palette of time passing, brushwork
that yearns for another day and a canvas of memories.
The Art of Charles Spratt – Painting the Seasons and selected essays, 1994
Those words, written 29 years ago, still resonate with me, as I stand by my easel, pausing to breath deeply in the cool fall air, letting the memories filter down; recalling places and adventures and the euphoria that comes with a successful painting when I am least expecting it.
The sugar maples of Eastern Canada are ablaze with reds, but it is the soft shades of rust and vermilion and ancient grasses signalling that nature is preparing for another winter, that calls me to paint. I am forever grateful for a long life, still enjoying plein air painting and the challenges of interpreting reflected light.
Back at my studio, after a day of searching for a motif and the fury spent struggling to project my inspiration to canvas, I relax in my chair with the canvas before me, searching for evidence of the energy I felt when I was out there. I find, at times, that I alter the work until the freshness is lost and I discard it. (I keep a roll of double-primed canvas ready to cut and re-stretch for the next outing). If the original sketch sings it’s way through the inspection stage, speaking to me of the great painting day and exciting results, then I have a keeper and I will most likely sign it.
Each time I put my name to a painting, the memories of years painting with so many great friends come flooding back. Without them I wouldn’t be a where I am to day. It’s impossible of course, but I would be so proud to show them my work. The truth is that I only have myself to make the final assessment based on my experience and the evaluations of others. That is why art shows such as the Ten Collective are so important.
Charlie Spratt, November 2023
Our last MAA Plein Air outing for 2023 was held at Stewart Park in Perth followed by lunch at Fiddleheads. This marks the end of 17 Thursday morning sessions starting June 1st . For some artists, the program was an opportunity to try plein air painting for the first time. For the rest of us, being outside, meeting friends and becoming immersed in painting in a different setting each week is great. Catching up on the latest news while lunching in a local restaurant is a nice bonus for some after painting all morning.
I enjoy getting out and painting with others as much as anyone. More than that though, I get a big kick out of watching artists trying new techniques and progressing in their painting efforts from week to week. I don’t offer formal instruction, but I am happy to give my suggestions when asked. After all, plein air painting should be all about getting absorbed in our surroundings and learning how to develop a composition: defined in my books as ‘learning by doing’: a philosophy that was grilled into me by successful artists, when I was eager to learn all I could.
I look forward to repeating the program next year. I thank my helpers: Anne Robinson, Patti May, Jim Moran and Paul Powers for their advice and being there when I needed them. A special thanks to Paul for being our photographer.
The painting "The Call" is an example of one of my own paintings created during this years MAA Plein Air Program at Blakeney; AFTER it had been reworked in my studio.
The MAA Plein Air group had an opportunity to paint on the grounds of the Heather Haven Farm Horse riding facilities in Kars this past Thursday. We enjoyed a beautiful warm day with blue skies. Some of the majestic horses could be seen in the pastures nearby.
I found a spot to set up and became absorbed in firming up a composition before getting out my paints. As I began to take tentative efforts with a brush, still unsure how to pull the painting together, I sensed movement coming from the old shed. I looked closer and realized that there was a horse standing there, looking at me.
I rushed to capture the outline of the horse, thinking that it might decide to spoil the moment by joining the other horses in the pasture. How long the horse had been standing there watching what I was doing, I’ll never know. Long enough though, to awaken my radar and recognize a painting opportunity when I saw one. I had my story – a motif *.
To my mind, that’s what makes plein air painting exciting. We practise painting outside, in challenging conditions, in order to be ready for whatever surprises come along: a sunset, a revelation or even just a special quiet moment. We need to be open to ourselves; aware of moments of inspiration, asking ourselves what was the initial attraction? How can we best express it all with brush and a two-dimensional canvas?
This plein air business is so subjective; it’s a trial and error process really. Failures are common, but when we have a winner, we can surprise ourselves with the results and failures always have a lesson. On looking back at some of my work from years ago, I can now see where the paintings need improvement. At the time they were painted I thought my art was pretty good – the best I could do. But I moved on, along the never-ending road to enlightenment.
* motif - a distinctive feature or dominant idea in an artistic or literary composition. Google
At times when I’m alone in my studio, my thoughts turn to a question that is often directed my way: “How do you continue to get a charge from plein air painting after 45 years of doing it?” A short, quick answer can be found on my website Home Page.
"Four decades of painting, guidance from some wonderful artists and travelling a never-ending road to artistic improvement inspires me to paint every day."
A longer version: When I was forty years old and immersed in business and family responsibilities, a kindly gentleman named Grant Tigner introduced himself to me at a volunteer board meeting in Ottawa. He explained that he was a full time artist. In our conversation, he invited me to go painting with him one day. That simple act of kindness introduced me to the world of struggle and rewards of painting outdoors.
It was like a ‘calling’ for me. Through Grant’s guidance, I was introduced to other professional artists who helped me to get started on a journey of discovery. Along the way I painted with many struggling artists who became life-long friends, often meeting them on painting trips from Halifax to the West Coast. As they say “Thanks for the memories!”
Not having a college or university art education was a draw-back. Still, I was blessed to be able to learn so much from others. And when I was asked to teach watercolours and acrylics later on, I found a bond with other struggling artists: particularly in the area of plein air painting. While I have retired from teaching, I take pleasure in helping others through the Plein Air Ensemble program that ran four-day painting trips twice a year for 34 years until this year, and the MAA Plein Air program for artists each Thursday from June until the end of September.
Four years ago, I received a major dynamic energy boost when I was invited to join the Ten-Collective Art Show, held in Almonte in April. Then Covid came along and the show was cancelled for two years. However, I participated in 2022 and 2023 and I can say that the experience of meeting new and old friends and clients has been totally invigorating. I await with much anticipation to returning to my booth with new work in April 2025.
I am so grateful for the many years of painting and look for more to come; AND with my best painting effort yet, just around the corner!
On a warm sunny day in July the MAA Plein Air painters gathered at Poole Creek in Amberwood Village, Stittsville for the Thursday morning paint out. A number of the participants, including myself, chose to paint the beautiful Poole Creek Garden in full blossom.
The garden has the the look of a Japanese garden incorporating a small bridge. It was created and lovingly cared for by Ross Connor, a painter himself, over the many years that he lived close by. It is now maintained by volunteers for everyone’s enjoyment.
Following a short gathering at noon where everyone enjoyed seeing each other’s painting or sketch for the day, 16 members of the group headed for Ale’s Restaurant in the Amberwood Village Community Centre. We enjoyed a great lunch seated on the veranda that looks out over the golf course and the meandering creek.
It doesn’t get any better than that.
The Manotick Art Association Plein Air Program, had it’s first outing on June 1st at Oxford Mills. Fifteen MAA members attended: the largest first day attendance I can recall over the past years. It is gratifying to see so many artists responding. I recognized some from past years and I met newcomers for the first time. It only took a few minutes for introductions all around and a brief explanation about where we would gather at noon, with suggestions for lunch, before we separated and got down to the business of painting outdoors.
For artists, new to plein air painting, trying it can be a frustrating experience at first. Just learning how to recognize interesting elements while looking around and visualizing a composition is not easy. It takes practice. Improvements in painting efforts can occur spontaneously. Unsuccessful results should be taken lightly. The joy of just being outside and working creatively with others is compensation enough.
Art is very personal. The group makes it a point not to judge anyone’s work. If requested, any member of the group would be happy to discuss it with the artist. That’s how we learn.
It’s Thursday, we are off again to sketch and paint some place different. Don’t forget to bring hat, drinking water and snacks, insect repellent and tick precautions. And, who knows, you might just produce a painting that exceeds your expectations! If you can’t be with us on this day, we hope you can join us on another Thursday.
It feels like it’s been years since I painted in Algonquin Park, mostly because of the COVID pandemic. So with the end of winter in sight, and a forecast of several days of record high temperatures this April, I decided that it was an excellent time to travel to Algonquin Park to catch the last remnants of snow in the forests, the lakes opening up and other signs and sounds of Spring. After I talked to my photographer friend, Paul, who immediately said “Lets go.”, I called to reserve accommodations at the Algonquin East Gate Motel in Whitney and started assembling canvasses, my outdoor easel and ancient paintbox, just as I have done so many times in the past.
Driving west along Hwy 60, watching the spruce and pine forests looming thicker and taller, I recognized familiar towns spread out along the route. A flood of images filled my head: memories going back 40 years when my friend and mentor, Grant Tigner, first introduced me to a group of experienced painters gathered in Whitney at the Bear Trail Inn, now the Couples Resort, getting set to paint in Algonquin Park. While it saddens me to recall the numerous dear artist-friends that have passed, it always makes me feel so very grateful to be able to still make a painting trip like this one.
After two glorious days of painting, I had a start on four canvasses, including a 16x20 that I painted from the back of The Mad Musher Restaurant in Whitney, with the thundering waves of the rising Madawaska River reverberating in my ears.
I finished three of the paintings in my studio. Upon looking them over I was pleased that they resonated with the feeling of power and energy and beauty that is part of the Park. I promised myself another trip before too long.
I must admit that I am getting excited about participating in the Ten Collective Art Show. Over the years, I have exhibited my work in many locations, from galleries to gymnasiums, and for me this show ranks among the best mainly because we limit the exhibition to 10 specially selected artists: all with years of experience and diverse styles.
The Mississippi Valley Textile Museum, in downtown Almonte, is a National Trust Resilient Historic Places Winner, and Canada’s industrial textile history museum. (Google). It is a warm and charming location, offering generous space for 10 artist booths on the main floor, perfectly sized for this annual exhibition.
The artists have been working passionately to have a body of recent work ready for opening day. All of my work, with one exception, was created in the last twelve months. This exhibition offers me a wonderful opportunity to present new work to the many visitors passing through and to take their comments and observations with me back to my studio.
To the visitors I say take time to meet the artists and enjoy their work. You might find something to buy along the way.
Looking forward to seeing you there,
Ten Collective Show
Mississippi Valley Textile Museum
Saturday and Sunday,
April 22 and 23, 2023
10am – 5pm daily
Free admission and parking.
The Art of Charles Spratt