Living in a 9 x 12 World

September is here already.  I'm packing up the camping gear and watercolour kit for a few days of canoe tripping in Killarney Provincial Park.  And as I threw in an extra fleece and sleeping bag liner, it dawned on me that the summer had flown by.  In early May I had to postpone a trip to Algonquin because of late opening.  But I did get there -- with the ice just out and high water everywhere.  It was a game of tag with the rain, but I did get a few panels done from my campsite in the South Arm of Opeongo.

South Arm, Opeongo

South Arm, Opeongo

In  early July I was back in Algonquin with my daughter for a few days north of Canoe Lake. Again, the rain kept threatening, but things seemed to quiet down late in the day..

Little Doe Lake

Little Doe Lake

Mid month I was up in the Big Head River valley, west of Meaford -- an area of rolling farmland and pretty valleys.  I drove around for quite a while and just couldn't seem to settle.  Then I looked in the rear view mirror and stopped to paint.

Near Walters Falls

Near Walters Falls

In August I spent a few days up along the Georgian Bay coast -- wind-swept white pines and sloping granite ...



I have not counted the 9x12 panels stored-up in the studio.  And I am not too sure there is much there that would translate into a larger studio piece.  But I do know that come winter -- if I am not out there trying to keep the oils warm -- these small panels will remind me of a time and place. And maybe THAT is all I need to spark the process.

p.s. If anyone ever wonders why otherwise "normal" people like to canoe off into the bush, forsaking the comforts of modern urban life, check out the sunset over Little Doe Lake ..

Photo of Little Doe Lake sunset from our site.

Photo of Little Doe Lake sunset from our site.

Plein Air with 20,000 Atlantic Salmon

May the Fourth be with you.  I was supposed to be in Algonquin Park today, and for the next four days, canoeing and painting the South arm of Lake Opeongo. But the forecast of constant rainfall in biblical proportions and near-freezing temperatures made me re-consider.  So, instead I packed-up the painting gear and headed to the Forks of the Credit River early this morning for hopefully at least a half day of plein air before the rain.  It was a cool and overcast morning with pretty weak, flat, and even light. The Park was empty, save one other soul with his field glasses checking out the ongoing northern migration.  I walked the Meadow trail, past Kettle Lake to the turn for the Falls on the Bruce Trail. Descending into the river valley I was reminded again why plein air painting is so rewarding in so many ways -- the valley slopes and still naked hardwood forest was carpeted with white trilliums.

I have painted many times down by the Credit River, but I can't recall ever seeing so much water flowing as the Spring floodwater tested the banks in several places.  But I couldn't settle .. .and moved back up the trail. On my left there was a long flood plain and open meadow leading upstream to a turn in the valley. I stopped and sketched out a few thumbnails., then a larger sketch.

With the flat light -- and a relatively narrow value range -- "squinting" to see the big shapes didn't really work.  What DID work was comparing relative colour intensity.  Even though in this light there weren't any "screaming" toxic colours there was an interesting interplay of colour hues -- slightly grayed lime greens in the maple and birch buds,  knocked-back mauves and violets in the bare sumac, and a few serious warm dark oxide reds and oranges in the cedar shadows.  I kept the mantra going "paint the shapes, stupid"... and tried to not get lazy and retreat to renderring the literal.

Meadow Above the Credit,   oil on panel en plein air,   9" x 12"

It was clear that the weather was deteriorating -- a few distant rumbles and sudden drop in the temperature.  I headed back towards the car, but on the way, above Kettle Lake, stopped to do a quick panel.  I did a pencil sketch to try and see past the detail and isolate the big shapes.  But while I was setting up the Soltek the rain came on and I had to pack-up.

Forks Sketch 2.jpg

It was an interesting morning.  The overcast sky and narrow value range made me think about simplifying shapes by massing. It also made me think about modulating large areas of uniform value by injecting colours within the same value range and intensity.

Oh yeah ... the 20,000 Atlantic Salmon.  Another reminder of how things can just happen when you least expect it.  While I was painting, alone, in the meadow down by the river, a Ministry of Natural Resources pick-up truck suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. It was followed by a convoy of half a dozen other pick-ups, SUVs and ATVs. And they all pulled in right where I was set-up painitng!  Kind of like out of a movie.  A dozen adults and teens -- all in hip-waders -- assembled, while a tanker from the MNR Turkey Point Hatchery pulled in with 20,000 Atlantic Salmon fingerlings. Volunteers with the MNR, Ontario Streams, and the Ontario Federation of Anglers & Hunters were on day three of a stocking program to release 35,000 salmon into the Upper Credit River, which by the way was a chilly 9 degrees.  A fun surprise and a feel good moment with all the young people so deeply involved in such an important resource management initiative.

Stella Matutina

I took in the "Mystical Landscapes" show at the AGO -- twice.  Sunday was the final day before they crate everything up and send it off to the Musee D'Orsay for the final leg of it's run. The crowds were pretty daunting, especially (and understandably?) in front of the Gauguins, the Van Goghs, and the Monets -- not so much in front of the Whistler, the Carrs and the Harris.   But returning to the show this second time, I knew where I wanted to go.  A small room off the main hall, exhibiting the work of little known French artist Charles Marie Dulac.   For me, this small, dimly lit room, exhibited work that best exemplified the theme of the show  -- that the contemplation of nature can be a mystical experience for the artist, wherein they connect with a deeper reality and see with greater clarity .  The one work that I simply kept coming back to, the one that arrested me and would not let me go was a lithiograph by Dulac, "Stella Matutina" (The Morning Star).

Charles-Marie Dulac, "  Stella Matutina  ",  lithograph, 32 cm x 48 cm.,  1894. Harvard Art Museums

Charles-Marie Dulac, "Stella Matutina",  lithograph, 32 cm x 48 cm.,  1894. Harvard Art Museums

Painter Ian Roberts once said to me that "you can never render yourself out of a problem" -- basically that a painting succeeded or failed based on the abstract arrangement of the value masses on the picture plane. And yes, to my eyes, this gentle, peaceful and still image checked that box. But in addition, the near monochrome sepia tone of the work, and soft blended edges produced a warm glow that imparted a profound feeling of anticipation -- a portrait of dawn's early light.  As Edward Hopper once stated: "If I could say it in words, there would be no need to paint".

A Canadian Icon and Your Subway Commute

The Yonge Subway is reportedly the second busiest transit line in North America. Over 750,000 riders a day use that part of the Red Rocket. If you are one of them ... next time you are headed north, departing the Bloor Station, count to 20 and look to your right.  As the train exits the "Ellis Portal" and emerges into the light of the Rosedale valley, the very first thing you will see is a three story art deco building with lots of glass -- the Studio Building at 25 Severn , designed by Eden Smith and built in 1914, and designated a National Historic Site in 2005.

One hundred years ago this month -- February 1917 -- in a small wooden shed behind that building, Tom Thomson was painting.  He was working away on this:

Tom Thomson,   The West Wind,   1917   Art Gallery of Ontario

Tom Thomson, The West Wind, 1917   Art Gallery of Ontario

The West Wind is arguably Canada's most iconic painting.  Thomson had done the plein air sketch for West Wind the previous summer in Algonquin Park.  As the Toronto winter dragged on that year, Thomson looked forward to returning to Algonquin in late March where he would begin a series of "boards" to chronicle the arrival of Spring in the north. When he left the shed that March he would not return. Sadly, he had only a little over four months to live. After his untimely death on July 8th, 1917,  friends discovered West Wind, leaning up against a wall by his easel in the shed.

Seinfeld and Thomson

I over-heard Pat say that comedian Jerry Seinfeld was coming to perform a show in Toronto.   She said that what she loved about Seinfeld was the way he could take something totally ordinary and mundane -- the minor details of everyday life --  and make it all so noteworthy , and yes, very very funny.

I have been working my way through Terry Eagleton's classic volume "Literary Theory: An Introduction".  Tough sledding -- but already I know this is a book I have to take slowly, and thoughtfully consider the ideas he presents.  Already -- in the first chapter, under the heading "What is Literature" he put this out there:

“ (Literature) was language ‘made strange’; and because of this estrangement, the everyday world was also suddenly made unfamiliar. In the routines of everyday speech, our perceptions of and responses to reality become stale, blunted ... Literature, by forcing us into a dramatic awareness of language, refreshes these habitual responses and renders objects more ‘perceptible’. By having to grapple with language in a more strenuous, self-conscious way than usual, the world which that language contains is vividly renewed.”
Tom Thomson,    Path Behind Mowat Lodge, 1917         Art Gallery of Ontario

Tom Thomson,  Path Behind Mowat Lodge, 1917       Art Gallery of Ontario


And that got me thinking about painting.  And Tom Thomson.

In the late winter of 1917, Daphne Crombie was a guest at the Mowat Lodge on Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park.  Thomson had also recently arrived at Mowat and was waiting at the lodge for the ice to go out. He had begun his project to paint a new plein air 8 x 10 each and every day to chronicle the arrival of Spring in the Park.  Daphne liked to chat with Thomson and was very interested in his work.  The story goes that one day she asked him "Tom, why are your shadows so blue?' And he said, 'Look, tomorrow morning you go out at about eleven'. When I came back a little later, it was quite a difference in the shade of shadows. And I told him that, and he said, 'I told 'ya.'

How many art instruction books out there .. every single one (?) ... direct the painter to open their eyes and see, truly see, what lies before them.  The ordinary, the mundane, the everyday. Paint THAT and make it new again.

Only Three Months 'til Ice-Out

OK. I am an unapologetic canoe-head.  After almost ... 40 years?  of paddling around Ontario's near north, it is my "happy-place" where I can go to put things right.  A few years ago, on a plein air painting trip to Killarney Provincial Park, my son tagged along with his camera. My 3 minutes of fame!


Welcome to my new website

 A few days ago I was driving up 124, north of Shelburne and passed a place where I had stopped a few years ago, around this time of year, to do a plein air watercolour sketch.  Lotsa changes -- and more snow now!

Above Horning Mills

Above Horning Mills