Growing up in a remote Northern Ontario community, far from the “cultured” world, would seem an unlikely place for artistic growth. Even though I had no formal Art lessons in High school and even finding art materials in the small town of New Liskeard was near impossible, I persisted with whatever I could find.
In school, I was pathetic at reading and even worse at writing. Drawing became my escape. In subsequent years some have suggested that I may have gotten better with the writing part. I know my old English teacher would be turning over in his grave knowing I have since written three books.
NOTICE: For Your Viewing Pleasure
Scattered throughout this article are samples of my painting where I have tried different approaches to capturing my subject, for example, some emphasis a different point of view, some try to capture the transition between natural events such as day into night, night into day, winter into spring, while some are an attempt to capture the feeling of the moment with color and only essential details. Some are even stylized or caricaturized versions of my subject.
On reflection, the greatest impact on my life in those early years and how I related to the natural world was in joining the Boy Scouts. I was blessed when a tough-as-nails bushman and WW2 vet joined the leadership of the troop. His name was Earl and instead of focusing on earning merit badges or even having complete uniforms, his priority was to teach us outdoor survival skills, including winter camping. We had many a grand and challenging adventure under Earl’s tutelage.
From those undertakings emerged a fundamental skill that we had to learn and one that I could relate to. That skill was “observation”. You had to keep your eyes open. You had to see the details around you. Just as beginning artists delight in the new found vision of their world when they start painting, I too, was delighted in the discovery of nature’s wonders, structures, patterns and colors made while learning about nature. From this, a personal sense of beauty and respect for the natural world began to emerge. I didn’t know it at the time but the Spirit of the Land was starting to speak to me.
Even still, making a picture was a matter of working out the problems on my own but now my observations in nature were helping me. The plus side of teaching yourself is that you were not afraid to try something new. You’re not afraid to let gut feelings and experiences influence the work and you‘re not afraid to be innovative in solving your problems. All of these spin-offs have served me well over the years.
In about 1950, my sister gave me 5 small tubes of oil paints and a couple of brushes. I don’t know where she found them, but I ended up dabbling in this medium for about 20 years. In the early 70’s, under the guidance of Zoltan Szabo who had become artist in residence at a local college in Sault Ste Maie, Ontario, I switched to watercolors and my painting career took off. In the following years, I have exhibited in countless art festivals, galleries, competitions, group shows including at least 30 one-man shows in Canada and the United States, (I won’t bore you with a list.)
In the early 60’s I entered a career in teaching which led eventually to a 28 year stint as Art consultant for the Sault Ste Marie Board of Education. In that position I was able to help teachers teach their own art programs by offering demo lessons and ideas for program planning, running in-service training, supplying materials and equipment and so on..
In those years, I eventually taught students from JK to University level and also started teaching my own adult watercolor workshops on week-ends and during the summer months. When I retired in 1996, this morphed into a separate branch of my painting career. Retirement also freed me up to offer numerous painting workshops in Italy, France and Mexico. As a result, it has gradually dawned on me that my real purpose in life was to help other watercolorists succeed and flourish by passing on what I have learned.
My first book, Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook, published by North Light Books, is actually based on notes I’ve handed out at various workshops. My second book, Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook – Landscapes, explored separately the many variations that one can make when developing a landscape, i.e. how to handle land, skies and water (both books are also available as a single volume called The Complete Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook.)
My Third book, The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook – Keep Painting!, focuses more on inspiration for your creative journey which is not always straight ahead nor even a level path. There are many ruts, road blocks and flat tires along the way. The third book is intended to help you get past those obstacles by offering ideas and approaches to picture making in general and watercolors in particular that you may not have known existed.
So, what have I learned after thousands of paintings and hundreds of adult workshops? What have I learned that’s helped me in my journey that may be of value to you?
First, I abandoned the idea that I had to have a single “style”. It’s more fun to have several ways of presenting a subject. For example, at some point I strayed into caricatures of my subjects. It came as a complete surprise when I discovered myself laughing while I was working. What a refreshing relief that was from the serious stuff I was producing.
This freed me up to focus more on the feeling or message conveyed by the work rather than just making a literal super realistic interpretation of it. This led to the realization that I don’t have to paint all of everything and that by only suggesting detail I was leaving room for the viewer’s imagination to participate.
Second, I have learned to mingle my imagination and intuition with the application of the basic principles and elements of design in both the planning and execution of a painting. My gut feeling is just as important as any “rule of painting”.
Third, I’ve learned to work in a way that is more productive and satisfying. Specifically, during a painting session, I work on various parts or stages of numerous paintings. I may have 6-10 pictures on the go at any one time. When I want to paint I flip through them and choose the one(s) that “speak” to me. (Intuition). These are the ones that tell me what to do next. These are the ones that I get excited and eager to work on. The ones that don’t speak to me are left to incubate or I may decide they are not worth finishing at all or need a restart. There are even some that say, “I’m finished! Don’t touch me!”
The advantage of this system is that after the paintings have been sitting out of sight for a while I am able to see the work with fresh eyes and see possible new directions when I return to it.
More importantly, as I’m working on a painting, if I finish a stage, or feel that it’s time to let it rest because I’m hesitant as to what to do next, I can set it aside and pick up another and work on it.
I don’t feel obliged to keep working on a picture because it’s the only one I have. There is always the chance I’ll over-work it. Even on site I will work on 2-3 field sketches at the same time.
Another important aspect to this system is the planning stage. I often take time, when not painting, to sketch out ideas on whatever scrap of paper I have handy. These are ideas coming from within me or stimulated by memories or and idea or something I have seen in the external world. This is where my paintings are born. This planning stage that is a mix of intuition and free flowing images is vital to the end result. As I flip through my sketches later, many turn out to be quite useless but enough have potential to keep me busy.
Now here is the important thing. When it comes time for painting I don’t usually start by working on a picture that is already on the go. I try to begin by starting a new picture using a sketch that appeals to me. This usually involves laying out the idea, maybe masking and laying on the initial washes before I set it aside to incubate. (This is where all those earlier paintings come from.)
Why do I do this before I jump into the one that I’ve chosen to work on that day? Because it gives me a chance to warm up with large brushes and passages before starting into one that is already in progress. It’s sort of like an athlete warming up before they get into the game.
Finally, a word of encouragement.
From my many workshops I’ve learned that creative achievement is not confined to large urban centers that seemingly have all the advantages. Some of the most innovative and exciting people that I’ve come across have been in small remote centers where they are working all alone and under the radar, to find their own unique form of expression.
Check out the following Wee Gallery that deals with changing your point of view
Creator of Doodlewash®, founder of World Watercolor Month (July), World Watercolor Group™, and host of the Sketching Stuff Podcast. Sharing daily watercolor illustrations and stories while proudly featuring talented artists from all over the world! If you’d like to be a guest artist on Doodlewash.com, contact me!