I began painting several decades ago. I started taking community workshops in oil painting when I was a highschool student in a small northern Canadian town.
I was part of the baby boom generation that created a bulge in the school system. There were more students than classrooms or teachers. During my elementary school years, it was typical to be placed in classes of 40-42 students. We pushed our desks together to make double rows so that we could all fit into a standard-sized classroom. By the time that I reached junior and senior high school, the demographic bulge was putting pressure on the availability of elective courses. For example, in Grade 8, there were not enough spaces in Home Economics classes, so a few girls were allowed to opt to take shop classes instead, for the first time ever.
One of the ways that the bulge affected me is that my highschool discontinued offering Art 11 and 12, and the teacher was reassigned to teach other courses. I always had loved doing art, and was disappointed that I would not be able to take Art as an elective in highschool. So, I signed up for evening adult art classes.
My parents bought me a portable easel, and I used my babysitting money to invest in a starter set of paints, brushes, and canvas boards. Our instructor, Quentin Robbins, taught us the basics of oil painting. On wintery nights, we painted a series of still life scenes that he set up for us, or scenes from photos. However, Quentin's real passion was painting landscapes. He especially like to paint rural scenes of old tumbledown barns.
I discovered that I too loved to paint landscapes. I continued to sign up for painting workshops as a teenager. However, after I left my hometown, I rarely had opportunities to paint. Sometimes a decade would go by between periods of painting. But this last five years, I have made it a priority to find time to paint. I haven't painted as much as I would like -- maybe 2-3 hours a week or every two weeks.
One of my new discoveries has been en plein air painting. I love to stand outside in a field or near the mountains, painting. One truly gets a sense of a place by painting on location. Sure, there are bugs, wind, changing light, and weather to contend with. But it is such an intense experience.
A couple of weekends ago, I attended a plein air paintout at the Coutt's Centre for Western Heritage in southern Alberta. It is a family homestead that Jim Coutts donated to create a heritage centre. It is a spectacular location for painting outdoors, with a number of heritage houses and barns on the homestead, gardens, fruit trees, wooded areas, and a pond. The mountains are visible in the distance, and there are many sculpture pieces tucked away along the various pathways.
I set my easel up at the edge of a lawn dotted with large boulders. They were arranged similarly to a sundial, but one of the other guests told me that he believed that they represented a teepee ring. Beyond the circle was an area of tall grass, then bushes, and behind that a barn, trees, and sky.
Because I wanted to finish my painting during the day, I used a small canvas, 11x14 inches. Although I prefer to paint larger, I have found through experience that that I cannot a finish a painting in one session if I start with a larger canvas.
My position behind a large cluster of bushes was perfect; it protected me from the wind which otherwise might have blown my easel over. The only problem was that there was no shade there, so I was standing in full sun all day. However, I slathered myself with sunscreen and went to work.
It was a magical day. Although I find that my plein air landscapes have a rougher, less finished look, there is nothing like the experience of being immersed in the landscape and really looking closely at it.
I also have started a small studio painting recently. It is from a photo that I took in Grand Forks, BC, in the springtime. A couple of large weeping willow trees near the river were just coming into leaf. The evening sun illuminated them, creating a brilliant yellow flow of colour. I haven't gotten far with that one yet. My painting time has been limited with all the of business of buying and selling houses and preparing to move.
Painting is a wonderful mental holiday from everyday tasks and worries. Landscapes, to me, represent something important about Canada. This is why I am writing about landscape painting on Canada's 150th birthday.