Wednesday, January 21, 2009

South Wind

South Wind, 2008, 48" x 36" oil/panel is a subject that I have returned to with regularity since the late 1990s.  Being a Canadian, tough winters are a reality, especially in the region south of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay (known as a "snow belt").  Travels to warm southern climes are often represented by iconic palm-like trees.  The sensual feeling of warm caressing winds moving the palm fronds is so positive for me that I love to paint about the sensation (often in the winter).

Several trips to ocean paradises have provided the time to watch palm trees as they move and sway in the winds.  I'm interested in the movement and try to present it using soft brush strokes and blurry edges.  On occasion, the winds get pretty strong, gale-force, and these paintings are more exaggerated and pronounced in their composition.

Palms are not only found on islands.  My first encounter with them as potential subjects occurred in the Mojave desert of California where I was artist in residence at Joshua Tree National Park. The palms there endure harsh burning desert conditions and yet seem to thrive (where there is enough underground water).  Below is an early painting of these wonderful trees.

Two Palms, 2000, oil/panel, 60" x 40".

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Orona and T'Noh

Orona, 2009, oil/panel, 9" x 11.5" and T'Noh (below, same medium/dimensions) are two examples of my smaller works.  I keep a supply of smaller panels in my studio for times when I'm working out ideas and don't want to try them on a large scale just yet.

There are also times when the more intimate scale achieves what I want to express better than a grand size.  Small paintings require the viewer to get up close.  This changes the relationship in ways that make the viewer aware of the artist's intensity.  A small painting can be just as powerful and effective as large ones.  The term "intimacy" is really quite appropriate.

In my case, small sizes equate with speed of execution.  This includes rapid changes to the overall composition and gestural marks.  These little ones begin with a quick smear of oily paint, usually I start with a dark color.  Fast energetic strokes of brush and rags quickly set up the energy of the piece.  Once the energy seems to be right I look for a clear composition that reflects the theme that has inspired the work.  In short order I have resolved the overall structure and the light in the work.  What remains is defining just enough details to make the thing work as a whole, to suggest complexity without belabouring the painting is best.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Lorro Mountain

Lorro Mountain, 2008, oil/canvas, 18" x 24" is a prime example of memory painting.  I do not paint on-the-spot, nor do I paint from photos.  I do some sketches, but they are fast ones. Where I do much of my drawing for paintings is in my head.  By this, I mean that I observe the things that capture my attention and mentally draw or map out the elements that I like.  This process is a way of burning into my visual memory things that I can call upon later in the studio.

This is a great source for me to call on when making a painting.  Curiously, the memories can blend together in a way that permits me to synthesize an image combining elements of different places I've been.  I don't mind this.  In a way it actually makes for better pictures.

Lorro Mountain is a western view.  I think it takes its forms from places in Alberta and New Mexico.  By pulling way back for a long view I get to add some haze to flatten the mountain and concentrate on the pyramid-like shape.  The little trees are contrasted and carry the eye across the fields towards the apex of the mountain.


Joba, 2009, oil/panel, 20" x 20" reflects my ongoing interest in the many shapes and forms that small trees and bushes may take.  I particularly enjoy seeing these massed together in clumps.  

The title of the painting, "Joba", is a fictitious place name.  I often give paintings names that seem to rise up from my subconscious mind while painting.  It's kind of like finding a sound that matches the visual mood I am creating.  In any case, all paintings need some kind of name, and this approach works for me.

The light in this painting is one I gravitate towards quite often.  It is an afternoon light that is warm in color and models the form from the side.  This creates interesting dark zones that I use to "pop" the contrast against a hi-key sky.  The contrast also emphasizes the mass and form of the plants.  There is a suggestion of a farther hillside and some fields.  I keep the view angle low so that the middle distance fields can be suggested with simple horizontals.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cedar Cut

Cedar Cut (small version), 2008, oil/panel, 30" x 30" is a very formal composition. There are two versions of this painting (the larger 48 x 48 is shown below). I have been seeing clusters of trees as sculptural objects, shaped by nature but also influenced by the work of man (for example when farmers or developers create fields leaving bits of the old forest).

I like the way the individual trees (cedars in this case) merge together into one single mass. The mass organizes itself in an organic way, shaped by the natural growth patterns of the trees as well as by wind, light, water and so on. The pleasure of carefully shaping the mass on the canvas and then defining it's texture and the way light strikes is something I love.

When creating the composition I pay careful attention to the space around the central mass and the edges of the square surface. The amount of field I place in front and how high up the canvas the horizon line is set are critical to the success of the work.

Surprisingly, the idea for this image was inspired by a trip (one of many) to northern New Mexico where I had a chance to appreciate the natural wonder of "Shiprock". This jutting mount coming out of a desert plane has stayed in my head. It's magical, mysterious and very spiritual.

Here is the larger version of Cedar Cut (48 x 48).

The Durham Art Gallery has this painting on display as part of a group show titled Arboreal.  The show runs from March 21, 2009 - May, 18, 2009.

Brigg's Fields

Brigg's Fields, 2008, oil/panel, is about space, shapes and contrast. The approach to painting in this work is more disciplined with little emphasis on gestural brush strokes and more focus on the formal composition.

When riding around the country-side on my bike I often look at how the edges of tree lines and fields interact with each other and against the sky. In this work, I used the devise of agricultural marks in the yellow fields to lead the viewer's eye into the painting's focal point. Located slightly off-center, the overlapping tree lines intersect with the field.

I like this piece a lot and chose it for the invitation card image for my 2007 Toronto exhibition at Bau-Xi Gallery. The mood of the painting is set by presenting the composition in a warm summer light, and by making the design solid - not unbalanced. I was feeling pretty good that day and I wanted the painting to express that.

(Click on the image for a detailed view)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Arcadia, 2008, oil/panel, 36" x 36" is about the boundary between things. This theme has repeated in several paintings over the years, looking at the edge of a forest from a field. Often the forest, as in this case, is set in the middle distance inviting the viewer to wander towards the boundary of open space and dense woods. I am interested in the psychological state of being on one side of something while being drawn across to something else. In this painting, I use the golden light coming through the trees as an invitation to move forward. Yet the thick underbrush hints that it may be rough going to get through.

This painting is featured on the back cover of SLATE magazine's February 2009 issue.

(click on the image for a hi-resolution view)


Brookfield, 2008, oil/panel, 36" x 48" is an example of some of my pastoral landscapes. These are inspired by the country side that I live in (Oro-Medonte township, Ontario). Farm fields present a combo that interests me as a painter. Here you will find space (fields & sky) activated by trees, brush, roads and waterways.

I often divide the composition so that the horizon sits about one third of the way up the canvas. This division leaves plenty of room for skys. I enjoy painting billowing clouds as a way to move the eye through the sky-space and have it act as a foil for the land forms of the ground.

These paintings are not done on site. They are not done from photos. They are based on memories of places seen (often from my bicycle while riding the country roads). The experiences I have looking at the land while traveling the back roads is very positive and sometimes euphoric. The paintings try to respond to my feelings.

(Click on the image for the hi-resolution view)

Ulan Lavan

Ulan Lavan, 2009, oil/canvas, 48" x 36" is a vertical piece that was inspired by my love of the brush that grows in the southwest near Taos, New Mexico. This painting is typical of works that synthesize several varieties of plant into a visual hybrid. Here, it seems, I have blended tumbleweed with sage.

The sense of rolling motion, the wind, sets up a feeling of movement in the central zone of the painting. I have cut-in two horizontal compositional lines that formally break the canvas at harmonic ratio points. Color plays a key role in presenting a sensual mood. I used some different (for me) violets in the foliage to work with the ochres and yellows in the painting. The cut-in horizontal lines are tinted black and orange to add contrast and intensify the warmth. (You can click on the image for a hi-resolution close up view).

Recent paintings are shying away from too much detail in the back ground. Over the years I have played with adding detailed backgrounds to give a sense of deep space, but these days I'm using a gestural, sweeping, soft focus brush to only suggest the space without driving the viewer's attention into the background. The paint has a lot of oil in it, this allows me to sratch-mark into it, thus creating lines and elements of drawing. I think this adds to the painting's dynamics.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cloud Chamber

Cloud Chamber, is an oil on canvas, 36" x 36" painted in late December 2008 and finished at the turn of 2009. It's hard to see in the small image above (click on it for a close up), but there is a fair amount of texture on the surface of this work. This is the result of starting the painting by using a layer of plaster which I scratched and marked in anticipation of the image that was to be painted after the gesso dried.

I enjoy using an agitated surface. I find that it lends a certain energy to the dynamics of the painting. The horizontal divisions are cut into the surface. By dividing the picture plane into sections I can force the image into a formal composition. The division lines are place in harmonic ratios to the square.

The subject matter is one that I return to often. A cluster of trees seen in the distance form a place of refuge in a big open space. The idea comes from seeing these copse-like groups in many farm fields. Observed from a distance, I see them as sculptural and like the way they set off the space around them. They are also kind of mysterious. I often wonder about what is inside... hidden animals? people? spirits? a gateway to another world???

This painting will be part of my Foster/White Galleries show in Seattle (June 4, 2009).

Monday, January 12, 2009

Day Moon

At the openings of my exhibitions I enjoy answering questions about my art. It occurred to me that a blog would be a good place to post my reflections as new work is completed.

The purpose for this blog is to both inform viewers about my work and help me think about the best way to express my ideas in words.

Using language to reflect on something that is primarily visual can present the writer with challenges. I will do my best to speak about why I composed an image, some of the problems I solved and how well the painting achieves my intentions.

Today's blog post looks at this painting. "Day Moon" was painted in January 2009 and is 48 inches by 42 inches, oil on panel. The composition is "straight-on". I selected this to present the viewer with a whole view of the red maple in a middle distance. The most difficult thing about a straight-on composition is that it can often be boring. To avoid this, I have very carefully "seated" the tree's weight to slightly off-center. I have also paid attention to the irregularity of the foliage masses and the edge between form and atmospheric space. The hint of a day time moon and wisps of cloud situate the tree in a deep space. The tree is presented by itself with no other landscape elements to distract the viewer. I use a painterly approach to building up the mass of foliage, something I really love because it is so sculptural. In fact, I often think about my tree paintings as designs for biological sculptures. A tree must present mass and solid form in my paintings.

I've done a number of red maples over the past years. This one was started partly as a request from my dealer in Montreal (Gallerie de Bellefeuille) and partly because I love the subject and always feel I can treat it better than the last attempt. I embrace the idea of art for art's sake. I make these tree paintings without any ideas of commenting on ecology, politics or human issues. I know that this approach is out of fashion, but it doesn't matter to me. When I encounter trees and bushes in natural settings, I find myself just looking and entering the forms of the plant. There is no sense of separation, I just "go into" the thing and relish the sensation of "treeness".

Later on in the studio, using only my memory, I draw and make paintings about the experience. Memory is important, it acts as a filter eliminating all but the most essential elements. I totally reject the techniques used by some artists that depend on photographing a subject and digitally transferring the image to canvas, then painting over the ink to make something that looks photo-realistic but is nothing more than "trickery". I find this a shallow, superficial way of painting with all the inherent problems of selling something as an original when it can be recreated again and again.

I'm happy with Day Moon. I think I achieved the right balance of light and dark, mood, and sensuality.