Chasing Shadows

Making visual art puts you firmly in the light business so what better way to address the main ingredient of your work than to record paths of light.

Using the studio floor to support my unstretched canvas and planning to change a daily paint application in style and colour I began rolling and dripping and pouring paint into the areas defined by the passing light. 

Each day upon entering the studio the canvas would be rotated 90 degrees clockwise at approximately the same time. The purpose being to create a record of the path of sunlight on the studio floor using paint. 

For further reading on painting experiments see my post, 
Blind Men and the Elephant

Derivative Speculations

After high school I trained as a graphic artist.

For the most part my work was in black and white and on a flat surfaces readying work for reproduction in various media. 

Some tools of the day included pencils, erasers, brushes, pens and ink. T squares and set squares. Scissors, knives,and pots of glue where used  to shape and then hold it all in place.  Paper and cardboard were the support.

Cutting edge technology of the day was an electric typewriter manufactured by IBM and called the Selectric, I imagine, because it was electric and gave selection.

The Selectric gave the typesetter the ability to interchange single point size fonts on interchangeable golf ball type devices. At speeds only imagined previously. Computers were only discussed in science fiction.

I can see these images deriving from the work of those days.

As I mentioned previously in my post Black and White the first steps in this direction began as work progressed for the Garden Party show at The Art Sales and Rental Society Gallery. In the later paintings I stripped out colour and reduced my palette to black. White is provided by the canvas itself.

I began wondering what would happen if colour didn't play such an emotional part in the work and location didn't matter.

In this case the garden remained a starting point for work but once the sketch is rendered and photographed the image is installed into the computer and out of my hands as it seems. 

Work proceeded within the computer and recalled the arbitrary matter of factness of rubbing and rolling work for Home and Garden.

As a hands on painter, I will say that rendering the two dimensional images of derivative speculations within the computer opens endless possibilities but I also find the computer strangely strips the emotional investment touch imparts in the finished work. 

Black and White forms the basis for this latest installment of garden paintings.

Feast for the Soul

The process of painting is visceral, engaging every fibre of my being.
Sight, smell and touch engage every step of the process.
 From the initial cut of wood designed for stretchers. 
Trapped oils from the fibres release into the studio air.
The aroma of raw canvas. The texture of woven fibres.

The feast begins once the act of mixing colours and applying them begins.

Come for Tea, Private Collection

Becoming an Artist

After high school I had chosen to continue studies through art. The first hurdle to cross on that path to higher art education was the entry portfolio. The portfolio was a formidable challenge because for the first time in my life I had to consider myself as an artist.

I decided  to see how art was made and what became of it once it was released to the public. At the time it wasn't out of the question to save a few hundred dollars and some air fare and travel to Europe. I also wanted to draw and paint along the way, to gather material that could fuel or become an entrance portfolio. For that purpose I took paper and pencils and watercolours. I saw art like I never seen it before. It was in the streets, in peoples homes it was everywhere. I met artists of all sorts, toured schools and museums and galleries and even made a few drawings myself along the way.

It turned out that my education was about to take an unexpected twist. While travelling through Germany I entered the divided city of Berlin. One day I passed through the wall into the east side and returned to the west again. Restoration work had taken place in some areas but devastation unchanged in thirty years since the end of WWII was appearent everywhere. The next stop on my journey took me to the city of Munich. I began asking other travellers about things to see and do while I was there and one suggestion was that Dachau was a must see.  I didn't know what Dachau was but took the offer and in the morning I set off on a short train ride from the city and into a world that riveted into my sole the moment I stepped off the train.

I didn't know what it was that I was seeing but some form of energy surged up through my body from the ground. A cold chill cycled over my skin and every hair stood on end. I soon learned that I had arrived at what remained of a World War Two concentration extermination camp, the infamous Dachau, which is one of many sites where so much pain and suffering and death was inflicted. Over the day I walked the ground, which is a monument, viewed the buildings and documentation of horrors inflicted on that site.

Reading, A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead recently, I recalled standing on the site of  Dachau that day. The thoughts that were previously unimaginable and my journey into the arts.

Book,  Home and Garden, Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia  

Dreaming Paint

The first dream that I recall having as a child seemed to be in black and white. I also seem to remember animals and trees in that same dream.
 When I had my first opportunity to paint on a large scale in school we were presented with soup cans of water paint in rich primary colours and paper as big as ourselves. I painted animals and trees bigger than I had ever painted them before. 

Plants and animals have remained interesting to me.
As an artist planning ahead to include or exclude elements we eliminate the need to make choices along the way as much as possible.  Then there are times while working on site when you are in a magic moment. Surprise and wonder overtake changes that were unanticipated only moments before.

 One such day painting by a brook behind the house a muskrat jumped out of the water and rested on the snow covered shore. I cleaned and reloaded my brush and added the figure before I was discovered and the creature disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.

Another day one January as we returned from the funeral of a friend I glanced to the site of the road just in time to see a sea otter enjoying sliding down the frozen bank of an ocean backwater cove. I held  the image in my mind and upon returning home and to the studio I recorded the image a memory of a friends spirit reflected.

It's funny that these same subjects appear over and over in my paintings even as other elements of my creative process change through time. 

How to Paint

Recently I have been reading Victoria Finlay's book Color, a Natural History of the Palette. It came as a gift and has been giving ever since. The author travels the world exploring colour and the myths and legends that make up that history. She writes in a way that is both informative and entertaining.

The history she cites ranges from the prehistoric to the present and documents personal and national fortunes won and lost. She notes the colour black, which seems to be my colour of choice these days, was possibly the first colour used to render ideas.  I was interested to hear that black can be both strong and mysterious. One colour being two things, so interesting. And no small wonder why artists colour choices can be so loaded and emotionally powerful.

The puzzle surrounding painting which at one time can be so simple and so complex draws me in with ancient materials, invention and discovery.

Fundy Tides

Recently, we had the opportunity to visit the Bay of Fundy once again. We drove the car  to a place called Rainy Cove and found a place off the road to park. Once parked we walked out on the dry ocean floor and made our way along the cliffs. The cliffs are carved by the water currents in the bay and make a spectacular sight. 
It is very important to keep an eye on the shore and on the waters edge to ensure you don't become trapped away from shore by the strong fast moving water.
The air was cool with the breeze blowing from the north all morning but painting on site is always a pleasure. The painting is on small panels that fit easily in a pack for travelling. 
The panels have been primed with three coats of gesso.
 The gesso seals the surface of the wood.  
Time is allowed to make multiple paintings from the same location.


 A few short hours and three paintings later we pack and go as the rushing water of the Bay approached. Check Minas BasinMooseland or Two Sides for more about painting around the Bay of Fundy.

Halifax Dry Docks

Once again I'm out in the car studio. It is early morning and the city is just coming to life. A thick fog lifts as the pelting rain slows and a view opens up. Tangled steel, fence, beams and posts surround the dry dock. A huge ship reveals itself. It is out of its environment, supported high and dry within the floating dock under going  refit. Cranes and cables, tug boats and the old bridge frame the harbour and fill the view plane. It is amazing to see how much a view can change on any given day. The painting Once Upon a Harbour shows this change. Both colour and mood vary widely and make the site interesting to me.

Small Problem

Being on site creating work is often a logistical nightmare. Getting there is only half the fun and new sites and sounds are always a welcome reward. The ground is often uneven. Weather is always on your mind and bugs in spring can be overwhelming.  Along the shore of the ocean I always have to keep one eye on the water and be ready to head for shore ahead of the incoming tide. Perhaps that is what draws me back over and over again.

When it is not possible to work on site the studio is always available. The studio provides a familiar setting, a warm dry space with light for working into the night. It is very different working in the studio as the floor is level and the walls straight. There are no problems with weather or bugs. One problem is size, which in my case is small, blown all out of proportion with the new camera which makes the space looks very large. I can assure you it is not and requires constant shifting of work to keep space available. Small problem for sure.

Northern Light

As young students in elementary school we boarded a bus one day for a trip to Klienburg Ontario and the then private McMichael Collection of paintings. When we arrived one of the guides noted an old shed just off to the side of the parking lot.  We were told the shed, recently moved from Toronto, had been built behind the studio building for Tom Thomson to use when he was in the city. I couldn't resist leaving the group for a closer look and was just tall enough to see over the window sill. A very basic building, one door and a small window, with a sleeping loft. A large eagle painted inside, a doodle of sorts. I thought it must have been very cold inside in the winter until the stove warmed things up.

Once back with the group and inside the McMicheals log home we saw paintings illustrating views from across Canada. Paintings created by Tom Thomson and others that had later became known as the Group of Seven. We were told that AY Jackson one of the founders of the group and a good friend of Tom Thomsons lived downstairs when he was in town. He did not meet us on that day as he suffered from a cold and didn't want to pass it on.

Many years later one project we were asked to complete as students was to pick any painted picture at all and insert a self portrait into it. I looked and looked but nothing interested me like one of Tom Thomsons lake paintings.

The mystery surrounding the death of the painter Tom Thomson is only slightly clearer after reading Roy MacGregors' book Northern Light than it was before. MacGregor does point out that old time country justice and a good cover up seemed to be at play and that Toms' bones probably still rest at Canoe Lake even though an undertaker and immediate family would say otherwise, but who knows.

For me Northern Light was an interesting read bringing to light the geography of the early twentieth century Ontario. Familiar sites and sounds recalled. I had camped by these lakes, counted the stars reflected in their surfaces, drank their waters and painted their views.

Two Sides

Along the shore of the Bay of Fundy just where water narrows and enters the Minas Basin you will find Cape Split. Native legends relate the origins of the area through stories describing the formation of the Bay and the famous Five Islands.

Over this summer I found myself on the shores with paint and boards. Working with tone after my recent project with line made an interesting contrast but the contrast turned out not to be in the work so much as the way it happened.

When I work in the garden or woods around the house it is often just me and the birds. Painting along the shore this summer turned into a much more public performance. When I  began painting this day the tide was near its low point and I maintained that view in the painting adding only to the colour.

Often when I work in public places people steer clear for some reason but on this occasion many people stopped, sat and chatted. Initally conversation was about the work itself. Good, bad or indifferent. As the day went on and the overwhelming effects of the tide were reflected in the painting talk turned to the Bay.

Black and White

In an effort to simplify my painting process, making the recording process more direct, while using traditional painting tools, I eliminated all colours but one. I also chose to work on untreated stretched canvas. 

The process is very quick but without gesture and may have come from the silouettes I had been working with.

I worked in the garden and the woods close at hand and even finally ventured out onto the land recording objects and sights that caught my eye. 

First came the ferns followed by narcissus and peonies complete with all the ants working away. Lilies are starting now as summer is really in full swing so there is a lot of painting to do. 

Shapes and patterns weave together as visual noise until the artist/viewer takes the time to sort the lines and discover patterns that were there all along.

Then there are the surprises. In this case our neighbour popped his head up at the roof of his home across the road. He was making alterations for a new roof and was in the picture plane for a moment. 

I added him in which changed the dynamic of the work completely. I think I will do a future post about surprises in paintings.

Derivative Speculations continues this work.


Recently I have been reading the James Lord, A Giacometti Portrait  which is a real eye opener. As the model for the portrait, author James Lord is also the observer of the artist at work. He records the highs and the lows of an eighteen day period during which Giacometti creates a portrait painting on canvas.

I come to find out that some of the fears that arise when I paint are also the fears that Giacometti faced. Funny thing. Corrections on corrections striving for that perfect balance. When to stop, where to start.

It seems that there is no easy answer and in his case he painted as long as time allowed. He was constrained by a shipping deadline as the portrait was travelling to a gallery to become part of a show.

In my mind I often go back to early thoughts of encounters with ideas and paint. Being at ease with the evolution of a work that doesn't work the first time for what ever reason is a hard lesson. I am not sure it gets any easier.


Here is a how to page about building stretchers for painting. First of all you should know that small store bought stretchers are fine up to a point. They save time in the making and some are even complete with stretched and primed canvas so you can begin painting right away.

As an artist you could also consider painting on other surfaces such as plywood which is dimensionally stable, very simple to find and easily prepared. It comes down to what you want to work on and how you imagine your finished work.

If you use store bought supports over eighteen inches brace the frame before use to strengthen it against buckling from the pressure exerted by shrinking canvas. You may also find the outer frame depth dimension under two inches requiring the work to be framed before sale, which is a very expensive way to work. I much prefer to build a simple stretcher for work over twelve inches square and if it is successful  it may or may not be framed. I also would use a heavier weight canvas than provided on the store bought frames.

Having a working sawmill in your area to buy dry milled lumber is really lucky. Building supply stores also sell wood suitable for building stretchers. Wood can be purchased in various nominal dimensions. 1"x2" will do just fine for frame braces and 1"x3" will be milled to 2". You will be looking for pine boards with no knots which are called "clear" and are easiest to work with. If the wood has knots you will need to work around them or cut them out. Allow about ten percent extra material in the length for knots.

You will also need some 1.5" nails and carpenters glue and a 1/4 sheet of 3/16" meranti  plywood , also available at building supply stores which you will cut to serve as gussetts.   A heavy stapler and 3/8" staples will attach the gussetes in place

Once I have the wood home I let it sit for at least four days to warm up and dry even more. Then I cut the 1"x3" to 2" on a table saw and add a chamfer or fortyfive degree cut along what will be the top edge.

Cut the wood to the finished lengths with a forty five degree angle.

Glue all the corner cuts and fasten the pieces with two nails on each corner. Set this aside to dry for a day.

Then using the 1"x2" boards measure the inside of the frame and cut a forty five degree angle on the flat side of the board. This should fit snuggly in the frame. Continue until all four sides have been braced gluing all the inside edges before nailing it all together. Check the frame to ensure a square using a carpenters square and measure from corner to corner. The measurement should be equal. Corners can then be braced with plywood gussetts glued and stapled into place as well as intermediate braces set into the frame back.