Thursday, February 20, 2014

REALLY FRESH !... From the Field

Today's painting was begun on location in the quaint river hamlet of Ivy Lea. Like Rockport, it clings to the rocky shoreline of the St Lawrence and is little more than a cluster of homes and tourist-related businesses which today give it the feel and the look of an unmade bed. By that, I mean that many of the upscale modern permanent homes seem set awkwardly amongst the earlier cottage style architecture. They simply don't relate in style, or in scale to what was there before. This incongruity deprives the entire village of any real sense of identity or relationship to its historical past. However, these observations quite simply... and perhaps unfairly only reflect just one guy's opinion and tastes.

On the way into the village, I came across today's view which seemed unobstructed by the influences described above and it caused me to reflect upon how life might have run back in the Victorian era on the river. It must have fairly bustled with summer activity, due to the fact that it is strategically located amidst a very large cluster of nearby islands... most remain "peopled" every summer. At one point, the general store located mid village provided gasoline and supplies to all... and in my memory... it was nigh unto impossible to dock there on a weekend ... the traffic was so constant. Now... that store is a private residence... and not at all the centre of village life. It sits looking rather rejected and uncared for - all of the vitality long disappeared.

My painting subject is a fine example of the type of early cottage architecture which can be found anywhere along the banks of the river... and on either side as well. All were wooden frame construction... many painted white... and many richly embellished by distinct Victorian fret work, or "gingerbread" eaves and porch details. They celebrate the rich and much preferred High Victorian stylism which swept across Canadian cities, towns and villages at the turn of the 20th Century. The warm, rich glow of this  forest green clad two-and-one-half storey cottage sitting quietly ... bathed in the failing afternoon sun and juxtaposed against the cooler back drop of the icy river offered the only inspiration necessary to cause me to immediately set up my easel.

Below is a full frontal view of the cottage grouping... with my intended subject sandwiched comfortably in the middle of the three in the foreground. Another view... for another day... when the river opens up. Lovely reflections... but note the squat and unsettling appearance of the cottage in the right of my subject. When I paint the subject... I will eliminate and make a "ghost" of that distraction... to suit my own artistic tastes.

Here below is the view that I stumbled upon from the roadside.  I took a few moments to consider what aspects merited inclusion... and what others would be left out. I began by "blocking in", or massing in appropriate broad pieces/shapes of uniform colour... without concern for colour accuracy. I merely wanted to quickly lay in a kind of compositional foundation upon which be laid more accurate colour and detail later on. My primary interest was the contrast created by conflicting horizontal and vertical elements of the composition... all compressed into a very narrow, but expressive vertical format.

The first hour of working was quite comfortable... with the sun on my back. But this all changed in a heart beat when the sun dropped quickly and a much stronger and colder north west wind nullified that earlier heat source. Within minutes, I began to feel the deeper cold, but more alarmingly... I soon found that all of my pigments had tightened to such a state that I could no longer mix them. I use kerosene as my brush cleaner in sub zero conditions. Usually, it acts like an extender... permitting a longer period of easy mixing in the deeper cold... especially for the titanium white. It was failing me on this trip. Here is my trunk set up at curtain time for the day. All of the original warm and light in the scene has disappeared.

I have not... for several years found myself in this predicament. But I soon realized that I was not going to be able to remain on site and finish in the half hour I needed to close. I packed up my gear quickly and headed home. I cannot relate to you how wonderful and restorative that tub full to the brim with HOT water felt... along with the ice cold .05 non-alcoholic beer in hand. Fifteen minutes in that "spa location" completely restored my nearly depleted body core temperature. This has always been my reward ritual upon returning home from a winter plein air outing. I look forward to it as much... almost... as being "out there."

Here is the "raw" plein air effort... as it was photographed later that same evening in the studio. Note the obvious effects of the cold: piled up pigment... unrefined details... areas requiring a steady hand (not possible out there at the close)... values that need further tweaking - a real "unfinished symphony" for certain! Has
promise I think.... but better give it a rest overnight... and further thought and planning.

Just before I left the scene... I noticed how the lower light had cast an interesting shadow on the previously blank and sunlit wall of the cottage. I decided to take one last picture. Interesting!.....HMMMMMMMM!

I wonder!.....

Here is the finished version with added detail and second considerations. The tug in the middle ground had appeared too cut off and I wanted the tug to actually physically overlap and interact with the cottage. It struck me when I had first looked at this subject that the composition actually "spoke" of the literal grasp that winter and Nature have upon human activity on the St Lawrence. We are quite simply..."winter-locked" for six long months... at the complete whim of the cold... waiting until winter relinquishes his reign. I added the shadow of the nearby spruce.I felt that it further added further interest to an otherwise blank flat wall... a mood of quiet... and the presence of impending darkness and night closing in.

I have titled this sketch " Ivy Lea" - oil on toned panel 10x12 inches. It is the product of an initial plein air outing and was drawn to a successful conclusion with another half hour of studio finishing. I think it would be hard to readily discern which of these two sketches in these last two posts was completely painted within the studio. One learns a great deal about the actual process of painting and how to approach either situation using the information gained through outside experiences. Photos alone often reveal only half truths!

In comparing the two paintings... take into account my intentional limited use of the camera as a tool. The first painting employed its use in the actual on location gathering of subjects. Matt Smith described his use of photos in a recent demo which my painting friend Marian Fortunati had attended... as a "conversation" between himself and the subject in the digital image. It provides information which is then translated into his own painting process and stylism. I like to think of the photo as a "marinade" which captures... soaks up and preserves the raw essence of the image for further use and actual "cooking"... back in my studio-kitchen. I dispose totally of the "marinade" when the cooking begins... its function is complete. It has infused its flavour to suit my "taste and palette."

The second use for the camera that I use... is to capture a specific moment or lighting situation that is dramatic... but transient. In the case of the second plein painting foray... it was the dramatic shadow at the conclusion of the  session... as the light simply dropped away that caught my eye and my interest. Recording it allowed me the opportunity to consider its use perhaps.... back in the studio where I no longer was rushed by the cold and fading light conditions. Both instances make use of the camera... but neither directs the final outcome in place of my own inner feelings and artistic choices. There is a delicate balance which encourages one to create... rather than merely copy. That is essential for me.

Painting en plein air teaches you to "see"... to feel and to interpret what is in front of you broadly and with a certain bravura. It teaches you to paint quickly and confidently... making decisions quickly and to extrapolate beyond what is physically present. Winter isolates elements in the landscape for you to use... that are lost in all other seasons. Snow and combined contrasting light and shadow interplay together become strong sculptural elements and present new and exciting opportunities. These are my reasons at least... for taking my kit out into winter for extra lessons... and all in a quiet interruption-proof classroom!

Can "school learnin"... get any better?....
I wonder!...

Good Painting ALL!!!


  1. How absolutely breathtaking this piece is, Bruce! Absolutely stunning. I love your composition and hearing of your thought processes. "Cottage" seems to imply a summer home. I wish my all year round home was half as beautiful!! And that position overlooking the water? I couldn't ask for more!!

  2. Good morning Sherry!... Thank you for your cheery presence and words of encouragement and support this morning!

    Within Ivy Lea there is an equal mix of cottage and permanent dwellings... giving it the "bad bed" look. "Looks" certainly aren't everything however... likely based more upon personal tastes and my single biased opinion. What is more important however... is that the village is an ever picturesque... charming and peaceful location... always painter friendly.For that reality, I am always grateful!

    Snow is being eaten away quickly by overnight rain. Must get the brushes into further action today... before spring eliminates further winter painting opportunities.

    Stay tuned!...

    Good painting!
    Warmest regards,

    PS I sure loved your most recent floral still life Sherry! Top marks... a "Gold" for "You" on that one my Friend! Keep up the good work!

  3. Hi Bruce, "locked in" was my first thought on looking at the photograph, and that is certainly the feeling you have conveyed in the painting.

    Used in this way, I think a camera can be a useful tool for collecting reference material. Artists in the past had to rely on their memories and maybe they were better at that than we are, but how can we know. Maybe they missed those fleeting effects of the light because they had no means of recording them. Perhaps we should be grateful for our modern technological aids, and use them wisely, as you have here.

    I find myself in a constant dilemma about modern buldings. Will future generations look upon these new houses as being quaint? It's hard to imagine I know! I want to avoid them and seek out more picturesque subject matter, but part of me feels that the job of a landscape painter is to record things as they are now. But then what is the point in painting uninspiring subjects? I suppose in the end you have to decide why you are painting and whether you want to be a jounalist or not.

    All the best,

  4. Good morning Keith!... Thanks for dropping by to add in your own thoughts about the post!

    I heartily concur with your thinking regarding the use of technology to record the period that we live in and its changing landscape. Change cannot be stemmed and that is a good thing in my mind. It is what makes the human spirit adaptable and able to evolve in the environment we find ourselves as a species... "locked into."

    In watching how other artists struggle with these same questions and continue to change and find further inspiration brings me to a personal perspective that each of us must simply paint what satisfies our interests and our visual eye.

    For myself... and I think you as well, it is not that things "old and quaint" should take precedence over the modern... but rather that understanding how we have arrived at the present is valuable in centering/grounding ourselves in the "grand scheme of things." Does that make any sense?

    I have recently come to think that perhaps the age we have reached is a place of transition for us in our journeys. We are more reflective... with many our age finding more solace in the embracing of memories... as opposed to the setting of new courses of exploration and dreams. Perhaps... we live with the fear that perhaps life has... or is in the process of leaving us behind. That is a frightening prospect!

    I recently found this interesting quote in my reading... I can't remember where though. It has caused me to reflect upon how and why I have chosen to travel in my journey... and why I should carefully "take stock" of my plans for the future.

    "Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth."

    I believe that my wriiting and painting interests have always been motivated by the combination of my curiosity for exterior observances... blended with my interior feelings to wonder how these things work. One begets the other.

    The truth is... "Truth" not an empirical reality. It is a constantly changing state... likely more based upon a purely individual belief... or perspective. As more knowledge continues to be added... the commonly accepted "truths" are eroded and fall away to yet another layer of truth.

    Perhaps that is true with life and making art as well Keith. The only truth perhaps... is that some of us are driven to explore... with no particular destination in mind. It is simply the act of travelling that we love and serve.

    Just some thoughts... Thanks for the "conversation" that you inspired this morning!

    Good Painting... and exploring!
    Warmest regards,

  5. Hi Bruce, it is as if you almost knew the rain was coming and that soon the snow would all be gone and that you would start to feel more alive again after the deep snow and icy cold months. Really enjoyed reading about your painting process and your thoughts.

  6. Hi there Lass!... Winter is is us... here in Canada! The Canadian Olympic showing underscores the fact that we live... and play best in the cold! HA HA!!!

    Looking forward to checkin' my winter duds though and moving into lighter painting gear! It's on the way... judging by the past three days hereabouts! Our resident male cardinal says so too!

    Thanks for dropping by and commenting!

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,