Monday, October 9, 2017

My Journey Into Creating Portraits - Part One of Two

Early Foundation Work

Several interventions or suggestions that have clustered together during the last week have led me to lend some thought to stepping away from my usual landscape interests. The first intervening thought strangely occurred during a recent morning plein air session along the Parkway. I had decided upon the location because the subject, a long vacant two-storey stone Georgian home suddenly became a sudden bee hive of activity. It seemed that the long neglected interior was undergoing significant  stripping out and the stone exterior was being repointed... from the chimney tops... right to the basement level.

What had long appealed to me was the unusual character of this landmark along the river. It loomed as looking misplaced in comparison to other wooden architecture in the area... all of a lower architectural pedigree. In passing by it each time over many decades, I never stopped feeling that the building had a story that it wished to share with me... that it possessed a spirit and personality that made it seem more like a person than a building.

During the three hour plein air session, I discovered a great deal of historical information about the Gray House, its owners and its early history. The last surviving member of the Gray family, a bachelor had passed away during the recent  ice storm.

It relieved me too, to learn that this elegant Georgian-style country house was being prepared by developers for potential buyers... a much gentler fate than I had worried about - demolition. and another loss of heritage. Instead... the house would record another chapter of renewal and beauty for visitors along the well-travelled Parkway.

"Seen Better Days -The Gray Homestead- Landon's Bay" - oil on canvas 20x24 inches

Over a lifetime of sketching and painting I have searched out such unique homes and buildings that spoke to me of lives lived or functions of an earlier era. Their names still denote their specialness and distinct character and historical origin. MacPherson House, Gildersleeve House, Bedford Mill, Larue Mill come to the fore easily. However... simple homes and outbuildings with their simpler brand of distinction were as well a consuming interest in my paintings.

One could truly call these paintings portraits because they contained details that easily identified them as unique structures to people who live in the area. Though the paintings are often rendered in an impressionistic manner they maintain the distinct personality traits which separate them from other buildings around them.

Here is an ink drawing from a three print series, "Kingstones" that I created and sold in 1976 for visitors and residents in Kingston. The city of Kingston is fondly referred to as "The Limestone City" because of its multiplicity of stone buildings. The sum total reflect a cross section that easily spans the entire range of architectural styles in Canada. The  limes stone used is found locally and was easily quarried and put into use directly from within the city limits .

This building is known as Gildersleeve House and is located very centrally in downtown Kingston. It currently houses legal firms .It was originally built in 1825 as the prestigious Georgian-style home of the prominent Henry Gildersleeve family. Directly behind it you can see another exquisite limestone masterpiece... St. George's Anglican Cathedral.

The list of important limestone construction buildings is endless in the City and environs. Not only was the availability of the material to do so present locally... so was the numbers of skilled trademen. They were Scottish master masons who had been brought to Canada to construct the Rideau Canal from Kingston to Ottawa, Fort Henry and the KIngston Penetentiary by the British.

India ink and pen rendering on lithograph paper - 24 x 30 inches

Rideau Street Row Houses - Pen and India ink on lithograph  paper 24 x18 inches

Grand Trunk Railway Station - pen and India ink on lithograph paper - 24 x 36 inches

Enough said about buildings being treated as portraits. My view of buildings as "sitters" for portraiture opportunities yields one great benefit to the artist - They don't move and can hold a pose for a long time. Another plus lies in the fact that most are constructed of lines and angles that are easy to read as you construct them.

Buildings were a lead in which supported practice and variety for me as an artist. I felt comfortable and unobserved while I worked. There was no scarcity of willing subjects... where I chose to live, or set up my easel. I view the study and comparison of these subjects as a launching pad for entry into later human portraiture attempts.

My journey proceeded slowly into another genre of painting... a step closer to human portraiture... but still distant for someone as yet unskilled in anatomical and figure drawing experience. The elements of this genre were "kindly" to a newbie too. Though not yet human in their form... they did elicit human comparisons- in my mind at least,

Onward the journey...


  1. Beautiful sensitive drawings Bruce. I like them all.

  2. Thank you Lisa! Coming from someone who is as sensitive in her work as you consistently are... I consider your remarks here a huge compliment.

    Warmest regards,
    Good Painting!

  3. Very beuatiful painting and so interesting drawings !!!

  4. Thank you for your visit and comments Art-Traveller!

    Warm regards,

  5. Good Morning Bruce. I have always liked your 'portraits' of vernacular buildings, and I think the comparison with portraits of people is an interesting one. Like people, buildings show their history in their 'face', and that is why I don't usually find them interesting when they are newly-built. They need to mature a bit and develop some lines and creases!
    Using the same analogy, I guess the Gray Homestead is about to undergo a facelift. I just hope it looks better afterwards than some people do!

    All the best,

  6. Such an interesting post Bruce. The Gray house painting is really nice, full of sunshine and colour and solid too. Good to know this building will be renovated and not taken down. Hopefully it will look better and not too much changed. The pen and ink drawings from the past are beautiful and on a large size too, lots of work in them and lovely to see. Yet the Gray house portrait has something about it that is alive and full of character almost as if it is a person for sure!