What an amazing experience this has been. After so many years of working in Photoshop professionally, I was able to relinquish control to serendipity, smell the chemistry that made it possible, and feel that magic I felt so long ago. It was 27 years since I stepped into a darkroom and I thank my wife Stephanie for nudging me to go and Diane Bos for being such an inspiration.
I thought it was one of the best paintings that I had done. A small scene of a white cabin on the shores of Kootenay lake. I had been hanging around a gallery in Calgary, looking at all the great art for months and screwed up the courage to go and get a critique from one of the most respected Canadian artists – Harley Brown. Look him up – seriously. I gingerly walked in holding my precious work and meeting my gaze asked “what’s that you have there”? “A painting I just did” I replied. He motioned for me to place it on the counter and I leaned it against the cash register, an uncontrolled smile creeping into the corners of my mouth. “Wow he said, “very nice. He proceeded to give me some suggestions about how to improve my composition and other arty suggestions. I was good at “wow” but still listened.
Then, it happened.
“Is it still wet? He asked.
With that, he took his finger and started to blend the area of trees behind the house smushing the green paint with the white side of the house! I didn’t know what to say but he did “that’s better don’t you think”? I stood there in dumb silence and a desire to grab a pen and draw a stick man on one of his pastel portraits briefly made an appearance. But I didn’t. I politely agreed and after a few more minutes left the gallery to digest what had just happened. I had just seen a very talented artist view and adjust another’s art work with his finger. I was expecting a – “go home and do this” kinda approach. Where I could take out my brushes and with great hesitation try something I was unsure of. What if he had wrecked it was all I could think.
This was the first lesson in a long series of lessons that started in Heritage Gallery and continued through art college…
The simple answer was… art is not precious.
That was the message that the instructors at ACAD taught all of us. The brush strokes I put on that painting were always meant to be played with if required with no fear. If the painting didn’t work, that was ok. But I have a certain amount of angst when working at the easel. Especially when the painting IS working. Ever make a card castle? When your only a few cards in, it doesn’t matter if it crashes. But when it’s three feet off the floor your moves become far more tentative and with the potential of catastrophe. I always wonder if these thoughts hold me back.
One of the most interesting paintings I ever did was an abstract for art school where I took several tubes of Gouche that I never thought I would use and squeezed them out onto some paper that I had masked the edges. I took out a painting knife and started running the knife through the paint creating texture and movement and… I just simply let my fearless painter out. Emotion took over, and I “felt” the work rather than direct it. My arm and hand worked fluidly letting a seemingly primal force work from within. Almost (almost) like I was possessed. On a side note, it felt similar to what I believed from film and description to what Jackson Pollack painted like. I pulled the tape off the edges and was stunned at how it not only it looked but how it felt to create without fear. After all I had nothing to lose – it was paint I was going to throw away anyway – on paper no less.
As a commercial artist, I have begun to understand why I was drawn to Photoshop. It’s safe. I can muck around all I want and not ruin anything. Adjust and tinker all day. Painting is different – seemingly. But maybe I need to adapt to the digital ideal and listen to my mentors.
Every piece of art is a journey and not an end unto itself.
What is precious, is the process. Crashes and all. It’s only paint, film, glass and fabric. To develop, you have to be comfortable with the idea that each piece you do, will either be a lesson, or a piece you want to sell or hang on a wall. In a way – I’m starting to prefer the lesson.
Years ago, I attended the Alberta College of Art in Calgary and was a painting major for all of a year before shifting into photography. I had grown up as many of us do, with easy to understand representational art in the house. Very commercial. The type of art you would find at the local gallery. Generally, landscapes with horses (we do live in Alberta you know). Exceptional work by some exceptional artists.
So, pencils and paint brushes in hand, I entered college with the idea that this is what art was all about. I knew about modern art but thought that “my” type of art would be nurtured and supported. Not so much. I remember one instructor in particular – Dave Casey. He would get us going on drawing a still life, and would walk around the class looking over your shoulder at what you were up to. If he thought you were being too “precious”, he would pull out his trusty giant red marker and draw a line through your work and tell you to start over. Sigh… You would think I would not like this, Mr. Casey character very much, and possibly want to poke his eyes out with a Staedtler Mars Lumograph – but no. He taught me some very valuable lessons about letting go of what I believed to be “good art”, and start to open up to art that I didn’t really like specifically because of biases I had developed during my upbringing. As a matter of fact, the college seemed to be bent on removing that part of my brain. Kinda like a – LabARTomy.
Enter Art History and our dear professor Hannah White. Over the course of her classes, and with the help of my new open view of art, I was able to begin to understand the various art movements and yes, start to actually appreciate them. Even Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism and more. This, despite the fact that apparently, my father had a trained monkey that could do almost any of the work produced by these so called artists. Dad was never able to produce this monkey unfortunately, as I would have taken him around the world and made a fortune.
So, as you may or may not know already, I switched majors and became a photographer. Looking back, sadly, much of this came from the pressure to make a living and I believed I could never do that through painting.
So, how does the Group of Seven enter into this? I held onto the stubborn idea of what good landscapes looked like. Upon refection, I probably still do to some degree. My first paintings in twenty eight years would have been well received by my dad. But recently I picked up a copy of The Group of Seven and Tom Thompson by David P Silcox and was mesmerized by the work again. I was then treated to seeing some of this work at the Glenbow Museums “Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery” and I began to realize that this was something that I wanted to explore. The internal arguments were (and still are) highly annoying. – no no Grant, you have to make the tree look like this, here, let me show you, there ya go – But what if I make the tree look like this? – Well, that would be silly, trees don’t look like that – But I’m going for the way the tree and the rest of the landscape make me feel and trying to simplify and convey that to the viewer – feel schmeel… and on and on it would go.
So, where to from here? I’ve decided that I’m going to let go of what I think I should be doing, and just letting what happens happen. Paint and sketch with simplification in mind. Reduce the noise and volume of the landscape to it’s forms. Hopefully, that trained monkey won’t show up and start painting next to me.
Here is a test of the first real time lapse I have done using the Genie Syrp I picked up recently.