By Anna Horsnell
In exclusive conversations with the artists from The Prow Gallery, Breaking the Surface delves deeper into the personalities and passion behind the artistry. Our sincere thanks go out to each artist for graciously sharing from the heart.
Why are you drawn to the subject of boats and water in particular?
I have spent a lot of time, professionally and recreationally, on ships and boats and I have a great affinity for the marine environment. It was why I chose to come to Nova Scotia to take a degree in marine biology. I fell in love with marine invertebrate creatures initially at the University of Toronto where I specialized in invertebrate zoology. The variety of exotic and almost otherworldly lifeforms that inhabit the ocean made me want to live on the coast. While I do paint a lot of boats and seascapes, I also enjoy doing still-life pieces involving marine life.
You worked for a number of years as a technical illustrator at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO). What did that experience provide you as an artist today?
One of the things that many visual artists find difficult to do is to actually feel they have the right (the credentials, experience, training...) to call themselves artists. When I worked at BIO it was primarily as a lab technician, based on my graduate degree in Marine Biology. However, after completing my MSc, I had enrolled in the design program at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) with the aim of becoming a scientific technical illustrator ... a way to combine my scientific and artistic inclinations. My six years at BIO, where I did black and white illustrations for technical reports as well as full-colour illustrations, was my first step towards gaining the confidence to call myself an artist. It also provided me with amazing opportunities to travel in the Eastern Canadian high arctic, and to northern Greenland aboard the research ship CSS Hudson and the Coast Guard icebreaker Louis St. Laurent. This kindled my passion for the landscape of the far north.
You have described your love of working with the pure pigment of pastels. Can you tell us more about the benefits and challenges of working with this medium?
Dry pastel is like any artistic medium ... mysterious and frustrating until you come to understand its particular nature. One unique feature it has, however, is that individual pastel sticks come not only in a myriad of colours but also in a range of hardness’s which allow for the creation of different effects. Creating a pastel painting necessitates the building up of layers of colours on the painting surface to achieve subtle tones and textures. This is done on surfaces that are themselves textured in various ways. Some surfaces have a velour like texture, and some, which feel like sandpaper, come in various degrees of coarseness. The rougher the paper, in general, the more layers can be applied; and the harder the pastel the thinner the application is with each stroke. Very soft pastels make rich, thick marks, but also saturate the holding capacity of the surface. They are usually applied later in the process. Pastel painting surfaces are also often coloured, or able to handle the application of liquids to create an ‘underpainting’, which can add another layer of interest. The one challenge that has yet to be overcome (and many have tried) is that it is necessary to frame pastel paintings under glass as they are vulnerable to surface damage if abraded. In an era where oil and acrylic painters can get away without framing their finished works for display or sale, it adds to the cost of producing a finished pastel painting for display.
Is creating realism all about the light?
I think the power of every successful painting lies in the effective use of design and value. No amount of technical wizardry will save a painting that has a poor composition. And there is a widely used phrase – “Value does the work and colour gets the glory” - that is especially true for realist paintings. Value (the degree of lightness or darkness of a hue) is a fundamental tool in portraying perspective – the relative positions and shapes of elements in your composition. Curvature of objects, and distances in landscapes are both conveyed by adjusting the value of the colours used. The shifting of colour because of distance (aerial perspective) gives us the blue of distant hills against the warmth of foreground foliage. The direction of light, creating shadows, also depicts form. It is actually quite possible to create a monochromatic painting (for example, a completely red landscape) that is understandable as a landscape by correctly representing the relative values of the elements in it. The sky is the lightest, the trees are the darkest, the flat ground is lighter than the trees but darker than the sky, etc... Effective use of light and dark is fundamental to creating excitement, drama or a sombre moody feeling.
When you teach art to others, what is the most important thing you hope to instill in your students?
I hope to instill in them the courage to push through the initial frustration and disappointment that comes at the start of learning a new medium. I try to get them to let go of the notion that a successful painting is the result of ‘inspired talent’ or ‘a gift’. I hope to give them the fundamental tools that, with diligent application, will enable them to improve their technical ability, and to recognize that making art is as much perspiration as inspiration.
What has been the toughest skill to learn as an artist?
The toughest skill to learn has been how to promote my work. The entire ‘business-side’ of being a professional artist is not one that comes easily to me. That is why being represented by the Prow Gallery is rather a dream-come-true. Of all the professional achievements I have had in my life, I truly think this is the one that means the most to me. Even though I did attend NSCAD, there was no guidance in how to pursue a career as an artist, and so after school, I chose a path that offered more economic security. I am now focused on developing my artistic credentials by participating in arts organizations and submitting to juried exhibitions. This continually challenges me to improve my work and has allowed me to develop a valuable network with other artists.
Could you describe a painting you have created that most closely touched your heart and why it did so?
This is a hard question to answer. I look at my paintings and see moments where I have achieved more than what I thought myself capable of. That is a real joy. The first painting that created that feeling for me, ‘Mistress Mary’ is one I will never forget. It depicted a lovely Soling sailboat owned by very close friends who had just parted with it. It had a lovely simplicity and somehow the painting just seemed to unfold in front of me. I have done many works since then that have created the same feeling for me, but it was the first.
What’s your one personality trait that has helped you the most as an artist?
I think that my ability to think analytically has enabled me to improve my skills: by identifying what works and what doesn’t, both compositionally and technically, in order to improve. However, I also think that my tendency to be goal oriented has helped me to identify objectives that have motivated me to put in the effort that is needed for growth.