Simplify – that is the message I took from Elizabeth Wiltzen, our group’s first-day instructor at the 2012 FCA workshop, on Salt Spring Island. (for an intro to this workshop, see my first post in the series). Liz is a very accomplished oil painter of landscapes, from Canmore (Alberta, Canada) who had worked in watercolors for years. Interestingly, she is also a life coach and an avalanche rescue (with dog) volunteer.
I liked the way Liz started off the workshop: encouraging, no demanding, that we drop any pressures (self imposed or imagined) to have to complete paintings during the week. We were there to learn, to experiment, to try and fail, but ultimately to grow. She joked that the “wet paint sale”, scheduled for the last day, was not happening. It was of course, but we were to act as if it wasn’t and not feel under any pressure to produce. I though this set a very good tone, not only for this day but for the entire workshop. I know I adopted that mindset and while I would get frustrated with a lack of quality output, I kept telling myself that I was there to learn and if I didn’t end up with even a single finished painting, that was okay – that thought settled me down on more than one occasion.
On this day, our group was on a beautiful private property, right on the south coast of the island, between Ruckle Park and Fulford Harbour. The views looking towards the water were particularly stunning. The views looking inland weren’t bad either, with fields, buildings, trees and rocks.
Liz started off with a good talk about her plein air painting equipment as she set it up for her first demonstration – of the exercise she wanted us to take on that morning. During that day we were given 2 exercises. That first one was to simply a scene to a few (5 to 10) large shapes and assign each shape one of just 5 values – and then paint it like that! This sort of exercise is nothing new but it was nonetheless very valuable. It is so easy to get overwhelmed by a scene, all the details and color. What this exercise demonstrated is the value of getting down good solid “bones”, an infrastructure for the painting! When you’ve got a believable value composition down, you are half way there!
On the right is my small painting resulting from that morning’s exercise – again the goal being to simplify shapes and values (and of course it is not as easy as it looks)!
The format of this first day of the workshop was typical of each day. We would get on site by 9 AM unload our gear and gather as a group (of about 25). Our instructor for the day would then give us a talk and demonstration (for maybe half an hour) and then we would scatter around the site to get down to painting. When done for the morning we would typically eat the lunch that we had brought and then gather as a group for the afternoon demonstration.
At our afternoon gathering, Liz demonstrated the exercise that she wanted us to try that afternoon. Still on the theme of simplifying. the challenge was to do a painting using just 50 strokes of the paintbrush. Well this was interesting – she made it look easy but of course it was not. A good starting point was to follow the lesson from the morning by establishing your composition with a limited number of large shapes. When it came to the painting, one trick (especially in the early stages), was to load up a paintbrush and without lifting it from the surface, sweep it all about to fill in the large shapes. Later strokes would be shorter and useful for adding highlights and providing definition to the painting. One of the unexpected challenges of this exercise is keeping track of the 50 strokes – once you get into the painting zone it is so easy to lose track of a simple thing like counting. Before I started painting I took a couple of pine cones and pulled off 50 scales, put the 50 markers in a pile.. Then after each painting stroke, I simply tossed away one of the scales – when they were all gone, my painting was “done” (“remember, it’s just an exercise”)!
It was a good first day with the exceptionally beautiful landscapes that I was expecting, great weather, a chance to meet a few of the people in my group and of course a couple of lessons in simplification that stuck with me through the week (and beyond).
When I made the trip from Edmonton to Salt Spring Island for the Federation of Canadian Artists (FCA) 2012 workshop, the primary purpose was the workshop, which was focused on plein air painting. My personal goal for the trip was a bit broader than just painting. For me, this was an opportunity to indulge my other artistic passion – photography. On this trip I carried three cameras with me: a Nikon DSLR with three lenses and accessories (all of the photos in this blog post came out of the Nikon), a Panasonic point-and-shoot camera and my Samsung Galaxy S III . Between these cameras I collected some 2500 images over the 10 days!
Within the realm of photography I had three distinct goals:
1. The first was to capture reference photos of the varied coastal and inland landscapes for use in landscape paintings.
2. My second goal was to take some good, clear quality photos that can stand on their own.
3. The third goal was to capture abstract photo images that might serve as references for abstract paintings.
With these abstract photos I do not look for details or necessarily recognizable elements. I am more interested in capturing colors and patterns and flowing lines. My basic technique for abstracting an image is through motion between the camera and subject, during the exposure. This often requires a slow shutter speed which may necessitate using a neutral density filter. I usually will move the camera (in one or more directions) but on this trip I was also traveling by train so I also made use of the train’s motion relative to the landscape outside. In this blog post I share a few of the abstract images I generated on this trip.
That first image was shot from the train on the way to Vancouver. When I got to Salt Spring Island I spent my first day (the day before the painting workshop began) hiking with my camera gear. I set off for a favorite place from my visit to the island 5 years earlier – the rain forest in the valley of Cusheon Creek . With the heavy, lush tree cover, it was not very bright (except for where the sun broke through the canopy). These conditions were however quite suitable for the long exposure shots that I was taking.
As beautiful and quiet as the Cusheon Creek area was, it was a bit unnerving – just as I entered the area I noticed a sign warning that a cougar had been spotted in the area! Fortunately I did not run into one (but it was always in the back of my mind).
After this day of photography, it was 5 days of painting (with a bit, okay quite a bit, of reference photography) before another free day to wander about with the cameras and then a couple of travel days. I returned to Edmonton from Vancouver via the train, so once again had an opportunity to see what type of abstractions I could capture while in motion.
The 5-day workshop ran from Wednesday September 12th through Sunday September 16th. There were about 100 participants divided up into 4 groups. For the first four days, each group spent a day with a different one of the four workshop instructors, at a different site on the island. On the last day, everyone painted in and around Ganges on their own.
Every day we were out painting “en plein air”, in landscapes which offered views of coasts, fields, forests, buildings and animals – something for everyone!
The four workshop instructors were: John Salminen, Elizabeth Wiltzen, Carla O’Connor and Stephen Quiller. Each instructor focused on a particular media but were able to provide valuable guidance to everyone, in whatever media the participant chose to use.
Another very unique and welcome feature of this year’s workshop was a talk on Friday evening, given by the world-renowned (and Salt Spring Island resident) painter and naturalist, Robert Bateman. Bateman is obviously a man with a million stories (and opinions), a good an passionate speaker (looking way younger than his 82 years). On this evening he spoke about his development and influences. I learned that he had once painted landscapes in the style of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven (and quite frankly, that earlier style appealed to me more than the his realistic wildlife work). I was also impressed by (and would never have guessed) his appreciation for abstract expressionists such as Rothko, Kline and Still. He demonstrated how he was influenced by their compositions and incorporated them into his high-realism wildlife paintings. Overall it was a very enjoyable evening in a very good week.
Our last day of the workshop (Sunday) was different, but nonetheless valuable. We painted in Ganges, had group critiques of the work’s week as well as the opportunity for one-on-one critiques with Robert Genn. Late in the afternoon there was a two hour “wet canvas” sale – an opportunity to show and sell paintings. The well organized workshop week wrapped up with a very nice banquet – a excellent meal and an opportunity to chat and reminisce with old and new friends, on Sunday evening.
Next year’s FCA week-long workshop is being organized for Whistler B.C. in September 2013. After this years experience I will be giving serious consideration to attending that one too.
In future posts on this blog I will share some of the things that I learned during this week on Salt Spring – there was something learned everyday and from every instructor – stay tuned! [go to Workshop Day 1 post]