This painting series was a bit unique for me. It had a common theme in terms of the subject matter – all of the images were drawn from what I saw (and captured with photos) during the night while on a train between Edmonton and Vancouver in November of 2007. What was unique for me was the use of oil pastel on a number of the works, and oil paint on a couple of larger ones.
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.
Living in a northern climate with a healthy dose of winter (usually with snow on the ground for 4 or 5 months, each year), I have to ask myself why I have so few landscape paintings with snow. I do like to take photos of snowy landscapes, often with the good intent of using them for painting references but so far there are not a lot of paintings.
Last night I was reading Deviant Spirits by Ross King and ran across this passage (on page 166) that got me thinking:
Although Quebec painters such as Gagnon, Cullen and Suzor-Coté had tackled snow and ice before, landscapists in English Canada generally steered clear. They recognized , as one critic observed, that to paint a Canadian landscape under snow was “unpatriotic, untactful and unwise.” Canada’s cold climate and deep snow had been a sore point at least since Voltaire mocked the country as “a few acres of snow.” As Jefferys put it “Our climate, winter especially, was regarded as sort of a family skeleton.”
So that’s the story I’ll stick with for now – to paint snow would be to perpetuate an embarrassing Canadian stereotype. Seriously though, I love snowy landscapes and have spent some time studying the more successful ones. Particularly, I have paid attention to the value range of successful paintings – how the values of snow in shadows compares to that in sunlight. I will no doubt be tackling the Canadian landscape in snow in the months and years to come.
One of my few successful snowy landscapes to date was my 2009 oil painting Winter Sunrise on the Rails . This painting was inspired by a photo I took in December of 2008 as I traveled by train from Toronto, home to Edmonton. The scene was from the back of The Canadian somewhere around the Ontario-Manitoba border, probably about an our east of Winnipeg. The sun was just breaking over the horizon and glimmering along the rails behind us.
I recently had a print of this painting made at RedBubble and I’m pretty thrilled by the way it looks framed up with a black mat.
Prints of this image, Winter Sunrise on the Rails are available for purchase at RedBubble as cards and prints of various sizes, matted or framed, if desired. The original painting is also still available for purchase.
Here is one of my earlier winter landscapes done back in 1993. This scene depicts the Moose River in Northern Ontario
There is a bit of a story behind this painting, but I’ll leave that for another day.
It was November 10, 2007 that I set off on a solo artistic adventure. I might have called it a holiday but I would get some strange looks. Summer holidays in Canada – sure. Winter Holidays (especially to play in snow ) okay, but November, to the west coast, at the start of the wet season? Well maybe I’ll just call it a work trip.
The plan was to spend a week painting on Salt Spring Island on Canada’s west coast. I expected to do plein air painting so my pochade box was a key piece of the equipment that I had to bring with me – along with a tripod to hold the pochade, a small stool to sit on and a canvas backpack to lug it all around. In order to transport this stuff (and a wooden case for my painting panels) to the coast I needed a big case. I thought about purchasing a commercial shipping case but in the end I shopped around and bought a suitcase big enough( but not too big) to be dedicated to these art supplies. Along with this large (and heavy) case I had a smaller backpack to carry my clothes and personal effects.
The first day was a travel day – getting from Edmonton to the coast. My preferred mode of transportation is the train so I boarded “The Canadian” in Edmonton on a Saturday morning for the trip. The journey would take nearly 24 hours crossing half of Alberta, through the mountains and across British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. The train was a couple of hours late leaving Edmonton but we were on the rails by mid-morning on our way to Jasper. There is not a whole lot to see on this first leg as the November landscape in Alberta is pretty bleak – dried grasses and leafless trees. It was however a pleasant enough day and I just relaxed by settling into my coach seat, taking a deep breath and watching the world go by.
By later in the afternoon as the train approached Jasper National Park, bits of snow could be seen at the sides of the track and once into the Park, snow could be seen at the higher elevations of the mountains.
We arrived in Jasper and had an opportunity to de-train and wander around the town a bit but because we were already running late, the stop was not as long as normal.
The departure from Jasper was late afternoon ( little after 4PM) and it was already getting darkish with the sun having dipped below the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately this meant I wouldn’t be seeing much of the scenery and I certainly wouldn’t be having any photo ops (or so I thought). Within an hour it was dark but still I kept my eyes and little Pentax camera pointed out the window looking for light and interesting sights.
Throughout the evening and into the night I would take photos from the window of the moving (or occasionally stopped) train. The long exposure and movement did not make for very good traditional photographs but I loved the abstraction, the effect of the mysterious, blurred motions.
Many of the photos I took that night served as inspiration for my Night Train series of paintings. I did not sleep very deeply that night – between trying to get comfortable on the train seat, the distractions and just the excitement of being on a journey – but I didn’t care. I recall waking up many times through the night as the train passed through a town or a small station. I would wake up briefly, snap a photo or two then drift off again. As night became early morning The Canadian was rolling through the Fraser Valley, back towards civilization. Between the lightening sky and man-made structures and lights a number of photo ops were presented. Again a number of these photos (still not much on their own) served as inspiration/references for some abstract paintings.
This leg of the journey ended around 0830 in the morning as The Canadian (which I had been on for nearly a day but which had departed Toronto four and a half days earlier) pulled into Vancouver Pacific Central station . Stepping onto the platform I was struck by that unmistakable west coast humidity and the relative warmth (compared to Edmonton in November).
The next leg of my journey would be a bus to the ferry but I had a bit of time to grab a bit of breakfast and stroll out to the front of the station. A treat it was to see green grass and even some shrubs with leaves (us prairie folk are easily impressed by this time of year)
Next: a bus, a couple of ferries and a car ride to get to my destination on Salt Spring Island – for the real start of my adventure.
This is a painting I produced in November of 2008, inspired by a journey that I took a year before that:
This painting is one of a number of paintings in a series I call my Night Train series. Seven works in the series have been completed to date – in oil and oil pastels. Click on this link to see the other works in this series on my website.
The series was inspired by a VIA Rail train trip that I took in November 2007 from Edmonton to Vancouver (this was the first leg of the journey that took me to Salt Spring Island for a week of exploring, photography and painting – but that is another story for another time). The VIA Canadian traveled across the province of British Columbia through the long night, arriving in Vancouver at dawn. I spent a lot of time through the evening and night staring out the window, often taking some long exposure, hand-held photos which served as the inspiration for the paintings.
This series was a bit of a departure for me both in the degree to which I abstracted the landscape and also the darkness of the color palette. Overall I was very pleased with the outcome.
This painting was donated to (and sold at) a fund raising auction for the Visual Arts Alberta Association (VAAA) in November of 2009. I find the idea of capturing the mysterious self-abstracting night landscape as seen from a train, very compelling. I fully expect to return to this theme and series again in the future.
*This painting was reproduced on my latest art card and I would be happy to mail one of these postcards to anyone requesting one (while supplies last).