More on extreme painting

Tom Thomson in his grey canoe

I spent a few extra days in Piseco last week. It was beautiful and austere in the silent falling snow. Shivering outside while painting in my nylon waterproof jacket and latex gloves, I spent more than a little bit of time considering the rigors experienced by Tom Thomson in the backwoods.

Thomson’s training was anything but conventional. He learned lettering and design in business school in Seattle—an idea that seems impossibly weird today. In 1905, he took up a position as a senior artist at a Toronto photoengraving firm. Given the state of photogravure at the turn of the last century, one should assume that the majority of his job involved what we would now call pre-press rather than actual design.

In 1909 Thomson joined the staff of Grip Ltd., where he came under the tutelage of the firm’s chief designer, J.E.H. MacDonald. MacDonald contributed much to Thomson’s artistic development: he himself was a formally-trained artist.

The McMichael Collection exhibits early works by Thomson and the Group of Seven and they are workmanlike but prosaic—typical landscape painting and graphic design of the period.

Tom Thomson’s own business card from his days in graphic design.

The radical change in their vision is partly attributed to a visit they made in 1913 to Buffalo, where they saw an exhibit of Scandinavian Impressionist and Art Nouveau paintings that they understood could be adapted to the Canadian viewpoint.

Danish painter Ahled Maria Larsen’s “Kejserkroner” (1910). I’m sure she will appreciate being remembered thus: “Side-by-side with her role as a mother and hostess, Larsen still found time to paint…” (Her work looks more contemporary than her peers’ from this distance.)

But it also came from the land itself. In 1912, Thomson and his fellows began travelling to the Mississagi Forest Reserve and Algonquin Park, the place with which he is most closely associated.

When painting on location, Thomson used a small wooden sketch box to carry his oil paints, palette, and brushes. His painting boards (generally about 9X12) were stowed in slots fitted in the top. This sketch box was similar to the modern pochade box except that it didn’t sit on an easel. Thomson worked sitting in his canoe, or on a handy log or rock with his sketchbox set in front of him.

Paintbox belonging to Barker Fairley, a disciple of the Group of Seven. Thomson’s would have been similar, for this was a kind of paintbox used until quite recently, when quick-release pochade boxes came into vogue.

In 1913 Thomson exhibited his first major canvas, A Northern Lake, at the Ontario Society of Artists exhibition. The provincial government purchased the canvas for $250, roughly equal to $5500 in current dollars. That year, Dr. James MacCallum guaranteed Thomson’s expenses for a year, allowing him to quit his job and head back to Algonquin. His career was made.

Thomson’s home base when he visited Algonquin was a small hotel called Mowat Lodge. He would stay at the Lodge in early spring and late fall, and then move into the woods when the lake and river ice broke up. In the depth of winter, he painted in his studio shack, a converted construction shed in a back lot in Toronto. It was there he painted full-size canvases from his field sketches.

Thomson was a certified guide, fire ranger, avid fisherman, expert canoeist, woodsman and painter—in short, a backwoods renaissance man. (Ironically, he was barred from enlisting in the Great War for health reasons.)

He was also plagued by self-doubt. AY Jackson recounted that in the fall of 1914 Thomson threw his sketch box into the woods in frustration. He said that Thomson “was so shy he could hardly be induced to show his sketches.”

It was in the solitude of Algonquin’s lakes and woods that he discovered himself as a painter. The backwoods can be dangerous, and it’s also where he died.

Thomson died sometime between July 8 and July 16, 1917, when his body was found floating in Canoe Lake. Although the cause of death was recorded as accidental drowning, his demise has become one of Canada’s most enduring mysteries, involving, variously, a love affair, a fight with a German neighbor about the Great War, a drunken brawl, or suicide.

I have a canoe, a pochade box, and a fishing pole. The ice will be breaking up in a month or so… do I have a backwoods painting trip in me?

Painting in the Adirondack Wilderness

“Oxbow Lake Outlet in February melt,” oil on board, 12X16, Carol L. Douglas. It was 10º F when we left the Irondequoit Inn to prospect for sites. That gives you a real appreciation for Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.

To landscape painters, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven are tied to Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park. Both represent a muscular, vigorous kind of backwoods painting. Imagine Tom Thomson (who was a backwoods guide in addition to being a painter) snowshoeing into the woods to paint a winter scene, or paddling his paint-box in by canoe right after the Spring melt.

Even cars and roads don’t significantly change the winter painting experience. You’re still using cold paint in cold weather. Here Marilyn paints the view below.

I love the Oxbow Lake outlet in all seasons, and winter is no exception. Curiously, the water flows away from the lake here, into a stream.
This week, I met Marilyn Fairman (this year’s Irondequoit Inn featured artist) in Piseco to do some winter painting. When you strip away the convenience of decent roads and cars, our experience this week was much the same as those Group of Seven painters. We donned woolen sweaters and socks and hoisted our paintboxes to the edge of a boggy inlet to paint, just as Thomson and company did nearly a century ago.

Despite my great love for the view of Oxbow Lake (above) I chose to paint downstream for the lovely winter reds, golds and greens.
Adirondack Park is as untrammelled as is Algonquin. It’s a rocky, forested, watery fastness that was too inhospitable to support pre-industrial society. It doesn’t mesh well with the modern world of cell phones, internet and automobiles, either.
And it’s vast—far vaster, in fact, than Algonquin Provincial Park.
It’s the largest park in the contiguous United States. You could shove Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks into it with room to spare. In fact, at 6.1 million acres (or 9,375 sq mi, or 24,281 sq km), it’s more than three times the size of Algonquin.
One of my goals was to show Marilyn some of my favorite painting haunts. Turns out, she knows as many as I do, since she lives on the southern edge of the Park.
We spent some time looking at sites along Lake Pleasant and the west branch of the Sacandaga River, which is a rather lazy river that winds through a lovely Grimpen Mire. In twenty miles, there were literally dozens of prospects that took my breath away. They range from the intimate—rocks and water and bogs—to the panoramic.

Marilyn in her winter woolies. Remember when my student Kamillah Ramos painted from this site in November? Piseco Lake looks far different when it’s ice-bound.
I’m teaching a workshop here at the end of September (details to come), which is the height of northeastern color here in the mountains (and much warmer than February). The question isn’t finding something to paint; it’s how to tamp down the excitement long enough to work. I promise you, it will be a workshop like you’ve never seen before, of woodsmoke and the wind whispering through pines, rocky scarps and soft maples flaming violet along the bogs.


Here is a link to the workshop information. I’d love to see you there!

Group of Seven

Study for “Northern River” by Tom Thomson

Like every other kid who grew up in Buffalo, I spent my formative years at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. This was by no means a bad thing, seeing as the collection is housed in a fantastic building designed by EB Green and Augustus Saint-Gaudens and includes important works by a host of important 19th and 20th century artists, focusing particularly on Abstract-Expressionism (which was America’s first home-grown art movement, centered in Manhattan).

What Albright-Knox didn’t collect is every bit as interesting, because it missed two seminal movements in modern art that were happening right by its own back door. It acquired only about a dozen or so works on paper by Buffalo’s own visionary painter, Charles Burchfield. And it ignored Burchfield’s contemporaries from across the Niagara River, the now-famous Group of Seven.

The Group of Seven were, above all, acolytes in a nascent cult of Canada. They had a strongly spiritualist identification with the Great White North as the touchstone of Canadian identity—the “true north, strong and free.”

“We live on the fringe of the great North across the whole continent and its spiritual flow, its clarity, its replenishing power passes through us to the teeming people south of us.” (Lawren Harris)

“Northern River” by Tom Thomson, on his easel in his painting studio/shack; originally this was behind the Design Studio in Toronto but has been moved to the McMichaels grounds in Kleinburg, Ontario.

The Group of Seven understood the artists’ role as prophets of this spiritual identification.

“Indeed no man can roam or inhabit the Canadian North without it affecting him, and the artist, because of his constant habit of awareness and his discipline in expression, is perhaps more understanding of its moods and spirit than others are. He is thus better equipped to interpret it to others, and then, when he has become one with the spirit, to create living works in their own right, by using forms, color, rhythms and moods, to make a harmonious home for the imaginative and spiritual meanings it has evoked in him. Thus the North will give him a different outlook from men in other lands. It gives him a difference in emphasis from the bodily effect of the very coolness and clarity of its air, the feel of soil and rocks, the rhythms of its hills and the roll of its valleys, from its clear skies, great waters, endless little lakes, streams and forests, from snows and horizons of swift silver…” (Lawren Harris)

Ultimately the Group of Seven’s agenda (the celebration of the unique power of Canada) drew them in a radically different direction than the main movement of western art, which was focusing on the celebration of the emotional, rebellious, nihilistic, anarchic, and idiosyncratic “genius” of the time. The Group of Seven were trained graphic designers, which meant they were primarily communicators. Because they were propagandists for a kind of Canadian nationalism, they shied away from the inaccessibility of Modern Art. It was important to them that their public understood the message, so they used the traditional tools of art—drawing and design.

In fact, some of what they did—abandoning value, abandoning the ‘scene’, ignoring atmospherics—could never work if their color mixing and drawing were not so spot-on.

“Rooftops” by AJ Casson illustrates the exceptional drafting skills of the Group of Seven painters. Note how he convinces you that the rooftops are marching past you with his deft manipulation of traditional perspective.

In fact, I think the reason Seymour Knox ignored them is that they challenged him in two key points that would really irk a mid-century American mogul: that modernism was inherently better than tradition, and that being American was inherently better than being Canadian. But at a fifty year remove, Knox seems almost pathetically provincial, blindly following Manhattan’s style lead and ignoring what was going on around him.

I can only speak as a New Yorker, but from my vantage point, there has been no clear sense of direction in painting for the last three decades. However, one thing seems clear: representation and technique have returned to importance, and Abstract-Expressionism (although it leaves its mark) has far less influence now than at any other point in my life.

The earliest core of the Group of Seven— Tom Thomson (who was never a formal member), AY Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley—were painting together in Algonquin Park by 1914, at which point their work was interrupted first by the onset of the Great War, and then by the untimely death of Thomson, who was found dead in Algonquin under mysterious circumstances. The group eventually included Lawren Harris, JEH MacDonald, Frank Johnston, Franklin Carmichael, AJ Casson, Edwin Holgate, and LL Fitzgerald. Emily Carr and Clarence Gagnon were closely affiliated with them in viewpoint and technique.

“Sopwith Camel Looping” by Frank Johnston. Several of the Group of Seven painters were conscripted into the war effort. When viewing Johnston’s aerial perspectives, one must remember how rare and new flight was and the difficulty of taking reference photos at the time.

The three important collections of their work are in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa; McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, and Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. All three emphasize the relationship between their field sketches (undertaken in conditions so arduous I can barely imagine them) and their studio paintings.

You can read about them here.

Then there’s that matter of inspiration

Deer in my brother’s yard, an exercise done several years ago

This Sunday, I was doodling in church when a painting dropped full-blown into my head. That isn’t common, but is always exciting. And in this case, it was fortuitous since I just finished several weeks of flailing around on the previous piece.

Where does a fully-realized idea spring from? First, a thought: in this case, a dilemma that has bedeviled me for almost a year. Then, visual input that is usually jumbling around in one’s cranium solidifies into a concept. In this case:

  1. An email sent by my pal Garrett about how big wolves really are;
  2. A painting I did several years ago as an exercise for my class on how to paint the traps between trees;
  3. A photo taken by my friend Jamie of a waterfalls near her house;
  4. William Holman Hunt’s “Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep),” which set the light tone for the uplands.


My sketch done in church last Sunday.

When I’m painting observationally, I follow the traditional rules of alla prima painting: dark before light, big masses divided into small masses, fat over lean. When I’m painting from an interior vision, I paint indirectly, starting with a color map, and then modulating with opaque paints.

My color map.

As far as I got today. Tomorrow, I’ll start looking at real reference.

BTW, this is my current easel setup—electronic reference to the left, paper reference to the left.