The parade of savage human behaviour, both mental and physical, flows like a bloody river through endless tweets, e-mails, and Facebook updates. Why not concentrate on something ennobling and spiritually uplifting instead? Why not make some art?
In exactly this frame of mind, my wife booked us Saturday and Sunday, six-hour classes, back-to-back, with a marvellous local artist. There are many artists in our part of the world, but only one offers en plein air instruction in her beautiful garden, plenty of extra brushes and oil or acrylic paint, easels, sun umbrellas and home-baked quiche and cornbread for lunch, along with coffees of all description. Along with stunning artistic talents formed over a lifetime as a practicing, teaching and successful artist.
We arrived at 10 a.m. each with a gessoed canvas in hand, and a bag of brand new tubes of paint and virgin brushes. Quickly we met our fellow students. I was the only man in the group of four apprentices to our rural master. To begin with, we were each asked to level up on our previous training. I volunteered that I had three summers of art classes under my belt, taken when I was 10, 11, and 12. My fellow students had pursued painting as adults, each for several years. Plainly, the en plein experience had the potential to be embarrassing at some level. But what the hell – it was all-new and our teacher had a radiant smile and a level tone.
The first morning was spent on essential tasks: learning about easels, sun umbrellas and palette dishes, walking about the property to choose our subjects, and most importantly, learning about mixing colours to create the ‘under painting.’ We would not be painting ‘alla prima’ (Italian, meaning first attempt), but rather on top of a previously painted surface, itself layered onto an initial water-colour pencil sketch of our subject. Quickly I realized that painting with acrylics (or oils) is the last step in a layered process. Our teacher explained that Leonardo painted this way, and that there were paintings of his in existence where for some reason he only completed the under painting and never applied the oils.
After the initial lecture on process, we all decamped to our easels to sketch our subject in water-colour pencils. I selected red and grey, and sat down with determination to draw a scene comprised of a foreground of Sumac trees, in front of a fence that paralleled a road, that was lined with ornamental hedge cedars. A looming rain forest brought up the rear. It was a vision of structured layers of green. After an hour of laying out the drawing it was time for lunch.
We might have been in the South of France as we sat around a garden table eating quiche and drinking lattes, talking animatedly with our teacher about art. We had learned more in a morning that I can remember since the best lectures of university.
After exactly an hour of lunch, our teacher showed us how to apply shade strokes, and finally wet brush strokes to unleash the water-colours in our sketches. New forms and dribbles of water appeared on our canvasses. When it all dried, we sprayed the pictures with fixative and gathered in the studio for an outline of day two. Our teacher told us that tomorrow we would apply a uniform colour over the surface of our sketches.
Ten a.m. the next morning found us all eagerly mixing our chosen colour hues, and selecting ‘fan brushes’ to coat completely the acrylic across all the details of our drawings. Then our teacher magically showed us how to scrape paint off the lighted planes and angles. “Pay attention to the angle of the sun! Your painting has to show the light at a specific time of day.” Soon a warm red-brown hue covered my canvas.
When the base had dried, we mixed colours and began the final ‘over painting.’ The process and effect was joyous. Our final works took shape before us. And I realized that I had begun to feel the passion of art. The class was a gift, and inspired me to paint more and worry less.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.