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Inspiration: Ode to Magnolias

After about 9 months in Michigan, my husband and I are getting ready to pack up and return to Europe. This upcoming transition means a shift for my painting practice. I have finished my latest commissioned projects (which I must wait to share since many are gifts!) and am now packing up. I am categorizing – deciding which materials to take and which to donate here. A necessary pause in production means a refocusing on inspiration and spring in Ann Arbor offers an abundance of this! In this post, I write about my inspiration, a recent visit to a favourite spot – the Nichols Arboretum – and my long-standing obsession with the magnolia tree.

The weather in Ann Arbor over the last month has swung between surprise snowstorms and days as hot as summer. Last Sunday, with a gentle breeze and only slightly overcast, it felt like the perfect spring day. My husband and I laced up our walking shoes, called a friend, and headed to the Nichols Arboretum for a late afternoon walk. The Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum is a haven in the city of Ann Arbor, with trails and an abundance of trees and plants in bloom throughout the year. And now is the time of the magnolia!

Magnolia in the Nichols Arboretum, 2022.

There are two mature, blossoming magnolia trees across the street from our rental house. They are lovely to behold but difficult to photograph close up as the flowers are so high up. I was happy to spot a few smaller magnolia trees at the Arboretum. I took my time photographing the blossoms up close and as a group, playing with the focus in the foreground and background. My husband, who is the better photographer between us, also got some beautiful shots for me.

When I spot a magnolia tree, I am filled with joy. And, for me, this adoration of nature is what mainly fuels my painting practice. While there is something special about all flowers, the magnolia blossom has something gravity-defying about it. The flower petals are large but light and delicate. The flower grows upwards, sitting on thin branches, attached ever so precariously. The flowers remind me of a teacup and saucer and while researching magnolias I found out that, indeed, this type of magnolia is called the Saucer Magnolia! The colour can be a vivid and deep pink, which lightens to an almost white at its tips.   

While magnolia trees are common in the US, I don’t remember noticing them while growing up in Eastern Canada (though they are common in the West). I think my obsession with the tree began in 2020, while living at the Belgian coast. During the height of the pandemic, I was living in the seaside town of De Haan. The town was quiet, and my daily walks were a respite in the midst of a new kind of overwhelm. My walks would take me along the shoreline, where the sound of crashing waves calmed my breathing, and through the trails of the dune forests, which inspired my paintings that season.

Although I preferred to walk on the beach or among the trees, I also enjoyed wandering through the historical neighbourhood with its characteristic white houses. If walking through the neighbourhood, I made sure to pass by one particular intersection where a large magnolia tree was in bloom on the street corner. I noticed the bright blue sky contrasting with the signature terra-cotta roof tiles of the houses and the bright white of their exteriors. The pink of the blossoms was explosive and strong shadows were cast along the street. This scene became my inspiration of my 2020 painting, De Hann in Blossom.

De Haan in Blossom, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 cm, 2020, sold.

Now, in Ann Arbor, I have a catalogue of photographic inspiration of the Saucer Magnolia. I’ve begun some tentative sketching and watercolour studies for future paintings and look forward to making something larger once I have settled into a new routine. These blossoms fade as quickly as they arrive, so during our last weeks in the U.S. I will be outside enjoying the colours and shapes of these botanical teacups!

Watercolour and pencil crayon sketches of magnolia blossoms.

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When To Move On: Series and Seasons

Since February of this year, I have been working on my Snowy Trees series. Thus far, I have made six paintings, each 30 x 40 cm / 12 x 16 inches, acrylic on canvas. The paintings are lined up along a wall so I can see the collection as whole. I’m pleased with the compositions, cohesion, variety of light and the colour palettes. But a question has arisen: is it time to move on?

From left to right: Snowy Trees VI, Snowy Trees III, Snowy Trees II, Snowy Trees I, 2022.

This is a question that comes up when working on an individual painting or when working on a series. The answer to both is primarily a question of intuition. I just “know” or feel when a painting is done. Towards the end of the process of an individual painting, I will have dealt with the both the large-scale issues of composition and colour and the small-scale issues of detail. I notice that my brush strokes become increasingly intentional, and they are fewer. A dab of white, a step back, another dab, a longer pause to consider and I know to put the brush down (this doesn’t mean it is always easy to do so).

But when to move on from a series? For this, intuition plays a role but so does a sense of feeling that a subject has been sufficiently explored. And alongside this, situational elements, like the changing seasons, play a role in deciding to move on or to keep working on a particular theme, at least for me.

I started the Snowy Trees series wanting to explore the colours of winter, the contrast between soft snow and the strong lines of the trees upon which it rested. Snowy Trees IV reflects the changes in colour as day turns to night, a yellow-orange light shining from the background interior. Snowy Trees III is set in twilight, a soft darkness when the trees outside the window are still visible but just barely. There is a shift taking place and the visibility of the branches will soon be swallowed up by night.

My latest painting, Snowy Trees VI, was inspired when I looked outside my bedroom window one morning. I noticed the vertical trees against a background of layered horizontal trees and snow. A stripe of white was softened by blues, purples, browns, pinks and orangy-rust colours of the tree’s bark. Here is the sixth painting:

Snowy Trees VI, 40 x 30 cm,/ 16 x 12 in., acrylic on canvas, 2022.

I had not planned a specific number of paintings but trusted that a natural conclusion would happen and I would know when it was time to move on. I have been following the seasons, although the weather has been a little erratic! Last week, while walking through a freezing winter storm, I thought for sure, Snowy Trees will continue on! Less than a week after that, temperatures were in the high teens (Celsius), and it was too warm to wear even a light jacket.

Now that the clocks have changed, small bright flowers are peaking out of the earth, and it is officially Spring, I think I am ready to see what’s next and deem my Snowy Trees series complete – at least for this winter! As always, I will be taking inspiration from around me. Warmer weather means I have gotten back to my nature walks and will be collecting new material from which to draw. Inspiration comes from the little buds I see in the front gardens during my neighbourhood walks or a bouquet in my home that changes daily as the flowers open up. I am not sure what will come out next, but like the seasons, I am beginning anew!

Flower bouquet in the home.

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Literary Memories as Inspiration: The Lupine Lady

My two favourite things are reading and painting. Both literature and the visual arts hold the possibility of opening up new worlds and changing how we view or experience the world around us. Recently, the paintings I was working on reignited long forgotten memories of one of my favourite children’s books: Miss Rumphius, written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1982). In revisiting the feelings I experienced as a child reading the story and looking at the illustrations, I see parallels between the power of this book’s themes and what I appreciate most about the practice of making art, that is, spreading joy.

Miss Rumphius follows the life of a fictional character named Alice Rumphius. It is inspired by the real Miss Rumphius, Hilda Edwards Hamlin, known as “the Lupine Lady”, who scattered lupine seeds around the coast of Maine in the first half of the twentieth century. In the book, Alice’s grandfather inspires little Alice to travel the world when she grows up and to find some way to spread joy. Miss Rumphius, like Mrs. Hamlin, does travel to far off places and when she returns home, decides to colour the coast of Maine with the flowers that bring her joy. As a child, I was drawn to the book’s beautiful and delicate illustrations and the story itself of the wish and goal of spreading joy and beauty in the world.

When I was recently asked if I could make a watercolour painting of lupines, the feeling of reading this book as a kid immediately came back to me. When I think of Miss Rumphius, I think of adventure, imagination, family lineages, a sense of home, and the power to add something positive to the world. Then, as now, the book inspires a sense of possibility: Alice takes up the task her grandfather gives her of spreading joy in the world. She is free to choose how to do so but honours this mission.

When I think of Miss Rumphius, I think of adventure, imagination, family lineages, a sense of home, and the power to add something positive to the world.

There is a lot I relate to in this book. As someone who dreamed of travelling when I was little, I relate to wanting to see the world. Now as an adult, living in a country that is not where I grew up, I appreciate the book’s message that both far off places and our homes can be equally special and important in one’s life. The themes of this book, including one’s own agency to bring positivity to the world is what painting does for me and what I wish to do with my own paintings.

Beyond the book, lupines bloom in my home province of New Brunswick and have thus been part of the landscape of my own early life. They bloom in summer and come out in abundance, changing a green landscape into hues of blues, violets, pinks, and whites.

Since it is winter, I am relying on photographs of lupines for my studies. I decided I wanted to make a series of small (5 x 7 inch) watercolour paintings of lupines to explore the shapes and colours of the plant and the techniques I could use to render them. I began by looking at many pictures of lupines and making pencil drawing studies of how the buds develop and flower.

Sketch of lupines

Next, I drew a very light sketch on my watercolour paper to get my composition down. For the first painting, I wanted to focus rendering the details of the flower’s buds. I used various hues of blue and red to get a range of tones including pinks and violets. Here is the finished product:

Lupines I, watercolour, 5 x 7 in., matted.

The next two paintings I have explored different techniques of watercolour. Especially for the leaves, I painted quite wet and let different greens and yellow flow and interact. I wanted to create the suggestion of leaves without too much detail. Likewise, for the buds on the lilacs, I wanted a combination between patches of colour to suggest shapes as well as more more details to describe the contours and different part of individual buds. Here are Lupines II and III:

I will continue to make small watercolours of lupines and play with colour combinations, composition, and painting techniques. I look forward to sharing more as this new collection grows!  

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Embracing My Environment: A Look Out the Window

When the holidays were over and it was time to get back to work in January, I sat at my desk in Ann Arbor feeling more stumped than inspired. I had finished a couple of commissions and was ready to start something new – what exactly I wasn’t sure. I wanted a fresh direction to reflect the new year but I also wanted to build on my previous work, to continue to explore the world of trees. In what follows, I write about what I’ve been working on in the early months of 2022 and how a new direction doesn’t mean having to leave past themes behind.

During the last months of 2021, I had been focused on learning and refining some artistic skills. As I wrote about here, I followed courses on watercolour painting, portrait painting, and botanical drawing through the Ann Arbor Art Center. At the start of 2022, I was keen to get back to acrylics and continue my exploration of landscapes, in particular, the subject of twisting trees, which became my Sculptural Trees paintings in 2021. Here are some of these paintings below:

  • Red Ochre Sculptural Trees, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 80 cm, 2021, available on webshop
  • Horizontal Sculptural Trees, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 70 cm, 2021, available on webshop
  • Vertical Sculptural Trees, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 100 cm, 2021, available on webshop

There was just one problem: these paintings were inspired by my walks in the dune forests of Belgium. While I wanted to continue to explore this subject, it is also important to me that I take this unique opportunity of being temporarily in the U.S. to record my surroundings here. Feeling a little overwhelmed at all the possibility this could entail, I looked out my window on this snowy January morning. In the backyard, along the sides of the house and in the front yard, all around, are trees: large and small, dark-barked and light, some with rather twisty branches and trunks, little berries still hanging on. I spotted a small tree and smiled.

What struck me about this particular tree wasn’t its shape. Rather, I was taken with the stark contrast between the dark winter bark and the fresh snow that was nestled in its nooks and crannies. I knew I wanted to paint the elegant twist of this tree’s branches, but I also wanted to capture the way the snow lay in the tree and around its base. This is Snowy Trees I:

Snowy Trees I, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 cm, 2022, sold
Snowy Trees I, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 cm, 2022, sold

I started with the solid background colour for this painting: a blue-grey colour close to that of my painting Fundy Coast. This is one of my favourite colours, whether it appears in the sky or the siding of a building. In my Fundy Coast painting, the opaque blue communicates the densely foggy summer day. In this family of blues, I like the heavy effect of its opacity and its subtle warmth due to the brownish undertones. The colour I made for the background of Snowy Trees I is a combination of blues, browns, and white and is echoed in the shadows of the snow around the bottom of the tree. Upon finishing Snowy Trees I, I knew I wanted to continue to paint snow, given its presence this winter.

I grew up in an environment of very snowy winters (Canada’s East Coast). I can still remember the feeling of being bundled up and snuggled against my sister as dad pulled us on the old wooden toboggan along our neighbourhood street, packed thicky with snow. More than twenty years later, I can still hear the crunch of dad’s boots as he walked in front of us. Spending this winter in North America has brought these snowy memories to the fore and has given me the chance to make new ones. I have loved waking up to the sight of soft falling snow out the window and walking along sparkly sidewalks, squinting against the bright sun. On the evening of the first snow this season, I took a walk in the empty neighbourhood street. I started Snowy Trees II straight after finishing the first:

By taking inspiration from outside my window, I’ve been able to continue to paint what I like—twisting trees—but also record the specificity of my immediate environment. Of course, trees are pretty easy to find no matter the country, but selecting the tree and looking at it closely, provides for the rendering of endless shapes and tones. I am interested in capturing the mood of the environment around me and am enjoying using this cool but rich winter colour palette. When looking for some inspiration, I embrace the environment around me and see all kinds of scenes the encapsulate my winter stay in the Midwest!

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A Visit to the Art Institute of Chicago

In early December, before travelling to Canada for the holidays, I visited the city of Chicago. I’d never been but had heard quite a lot about the Art Institute. I remembered having seen slides of famous artworks during my art history classes, many with the familiar small print beneath noting that the work was part of the Art Institute of Chicago collections. In this post, I write about my visit and the works that moved me.

Unlike my enthusiastic partner, I (equally enthusiastic) didn’t do much research before our visit. I prefer to show up and see what is there. I knew the Institute boasts a large Impressionist collection and that there would be many works that I had studied, and which were on my list of “must-sees” (Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884) for one).

Due to the ongoing pandemic, I have visited few museums in the last two years. Lucky for me, the Art Institute was not crowded. The unusually uncrowded museum space gave a feeling of safety and of quiet, which made me feel comfortable to take my time with the paintings.

Taking a break in the Art Institute of Chicago after seeing a lot of art.

While there are many rooms with amazing paintings, my favourite room houses the Monets. Along two walls are his many versions of the haystacks. I had first seen reproductions of these paintings in my high school art history textbook. As I’ve written about here, it was these and other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings that ignited my love for the study of art history.

It was Monet’s painting, Impression, Sunrise (1872) that caused a critic to deem this new, loose, light-inspired painting technique “Impressionistic”. Not meant as a compliment, Monet and his contemporaries, who exhibited their work together in the late nineteenth century, embraced this title and continued to develop this new way of painting.

What I, and so many, love about Monet’s series—haystacks, cathedrals, waterlilies—is the changes that occur to the object with the passage of time and the changes of natural light. One particular subject, one scene, is constantly changing (in colour and clarity) as the day goes on and the sun moves across the sky. Monet’s subject was light and he showed the world how light affects the way in which we see everything around us.

Taking in these paintings of haystacks by Monet. It was incredible to see them all together.

One painting that I have always loved, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s At The Moulin Rouge (1892-1895), is at the Art Institute. At one time, I’m sure I knew this, having made a presentation on this work in an early art history class. In preparation for my presentation, I soaked up everything I could about this painting and the man who made it. But I was surpirsed to see it as I turned a corner and was thrilled!

Overjoyed to be standing next to one of my favourite paintings, Toulouse-Lautrec’s At The Moulin Rouge.

I love the dance hall atmosphere depicted by the artist. The strong diagonal of the banister at the lower left side frames the image while allowing the viewer a peek inside. This orange, echoed in the hair of the woman sitting at the table, compliments the light greenish colour of the dance hall, its most startling application being on the garishly lit face of the woman in the lower right corner.

One painting that I had not expected to see, indeed hadn’t known of, was Lawren Harris’ Red Sleigh, House, Winter (1919). This painting, on loan to the Art Institute, is part of McGill University’s Visual Arts Collection. The bright blue winter sky and crisp white snow, offset by the orange decoratively curled foreground branches, stopped me in my tracks. I have always loved the work of the Canadian Group of Seven artists and was pleased to be standing in front of this new-to-me scene. This is an early work by Harris, who is well-known for his cool Arctic scenes which differ from this 1919 painting in palette and subject-matter. I might have spent the most time here. I stood there studying the colours of the shadows in the snow, the colour variation across the iron fence, and the thick and varied application of paint, which the McGill website notes was typical of Harris’ earlier work.

The perfect December painting – Lawren Harris’, Red Sleigh, House, Winter.

It felt good to be in a museum setting again, to see paintings in the flesh. And it was wonderful to see artworks that have played a big role in my love for the practice and study of art as well as to be surprised by captivating paintings over a century old.

I look forward to my next museum visit, wherever and whenever that may be!

Thanks for reading!   

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Continuing Education: Portrait Painting

During the first class of Portrait Painting at the Ann Arbor Art Center, we were asked by teacher Tricia Hampo to introduce ourselves and share what brought us to the course. Back in the summer, while researching the courses offered during the Fall semester, I had surprised myself by making a little star next to Portrait Painting on my list of potential courses to follow. My initial intention in following courses was twofold: improving my own style as a landscape painter and meeting new people with similar interests in the area. When my heart skipped a beat upon seeing that the Portrait Painting course had a few spots left, I began to reflect on my reaction and where it might be coming from.

Back in high school and university, I painted a lot of portraits. I came to portraits by the straightforward path of class assignments. What I loved, and tried to do, was capture the expression of the person and what made them unique in my eyes. Much like landscape painting, I was looking for that “click” when the image became something powerful, enabling the viewer to connect emotionally with the work. Sometimes it’s a brushstroke, a highlight, or an essential and intuitive splash of colour in the right place. I love getting the curve of the nose or the hint of a smile just right. Here below are a few examples.

Cut to today and it has been about six years since I last attempted a portrait. My journey took me to landscapes and, until this Fall, that is what I have kept to. But this year abroad and the possibility to follow courses means I can experiment and expand. I decide to continue my education and go for the portrait class!

The first portrait I did in the course was a difficult one, but I am extremely happy with the results. The process looked like this: pencil sketches in black and white and colour, a watercolour sketch, and an acrylic painting. The reminder from the teacher, Tricia, to focus on value over colour was extremely helpful. I started with a black and white sketch of the portrait before introducing colour. Due to the instruction and working among others in a classroom setting, I became very intentional and slowed down my process.  

For my next project, I again started with a few sketchbook drawings in pencil. This allowed me to get familiar with the subject matter and, again, practice patience and practice value. Tricia suggested we work with a limited colour palette – in particular what is called the “Zorn Palette” after Swedish painter Anders Zorn. I used yellow ochre, cadmium red medium, titanium white, and payne’s grey. It is amazing how many colours can be made out of these base colours. While I didn’t exhaust all colour possibilities in this one portrait, the base colours and those I mixed from them fit exactly what I needed for this portrait of child and grandfather. Here are some images of my process and the final product.

While I am continuing to paint landscapes, it’s been great to get back into a subject that I had previously enjoyed and continue to grow and learn with other artists!

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Hiking the Maritimes: Inspiration From My Travels Home

When I am not in the studio, I like to be outside. During the last year especially, it has become clear that getting out, even for a short walk, is crucial for my physical, mental, and creative health. In the three weeks that I have been back in the Canadian Maritimes, I’ve visited and revisited some great spots in the provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick. In this post, I outline the hiking trails and beaches I’ve visited so far and connect these trips to my painting practice.

My first stop was Trenton Park in Trenton, Nova Scotia. In the area visiting family, I went on a short hike through this new-to-me park. I was trailing behind my family, camera in hand, recording trees, plants, and this beautiful toad, which stayed poised on the tree trunk letting me take its picture.

The Homestead Trail in Prince Edward Island National Park, P.E.I, was our second hike this trip. I was awestruck by the fields of tall and abundant Queen Anne’s Lace blowing in the wind. I remember learning the name of this plant from my grandfather, a nature enthusiast (and painter). Being unable to visit the area last summer, I was especially missing the red sand, typical of the island, and the sweet summer smells of wildflowers in bloom. During this hike, I took some reference photographs of birch trees for the painting I am currently working on.

Sometimes unplanned trips are the best kind. An impromptu trip to Northern New Brunswick to visit an old, forever friend gave me the chance to revisit the area where my grandmother grew up – where I have spent some time as a child – and visit some relatives while there.

The Acadian coast of New Brunswick – the largely French speaking part of the province – boasts some great spots including Shediac (Parlee Beach) and Bouctouche. If you continue north along the coast, you will eventually see the beautiful view of the Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec.

A special part of this trip was visiting the beach at Jacquet River (Belledune) – the village where my Granny grew up. At the request of my grandmother, I painted Turvey’s Rock on the Jacquet River beach last summer. This summer, I visited the location after not having been back for over ten years. It was a little strange to see this place after having painted it from a reference photograph and very minimal personal memory. Typically, I first visit a location, take many reference photographs and/or make small sketches and the work comes after.

My most recent short trip was last week to Fundy National Park. Like many of the other places visited, this park holds a lot of personal memories for me. Growing up, I had an oddly acute and specific dislike of Alma, the little town at the foot of the park. I think it had something to do with it being a small town and my dreaming of bigger places.

After returning from Paris in 2010, however, and after working in tourism during my university summers, I developed a strong, proud, and unwavering love for my home province and all the amazing things this place – including Alma! – has to offer.

The expansiveness, the nature, and the quiet, are elements that I love about the Maritimes. Hiking the trails of Fundy National Park, we were often mostly alone, meeting other walkers only occasionally. The quiet of these walks means it is possible to hear the sounds of the animals: birds, chipmunks, and squirrels; to pay attention to the smells and the details of the sights.

Again, I took many photographs for my current project, furthering my interest in the paper birch. I noticed the delicate peachy-pink of the bark, and diversity of low-to-the ground foliage.

These days, with a few weeks left in Canada, I am back in my (temporary) studio. In the upcoming weeks, I’ll continue to paint and make a couple more little trips in New Brunswick to soak up this Maritime summer. I can’t wait to see more beaches, rocky cliffs, and explore new trails!

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Studio Companion Series: My Go-To Music

Thus far, The Studio Companion Series has focused on the podcasts that inspire me in my studio practice. This week, for the final installment of The Studio Companion Series, I focus on the music that gets me started in the studio, keeps me going through challenges, and helps me over the finish line!

We all have soundtracks to our lives. Different moments in time are marked by the music we chose to listen to and/or that is around us in our environments. For me, my teenage years are closely intertwined with the music of two Canadian singer-songwriters: Sarah Harmer and Feist.

I remember getting ready for school on sunny spring mornings in the early 2000s while listening to the CD my sister had given me for my birthday, Feist’s Let it Die (2004). I felt very grown-up selecting my jewelry for the day and singing along to songs about adult life (like “Mushaboom”). Just like the art that I was discovering at the time in my high school art history classes, the music of these women ignited a feeling of anticipation and hopefulness both for my life then and for my future. Through lyrics and rhythm, I felt the world opening up.

Like music, painting can be energetic, intuitive, and emotional. Painting in high school, I had a couple of go-to albums including the Garden State soundtrack (2004) and the Bridget Jones’s Diary soundtrack (2001). Listening to these today transports me back to my childhood home playroom where I had set up my little studio. Today, I’m still listening to Sarah Harmer and Feist and have added some new artists to the rotation. I’ve noticed that my music choices in the studio fall into two main categories, one a bit quieter and more reflective, the other, more energetic.

Cover of Feist’s Let It Die album (2004)

#1. The Rhythm of Reflection

The music that fits into this category is of the personal, comforting kind. It’s here where Sarah Harmer and Feist belong for me. Listening to their albums—You Were Here, I’m A Mountain; Let it Die, The Reminder, respectively—takes me back to a time when I was first really discovering my love of painting. This is the music that I know so well I can describe it as my “background” music; it’s part of my own story present, past, and imagined future.

I listen to this music when I am in the flow of painting: mixing colours on my palette and putting them down on the canvas. Hours can pass and the familiar soundtracks offer rhythms that put me in a calm and reflective mood. I can let my mind wander and connect with my emotions while listening and painting.

The artists I listen to are, in addition to Feist and Sarah Harmer, another long-time favourite, Madeleine Peyroux, and a brand-new discovery, The Weather Station.

Madeleine Peyroux’s album, Half a Perfect World, always feels like just the right soundtrack for the first warm day of spring: a sunny sky with a gentle breeze and fresh flowers (this association probably has something to do with the song, “The Summer Wind”). Peyroux’s warm voice and the jazz instrumentals make any day feel special.

The Weather Station is a Canadian folk band that was recently recommended to me by a friend and has made it into my permanent rotation. Their 2021 album, Ignorance, is described on their website as a “sonic landscape”, a “wilderness of notes”. I couldn’t put it any better than Kitty Empire, who wrote in her Guardian review of the album that it “Trickles out emotion in careful dropperfuls.”

How it helps in the studio: The long-standing connection that I feel towards this music helps ground me in my working flow. I usually feel in a pensive, reflective, or contented state of mind when I’m listening to this music and the emotions swirling around, I can channel into my paintings.

TWS_Ignorance_Cover.jpg
Cover of The Weather Station’s album Ignorance (2021)

#2. An Energy Boost

The music that is in this energetic category is of the more intense or fast-paced, upbeat variety. Going through my music libraries, I’ve noticed that much more of what I listen to fits into the former category, but that doesn’t mean this category is any less important.

I listen to this music usually when I am finishing a painting and in the last stages. This is the time in my painting process that involves adding highlights and the final touches that make the painting come out stronger as a whole. I follow my intuition, but these stages require boldness and energetic enthusiasm. I don’t want to put the brush down before I really feel that finished “click”.

The artists I like to listen to are, First Aid Kit—folk musicians and sisters from Sweden, ABBA—the Swedish pop-rock legendary band active in the 1970s, and Brandi Carlile, a contemporary American singer-songwriter. The beats and vocals of these musicians keep me on my toes in the studio.

First Aid Kit has songs that fall into both the reflection and the energetic category but when it comes to the music’s role in my painting practice, it’s songs like “Wolf”—with haunting vocals and fast beats—that help me take risks.

ABBA makes me want to dance, which can be hard to do while painting (but not impossible). The instrumental introduction to “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” grabs me every time.

Brandi Carlile’s song, “Carried Me With You” (from the Pixar film Onward) I heard at the beginning of the pandemic. I listened to it again and again and it felt like a sort of lifeline to gratitude in a very uncertain time. More recently, I’ve been listening to her songs “The Story” and “The Joke” for their beautiful lyrics and the power of Carlile’s voice.

How it helps in the studio: the energy of the music gives me energy and boosts my own feeling of confidence. This translates into trusting the bolder brush strokes I make towards the final stages in my work and helps me to keep going until the end. It happens sometimes that I think a painting is finished but realize that this is tiredness or impatience speaking. A finished painting ignites a feeling and energetic music helps me carry on until that point.

De bronafbeelding bekijken
Cover of First Aid Kit’s album The Lion’s Roar (2012)

The painting process takes many hours and has many phases: from sketching the composition to working on colour values, details, and finishing touches. I go through many emotional shifts ranging from confidence and optimism to frustration and impatience. Over the days and weeks that I am working on a painting, I need both calming and energetic music in the studio.

I love sharing what inspires me and hope that you share a love for some of these musicians or maybe have discovered one or two musicians to look into!

This concludes The Studio Companion Series, the podcasts and music that help me in my studio practice. I’ll be back in two weeks time with a new post on my painting process and inspiration.

Thanks for reading!

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Studio Companion Series: My Go-To “Self-care” Podcasts

In today’s post, I cover my go-to self-care podcasts! This is the last post in my Studio Companion Series focused on podcasts. If you’ve missed them, be sure to check out my previous posts in this series: My Go-To “Bigger Questions” Podcasts and My Go-To “Everything Art” Podcasts. In these previous posts, I selected my top two favourite podcasts in the category, and it’s the same this week! After a brief description, I share when I listen, what I love, what I’ve learned, and how the podcasts help me with my studio practice. Enjoy!

Category 3: Self-care.

“Self-care” can be a fraught idea. When understood as a synonym for anything that might be deemed a frivolous indulgence, the term is likely to elicit eye rolls. “Frivolous indulgences” might be considered “extras”: objects or experiences that often come with a hefty price tag and are accessible only to those with the financial means and the time. Self-care is therefore often understood as a privilege and in many ways it is.

At the same time, self-care can also signify something simpler and more foundational. Self-care (the care of oneself) can entail drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, cultivating healthy relationship boundaries, exercising, or at least trying to occasionally stretch. Self-care, at its best, can be a sort of individualized tool kit for each of us: small, achievable activities or rituals that can be worked into our day, five minutes at a time.

For me, self-care is something I was forced to confront at the bottom of a burnout. In the early days, it looked like sleeping a lot and trying not to feel guilty about that. Self-care was asking for help from those around me who I could lean on. It was following some of the best advice I got: to do one thing a day and have that be enough. For me, it involved eating more and slowly building strength through exercise. In general, self-care was getting back to these basics (sleep, nutrition, exercise), which had taken a back seat for too long. Given this experience, I think of self-care as “simply” taking care of myself—whatever that means on any given day: from working in a Jane Fonda exercise routine to the occasional face mask.

The two podcasts I’ve selected for the Self-care category are Forever35 hosted and produced by Kate Spencer and Doree Shafrir and Nothing Much Happens, stories written and read by Kathryn Nicolai.

I started listening to this podcast in 2018 and have hardly missed an episode (it’s a commitment—there are three a week!). Their tagline explains that they are “two friends who love to talk about serums” but it is so much more. The first time I tuned in, after reading about it on my favourite lifestyle blog A Cup of Jo, I wasn’t sure it was for me. Doree and Kate, two writers based in LA, were, I believe, discussing outdoor wear—something like the best boots for winter. I wasn’t going to buy the boots, or the other products mentioned and wondered if the self-care aspect was too focused on the shopping therapy variety for me. I kept listening, however, and am so happy I did.

In their mini-episodes, the friends talk about what’s going on with them (juggling parenting, everyday stressors, new product or pop culture discoveries, working as writers and podcasters from home, etc.). Listeners call or write in with questions ranging from the search for the best cleanser to dealing with grief. In the longer once-a-week episodes, the hosts interview an inspiring person and ask about their self-care, career, and life. Guests have included writers, business owners, actors, estheticians, medical and health care professionals, cultural theorists, athletes, politicians, scientists, and more. Products are recommended, advice is given, and fun is had!

I listen to the podcast anytime, anywhere. But when it comes to painting, I listen when I can use a boost from two people who feel like friends. Sometimes I listen when I take my coffee break and sit in my “evaluating my painting” chair.

Forever35 helps remind me that taking care of one’s own mental and physical health is essential to being able to show up in one’s own life and be able to give to others.

What I love about this podcast is very much tied to what I’ve learned (see below). In a nutshell, I love that the podcast is a reminder to be kind to myself and to others. Forever35 helps remind me that taking care of one’s own mental and physical health is essential to being able to show up in one’s own life and be able to give to others. Taking care of ourselves might mean doing a five-minute meditation, having a phone call with a friend, or a bigger change, like making a career move or asking for help when you need it. I love how Kate and Doree talk openly with each other about life issues big and small and how supportive they are of one another and of the listeners who weigh in.

What I’ve learned from this podcast… Despite being less interested in the serum side of the show, I have learned a lot about skincare. During the pandemic, with ample time at home, I now have a day and night skincare routine. It’s not complicated and did not break the bank: I cleanse and moisturize and sometimes use a serum, now that I know a little more about what it all entails.

From the interviews, I’ve been introduced to so many inspiring women: I’ve read books, watched shows, learned about health, beauty, and business from a large number of people. From the discussions between Kate and Doree and the input and questions from the listeners, I’ve learned that we are all doing our best. There are good days and bad days, but the best we can do is support each other, reach out, communicate, set boundaries, stay curious, and be kind to ourselves and others. These are easy items to rattle off, but the impact of giving more mental space to these behaviours is immense.

This is a bedtime story podcast, designed to help the listener fall asleep. Kathryn Nicolai writes and reads short stories that calm the mind by helping the thinking mind focus on the story being told rather than on the worries of the day. The podcast is described as “bedtime stories for adults”. I’ve been listening to this podcast for two years. When I first started listening, I was having a lot of trouble falling asleep (see burnout above). After listening to an episode every night for a period of days and weeks, my ability to fall and stay asleep improved greatly. Nowadays, I listen less regularly but on nights when I need a little help, I hardly make it through one episode before dozing off.

Nicolai is a yoga teacher and sometimes leads a short breathing exercise at the start of episodes. Her stories artfully describe the little moments in life. The episodes span themes including the sweetness of lilacs, visiting a farmer’s market, going to pick out a Christmas tree, cooking during a storm, and paying attention to the good moments of the day, to name just a few. The stories are sensorial: the sights, smells, and textures of the scenes are described beautifully and with care. This means the listener is right there in the kitchen, in the garden, or at the cottage with Nicolai. Each story is read twice, more slowly the second time, so the sound of Nicolai’s voice and the repetition of the story lulls the listener to sleep.

I listen to this podcast when I need a little extra help falling to sleep. Unlike the other podcasts that I’ve chosen for the Studio Companion Series, I do not listen to this podcast while in the studio. However, a good night’s sleep is essential to getting to the studio in the first place and bringing my best self. I wanted to share this podcast in the Self-care category because it has really been transformative for me. I cannot count how many times I have recommended this podcast to friends, family, acquaintances, and even strangers! I love it and think it could help out anyone looking for a better night’s sleep or simply an extra cozy way of falling asleep.

What I love about this podcast most obviously is that it helps me to fall asleep. But more than that, I love Nothing Much Happens because it is such a treat to be led through comforting, sensory stories by a compassionate guide. The magic of Nothing Much Happens is that it celebrates the joys in the mundane. I don’t only drift off to sleep, I go to sleep with a smile on my face picturing a steaming mug of holiday cider or nearly smelling spring flowers. The stories (whether I hear the whole thing or not) remind me that we live in a beautiful world. I’m ready to rest and later, face a new day.

What I love about this podcast most obviously is that it helps me to fall asleep. But more than that, I love Nothing Much Happens because it is such a treat to be led through comforting, sensory stories by a compassionate guide.

One of my favourite parts of the podcast is the beginning of each episode. Before the story begins, Nicolai gives an explanation of how the podcast works to help the listener fall asleep. She also give instructions on getting cozy. Nicolai encourages the listener to switch off any gadgets, find a comfortable sleeping position, adjust the blanket around your shoulder and appreciate how great it feels to be safe in bed.

What I’ve learned from this podcast is that grown-ups need bedtime stories too. I learned how my mind gets stuck on my own stories, past and future, and that I can choose to listen and follow along to a comforting, descriptive story that puts my mind at ease. I like the combination of this brain training along with the creative storytelling and the cozy themes Nicolai chooses. In general, I’ve been giving sleep a more important place in my routine and see it as the number 1 self-care activity. I’m currently reading and highly recommend, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker.

Both Forever35 and Nothing Much Happens remind me to take care of myself and others; to be kind to myself and others. Both podcasts have encouraged me to be more thoughtful about how I spend my time and energy and more thoughtfully consider what I ask from myself and from others. For me, painting is both my work and my passion. I need the energy to be able to do it, but it also gives me a great deal of energy. Feeling good mentally and physically allows me to pursue my creativity and pursuing this creativity, in turn, keeps me healthy.

In two weeks, The Studio Companion Series continues with the final installment: the music that gets me started in my studio practice and brings my work across the finish line–stay tuned!

Thanks for reading!

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Studio Companion Series: My Go-To “Bigger Questions” Podcasts

Laura at work in the studio

While painting, I usually have a podcast or music on in the background. I’ve noticed that the podcasts I listen to can generally be categorized in the following three ways: Everything Art, Bigger Questions, and Self Care. Last week, I wrote about two of my favourite podcasts in the Everything Art category. This week continues with Bigger Questions. Like last week, I’ve selected my top two favourite podcasts in this category. After a brief description, I share what I love about the shows, what I’ve learned, and how the podcasts help me in my studio practice. Enjoy!

Painting is its own language of experiencing: from looking to reflecting, processing, and communicating. It’s part calculation, part intuition. The themes that artists draw upon are limitless: they can be inspired by emotions, events, ideas, imaginings, dreams, etc., and encompass the personal to the universal (themselves intertwined).

Art is about meaning-making and can also be an expression of grappling with meaninglessness. The fine art of painting has always been telling stories—historical, religious, political, societal at large—reflecting ideas and ideals of its time. Because of this, what is excluded from the canvas can be as important as what is depicted on it thus also reflecting the position of the storyteller. Painting is the exploration of being human, and so, bigger questions of a philosophical nature are part and parcel with it.

Category 2: Bigger Questions

The two podcasts that I’ve selected for this category are: On Being with Krista Tippett and Ologies with Alie Ward. These podcasts keep me company in the studio and help me reflect on some larger questions about being human and the world around us. Both podcasts examine the human experience: the first focuses primarily on spirituality, the second on science.

I listen to On Being when I want to hear about the journeys of others and how they make sense of, or experience, the world around them. I need to have enough mental space in the painting process to pay attention to these stories. Therefore, I don’t listen while in the midst of sketching or reflecting on next steps in my work. I’ll go to this podcast somewhere in the middle of my creative process: when I am putting down colour and am tuned into my intuition. These are moments when I am looking for some company, inspiration, and a feeling of connectedness.

On Being is an American Public Media radio show and podcast, founded and hosted by Krista Tippett. Each episode is an in-depth interview with a guest, among them are writers, artists, spiritual teachers, medical professionals, philosophers, and educators. On Being is described on its website in the following way: “On Being, as it has evolved, takes up the great questions of meaning in 21st-century lives and at the intersection of spiritual inquiry, science, social healing, and the arts.” The podcast has been recognized by many outlets as one of the best, has won the highest awards for broadcasting, and, in 2013, Tippett was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama.

What I love about the podcast: The first thing that struck me about On Being was Tippett’s voice: it radiates calm and kindness. Her care and attentiveness to her interviewees is evident in both her tone and her in-depth questions and responses. From the many episodes I’ve listened to, the interviewee’s willingness to be open and vulnerable with Tippett and the listeners is refreshing. They talk about their upbringings, how they got to where they are, and what is meaningful for them about the work they do. I love how, through these interviews, the audience gets a chance to at once learn from different experiences and to find commonality or universality in the personal story of another.

What I’ve learned from the On Being podcast is that art is often the product of struggle. This is far from a new insight, but I often come away with a new understanding of some aspect of my own experiences by listening to the stories of others. Many of the books I’ve read I’ve heard of through the podcast, most recently: Mary Oliver’s book of poetry, Devotions, Katherine May’s personal narrative, Wintering, and Andrew Solomon’s nonfiction book, The Noon Day Demon: An Atlas of Depression. The candidness of Tippett and her guests inspires me to slow down and be more thoughtful in how I view and treat myself and others around me.

#2 Ologies with Alie Ward

I listen to Ologies when I am in the flow of painting and want to connect with the complexity of the world around us; when I want to be awed by how much there is to discover about “ordinary things”; and when I need a little humour in my day.

As described on Alie Ward’s website, Ologies is a “comedic science podcast”. The podcast’s host, Alie Ward—a science correspondent and communicator, television host, and writer—interviews experts on various topics including animals, food, the human body, history, space, and more. According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, “ology” means “a branch of knowledge or a science”. We are used to hearing of “ologies” such as psychology, astrology, and paleontology, to name just a few, but Ologies delves into the science of the common to the obscure.

What I love about the podcast is hearing the passion in the guests’ voices about their particular “ology”. This passion ignites my own curiosity and I find myself looking at things differently. After listening to many episodes of the show, I find that I am more regularly appreciative of how intricate all systems really are. It’s fun to learn about all kinds of topics with which I may be familiar but about which I might know little or may have misunderstood in some way prior to listening. Ward’s enthusiasm and curiosity make learning joyful and accessible. Another great thing: each episode, Ologies offers support to a charitable organization of the interviewee’s choice.

What I’ve learned from Ologies covers many diverse topics! I’ve learned about trees, bears, fear, addiction, pumpkins, Fall/seasons, personalities, sleep, marriage, beauty standards, blood sugar, and the gut biome, to name a few things. I’ve learned that no matter your interest (pumpkins!), there is always more to discover: the world is not a boring place. When it comes to my own interest in landscape painting, I found the episodes on trees and the seasons to be fascinating.

Both podcasts keep me curious about the inner and the outer world (themselves intertwined). This curiosity helps me in my own painting practice to be connected to myself, my intuition, and to think about the world at large: how ecosystems function and the importance of caring for our environment.

In my next post, The Studio Companion Series continues with Self Care. And then, the final installment: the music that gets me started in my studio practice and brings my work across the finish line–stay tuned!

Thanks for reading!

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