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A Visit to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA)

The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (KMSKA) re-opened in 2022, after over a decade of major restoration and renovation work. First opened in 1890, the KMSKA now houses both old masters and modern art. Having moved to Belgium in 2013, I hadn’t visited the museum before its recent reopening and was excited to see the building and the artwork inside. In what follows, I share my impressions of what will surely be the first of many visits to the KMSKA.  

On a chilly December weekend, I set off with a small group to the KMSKA. The museum is located in the Zuid district of Antwerp, along with the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (M HKA), the Fotomuseum (FOMU), and many art galleries. I knew I would be seeing masterpieces by Rubens, Brueghel I & II, and Ensor but beyond that didn’t quite know what to expect. My curiosity grew as we approached the impressive building, with its columned facade and wide staircase, decorated with a celebratory red carpet.

The renovation project was designed by Rotterdam-based KAAN Architecten. The project involved restoring elements of the existing building and renovation work that created more space inside the building, which allows for the display of more artwork. This renovation created a space that feels like a contemporary museum inside of the old museum. After my visit, I was curious to learn more about the process of the renovation and was pleased to find all kinds of information on the museum website.  

The artworks in the museum are divided into two main categories: works before 1880 and works after 1880. In the older part of the museum, some artworks are organised in a traditional salon style: multiple paintings are hung close together and at different heights. The walls in this part of the museum are painted warm, dark colours – deep greens and reds, colours selected with intention by KAAN Architecten.

KMSKA, view of a historic gallery.

While there are clear nods to the past with hanging styles and colour palettes, contemporary artwork enters into dialogue with paintings in both the old masters and the modern art sections of the museum. We visited the old masters section first. Immediately striking was the presence of large contemporary sculptures among the masterpieces including a large rock and camel-shaped seating, where one would expect a typical bench.

Belgian artist and opera director, Christophe Coppens created a project of ten installation sculptures, each inspired by a detail from ten selected paintings. In an interview, Coppens explains that the aim of the project is to “encourage thought and imagination”. The installations include sound and movement, their intended audience: children and their families.

In contrast to the warm tones of the old master’s section, the newly built modern art space is a contemporary bright white area—the entrance of which is aptly all about the theme of light. In the new museum section, artworks are organised by the themes of light, colour, and form.   

My favourite part of the visit was seeing the paintings of twentieth-century Belgian artist Rik Wouters. In addition to having the largest collection of Ensor’s work, the KMSKA also boasts the largest collection of Wouters’ work. The first painting of his that I noticed was a landscape. I was taken by the light and colour of the painting and spent quite some time with it before moving on.

In front of a Rik Wouters landscape in the KMSKA.

Wouters’ work is all about light and colour. Though a famous Belgian painter, I was not that familiar with his paintings and was happy to learn more about his work from the informative plaques. I learned that Wouters was inspired by Cézanne’s forms and Ensor’s colour palette. I particularly loved his self-portrait which, over one hundred years later, still feels very fresh with its abstract background.

Walking around that day, I noticed visitors of all ages. Children were excitedly pointing to and interacting with the contemporary installations of Coppens, and visitors of all ages were contemplating one painting at a time or taking in the atmosphere of an entire room. I was happy to see a sign for an open studio, which invites people of all ages and abilities to create their own artwork inspired by their visit.

The entrance to the Open Atelier in the KMSKA.

I left the KSMKA happy to have braved the cold for a visit. There was so much to see that I am sure I will return. In the meantime, there are many interesting articles and videos on the KMSKA website that can deepen a visitor’s experience of the museum and inspire the next visit!

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A Visit to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Before my latest trip, I had never been west of Michigan in the United States. I was thrilled when I got the chance to expand my travels to attend my best friend’s wedding—artist Siobhán Gallagher—in Kansas City, Missouri. It was a wedding weekend filled with activities and events and one free afternoon I visited The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. In this post, I write about my museum visit, the joy of talking art with friends, and finding a special souvenir.

Friends and I were welcomed at the museum entrance by a guide who kindly and thoroughly explained the layout and collections of the museum. It was the first time in Kansas City for all of us and we were keen to discover the sights. We had eaten barbeque, seen fountains, didn’t quite make it to jazz, but we squeezed in some visual art viewing after the wedding!

Jane Freilicher, Corner of Studio, 1973, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.

The first room we visited was American art. I stopped in front of a landscape painting by Jane Freilicher entitled, Corner of Studio (1973). The viewer is positioned inside the artist’s studio looking out at a landscape of tall grasses and fields. The eye travels from the white structured window frames to the top right of the paining—towards faraway houses—byway of the reddish-brown fields. In the left middle ground is part of a landscape painting, within the painting itself. I liked the balance of warm tones outside the window—yellows, red-browns, peaches—and cooler tones—white and blueish purple—within the studio space.

Alex Katz, Good Afternoon, 1974, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.

Next to Freilicher’s painting was an Alex Katz: Good Afternoon, from 1974.  I love that most of the painting is one solid colour, a soft eggshell blue, which depicts both water and sky. The flatness of the blue communicates that there isn’t a hint of wind on what seems to be a hot summer day. Katz’s wife and model, Ada, sits in a canoe, paddle in hand, her image reflected clearly in the water below. The distinct shadows along Ada’s arms and hands indicate that it must be the middle of the day. The feeling of this painting, for me, is one of calm adventure. Katz’s work has been inspiring to me. He makes everyday subject matter of people and landscapes captivating. There is a retrospective of Katz’s work at the Guggenheim, New York, on now until February 2023, Alex Katz: Gathering.

Hong Chun Zhang, Continuity, 2022, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.

An artwork from this year that was striking was Hong Chun Zhang’s Continuity, a large ink painting on fabric. In addition to the nature-theme, it was the scale of the work—emphasized by its unique horizontal-vertical positioning, that made me stop in my tracks. I was intrigued that the roots of the intertwining trees extended much further than the trees’ branches. The soft swirling lines of the trees evoke figures: two gazing upward and supporting a third in their branches. In the panel next to the work, the artist explains that she uses “long hair imagery […] to mix figurative and land landscape composition…”.

Sharing my love for van Gogh.

I loved seeing works by van Gogh, Cézanne, Degas, and Pissarro, among many others. Any van Gogh–whether well-known or not, my personal favourite or one unknown to me–is a joy to see in person. The paintings of van Gogh celebrate the everyday and this is what all my favourite artists have in common. A tree, a flower, a collection of roots, are infused with energy thanks to colour and bold brush strokes. The group of friends who were together in Kansas City are spread out far and wide across a few countries, so it was extra special to get to walk around a museum together.

At the end of our visit, we headed to the museum gift shop. There, I found myself a souvenir of my time in Kansas City: a pair of earrings by local artist, Chandra Beadleston. I was drawn to the earrings for their mixture of delicacy and boldness. The earrings are made of porcelain and decorated by hand. The white and blue reminded me of the Delft porcelain I saw in my childhood. The patterns are reminiscent of textiles and indeed the artist describes the influence of fabrics on her ceramic work. The earrings said “celebratory” to me, just like my whole trip had been.

Beadleston earrings purchased at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.

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*Feature image of the Rozzelle Court Restaurant inside The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

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What Drives Me to Paint Landscapes?

In my last blog post, I wrote about what drives me to paint. I explained that when I am working at the easel, the way I experience time changes. I feel connected to the present moment through my focused concentration. Painting is a way to “loose myself” and in so doing, I come back to feeling most like myself. In Part II of what drives me to paint, I focus on my main theme: landscapes. I reflect on how my travels and living abroad influenced this passion.

I’m sure that my painting landscapes today has much to do with the fact that the first paintings I saw in books and loved were Impressionist landscapes. I’ve written about the role of light in my painting practice here. I am also confident that my love of landscape painting has to do with my experience painting and walking in the outdoors with my grandfather. But as I reflect on the “why” of landscapes specifically, it seems to be all about the feeling and idea of place.

Place could mean home: a familiar place, or it could be a place I am passing through as a visitor: a new-to-me place. A place can also be imagined: someplace we dream of seeing. But even places we “know” can always be new. Like Monet taught us, it is always possible to see the same place differently, hour per hour, day by day. This idea is both inspiring and comforting to me. It reminds me that continuity and change go hand in hand.

Paris in the autumn of 2009

My dream place has always been Paris. According to my parents, I started talking about Paris as a young child. When I was about eight years old, I wrote a poem about visiting Paris accompanied by an amateur drawing of the Eiffel tower. We don’t know where this interest came from. No matter how my interest was piqued, it was piqued as a kid, and I couldn’t wait to travel.

Growing up, I heard stories of Europe from my grandparents who, in the 1950’s, immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands. I thought of Europe, and specifically the Netherlands, as both unknown—I’d never been—but somehow also known. Hearing about a place inspires the imagination. And my child’s imagination was inspired by what I heard and saw about the country, including gifts from my grandparents’ travels back to the Netherlands and the relics, like landscape paintings, that decorated their home.  

Europe was on my mind as I grew up in Canada, in a small city surrounded by nature. When I was 17, I traveled to Paris with my family and the next year visited the Netherlands for the first time. In France, I loved seeing bustling cafes, small winding streets and gallery windows. In the Netherlands, I felt free riding a bike through the countryside with my relatives. These were new and meaningful experiences and places.

Eindhoven, The Netherlands

After a year in France, I returned to Canada and appreciated the space of my home country for the first time. I fell in love with the national parks in my home province of New Brunswick. After living in a big city, I appreciated the silence of a more rural location. My experience abroad allowed me to see my home differently.

Although I’ve lived in many cities over the last decade, it took being in the quiet, at the Belgian coast, to return to painting after some years away from it. I needed the quiet to pick up my brushes and focus on the light and colour happening right outside my door. I painted the forest and the sea. I’ve enjoyed living in cities, but I haven’t recorded the sights and sounds of these places. Whether in Canada or Europe, I am always drawn to the trees, flowers, and coastlines.

Dandelions, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40cm, 2020, sold.

Making a painting based on a landscape allows me to express my experience of and appreciation for it. As I paint a landscape, I often feel both inspired and comforted. No matter how much I have planned my painting, I leave room for my intuition and surprises always happen. There is an element of unknown in the process. This requires that I trust the process and that letting go allows for the experience of play. Alongside this newness, I feel comfort when I am painting a landscape. I experience a feeling of “coming home” or of returning to something or someplace that I already know. I process my feelings about a place through colour and form. Though familiar, each landscape painting is a new beginning and as such, its own kind of place.

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A Visit to a French Garden

Last weekend in the small city of Coutances (Normandy, France), the yearly street fair – “braderie”- was in full swing. Stalls and tables were set up along the main city streets displaying clothing, books, antiques, art, and food. After weaving through crowds and enjoying the ambiance, we took a turn off the main square and found quiet in the Jardin des Plantes. In this blog post, I write about my visit to the gardens and the inspiration I found in the colourful and diverse plants and trees. I reflect on how a change of scenery can kick start future projects and be linked to past interests.

Entrance of the Jardin des Plantes, Coutances

Dating from the nineteenth century, this botanical garden boasts rare trees and numerous plant species. I was pleased to see some of my favourite plants and trees including marigolds, black-eyed susans, Queen Anne’s lace, thistles, roses, hortensia, magnolia, and ginkgo trees. Since I am working on a commissioned painting of blossoms, I took a close look at the petals of these bright pink roses. Looking at this snapshot now, I love the delicacy of the folding petals in contrast to their bright pink colour against the sky blue.

Rounding a corner I nearly bumped into this large hortensia plant growing along a stone wall. I love the fullness of the flowers and noticed many of these plants along the winding country roads outside of the city.

Parallel pathways wind throughout the gardens. As I walked down one path, I noticed that, to one side, a group of various plants were all cool hues of blues, whites, and purples. On the other side, warm hues of oranges, yellows, and reds reminded me of my grandmother, Oma, whose favourite colour was orange. There is both an element of organization in this strategy of colour-grouping and variety since each flowerbed is made up of many different sized, coloured, and shaped plants. The overall aesthetic is one of tidy wildflower bouquets.

I visited the garden in the late morning on a sunny day. With the summer sun high in the sky, stark shadows were cast down the trunk of this ginkgo tree and along the paths. Shimmering light danced in the leaves of the trees. Next to very old trees, I reflected on their lifetime and my own. Feeling small and relatively young next to this large Lebanese Cedar, I remembered reading the first chapters of The Overstory by Richard Powers, which tells the story of a family over generations against the backdrop of one particular tree.

Taking close-up photos of the flowerbeds, I thought of my “De Haan Dandelions” painting (2020), which shows a close-up view of the flower. I decided that after finishing my current painting project, I would start on another close-up painting; this one to incorporate the vibrant oranges and yellows of the flowers I saw in Coutances.

A step outside of our regular setting can spur reflection. Old ideas in combination with new inspiration can lead to the next project. It seemed fitting to be reflecting on the past and the future the morning before attending the wedding of a good friend of mine. Friendship and love are enduring–they might change, new experiences are layered upon old ones– but the threads of continuity that we can see over time are reasons to feel grateful and celebrate the day!

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Loving Light in Painting and Literature

The first time I can remember being struck by an artwork it was an illustration of a Monet painting. Whether it was the haystacks, the waterlilies, or another of his famous works, I am not sure. What I am sure of is that it was the light that caught my attention. This was almost twenty years ago, before I would see Monets in real life. As a teenager, looking at the groundbreaking Impressionistic artwork, I felt a joyful shock: a combination of something new (excitement) and something already known (recognition). In this post, I reflect on how light in painting inspires me and influences my practice. I connect this to a wonderful, recently published book I just finished reading entitled, A Life in Light: Meditations on Impermanence by Mary Pipher, Ph.D.

While there are many components that go into making a painting—subject and composition for example—light is chief among them. That is, if you are working somewhat ‘realistically’. Light is how we treat a subject we are painting – any subject. Whether it is a still life, a portrait or a landscape, a painting is built by its values (from light to dark and every value in between). Before beginning a painting, it is important to ask ourselves: what is the source of light and where is it coming from? The values of the painted subject will be determined by its relation to the light source (a lamp or the sun, for example). Here’s a value-exercise of mine from years ago:

Portrait 2007

While black and white or grayscale can be beautiful, I have always been attracted to artworks with a rich variety of tones and colours like Monets, van Goghs, and the more recent landscape painting of David Hockney. While colour is very important for these artists, light (especially for Monet) is what creates the intense moods of the artworks. I’ve written about the inspiration I found in the book Landscape Painting Now, edited by Todd Bradway and Barry Schwabsky and published by Thames & Hudson in 2019 here.

If I think back to my most vivid memories, what stands out is the feeling of place – the atmosphere of my memories are always bathed in specific light. It might be the intense sun at high noon on a summer’s day. The bright green grass contrasting with purple shadows made by nearby trees. I remember reading magazines in the garden of my family home as a teenager, feeling enveloped in the sun’s warm hug and blinded by the brightness. All I could absorb were the blades of grass between my fingers and the glossy print of my teen-magazine. Whether it is soft morning, high noon or dusk light, I love the light that we see in shadows across the ground, liquid gold across water, or in the shimmering light of trees. My paintings Sunny Birches (2021) and De Haan Large Forest (2020) are examples of this dancing light between leaves.

Sunny Birches, 71 x 96 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2021, sold
Sunny Birches, 71 x 96 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2021, sold
De Haan Large Forest, 60 x 60 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2020, sold

Shimmering light between the leaves of trees is the earliest memory that psychologist and author Mary Pipher shares in her recent memoir, My Life in Light: Meditations on Impermanence (2022). Of watching this light as a very young child, Pipher explains: “I didn’t have language, but I knew what I was watching was beautiful” (1).

What I love about this memoir is that Pipher explores light as the tangible and powerful aspect of the world that it is and also as metaphor, that is, light as resilience in the face of life’s inevitable struggles. The author manages to explore resilience without falling into a trap of toxic positivity through writing openly about her own challenges as a young adult and more recently dealing with the loneliness of the pandemic. I appreciated how eloquently she held both the difficulties and joys of life together. Of this tension between dark and light, Pipher writes, “our hearts shatter into pieces, yet we hear the song of the cardinal and watch the exploding electricity of a thunderstorm” (6).

Cover of Pipher’s latest book, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022.

I also love the way in which Pipher writes about her life as necessarily embedded in her familial web. Pipher’s relationships with parents, grandparents, and her own children and grandchildren play a central role in her self-understanding and personal relationship with light/resilience. A line that stopped me in my tracks—again a feeling of excitement and recognition—is from the chapter “Shelling Peas” in which Pipher describes her close and special relationship with her maternal grandmother. The closing sentence reads: “Grandmother was one of the first people who did the hard work of loving me into existence” (79). Light, as a metaphor for resilience, is also one for love.

Watching my own parents reading to my nephew, I see the hard work of loving someone into existence. This is the work of parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, and sometimes even strangers. As Pipher outlines throughout the book, we also learn about life through our encounters with the visual arts, music and literature. The beauty we experience in our relationships with others and in the creation and appreciation of artwork is, in Pipher’s understanding of the term, light. It was definitely light, both tangible and metaphorical, that I appreciated in Monet’s paintings years ago and to this day. I was happy to read that, for Pipher too, “much of the time the world looks like a Monet painting” (301).

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Landscape Discoveries: A Visit to the Island of Newfoundland

For a few years now, my husband and I have wanted to visit the beautiful Canadian province of Newfoundland & Labrador. He was surprised to learn that, born and raised in New Brunswick, I had not yet visited this Atlantic province. Distances are great in Canada, but this summer we prioritized a visit. With only one week, we focused on one area of the province: Gros Morne National Park. In what follows, I write about the trip highlights and how the landscape has sparked inspiration for my painting.

During our six days in the park, we took advantage of the many hiking trails, including the Approach Trail to Gros Morne Mountain Trail, Green Gardens, and Bakers Brook Falls. These trails boasted gorgeous views of the mountains, coastlines, and waterfalls. A boat tour of Western Brook Pond took us through impressive fjords and a visit to the Tablelands was a lesson in the minerals that make up the Earth’s mantle (the middle layer of the Earth).

Western Brook Pond, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland & Labrador

I was struck by the intense colour palettes in the park. At the Tablelands, we learned from our Parks Canada guide that minerals like copper are in the soil of what was the earth’s mantle. The mineral rich soil is an intense rust-orange colour and contrasts with the tree-covered mountains nearby.  

While I enjoyed the abundant panorama views of the national park, it was in the details of the plants and rocks that we encountered that I found painting inspiration. At sunset in Rocky Harbour, ripples in the sand created purple shadows that contrasted with the bright green of the grass and yellow and white of the dandelions.

Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland & Labrador

The flat and winding road at the start of the Green Gardens Trail made us feel that we were in the desert – despite the snow that was still at the top of many mountains in the park. We were assured that, by the end of the summer or even September, the snow would finally melt.

Jagged rocks, wet from the spray of a waterfall on the Approach Trail of the Gros Morne Mountain Trail, were deep purple with hints of orange, against moss green.

Waterfall along the Approach Trail of Gros Morne Mountain Trail

Walking along the beach towards Green Point, I noticed a light sage green plant growing between light grey and pink spherical rocks. Looking closely at this plant, I saw that the leaves were grouped together reminiscent of a rose’s petals or the leaves of a cabbage.

The beach at Green Point, Gros Morne National Park

Green Point is at first sight a rocky cliff – impressive but by the last day of our trip not out of the ordinary. From a lookout at the top of the cliff we took in the vastness of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Upon descending a staircase and reading the plaque, we learned that this site is one of the main reasons why Gros Morne National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This place—Green Point—and specifically the rocks making up the cliff are important for geologists. The fossils found here helped illuminate the concept of plate tectonics.

Green Point, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland & Labrador

Green Point was the highlight of the trip for me. Visually, what is most impressive is the abundance of layered rocks, some of which were almost paper thin and others as thick as bricks. These layers were once the floor of ancient oceans! It is difficult to grasp the idea of such ancient history (500 millions years ago), but at Green Point you can’t help but be struck it. The cliffs look like pages of a book: an amazing, natural record of time. Oddly enough, some of the layers were so defined they almost looked man-made.

Now back in Belgium, after a year in the United States and a short trip home to Canada, I am ready to begin a new series of Newfoundland-inspired paintings! Exactly how the layers of rock and the contrasting colours of the landscape will make their way into my work is yet to be seen. I will begin by looking through my record of photographs and putting together some sketches. Stay tuned!

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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!

Thanks for reading!

I publish a new post every second Wednesday. If you like what you’re reading, please subscribe to my blog to get updates on my latest posts.

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