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Art Supplies: Stocking Up, Material Lists, and Budgeting

My favourite part of any day is painting. For me, this means sitting at my easel or desk and doing the work of creating: playing with colour and getting lost in the image I’m working on. But before I can settle in, I have to make sure that I am well set up and have everything I need to get to work. An essential part of getting started on any artistic project is having the right supplies on hand. This post is about how I make choices when it comes to what materials I use, how I balance budget and quality, and where I shop.

What Am I Making and For What Purpose?

When it comes to materials, there are some basic questions I ask myself: what do I want to make and for whom or what purpose am I making it? I may make different material choices depending on if I am working on a project that I intend to sell versus working on an experimental project or taking a class.

Last week, I placed a big order of materials to get set up in a new city. Other than my brushes, I needed everything. It was both exciting and overwhelming! I needed materials for two categories: my own professional work and the three courses I’ll be following this semester at the Ann Arbor Art Center. Making this distinction between my work and the course material lists already helped me to plan for my art supply shopping.

The first thing I did was to collect the three individual material lists for the painting and drawing courses in which I’m enrolled. I decided to shop online at Michaels and started filling up my digital cart with everything from artist’s tape and palettes to the specific paint colours indicated by the teachers. This took a lot of time since I was comparing prices and looking for the best options.

When I had everything that I needed for the courses, I added some additional materials which I’ll need for my own practice. This included extra canvases, paints and finishing products like mediums and varnishes. When there was overlap between my course materials and what I need for my own practice—for example, various acrylic paints–I purchased a value size.      

Balancing Budget & Quality

Art supplies can get expensive. I am always thinking about budget and quality when it comes to stocking up on materials. When I am buying materials for the works that I sell, I get the best quality I can.

The brands of acrylic paint I like to use are Winsor & Newton and Golden. Especially Winsor & Newton is an affordable, professional level brand. I have gone to Golden when I am looking for a specific colour to add to my collection. I use Golden for their acrylic mediums and varnishes.

Next week, I will begin following a course on watercolour painting. Because it is for a course, in which we will be practicing and experimenting, I purchased a smaller amount of paints at a fine quality. I am not worried about having a professional grade paint at this point. I purchased the Winsor & Newton Cotman Water Colours compact set of 14 half pans. If I continue to work with watercolour, I will reassess what I need and likely invest in larger tubes.  

I stocked up on sketch books, thin canvas panels and a few smaller canvases for my courses. Again, I am thinking about how I will be practicing, experimenting and honing my skills through exercise. I may or may not keep my output and it will likely just be for me. I added some additional canvases of specific sizes for my professional work to my cart. I usually work on cotton or linen stretched canvas. I like a thicker, weightier canvas for my professional work.

It may be obvious, but it is worth stating that it’s hard to do good work with inadequate tools. I buy my paint brushes individually because sets are often of a lesser quality, and I only end up using a few brushes out of a pack anyway. It takes experimentation to know what size, style, and material brush works best for your art. My collection varies and I have my favourite go-to’s for each particular part of a painting (from washes to fine details).

I was buying watercolour brushes for my course and decided on a combination of a small set and one high quality individual brush. I am breaking my rule of not buying sets here because I will be using these brushes for experimentation and practice. If I want to go further with watercolour, I will invest in some good quality professional brushes later on.

Overall, I invest in high quality materials and tools for professional work, worry less when it comes to practice and experimentation, in particular with new mediums, and look for promotions, sales, and value packs of the materials I use most often.

My Go-To Art Supply Stores

In Brussels, my go-to store was Schleiper. This is a large store with everything art and craft related. It’s easy to spend a lot of time here and I love browsing through the aisles, picking up my old favourites and discovering new products to try.

I recently wrote about my trip to The Art Shack in Moncton, New Brunswick where I was very impressed with the customer service provided. When there is a small independent art store nearby, I always prefer to support local and create links in the city I am in. The Art Shack holds a special place in my heart because this was the first place that I bought art supplies when I began painting regularly in my teens.

Now, in Ann Arbor, I went to Michaels to stock up on everything I’ll need this year. I was disappointed with my experience shopping online. I spent a good many hours putting everything in my cart only to be informed, after my purchase, that my order was canceled. Confused, I called customer service. It seems, though I did not receive a clear answer, that it is impossible to order online if one’s credit or debit card has a billing address outside of the United States.

Due to limited options, I drove to the Michael’s store in Brighton, north of Ann Arbor, and filled up my cart again, this time in real life. I ended up getting more deals than I found online and was able to keep my 25% discount that I had had online. It took a while, but overall I’m glad to have found everything I needed at good prices.   

Now I am all set up and ready to paint!

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Painter On The Road: My Temporary Studios!

This summer, I was able to have a long visit—six weeks!—with my family and friends in Canada. The reunion was fantastic especially given the length of time between this visit and our last (pre-pandemic). Because of the length of this stay, I tried to balance visiting and traveling with a little working. My parents generously made a bright room in their home available to me for my painting practice during the summer.

Since I only took my brushes with me across the pond, I visited The Art Shack in Moncton. At the art supply store, I stocked up on some paints, canvases, and other tools for the commission project that I was working on. I used to buy art supplies at The Art Shack years ago, while still living at home. On this visit, I was surprised to learn that they had moved to a new location and even more so to learn that this move had happened seven years ago! I appreciated the great customer service as the employees took their time answering my questions about some new-to-me products.  

The room in which I was painting has minimal furniture to begin with, making the transformation into studio pretty easy. I brought up a large extendable table (more often used to accommodate large family holiday dinners) from the basement and covered it with plastic. I secured the edges of the plastic with tape to keep it in place. Here, I worked on my latest painting entitled, “Sunny Birches.” This 91 x 76 cm/36 x 30 in. painting was inspired by the many trails I hiked during this period in the Canadian Maritimes.

Sunny Birches, 71 x 96 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2021, sold
Sunny Birches, 91 x 76 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2021, sold

It took a few sessions to establish a regular routine and develop the muscle memory of knowing which paint or brush I had placed where in the workspace. I was working with a small set of GOLDEN acrylic paints, including the primary colours I needed for mixing. I added a few extra colours from Winsor & Newton, which were important for the success of this painting (Sap Green, Hooker’s Green, Burn Umber, and Raw Umber).

A few GOLDEN acrylic paints

In an earlier post, I wrote about my temporary move to the United States. Packing up my Brussels studio was bitter-sweet. The studio space that I used daily is flooded with light and was organised (or disorganised) in my own way, to which I have grown accustomed. I am, however, looking forward to a year in a new place—Ann Arbor, Michigan—and very grateful to have had an exceptionally long stay recently in my hometown.

Now, back in Ann Arbor, I will set up a new studio space in my temporary home. My first steps are to visit an art store and stock up here. I will be working on a few commission pieces and taking a couple art classes at the Ann Arbor Art Center. I look forward to making this space my own for the year and following my inspiration in my new surroundings.

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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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Trusting Your Eye: Lessons from Drawing Class

The other day, I was making a quick sketch of the maple tree outside of my window. Recently I’ve been sketching more. With pencil crayons in hand, I was getting the impression of this large tree down on paper. “Draw what you see, not what you know”, was the foundational lesson I learned in drawing class. This means to register the shapes, colours, and tonal values of the object(s) in space (a scene). The difficult thing is to do so without getting caught up in your thoughts, judgements and assumptions about the object(s) or scene.

A tree is a great example of this. Our thoughts, judgements, and assumptions about a tree might include: tall and relatively straight, rooted in the ground below, brown trunk, green leaves, maybe boring and interchangeable. We might draw a tree like this:

Simple symbols of trees

These are just a few examples of general, symbolic trees. They are surely useful for communicating the idea of a tree and they are even pretty cute. But if I want to record my impressions of one particular tree, how can I go about that?

First, I need to forget. I do the following exercise if I’m starting a drawing and often also when I need “fresh eyes” to look at a painting I’ve been working on a while. I close my eyes. I keep them closed for a little longer than is comfortable (20 seconds or so). If there is a blank, neutral wall in my environment, I look at that (this sometimes means stepping away from the terra-cotta walls of my Brussels studio space). After a little palette-cleanser, I look back to the scene I want to register.

Second, I really look. I see what is in front of me and I take my time registering. Slowly, I begin to notice general shapes, colour nuances, and tones (lights and darks).

Next, I ask myself: how will I frame the scene (what will be included and excluded), much like a photographer. This is a decision (or a series of decisions). I make a few marks to indicate the composition of the scene I want to record.*

Now that I have cleared my mind—at least for this sketching exercise—focused in on a scene, and started to take note of the general shapes and values that I see, it’s all about hand-eye teamwork. My eyes shift from scene to page, page to scene, sometimes rapidly.

A surprising thing about drawing is that I, and I believe many other artists, spend more time drawing with eyes off the page than on the page, at least during this kind of recording-type drawing or this impressionistic stage. It’s always possible to go back later and, with more intentional decision-making, add to and refine your work. But that isn’t necessary either.

During my sketching session the other day, I found that the marks I was making while my eyes were focused on the shapes and tones outside (the tree, though I’m not thinking “TREE”) were getting me a much more satisfying result than if I lingered too long on the page.

I noticed that what helped me to record my impression of this tree also came in the form of a sort of internal stream of consciousness. It went something like this:

“Dark green foreground, shaded darker value background, larger section… light green, hints of light yellow, less dense here, empty space, dark green cluster, empty space, rounded small area…”.

I am not thinking: “leaves, bark, branch…”. If I go down that path, which can happen, my drawing suffers. This means that I don’t feel that what is emerging on the page captures my experience of what I see. If or when I do start to label and get stuck in what a tree is suppose to look like, I go back to step one and refocus.

Not getting caught up in our thoughts, judgements, and assumptions is part of why many people find that artistic practices get them into a state of flow. I experience flow as a feeling of connection to the present moment and a “oneness” with the activity in which I am engaged. Time flies in the state of flow and at the same time, there is a feeling of joy and aliveness. Drawing and painting life lesson is to stop and look, to refrain from assumptions or old expectations. Here is my sketch from the other day!

Sketch of a Maple tree July 2021

Thanks for reading!

*I am using the language of registering and recording because this way of sketching is about getting an impression of what I am seeing. While this language may sound as if my goal is to create a photo-realistic image: a replica of what is out there on paper, my goal is rather to train my eye to notice more information that I can put down on paper. The results can be vastly different depending on the day! Moreover, the scene I see and the scene I end up with are independent of each other.

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Sketching For Sketching’s Sake

I’ve always preferred paint to pencil. With paint, I feel that I have more freedom. I can put down my wash—a first indication of the image to emerge—with little commitment. By building layer upon layer, I continue to make decisions throughout the entire painting process. In contrast, the fine tip of the pencil can feel intimidating. If I put down these lines now, can I change my mind later?

While painting relies, to a certain extent, on the skills of drawing, the role of preliminary sketching has remained optional or, at best, secondary to my painting practice. As I’ve described in a previous post, I usually begin a painting by looking through my reference photos and outlining a composition directly onto my canvas.

Sometimes, sketch(es) have acted as intermediary steps – between reference photographs and the painting. This has proven useful, as I already abstract from a photograph and make choices before touching the canvas. Sketching is especially useful when I am working large scale and want to try out compositions on a smaller piece of paper first. I used this method for my painting, “Red Ochre Sculptural Trees”. Here below are a few preliminary sketches made based on a series of reference photographs:

The completed painting took on a life of its own, but the sketches were the steppingstone I needed for this larger work. For all my sketches, I have been using a small set of pencil crayons from Faber-Castell, which have great colour range.

I recently moved (temporarily) to the U.S. This is an opportunity to take in new surroundings and perhaps explore new materials. During these early days, I’m getting adjusted to a new place. For me, this is not the time to start a large-scale painting. Instead, I’ve found that sketching is a quick and easy way to record my impressions of my new surroundings.

These sketches may be useful for future paintings, but this is not their purpose. At this point, I am sketching for sketching’s sake and enjoying the practice. I’m recording what I see and keeping my skills sharp. I am having fun playing with colour and shape in a different way: immediate and smaller scale.

Sketch of a tree in Apeldoorn, The Netherlands.

I’m getting more comfortable with the fine tip of a pencil these days. There have been some moments of frustration when, for example, I’ve committed a line to paper that seems to determine my next move; at least more definitively than my marks with paint. But I pivot and see what else can be done. In getting stuck, I try to be creative in how I might get unstuck. Once again, painting, or in this case sketching, teaches me life skills: patience, flexibility, that any view can be interesting, and that a little sketch – a moment of curious looking – can be an end in itself.

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The Process of Packaging Paintings

Whether I’m in my element or trying something new, I’m very rarely nervous in the studio. While painting, I get into the flow. I’m usually energized and curious, open to experimentation and/or peacefully plugging along. When it comes to shipping my paintings, however, it has taken some practice to get comfortable. Shipping artwork entails various steps, all with the main goal of ensuring that the work reaches the collector in a safe and timely fashion. In this blog post, I share my process of packaging paintings from the logistical steps to the emotional rollercoaster of letting a painting go!

Although packaging artworks has been an aspect of a few of my former jobs, I needed a refresher when I decided to launch my web shop. I started looking for packaging and shipping resources and quickly found a helpful and straight forward video by Agora Gallery. I watched this and other videos carefully and well before a sale. This helped me build the confidence that, when the time came, I would be ready to ship my artworks to their new homes. From there, I gathered the materials I would need from the art supply store Schleiper, here in Brussels. Below is a list of materials I keep on hand for packaging my paintings.

*The Materials:

  • Glassine paper
  • Artist’s tape
  • Packing tape
  • Bubble wrap
  • Cardboard corners
  • Pieces of cardboard or foamboard
  • Shipping boxes
  • Scissors & exacto knife
  • Ruler & measuring tape
  • Pencil & marker

When the day arrived that I sold a painting that required shipping, I knew I had to set aside a good amount of time to package this fragile and meaningful-to-me (and now owned by someone else!) artwork.

**The Steps:

1. Clear and cushion your surface. Whether small or large in size, I package my paintings on the floor so that I can spread out all of my materials and have an abundance of space. Before I begin, I sweep and/or vacuum the surface (a good excuse for cleaning). Then, I lay down a large piece of clean foam and/or cardboard to provide a cushion for my painting.  

2. Wrap artwork in glassine paper using artist’s tape. Glassine paper is an acid-free archival quality paper. This material is gentle against the paint and is the first layer of protection for the painting. I use artist’s tape for this step—a tape that is easy to remove and will not leave residue on your painting—even though I try not to attach the tape to the canvas surface. Use the glassine paper and artist’s tape to wrap your artwork like a gift.

3. Wrap artwork in bubble wrap using packing tape. Different resources suggest different amounts of bubble wrap to protect artwork. I’ve found that I am happy with the protection that a generous couple of inches of bubble wrap (all around the artwork) provides. To secure the bubble wrap, use strong packing tape. In the photo below, I’ve added an extra step of cushioning the artwork between foamboard – I explain my use of foamboard in the following steps.

4. Add and secure cardboard corners to your artwork (especially important for framed artworks). I use cardboard corners on both framed and unframed paintings. Framed paintings require this extra layer of protection as the corners are especially vulnerable to impact in the shipping process. Cardboard corners are available in art supply stores, or you can make your own. This video by StateoftheART was extremely helpful for making my own cardboard corners.

5. Sandwich-wrap artwork between cardboard or foamboard pieces. Foamboard is a material and packaging step that I added to my process when I was packaging a painting I sold through Saatchi Art. Sandwiching the artwork between two sturdy foamboard pieces adds an extra layer of protection, helping to absorb weight that may be imposed upon the artwork during shipping.

6. Insert artwork into a sturdy cardboard box. Finding boxes has been a challenge for my larger works. I have been making boxes out of larger cardboard pieces but this is time-consuming and so I continue to look for larger boxes that would fit my works. In addition to using foamboard, another tip/requirement I picked up from Saatchi Art is to always use the “H-taping” method. When closing and securing your cardboard box, use strong packing tape over the corners and along the opening sides of the box (the long piece of tape along the side and the two pieces of tape at either corner creates an “H”-like shape).

The first artwork I sent out of the country was nerve-wracking. As soon as I scheduled the pick-up with the delivery company, the clock began ticking. I was concerned about having all the right materials and packaging my work safely and professionally. My perfectionism reared its head by zooming in on details like how consistent my tape-job was. Packaging my first painting for international shipping took hours as I made my own box, weighed, measured, cut and recut cardboard pieces, and added more layers of bubble wrap and tape than necessary. When the courier came to pick up the painting, I both couldn’t wait to have it out of the door and felt a little emotional saying goodbye.

With practice, packaging my paintings for shipping is getting easier. Trusting that they will get to their destination safely comes from having seen this happen successfully. Having high standards in terms of getting the work to the collector safely is of utmost importance. While the presentation is important, bubble wrap and foamboard can only look so good!

While I especially like to hand-deliver my paintings, to meet collectors, and sometimes even see where the paintings will be hung, I’m thrilled that my artwork is now in a few European countries, including The Netherlands and France, and in Canada. By including a greeting card and my business card (along with a Certificate of Authenticity) with my shipped paintings, I’ve found ways to add a personal touch to delivery. When someone connects with my work and brings it into their home, the very important element of artmaking is achieved: sharing.

Thanks for reading!

* These are the materials I most often use for shipping. This list is not exhaustive – sometimes I use brown paper to add an extra layer over the glassine and bubble wrap, for example. This list is based on the needs of my paintings, which are acrylic paintings on stretched canvas. I continue to research best packaging methods and advise the consultation of a few different resources to decide what is best for you, if you’re an artist shipping your work. Finally, galleries may have their own in-house guidelines for packing that they ask the artist to respect or artworks may be packaged by representing galleries.

** These are my standard go-to packaging steps. I may adjust the steps depending on the size and fragility of the work. My paintings do not come framed with glass. As the Agora Gallery video (linked above) explains, extra safety measures are required to protect glass during the shipping process. Make sure to follow the packaging steps required of your specific artwork.

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Building Layers Using Acrylic Paints

No matter what I’m painting—whether it’s a forest scene, a seascape, or a portrait—I’m always building layers of paint. Moreover, no matter the style I am working in, from more impressionistic to semi-abstract, layering is the foundation of my painting technique. In what follows, I’ll share my technique of building layers using acrylic paints.

In this previous post, I’ve described my painting process from the first rough sketches to the final highlights. When describing this sketching stage, I’ve used the term “wash”. This is a painterly technique that refers to sketching out the main colour values of a scene: the lights and darks and sometimes specific tones or colours. A wash lays down the composition of the painting, including the larger shapes. By loosely sketching the main lines and values of a scene, I can, at this early stage, assess and potentially amend the proportions of the composition before delving too quickly into the details.

A wash treats the entire surface of the canvas equally by putting down the first layers evenly. This builds a strong foundation for the work. Here are two images of the “wash” stage of my latest work in progress:

I work with acrylic paints, which are versatile. When diluted with a little water—be careful not to over dilute—acrylics can give a transparent result, similar to that of watercolour paint. Alternatively, when applied to a surface directly and generously, acrylic paint can provide a result similar to an oil paint – thick and opaque. Acrylic paints dry quickly and are thus easy to work with. I like to apply the paint in thin layers, straight from the tube, to ultimately achieve an opaque result overall. However, I do not want my brush strokes to be too visible. I want the colour application itself—the blending or colour blocking—to create visual interest and texture rather than the surface of the painting itself to be textured (raised off the canvas in any way–this can be achieved using a variety of mediums and/or thickly applying paint).

Detail of my painting, “Berry Passage”.

As I progress in my painting, the layers shift from semi-transparent to opaque. Working in layers—slowly building my scene over the whole canvas—keeps my painting fluid. It keeps my options open. I assess the work as a whole as I go. I step back from the easel. I come back again and make changes. It is only in the last stages that I put down the thickest layers of paint. At this point, I know I won’t be making any significant changes, though the final marks are some of the most important. There is a certainty and confidence in these finishing marks, usually highlights.

Detail of my painting, “De Haan Large Forest”.

The technique of layering adds depth and a richness of colour. For example, I am currently working on a commissioned seascape in which the layering plays a central role. In this painting, I used a 1.5-inch brush to put down light layers of colour. Using a thick flat brush allows me to put a thin layer of paint down while evenly covering a large surface. This simultaneously creates a smooth effect and depth of colour in the work; what I am going for to describe the sky and sea in this case.

Detail of the layering technique, work in progress.

I like the effect of the blending I was able to achieve with this brush. Although it is possible to put colour on top of colour directly, I sometimes let the paint mostly dry between layers. This way, I’m not mixing the colours, but letting them show through in some parts and disappear in others. If I’m trying to achieve a more transparent look to a layer, I will only add a little paint to my brush. This creates a dusting of a fresh colour over the last layer.

In contrast to the above example of my work-in-progress seascape, layering looks a little different when I’m painting light coming through leaves. Instead of working with a large brush to sweep colour across the canvas, I’m working with patches of colour. Sky blues peek through branches. Light shinning between and through leaves calls for some greens to be very light, yellow, or semi-transparent. Pale yellows and opaque white highlights are the last layers.

Detail of my painting, “Villers Abbey Forest”.

My method of layering involves patience and experimentation. Building layers is a balance between working towards an idea of an expected result and staying open for new things to happen. Like so many aspects of painting, the experience of building layers with patience and curiosity applies to other areas of my life. Working in layers has instilled in me a sense of flexibility: to add, to retract, to try again, or to try differently. Different stages in the work call for different approaches. With a knowledge of how the paint works, some predictability and planning is possible, but each painting is unique and unforeseen events happen along the way. This is how I build my layers using acrylic paints and I look forward to continuing to grow and experiment!

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On Winter: A Season, A Subject, A Practice

We are in the darker months of the year and the winter season has been on my mind, becoming the subject of my work. My latest painting, “Winter Path,” is based on a scene I came across while out walking in late December 2020. The catalyst for this painting was how wonderous it felt to see the sun peaking through the clouds, shinning brilliantly on a forest path that was just up ahead. I wrote about the winter colour palette I used—dark purples and light mauves and browns—for this painting in my last post, but this seemed just a beginning of a reflection on the topic.

I have always loved winter: the magic of watching snow falling softly against the dark night sky, the coziness of a crackling fireplace, (usually) the gathering of loved ones and the sharing of warm drinks and meals. But for all its wonders and joys, the winter season is also long and difficult; in Canada, it’s the cold, in Belgium, it’s the dark. I am always just on the cusp of purchasing a sunlamp.

I still recall the winter three years ago, which was one of the darkest on record in western Europe. One day during this winter, a faint beam of sunlight entering my apartment window was such a shock to my system that I walked toward the light with a trance-like awe, my eyes immovable from the pale orange breaking through the dark sky for the short time it lasted.

In her recent book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, author Katherine May explores winter not only as the season it is but also as a verb (“wintering”), as a practice of serious self care. May explains that during life’s difficult times we often feel a call (or sometimes, a demand) for a slowing down and a prioritizing of our basic needs—think: breathing, resting, walking. While the season of winter itself invites rest and retreat—sometimes in the form of cuddling under a warm blanket, gazing out a frosted window to appreciate the cold season at a distance–wintering, May posits, as a practice, is something in which we can engage (by choice or necessity) in other months of the year too. The need to winter can occur when we are dealing with life’s myriad struggles and refueling is a non-negotiable.

May explains that during life’s difficult times we often feel a call (or sometimes, a demand) for a slowing down and a prioritizing of our basic needs—think: breathing, resting, walking.

In some ways, living through this ongoing pandemic is a wintering: we stay indoors and pare down to the essentials of rest, exercise, and new or old hobbies of baking and crafting. For many of course—essential workers and parents, for example—demands during this time grow exponentially and there seems little possibility of recharging. A recent episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Forever35, focused on the experience of essential workers and asked how they were getting through this demanding time. It was an important reminder that while we are all going through this strange time, the experiences of this pandemic period are vast: its difficulties affecting us all in different ways.

I was in the middle of my own wintering when the pandemic began, and that experience has actually helped me cope with staying home this past year. During my own wintering, I had to slow way down (stand still, really) and redefine my own understanding of daily productivity. Starting with the basics of rest, exercise, and a healthy diet, I added painting to my daily activities–a practice I had always loved but which I’d put on the back shelf for too long. The experience of slowing down could be, at times, frustrating. Painting, as I have written about here, helped me to practice patience. These colliding wintering seasons have taught me that the basics–including painting, for me–are not indulgences, extras or after-thoughts, but essential parts of my own well-being. I connected to the following passage of May’s book, where she describes deciduous trees in winter (p.80 e-book):

“The tree is waiting. It has everything ready. Its fallen leaves are mulching the forest floor, and its roots are drawing up the extra winter moisture, providing a firm anchor against seasonal storms. […] It is far from dead. It is, in fact, the life and soul of the wood. It’s just getting on with it quietly. It will not burst into life in the spring. It will just put on a new coat and face the world again.”

What I’ve learned from my own experiences, and what I appreciated in May’s book, was this idea that a wintering period is not detached or separate from life, though it may sometimes feel that way. Resting serves the purpose to regain our strength; eventually we will “put on a new coat and face the world again.” For me, the practice of painting is a quiet and meditative practice. It requires slowing down and looking intentionally. At the same time, painting is a rejuvenating experience, something that gives me an abundance of meaning and renewed energy, even and especially in darker seasons.

Winter Path, Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 cm, 2021.

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Seasonal Colours: Winter

One thing I love about painting is that I am always learning from the process—I am continually surprised by what happens on the canvas. If I had been asked a few weeks ago what colours I think of as the seasonal colours of winter, I might have replied: the white of snow or the dark grey skies of the early winter sunsets here in the northern hemisphere. I might have thought of cool colours, like a bright icy blue, that reflects the cold I experienced growing up in Canada.

In addition, the winter season recalls bright lights strung along rooftops and wound around trees during the holidays: the ruby red and shiny gold of Christmas ornaments against the forest green of a tree’s needles comes to mind. Indeed, jewel tones of deep reds, greens, and purples, tend to be at the heart of winter fashion and a crimson or burgundy lipstick is especially nice to wear in winter—the colour of a spicy mulled wine. As I write this, my faux-fur white and green wrap is keeping me cozy on a cold January day.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been busy working on a new forest scene based on a photograph taken during a walk I took late December 2020. As usual, I was walking when I saw a scene that struck me as full of painting potential. I was particularly interested in the especially long and especially thin path that came into view on my right. It was mid-morning, and the sun was shinning brilliantly onto the path. The trees were bare and dark against the light blue-grey sky. While it was the sunny path that drew my attention, as I looked at the ground and trees more closely, I noticed beautiful shades of mauve, even lilac, and a range of browns, some of which were rust-gold. I couldn’t wait to paint this scene. Here’s a look at the main colours in my winter painting colour palette:

As I’ve outlined in other blog posts (here and here), I like to use photographs for an initial composition and then allow the creative process and experimentation with colour to take over and unfold. Due to the dark areas on the ground near the path, I’ve been using a lot of purples. I like to use a deep purple for trees rather than black, as various shades of purple mixes well with highlights of various browns, greens, blues, and reds—all of which can be found in different bark, in different light. I wanted the trees to be distinguishable from the dark purple of the ground and so opted for a dark blue, with purples and browns, for the trees.

I’ve been having fun playing with this colour palette and building up layers with a wide variety of colour, which allows for textured transitions between shadow and light. I am pleasantly surprised by the delicacy of the light mauves and golden browns and the warmth that this palette is creating not only with darker colours but with these lighter ones as well. At the time of writing I am about three-quarters finished this work. Here are some details of my work in progress painting (size 60 x 60 cm, title to follow):

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Painting as Welcoming Love and Loss

I just finished reading Forever is the Worst Long Time by Camille Pagán, a novel about love and loss and how they intertwine when it comes to youth, friendship, relationships, and life in general. The intertwining of love and loss feels especially palpable during this pandemic and this holiday season. Many families have lost loved ones to COVID-19, as well as other circumstances. Many families won’t be seeing each other over the holidays. I won’t be going to Canada this year and, although it is the right decision given the circumstances, I am feeling the loss of the usual traditional activities, which allow me to enjoy the company of friends and family.

The end of one year and the beginning of another inspires both reflection on times past and anticipation of the time ahead. The holiday season is a time of introspection and also largely a time of shared rituals. When a season’s traditional markers change, how we deal with that change is personal. For me, not visiting my family this year has meant getting a tree (even) earlier, baking up a storm on my own, appreciating the twinkling lights around my neighbourhood, and trying to accept feelings of both joy and sorrow. It has also meant reading comforting Christmas stories.

Charles Dickens wrote a short story entitled, “What Christmas is as We Grow Older”, originally published in 1851.* I had to read it twice through—for the message and the Old English—but was immediately stirred by the theme that times past still hold powerful meaning in our present and that it is seasonal rituals that underscore this connectivity of time. Dickens begins his story describing Christmases past, those enjoyed in youth, as “[…] bright visionary Christmases […]! That was the time for the beatified enjoyment of the things that were to be, and never were, and yet the things that were so real in our resolute hope that it would be hard to say, now, what realities achieved since, have been stronger!

As we grow older, we inevitably encounter and undergo many small and large changes in all aspects of our inner and outer lives. Change is how we grow but growth can be accompanied by pain. When we are in the thick of change, growth, pain, loss, or all of these together, the relationship of these difficult experiences to what we have loved or what we value doesn’t always seem to help in the moment. The knowledge that loss is born out of love can, however, eventually soften the sting of grief. Whether we are mourning dreams or projects imagined in childhood, paths not taken or not worked out, or loved ones deceased, those parts of our hearts can be welcomed during the season of remembrance. Of later Christmases, Dickens expresses that:

[…] the circle of our Christmas associations and of the lessons that they bring, expands! Let us welcome every one of them, and summon them to take their places by the Christmas hearth.

Welcome, old aspirations, glittering creatures of an ardent fancy, to your shelter underneath the holly! We know you, and have not outlived you yet. Welcome, old projects and old loves, however fleeting, to your nooks among the steadier lights that burn around us. Welcome, all that was ever real to our hearts; and for the earnestness that made you real, thanks to Heaven!  

I usually start a painting from an external scene. For example, I see a tree in the forest and want to communicate the impression of sunlight through the leaves that gives me a feeling of joy. Presently, I can feel a painting beginning in me that is inspired by the season of remembrance and, even more so this year, of loss. However, I am not really interested in dwelling in loss alone. Rather, what has helped a feeling of loss begin to transform into the inspiration for a creative work is Dickens’ invitation to “welcome”; to “welcome, all that was ever real to our hearts.” This phrase is moving; to me, reading it managed to rustle my experience of the emotion of loss out of its stiffening. This idea of “welcoming” emphasizes that our experiences of loss can hold our experiences of love, from which they were born.

My next painting—only real in my imagination at the moment—will be called, “At the Hearth”. I usually title paintings when they are completed, but I am looking forward to working backward this time. The title “At the Hearth” is inspired by the sentiment of Dickens’ story, to welcome our meaningful experiences past, “all that was ever real to our hearts,” into the present. This season, I will be remembering those special people in my life who are no longer with us, friendships and relationships past, family and friends dear yet far away, the young me who painted in her Opa’s garden, and the more global losses we’ve endured and continue to endure. Welcoming, experiencing, and moving through emotions is part of the painting process.

Painting to follow! (If it’s not only dreamed!)

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* Dickens’ short story can be found in The Complete Christmas Books and Stories, published by Moon Classics in 2020.