…or how I learned to love painting and squelch my inner twit in six surprising days.
by Julie Suzanne Pollock
I fall at once under the spell of Lynn Connell’s summer studio in the treed village of Dunedin. I first see it basking in the evening sun beside the Noisy River, when I arrive for a week-long creative ‘retreat’. Tucked in a valley not far from the relative metropolis of Creemore, Dunedin is peaceful. Crows call in the trees late in the afternoon. Kids laugh and a basketball bounces down the road.
Lynn’s place is the former general store. It’s hard to miss the large, board-and-batton building close to the road, painted black with deep-blue trim, next door to her matching bed and breakfast, called the River House. The studio entrance boasts a bright-yellow screened door, the kind that gives a good whack if you slam it shut. Over the next week, I will spend my waking hours here and become very familiar with that sound.
Inside, signs of Lynn‘s imaginative life are everywhere. In her large, energetic canvases striding over the walls. In the broken-tile mosaic dancing on the porch floor and bathroom counters. In the merry gardens and funky furnishings. And in the casual blend of home and studio that defines the Creativity Art Retreat.
This is Lynn’s dream place, where she has hosted nine seasons of workshops and where she cultivates her passion and gift for painting. A successful event planner for many years, Lynn has a genial way with people and tons of natural fervour. “Isn’t it great?” she asks, you her brown eyes bright. “Are you having fun?”
The course that I have come for is called “Intensive Acrylic”. The intensive works starts in the morning, it seems. Our first evening is for wine and introductions, followed by a dinner together. There are 20 of us gathered here, laden with our acrylics,palettes, paper and Sharpies, eager to absorb all that our instructor, Douglas Walton, has to offer.
WE deposit our art supplies on the studio tables and I take stock of the group.
Twenty per cent are men, a more generous quota of the other sex that I might have expected at something called a ‘creative retreat’. Seven of us are absolute neophytes. For this course, I’m told, that is a higher than usual ratio of stumbling beginners to skilled artists. A good ratio for me, because I’m one of the seven. I can blend in.
Several of the people that I meet are accomplished artists, including an affable professor of fine art from California, a post-political-career painter from Ottawa, and a pair of blue-eyed sisters who share a Guelph studio. I discover that some have taken the course before – even twice. And several, including Lynn, have travelled with Douglas Walton to the island of Bali for his annual, three-week course called ‘Journey Encounter.”
As we settle into chairs to hear from our Louisiana-based instructor, I reflect that I am a little nervous about my lack of experience. Years ago, I took a watercolour course that eluded me almost at once. The class raced from sketch to composition to glorious colour again and again, like horses jostling along an oft-toured fencerow. I couldn’t get it right and soon gave up.
Douglas takes a different approach. He held his first painting workshop in 1974 and, three decades later, remains admirably attuned to the fearful burned on the apprentice. He stands before the group, an extraordinary figure in rural Dunedin, wearing a painting s shirt of vivid Bali cloth and running his fingers frequently through his wavy, grey hair. His hands are heavy with rings of gold and silver.
“There are two things you have to do in art,” he grins. “Start. And then don’t quit”. Everyone, he insists, has genius held captive somewhere within. Probably bound up in a tight snarl of tension. To release that clever creature, we must expect and seek mastery in our art. “An eraser”, he says, “is an expression of doubt.”
There is a core of common sense in Douglas, perhaps reflecting his early years growing up at the heart of a small family in Oklahoma and Kansas. He was trained as an architect, a silent young man who took years to overcome a difficult speech disorder. A secretary at his architectural firm signed him up for his first watercolour course and he never looked back, immersing himself in the discipline of painting and becoming a renowned painter and teacher.
Now an extrovert and storyteller, he leans into tales of artistic derring-do: sketching expeditions in the tropical rains at his second home, Bali; a rustic Mexican lunch, prepared and shared en plein air by a village woman and her children; a brazen pursuit of American television cameras at the foot of the Great Wall of China; and more of the like.
He fuses tales from his teachings and travels with what for me is still a murky description of the work we will do in the week ahead. Somewhat lost, I become preoccupied with the sounds and scents floating out of the kitchen. There is a young woman in there making art of her own. Soon, we all sit down with Lynn and Douglas to share a lovely curry with fresh salads and breads. The week has begun.
“Right is wrong; wrong is right”
I absolutely revel in the accoutrements of painting. The well-groomed brushes, rows of multi-hued crayons and glowing blobs of paint of the glistening palette” these are my new tools of the trade. If it wouldn’t be too distracting for the other students, I would break into song.
I should confess at once: I have come with creative baggage in tow. I’ve put my heart into the notion that this course will help me recapture the joyfulness of art-making that I seem to have lost. By learning to paint, I hope to find my way back to poetry – my old and finest friend. To be honest, I’m not sure where I lost poetry along the way. But I suspect that I ran it over at some point on Highway 400 in the daily spree back and forth to my city job.
It is the afternoon of the first full day and we are set up in twos at tables throughout the studio. My table partner is Valorie Preston. Already, I have figured out that Valorie is the real McCoy, a talented and disciplined artist with her own vision.
Even with 20 of us, there is plenty of room. One side of the renovated building is the studio, made up of two large, well lit rooms painted white. In the back room, a mirror is suspended at an angle above Douglas’ table so we can see what he is drawing. There are several sets of doors that let in light and air. At the back, a cedar deck overlooks a small lawn with tables for outdoor dining. At the edge of the river sits a cluster of Muskoka chairs.
The other side of the building flows naturally into Lynn’s summer home, which retains the flavour it its nineteenth-century genesis. This side of the house if dimly lit, cosy and brimming with big chairs, antiques and family photographs that pay special attention to Lynn’s grown-up kids. There is a kitchen, pantry and bath downstairs, plus a spacious dining area and one bedroom. Upstairs are more bedrooms and a bath.
We begin the day with drawing exercises, creating several large compositions from found objects that were assigned to us. After lunch, we paint ‘spirit cards,’ bright, unruly latex paintings done over a systematic grid. We then cut our paintings into small cards. Each card should be interesting” if not, the overall painting did not have enough variety and unexpectedness in it. Having completed all of this, I trace in crayon one of my morning’s compositions onto a large sheet of watercolour paper. Twice. With that finished, I begin to work on a series of floral compositions inspired by the garden or one of Lynn’s arrangements. Ad there is more after dinner. Intensive indeed!
Valorie is drawing with practiced composure. At the next table, Deen Tegue and Ea Timms are involved in divergent explorations of colour that are remarkable like each woman’s personality. Further along, Willie Cavan and Aggie McCormack collaborate with sisterly ease, both of them generous with tips and praise. The Mantler family – father, mother and daughter painting together – discourse affectionately and with humour. Werner, the father, has not painted before and seems startled by is own sophisticated sense of colour. Tonja shares a delicate sensibility with her adult daughter, Michelle. They are bold, bright women who choose unexpectedly soft pinks and greys.
In this workshop, there are no “wrong” paintings. What might be errors in another forum are prospects for adventure here. “Right is wrong,” Douglas cries. “Wrong is right.” Douglas is fond of aphorisms.
Twice daily, we pry ourselves away from our work and share what we’ve done with the group for ‘critique’. Douglas moves from piece to piece with facility, taking seconds to zero in on problems and triumphs. As the week goes on, I will marvel at the way he unfailingly recalls the lst version of each painting and is able to evaluate subsequent changes. This is his great teaching gift: incisive analysis that prods you to do better but leaves your dignity intact. “I think of every class as an advanced class, “ he likes to say, even as he adjusts his teaching to each student’s level.
No one snorts with laughter at my work, which is a wonder to me. When the class sees my colourama of grapes, I sense pleasure. In response to a colossal, pumpkin-coloured flower through, there is an air of polite puzzlement. Somehow, my internal grade-schooler emerges, an irritating little twit who wants to ‘get it right’ Who wants to be ‘good at it’. I narrow my eyes and decide that I will break out in colour and not worry about the twit.
Douglas likes to ask rhetorical questions: “Is the painting wonderful?” Or he muses: “is there enough arbitrariness? Is there any littleness?”. In Douglas-speak, the painting needs more intricacy in the “where”, as he refers to anything that is not the focal point, which he calls the “what”. “Is the what bigger than the where?” he asks, “Get rid of fussification,” he declaims. And quickly, you get what he means. This quirky approach seems odd at first, but is a pleasant relief from the loaded language that sometimes swarms fine art.
Douglas gives thin instruction, dispensing the steps of each exercise one by one. It’s impossible to plan. He forces y ou to remain in the present where spontaneity and originality live. Somewhere between fun and frustration, you take up the challenge to just let the paintings happen – with boldness and faith.
“We are shapemakers, symbol collectors and entertainers”.
Days are passing and themes are emerging. Douglas displays a colourful Bali shirt each morning. Recurring problems with the upper-left corner of many of our paintings lead to giggles at critique time. Spinach salad is a daily grace note – at lunch and dinner. And the Australian Shiraz from Yellow Tail becomes our vino veritas, shared around the ever-bountiful table in the evening. As the course progresses, our exercises become increasingly complex. We continually start new projects while scraping up scraps of time to complete the old ones. Long hours fly past in a blur of shades, emerging shapes and intersecting lines. I embrace this accelerated learning.
With the others, I strike out on a path, veer on a mad tangent, despair, seek advice and rescue myself. At one point, I feel exactly like when I’ve written myself into a corner: wary and peevish.
“Every time I touch this painting,” I complain to Douglas, “I ruin it.”
“Well,” he chuckles. “How are you going to develop the expertise not to ruin your paintings if you don’t ruin this one?”
Douglas is a friendly, egalitarian American of a certain sort, blithely sure that everybody will triumph. If they just rally a can-do attitude and an open heart. And put in a good ten years of hard labour. Point taken.
I take a little time to see how the others are doing. It’s hard to believe that Blake Jones has never painted before s he puts the final touches on a flower so shapely it nearly makes you blush. There must be something in the air in this corner of the studio, I figure, because at the next table Irmtaud Kogler is crafting a lurid painting of knock-me-down –and-take-me boots, so expressive that it approaches a “comix” flair.
Marion Burnett, a Creemore-area weekender, is the most prolific of us all, working on seven intense images, including a cruel and decorous semi-clad lady. There is much tittering between Susan Lyon and Maryanne Nucci, friends who traveled together from California. Stymied, they have decided to combine to utile efforts into a joint collage. Presto! Candlesticks become women.
Nancy Neilson is patiently decorating the flowing tail-feathers of a mythic bird. She is taking the course for the second time with her mother, Merilyn, who has been cheerfully reworking a composition all afternoon. Presenting her effort to Douglas, she is directe4d back to her original drawing. Humph.
I think it is a good idea we have an hour of yoga in the afternoon, to loosen up and clear the mind. After another delicious dinner, the evening slips away and I find that the painting I despised at three in the afternoon I am getting to like by nine o’clock in the evening. The tiny thyme-flower that caught my eye in the garden is long, long gone. I can’t imagine how it ended up this way. Possibly, mounting errors have resulted, by sheer weight of paint, in an air of substance. Whatever it is, hours of mostly blind effort have produced a vibrant, psychedelic thing dancing all star-showered in space. No one could call it understated.
“The end is simply the beginning”.
AT last, the paintings have piled up around us and we are nearing the end. The studio comes alive with chatter as we gather for the final critique on the afternoon of the final day. Some people have invited friends and family to join the group for the communal celebration.
One by one, Douglas displays all of the paintings from each person at the front of the room. This is the first time that we have seen each person’s paintings grouped together. Most of us have completed for or five large paintings.
Claudia Meier’s paintings stand out with incredible colours and textures, each one as emotive as a song. Anne Stephen, who has a farm down the road from the village, has invited her eighty-something parents. “Look Mom, those are mine,” she calls out with a smile. Everyone laughs happily to hear this elegant woman share such uncomplicated pride in her first paintings, which are dramatic and colourful.
My tablemate Valorie’s paintings are feminine, distinctive and varied. You can tell by the look about her that she has more in mind. The progressive improvement that emerges form the first painting to the last completed by Denis Deneau is truly impressive. And another first-time painter, David Chapman, has brought his engineering precision to bear with amazing effect on such surprising subjects as a spiky thistle flower.
As I laugh and clap along with everyone else, I suddenly notice that my inner twit has fled the coop. I should be anxious and dissatisfied ignoring everyone else’s moment in the sun while I wait for mine. But I find that I don’t much care whether I got it right or not. It is enough to be here, and to have created six big paintings in six long days.
This new inner peace, however, does not preclude my noticing that a couple of people breathe their appreciation when my paintings are hung at the front of the room. You know what they say about old twits and new tricks.
On the way home, the road winds through familiar hills and I drive along feeling as though I’m seeing with new, painterly eyes. I soak up the golden light washing the trunks of maples along a farm fence, cattle strolling the sun-raked fields and forest enclaves, etched in black and green.
Later at home, still infused by the energy of the week, I wander the quiet house taking down art from the walls. I hang my own paintings instead and stand back to admire the vivid colours against the rough, rustic brown logs. Maybe they’re not poetry – perhaps never will be – but they feel remarkable like it.
Julie Pollock is a freelance writer who lives near Loretto.
For more information about the Douglas Walton workshops at the Creativity Art Retreat in Dunedin, near Creemore, please go to creativityartretreat.com.
THE “SPRAYTEX” METHOD
This is my rendering of a lively painting exercise that we did during the Douglas Walton course. Along the way, you practice some techniques, refine your sense of composition and loosen up with colour. For best results, clear your mind and relax. This one is fun.
THE INGREDIENTS THE TOOLS
-White latex paint 1 Sharpie (thin) – no erasers allowed!
-4 to 5 colours of 1 paint ‘oiler’, a small bottle with a thin needle
standard latex paint screwed to the top (these are hard to find but a
(a few ounces of each) cake decorator could suffice)
-2 sheets of inexpensive 1 flat foam brush (1 inch)
paper (22.5 x 30 inches) 1 backboard
-1 sheet of good watercolour 1 large light box (or a window) for tracing
paper (same size) 1 spry bottle filled with water
1 sponge and a container of water
Choose as your subject an interesting shape or object with plenty of variation in the level of detail. I chose a miniature Greek column. Others chose leaves, faces, feathers and the like, but really, it is up to you. Use the Sharpie to draw our subject on one sheet of the inexpensive paper. It should fill, even exceed, the borders of the paper. Next, choose a detail, a particular shape, from within your composition. Draw the shape repeatedly to fill the second sheet of inexpensive paper. You can either use a grid pattern or simply repeat the image at random.
Place the watercolour paper over your first composition on the light box. Using the oiler or cake decorator, filed with white latex, trace the first composition onto the watercolour paper. Practice on scrap paper first until you can control the flow to create a fluid, embossed look. Trace the second composition right over the first. Fill in the repeating shapes with white latex. Let it dry.
Using a sponge, wet the watercolour paper on both sides. Let it stand a few minutes to soften the fibres. It should adhere to the backboard and be slightly glistening. Roll away excess water with paper towels.
Now add splashes and swathes of colour to your composition, randomly and transparently, using the foam brush and latex paints. Hold the brush horizontally and don’t tab at the paper. Don’t agonize, just trust your instincts. Leave about 20 percent white space, especially around the feature area.
Don’t forget the edges!
While the paint is still wet, head outside or set up in the garage or barn. Hold the painting upright on its backboard and, from about eight inches away, spray the painting with watered. The paint will run and you will quickly learn how to control the flow to create exciting effects. If possible, leave to dry in the sun so it will soften and fade a little bit.
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