VAM Oil Painting Demo – January 2014

My first class of each semester is always a demo.  It usually takes about 2 1/2 hours. It gives the  newcomers a chance to see my painting process start-to-finish, and it gives the returners a chance to kick back, relax and catch up on the gossip.

As it happened, I had arranged on Friday to meet some friends at the Rex on Queen St.  to hear some jazz. (The Jive Bombers! – a real blast from the past…but I digress). I got up there an hour early with my camera and had a bit of a photo shoot. Snow still on the sidewalks but the streets were wet. Got some promising shots. Used one for my demo. (My thanks by the way to Karen for letting me use her in-progress photos during the demo).


Decided to go with a plywood panel this time instead of stretched canvas. Painting on a hard surface has a distinctly different feel.  I can’t say I have a lasting preference, but it is good to change it up every so often. Helps keep things fresh.

Doing an acrylic underpainting as usual. Wanted to keep it a bit looser than normal.  Less “solid” and more atmospheric.  So I eschewed my normal drawing phase and went straight to paint.

A painter may make hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions in the course of executing a piece.  Many, perhaps most, of these decisions will be made in the subconscious. The thing about doing a demo is you have to explicitly articulate your thinking process. Sometimes I find, this can be an enlightening process for me just as much as for my audience.

Some examples of the question-and-answer process that came up Monday evening –

The source photo is landscape format, but you are setting up your support for portrait format. Why?

– The photo focuses on the figures. These are interesting, but I think they would be excessively dominant in a 24″ x 30″ panel .  I am going to set the figures higher up in the composition and  use the lower area to extrapolate out the various lights reflected  in the asphalt. This will also give me some scope to brighten up an otherwise very dark picture.


Do you have a focal point in mind?

The human figure is always going to draw interest. So the dark silhouetted figures and the “halo” effect of the lights behind them is going to make for a natural focal point. If I move them up to the upper right quadrant, that feels like a satisfying landing spot for a focal area.

Do you have a colour plan?

(I always tell my students to have something in mind when it comes to colour – a two-colour duet, a hot focal point against a complementary cool ground, warm underpainting under cool finish- whatever. The point is to have A plan rather than drifting aimlessly colour-wise).

Neutral greens of some sort seem like a ‘safe’ bet against the hot reds and yellows created by the reflected headlights and traffic lights. But I will move it around – cooler blue-greys on the left side, hints of purple on the lower right. Then of course we have the irresistable electric blues glowing behind the central group of figures. The generally warm background colours should  help make this blue pop.

The underpainting came together pretty  quickly. The only ‘rework’ really needed was with respect to the backdrop of buildings, which, despite my efforts to keep things nice and fluid, were beginning to assume greater solidity than I wanted. So some over-painting was called for to “smush” these a bit. (excuse the technical jargon here)

Acrylics are very sensitive to room environment. Monday evening, the room was quite humid – which can be an issue when you want paint to dry quickly – but in this case, it also presented an opportunity to take some tissue an “lift” a bit of paint here and there to demarcate some windows, lights etc.


Speaking of windows – The background buildings had rows of lit windows. To depict all these would have made for a far too geometrical a composition. So instead, I selected a few of them (where I thought they might aid the composition) added some others in a half-light, and dimly suggested a few others. The desired effect was to create an impression of large buildings but in a way that left sufficient “air” for the piece to breathe.

OK now time for oils. Time to LIGHTEN UP!.

Occassionally, people get so enveloped in their dark underpainting that they never come out of the gloom. In this piece, it is quite clear as to where the lightest lights are, so I go straight at them with lots of impasto warm whites. At this point the painting starts to look “extreme”. All stark lights and darks and no midtones. It also starts to look at bit “precious” – that is, a little too controlled for what I had in mind.

One of the advantages of working on different surfaces from time to time is each tends to suggest different solutions to issues. At the moment for instance, I am experimenting with a brayer (ink roller) on the panels – probably not something that would ever have occurred to me while painting on a stretched canvas. A few random rolls of the brayer on a solid surface can mix things up pretty good in a hurry.

Not experimenting during demos is also a personal rule that I think I break in almost all demos – and Monday was no exception. The result though,  was not bad. I ended up having to do some “repair” work in a few areas (a couple of the figures and the sidewalk in the lower part of the painting for instance ) but overall, it loosened things up nicely.

Wrapping it up

The icy blue highlights are pthalo blue and white. The warm background colours really did help to make them “pop”. I added the merest hint of features on the figures. I want to retain the sense of silhouette against the background light, but not so much that they appear to be cardboard cut-outs.



People are often mesmerized by street scenes.  Deluges of shapes,  colours and detail  make it difficult so synthesize an ‘essence’ for painting purposes.  For me,  I often hang my compositions on ‘anchors’. These ‘anchors’ may not be very significant in terms of subject matter,  but I can frame a lot of the painting around them. For example, two greenish-brown rectangles floating in mid air may not seem like much of an anchor. But in the lighting in this piece, that particular colour says “yellow”. And positioned where they are in the painting, they will be “read” by a viewer as traffic lights (the backs of them, to be precise). In the real world, we see these objects so often, we don’t see them anymore.  And so it is in a painting. Subliminally however, they give the eye perspective.  They give you your angle to the road. They tell you how far you are from the intersection, and so on. But ask afterwards, and your viewer will likely not even have been aware of their existence.

These are the parlour games are eyes love to play. It is a primal thing. We revel in our ability to infer a great deal  from the merest smudge. Images that spell out every detail are like a parent or teacher pedantically prescribing every move and thought to the child or student. This is not what a viewer typically wants. Visually, a more lasting satisfaction can be found by leaving  room for the eye to explore and imagine.



Kayaking in the Exumas- December 2013

Denise and I enjoy kayaking Georgian Bay in the summer months. Over the years, we have also done a few guided trips overseas including Greenland, Baja California, Costa Rica and Belize. This time we were looking for a winter break. The original plan was to sign up with Out-Island Explorers for a guided trip in the Exumas – an island group in the Bahamas – but we were unable to get schedules aligned. Out-Island Explorers (OIE) is run by Dallas and Tamara Knowles. As we talked to Tamara on the phone, we settled on the idea of just renting kayaks and gear from OIE and going self-guided. Tamara advised us that the waters would be paddling were generally benign and routes could be modified if conditions required. Tamara also agreed to help with a meal plan and did some shopping for us locally.

01 - bahamas_islands_map

We were four adults – My wife and I, who are regular kayakers, our daughter Aisling, who had previous kayaking experience, and her boyfriend Adam, who was completely new to paddling. The Exumas is a close-knit chains of islands. The lee side of the islands offers lots of sheltered water for paddling. You have to pay attention passing through the gaps between the islands (called ‘cuts’). Here, depending on the tides and the width of the cut, one can encounter strong currents and contrary waters. Generally however, you can stay out of trouble simply by giving the cuts a wide berth. At no point on our journey would we have to cross more than about two miles of open water. We had some headwinds at times that made for a good workout, but for the most part nothing complicated or extreme.

We left Pearson airport Sunday morning, Dec 22nd –and just in time as it turned out. An ice-storm was settling in in the area and we managed to escape just ahead of the worst of it. It was a direct flight to George Town, Great Exuma. We spent our first night at Hideaways, Palm Bay. Dallas picked us up next morning and took us to their place where we sorted out our gear, loaded up the kayaks and jumped into the truck for a short trip to the northern tip of the island of Great Exuma. Our put-in was at Odi’s Creek near the community of Barraterre.

What with a mess of snorkeling gear, camp table and chairs, we set off down Odi’s Creek with more gear loaded on deck than I would normally have tolerated. But we were paddling big stable boats (Necky Looksha Vs). The first mile or so was a quiet channel in the mangroves. This gave us time to get used to the boats – and for Adam in particular to figure out some basic maneuvers, including practicing his technique for reversing out of mangroves.

02- Exumas Route

The only real navigational challenge we encountered on the entire trip was as we came into open water from Odi’s Creek. After some second and third guessing, we ended up making the cross to Cluff’s Cay further north and much closer to Pudding Cut than we should have. With the strong cross-current and a brisk wind blowing, this made for a more nerve-wracking crossing than I had bargained for, especially considering Adam’s total kayaking experience to date was to be measured in minutes rather than hours. Adding to the anxiety was the fact that, from this angle, the chain of islands that mapped out our intended course for the rest of the day were all hidden from view behind Cluff’s Cay. So, as we headed past the Southern headland of the cay, it felt like we were headed out into the open sea.

Once we rounded the headland however, the Brigantines came into view and all was good in the world. We landed, had a snack and got ready for the rest of the journey to our first campsite. We got to Brigantine before nightfall (just). Too tired to start fussing with unfamiliar cooking kit, we settled for cold cuts and pita pockets, generous rum rations and some stargazing before retiring for the night.

Just like many parts of Georgian Bay, the shallow waters around the Brigantines render them out-of-bounds for most boaters- which of course also make them a kayaker’s paradise. It was a full three days before we saw a sign of another living soul (unless you count airplanes).

20 - Blues

Even after that, other boat traffic was sparse until we came within sight of Barraterre on the last day. The Brigantines are particularly beautiful and on hindsight, I would have spent more time there. Actually, as a general comment, although I love to paddle, if doing this again, I would be less ambitious in terms of itinerary in favour of allowing more time for snorkeling and generally enjoying some of the locations we stayed at.


As it was however, we broke camp next morning and headed out on the next leg of our journey –  another fairly long day’s paddle, along the south side of a string of cays and through a particularly beautiful stretch between New and Gold Ring Cays. 04-paddle toss

We dallied a while there taking photos before making for the crossing to Cook’s Cay. We had a quick snack break there and then set out for the long cross to Norman’s Pond Cay. Norman’s Pond was our home for a couple of days. Christmas day, we paddled up to a channel that leads into the pond that occupies the centre of the island. The channel is a wonderful narrow passage among the mangroves. We disturbed a pair of ospreys. I thought at first they were fish eagles of some sort as they seemed much bigger than their Ontario brethren. The pond was once used to harvest salt and under the water, you can still see the grid of shallow walls that were built for this purpose.

Back at camp, we saw some sting ray and reef sharks. At the same time though, that we were discovering local wildlife, it was discovering us. No-see-ums to be specific. I thought there would have been sufficient breeze to keep them at bay, but no. They seemed indifferent to deet and skin-so-soft. Long sleeves/pants and socks seemed to offer the only protection, but in those temperatures, we were in and out of the water all the time. They got you in the end, one way or another.

Dallas told us there was some good snorkeling off the Southern tip of the island but on the day, the water seemed too rough, so we decided to strike out for the third leg of our adventure – Rat Cay.

This was another fairly long paddle along a stretch that seemed to have more private properties than we had seen so far. Rat Cay eventually came into view. The waves seemed to be hitting the beach pretty hard, so rather than risking a surf landing we slipped in at the far-left end of the beach, where it was more sheltered and then lined the boats back to where we wanted to camp.

19- Kayak parking lot

The first thing we noticed as we walked the beach was hoof prints. Swimming pigs near Staniel Cay are a favourite tourist draw. There are also some at Black Cay. (The latter was on our original itinerary but was scratched in favour of spending some time snorkeling at Square Rock). Now it seems, someone is trying to establish a porcine colony at Rat Cay. We found a pen made of shipping crates back in the bush, but no sight of the pigs themselves.

Next morning we packed for a day trip and set off to Square Rock for some snorkeling.

23 - Square Rock

Square Rock is just that, a big square hunk of rock a few hundred meters off shore. Its sheer walls provide an ideal habitat for all kinds of exotic fish. We also came across a sunken sailboat just offshore which added a nice bit of interest. Then, a paddle back to Rat Cay for our last night on the cays.

25-Rat Cay Sunset

Our stove had been acting up on the trip. Now we made the mistake of leaving the propane hooked up when we left camp that morning. When we got back that evening, we found the last of our fuel had leaked during the day.  Tuna wraps for dinner again – which was fine – but the coffee-holics really bemoaned the loss of their precious brew the next morning.

We had a long pull against the wind for our final stretch from Rat Cay to Barraterre.  At noon, we were pulling up to the dock where Tamara was waiting for us with the truck. We loaded up the boats and headed back to Hideaways for our last night. There was a Junkanoo parade in George Town that night, but after six days of solitude on the cays, it seemed more than the group was prepared for so we decided instead to walk from the hotel down to the fish shacks down the road for dinner and finish up with a nightcap at the hotel bar.

Next morning, we sat with a handful of other Canadians outside a café waiting for our plane to come in. A duo on guitar and keyboard played old Harry Belafonte tunes. It was an airport, but it was as far from Pearson as you could imagine. But cell phones were being pulled from the deepest recesses of our baggage. Texts were being read. Reality was setting in. Toronto had endured one of the worst ice storms in its history. Thousands were without power. What would be waiting for us when we got home?

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