Sometimes less is better

We live in a society where “more” is constantly encouraged. More money, more things, more food, more drink, more travel, more experiences, more friends. We also live in a time where the need to buy less, travel less and do less is becoming more and more evident. This constant need for “more” is bringing us down on an environmental, economical and spiritual level The new year is a perfect time to think of how we can incorporate more of “less” into our lives. I often tell students that it takes more courage to do an art work that has less in it. People sometimes scoff at minimalist work because they think it looks easy. It isn’t. Mark Twain once apologized to a friend for writing a long letter, saying that he “didn’t have time to write a short one”. When I’m involved in the editing process of writing, my first goal is to take out all the unnecessary items. It is surprising how we can fill our writing and our work with a lot of extraneous material that would not be missed if deleted or left out.

Paul Cézanne: Almond Trees in Provence 1990

I’ve always admired Cezanne’s watercolours, sometimes more so than his canonical oil paintings. In the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century watercolours were mostly categorized as “drawings” as they were considered to be studies for larger paintings. Cezanne considered his watercolours to be finished works. I am amazed at his ability to leave so much out. Anyone who has used watercolour knows that this light touch is hard to achieve. The empty space in Almond Trees in Provence (above) makes us pay more attention to the small amount of detail that is there. Leaving so much of the paper’s surface as an integral part of the composition, is an act of courage.

Paul Cézanne In the Woods, 1900

The painting of the forest above is an example of how the repetition of abstracted shapes and lines gives the effect of a complex forest. The simplicity of this work, allows the viewer to trace each of the singular brushmarks made by Cezanne throughout the construction of this painting. There is a beautiful purity in the use of transparent watercolour; every shape and mark made can be seen. Nothing is hidden by layers of overpainting as is often the case with oil painting. The work is deceptively simple. As with most of his watercolours, the above painting reveals a complex transition and layering of space leaving the colour of the paper to exist as foreground, middle ground and background.

Paul Cézanne, Rocks near the Caves above Château Noir, 1895-1900

Cezanne’s painting of rocks done at the end of the 19th century, is as fresh as if it was done today. The drawing appears to be a merging of a scientific study with a rough sketch. For Cezanne this is as close to an exact representation of how he sees as he can get. The more you look at it, the more you see Cezanne’s attention to detail: when drawing, he is totally focused on paying attention to how he sees as much as what he sees. This work is both representational and abstract and is indicative of Cezanne’s unique way of seeing forms in nature. Again, what is not drawn or painted is as powerful as the rest of the forms.

Paul Cézanne Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit, 1906.

Cezanne’s Still Life with Carafe, Bottle and Fruit is another example of how the untouched paper can play a variety of roles in the composition: it is the foreground and the background and it is also the space in and around the objects. The “empty” paper creates a sense of three-dimensional space while paradoxically flattening the picture plane by framing the composition. This is representation verging on abstraction. The tentative lines become a simple way to capture the changing light moving over an object. These seemingly hesitant lines are anything but. These lines are confident and deliberate. Cezanne knew it was impossible to paint nature from one point of view because that is not how our vision works. The short, quick, nervous line-work captures the fluctuating way our eyes and brain perceive objects before us.

Paul Cézanne Bathers circa 1890

I always smile when people say that they can’t take an art course because they can only draw “stick figures”. If they can do that, then they are already on the the way to understanding how little you need to represent a figure. According to Wikipedia, “[t]he stick figure is a universally recognizable symbol, in all likelihood one of the most well known in the world. It transcends language, location, demographics, and can trace back its roots for almost 30,000 years”. Cezanne’s dynamic human forms, while being a far cry from “stick figures”, are also created with a series of lines. The repetition of short lines throughout enhances the overall sense of movement and activity. The painted negative shapes help transform the linear elements into three-dimensional form.

An exhibition of Cezanne’s painting is on at the Tate Modern until March 2023. I did contemplate travelling to London to see this, but in the spirit of doing less, I decided against it. Instead I will spend more time looking at reproductions of Cezanne’s drawings and attempt to understand how is it possible to make a drawing that contains so little.

A video showing some close-up views of Cezanne’s drawings and watercolours can be viewed here: Cezanne’s Drawings at MoMA. A panel of artists (including Julie Mehretu) discussing the Cezanne exhibition at MoMA is an excellent way to learn more about how his drawings are as alive today as they were over 100 years ago: Virtual Views: Cezanne’s Drawings.

A lot of us find ourselves with a need to cut back on spending as the year 2023 is bringing with it more economic uncertainty. Studying art through books and reproductions and making art can provide some of the excitement travel offers, but without the expense. I’m not saying that reproductions can replace travel since nothing compares with seeing original works of art and the excitement of being in a new place. However art making provides a stimulation to the mind and soul, as well as an opportunity for self discovery and reflection. These are also amongst the many things people seek through travel.

While taking an art course might seem expensive at the outset, courses at VISA work out to $13.75/hour. A well-loved former VISA instructor, Xane St Phillip, always told students that art courses, even after factoring in the cost of supplies, are a much more economical option than psychological counselling at $200/hour. An art course or workshop will open your mind up to new ways of seeing the world and will also reveal to you what you can do when your hands, eyes and mind work together to create something that never existed before. If you are one of those that hesitate to take an art course because you can only draw stick figures, I’m here to tell you they are just a combination of lines. If you can make lines, you can draw.

An excellent example of stick figures from pre-historic times

Wendy Welch
Executive Director, VISA

Why we need art

It’s not breaking news to say we are living in difficult times. There is a lot to process: an uncertain economy, the devastating effects of climate change, divisive politics, war in Ukraine, executions in Iran, a housing shortage, homelessness, drug addiction, the lingering pandemic, to name a few. Many would think that in times like these art is irrelevant and unnecessary. Food and shelter are the basic needs of all humans and a healthy environment is essential for the longevity of the planet.

But as humans we need more. Our love of art is what makes us unique as a species. Art of some form has always helped us through dark times.

Caspar David Friedrich

Art opens our minds to the world of the imagination. Art offers us a space to reflect and consider what it means to be human and how we have the ability to go beyond the everyday reality through the use of our imagination. This iconic painting by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich draws attention to our desire to contemplate the great unknown. Many contemporary painters have been inspired by Freidrich and his use of nature to represent man’s ability to reflect beyond the confines of his own ego. The figure in this painting is looking out into nature and contemplating the immensity of the world beyond himself. As a young person this painting gave me great solace in that it allowed me to realize that being alone is a natural state and one can be alone without feeling lonely. Often in these states of solitude or disconnectedness, our imagination is our greatest solace.

April Gornik

April Gornik is a contemporary artist whose practice is inspired by Friedrich in that her work goes beyond revealing the beauty of nature and into expressing the immensity of the world outside of ourselves. Gornik’s paintings are often based on several images that she integrates together to create a dramatic and often other worldly viewpoint. On first glance her monumental landscapes appear to be a reflection of nature as it is, but with deeper reflection on the work, things aren’t as straightforward as they appear. The viewer’s position is uncertain. Are we in the clouds? On a mountain peak? Art makes us shift our perspective so we learn that things might not be as they appear at first glance. We learn to combine our visual perceptions with our imaginative speculations to create a fascinating interpretation of reality.

Shara Hughes

Shara Hughes’ landscapes are vaguely based on memory, but come almost entirely from her own imagination. Her works show a freedom not to be confined by the tyranny of reality. While she follows the convention of Renaissance perspective in her work, everything in her work is made- up. She uses the colours to create an other-worldly effect so while we can recognize forms such as tree trunks and branches, little else reminds us of the world as we know it. These are the landscapes of fairy tales, dreams and a vivid imaginary world.

Peter Doig

Peter Doig’s landscapes are also familiar and unfamiliar. Another thing that art does is it makes us see the world differently. Often when I am walking out at night and there is a clear indigo sky against a backdrop of trees, I am reminded of a Peter Doig landscape. While Doig’s source material is often based on film stills and photographs, he adds his own sense of the magical to the images he produces. His work draws attention to the everyday sense of magic we might see when we look at nature.

We need art more than ever in today’s world. I understand there are many urgent needs that are more important than art. During difficult times the arts sector is the first to experience dramatic budget cuts. People ask “how can we support the arts when people need to food to eat and a place to live?”

This is not an either or situation. I would like to suggest that humans have a innate ability to hold more than one thought at the same time. As a community we can support those that require their basic needs met and we can also support the arts. As a community we need to support both the body and the soul of people who live here.

Wendy Welch
Executive Director

Is change bad or good?

Some of us love change. Others hate it. Change is neither good nor bad. We have no choice but to learn to live with it. No matter the changes each of us go through in life, there is an essential part of us that remains the same. Part of our personality and memory change, based on life experiences and the people we know, but our DNA is constant. I find it fascinating to think about the part of ourselves that stays with us no matter what goes on in the external world.

I’ve always been interested in artists who change the genre or style of their work, but maintain their personal artistic sensibility through the transition. Two of my favourite artists provide excellent examples: Sarah Sze and Judy Pfaff. These artists use installation art as their main form of art practice, and both studied painting at the post-secondary level.

Recently their work has made a shift to becoming “wallworks” based on painting and collage.

Sarah Sze

Recently Sarah Sze has been making large-scale complex layered collage paintings, often referred to as “wall works”. These sometimes include torn up photographs of her previous works. Despite being two-dimensional in form, they capture the intricate details seen in her installations as well as the variations of scale. Sze made the transition to these wallworks during Covid. This is an example of change because of a necessity (the inability to build installations in gallery spaces). But these works also demonstrate how enforced changes can bring us to a direction we never imagined possible. To learn more about Sze’s process and her recent shift in approach: Virtual Studio Visit Sarah Sze.

Sarah Sze

Judy Pfaff

Judy Pfaff

Another artist who made a shift from installation to wallworks is Judy Pfaff who precedes Sze by a few decades. Seeing Pfaff’s work in Los Angeles in 1989, was the first time I ever experienced “installation art”. I was amazed by the boldness and exuberance of her work. I remember thinking that I had no idea such a thing was possible in art. Like Sze, Pfaff was trained as a painter so her installations, especially the early ones as seen as above, reference the language of painting in that the wall becomes a stand-in for the rectangle of the painting format. More recently, Pfaff has been making small-scale assemblages (three-dimensional collages) that are framed and contained behind glass. These small works seem to carry a similar intensity to her large scale collages.

Many times an artist friend invites me to look at the “completely new” series they have been working on, only for me to discover that it is not as different as they imagine. Sometimes an artist thinks they have taken a drastic turn in their approach, but it often still carries the same sensibility and ends up being more of a shift in style than a completely new way of working. When I survey the expanse of work I have done over the years, I love tracing the threads of continuity that exist despite the changes of style, format and materials.

As all of us are experiencing so much change these days, whether it be related to the climate, the economy, politics, pandemics or personal situations. It is important to hold on to the things that make you who you are. Always try and remember the things that give you pleasure and joy. Often they are the same things that gave you this sensation when you were a child. This is what will get us through living in a world that is in state of precarious flux.

Keith Haring said “To be a victim of change is to ignore its existence.” To read more about Keith Haring’s and other views on change and creativity, I highly recommend reading this post on The Marginalia.

Wendy Welch

Architecture as Muse

Often the best ideas come from what surrounds you and that is why many artists use architecture as a source for inspiration. Architecture is something we experience every day whether or not we are aware of it. It might be the building we live in, or the structures where we work, or places we visit when we travel. Architecture is everywhere

June Higgins, a VISA alumni who after finishing her Diploma of Fine Art, went to the UK to complete a BFA. For the last few years her work has centred around using projected fragments of architectural ornamentation to develop a multi-layered composition. The specific sources dissolve into a myriad of lines and patterns to create an allusive image that looks both recognizable and unfamiliar. The result is a beautifully complex surface.


Julie Mehretu, a New York artist of Ethiopian descent, uses tracings of architectural blueprints along with layers of maps and abstract mark making in her large scale paintings. The role of architectural sources in Mehretu’s work takes on layered meanings as she often uses the structures of buildings such as stadiums as a base for her compositions. The coliseum is seen as a perfect metaphoric constructed space because its purpose is to situate large numbers of people, while also containing undercurrents of complete chaos, violence, and disorder. As Mehretu said in 2006: “I think architecture reflects the machinations of politics, and that’s why I’m interested in it as a metaphor for those institutions. I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space. It’s about space, but about spaces of power, about the ideas of power.”


Kevin Appel has used references to architecture in his work from the start of his practice. In the early 2000s he began to make drawings and paintings that dealt with the inside and outside of architecture as well as the idea of construction from timber. Appel’s relationship to architecture is discussed in detail in an essay called Painting as Architecture: Architecture as Painting. The source for the paintings are collaged drawings, however the paintings are acrylic on canvas (no collage). Using collage for the initial sources creates an ambiguity and uncertainty in the painted surface.


Richard Wright’s approach to architecture differs in that he makes “wall paintings” that are between painting and installation art. These paintings are often subtle to the point of becoming part of the architecture structures themselves such as the stairwell project in the Scotland National Gallery of Modern Art. They are often awkwardly placed in discreet locations and they combine graphic imagery and intricate patterning from sources as varied as medieval painting, graphics and typography.

Wright won 2009 Turner Prize for a wall painting done in gold leaf (see image).

When the jurors were asked why they chose Wright’s piece, they kept referring to the word “beauty” and also the work’s relationship to the space itself.

The next time you enter your home or place of work, look around and take time to think about how it might inspire something in your imagination. Perhaps your rumination about these personal architectural spaces could one day be a source for subject matter in your own work.

Wendy Welch
Executive Director

Truth in painting

Jeremy Herndl, Castle and Tree (2022), 
oil on linen, 48 x 36″ 

One of the secrets to making a good painting is to refrain from filling it with extraneous marks. These are marks without purpose or thought. This is a challenge painters experience throughout their artistic life. It could be compared to asking a writer not to include any extra words in their prose. Sometimes it is really hard to tell the difference between a “true mark” and one that is just made to fill in space. Ideally each mark in a painting should be considered and be the necessary one for that moment and that space.

One of the reasons I object to people re-using old canvases textured with the residue of previous paintings, is because all that bumpy texture has nothing to do with the new painting. I’m not against the repurposing of surfaces, but the “used” surface has to be considered as already having a previous meaning and a life of its own.

The same thing happens when a painter excessively overpaints to cover up previous brushstrokes and disguise “mistakes”. It is like a lie that always finds itself out. Covering up a mistake is often a way of drawing attention to it. Painting doesn’t lie. If you are just quickly filling up space with your brush and not considering what you are doing, it will be evident in the final result.

The strength of Jeremy Herndl’s work (above), is that all his brushmarks feel considered and necessary; there is an urgent confidence to the way he uses his brush. There is no covering up of errors. And he is not dabbing paint with his brush just to fill in space. The “dabs” are all specific parts of a greater whole. When looking at his work, you feel as if you could trace every mark made from the start of the painting to the finish. Nothing appears to be hidden or deliberately covered up. 

In the detail image of Herndl’s Castle and Tree (below), you can see the individual marks that make up the full image. You will notice that on close viewing, the work is made up of abstract marks of varying thicknesses; there are areas where the paint has been diluted to such an extent you can see the original surface and other areas where the paint is layered on like thick icing. Each mark is specific and holds its own on the painting’s surface.

Detail: Castle and Tree (above)

Herndl’s paintings are representational without being photographically realistic. The work speaks a lot about the way our eyes perceive things. We see things in fragments and our brain puts together these elements so we can make sense of the world. It definitely takes time and focus to pay attention to the details of perception, but the end result makes for a satisfying painting. 

There is no need for an image-based painting to look like a photograph. It is much more exciting to have paintings that offer multiple ways of seeing them. Herndl’s paintings seem to dissolve into abstraction as soon as you get close to them. The viewers gaze shifts from the image to the paint. The method of painting is true to the materiality and physicality of the medium used. 

John Marin (1870-1953) was an early modernist who spent much of his life painting the sea. I compare him to Herndl because Marin fills his surfaces with purposeful brushstrokes that also melt into abstraction at close glance. Marin was one of the first American artists to make abstract paintings and his innovative approach and expressive brushwork led the way to the abstract expressionist movement. For more information on Marin’s work, there are two excellent videos: John Marin’s Watercolors: A Medium for Modernism and Marin’s Work: In the White Mountains.

The images I’ve included are examples of Marin’s oil paintings but he was more renowned for his watercolour paintings. This article gives an overview of Marin and his painting: John Marin – An Exploration of John Marin Watercolors and Paintings. The Modern Art Notes podcast has a discussion on John Marin’s Oil Paintingsby a curator and critic.

John Marin, Castorland, New York (1913) 
oil on canvas 22 x 27″

John Marin, Hurricane (1944) 
oil on canvas 25 x 30″

I appreciate that in both Herndl and Marin, you can see glimpses of the original substrate -nothing is covered completely. You can see the first marks and the last marks. This gives the work a freshness and an aliveness. These artists give us multiple ways to experience their work -one as an expressive and emotional image and the other as surface of energetic marks of very physical paint.

For more information on Herndl’s work:

Instagram

Website

CBC video of Herndl painting at Fairy Creek

VANCOUVER ISLAND SCHOOL OF ART