Picture Perfect?

Photography is a wonderful and useful creative vehicle. As an art form, it can be emotionally expressive, intellectually provocative, brutal in its realism or as freely abstract as any painting. In its illustrative use in journalism, a good photograph brings a deeper understanding to the story being told. On a personal level, cameras have become a necessity. It’s hard to imagine a time when all of the important (and many of the mundane) events of our lives were not documented by photography.
I have something of a love-hate relationship with my camera. As an oil painter trained to work exclusively from life, I have a hard time with the use of photos as reference material. No, I don’t think it’s cheating to work from a photo- far from it. It is often far more difficult to work from a photo than it is to work directly from life. The reason for this mainly has to do with the “flattened” perspective of photos, distortion from the lens, and from a painters point of view, the lack of a full range of values (light and shadow) and colours.
I didn’t use reference photos until I began painting horses for a living, and then did so out of necessity. You can set up a still life and paint it at your leisure until it collects dust or rots. You can mark the pose of a model with chalk or masking tape so that the pose can be resumed at the next sitting. As for painting a landscape, true the clouds and light do move, but at least the movement of the light is predictable and if the clouds aren’t totally accurate, no one will be the wiser. Horses, indeed all animals, are another matter. I painted one horse portrait from life, early on in my career. Once was enough.
Above is the reference photo for a dog portrait I recently finished. The car, road, disembodied pants, misplaced shadow and slightly washed out colour all have to be dealt with to make a successful painting. Also, going from photo to painting, I have to take extra care to control my edges. By “edges” what I mean is the area of a painting where an object meets another object or where it meets the background. Too much sharp focus and crisp edges will make the dog look superimposed. Not enough crispness and the focal point of the painting won’t look distinct enough. It’s something of a balance.


Portrait of Sam 8×10 oil on panel ©Alyson Champ

I am fortunate to have some friends who are hugely talented photographers. If you want to see some really excellent photos, I encourage you to check out the work of: Phil Norton, Tracy Martin, and Brenda Castonguay .

Tangled Up in Blue

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way -things I had no words for. Georgia O’Keeffe

Photo ©Alyson Champ

I know that music is often spoken of as the language of the emotions, but what of colour? Colour psychology, which is a relatively new discipline with roots in ancient eastern medicine, tells us that colour has a profound effect on mood: the power to calm or to stimulate. Colours in the red/orange family are thought to be active and exciting colours. The blues and greens of the spectrum are soothing and passive. Factual neurological evidence aside, here in the West, we do certainly have strong, long-held associations of colours with particular concepts. For example, the colour red is associated with courage and sacrifice, but also love, passion, and appetite. Red is a favourite colour for restaurant interiors for that very reason. A bright sunny yellow is frequently called the colour of the intellect; green the colour of youth, nature, and life; purple the colour of nobility and wisdom; black the colour of mourning; white symbolizes the pristine and virginal; and when we hear someone singing the blues, we know exactly what that means, don’t we?

I’m writing about the impact and meaning of colour because I find myself at something of a turning point in my artwork. Having been an oil painter for more than twenty years, I am increasingly drawn to collage making as my primary means of artistic expression. Obviously this has necessitated some changes in my materials, most notably my switch from oil to acrylic paint.

As a painter, I never learned to love acrylics because they seemed to lack the richness and luminosity of oils. Acrylic colours always looked “plastic” and gaudy to my eye, like a cheap imitation of the real thing. But collage making has caused me to revise that opinion. Oil paint just doesn’t work for the type of collages that I want to make. I experimented with watercolour but didn’t like that either. Finally, I started fooling around with some tubes of acrylics, and guess what? It was a perfect fit.

Apart from the convenience of water solubility and the fact that you can apply acrylic directly to paper without any primer, I find that the quality of saturated, intense colour, which was the original reason that I hated acrylic paint as a painter, is the virtue I have most come to love in it as a collage artist. And the variety of colours available! It boggles the mind. I have become hooked on phthalocyanine blue and quinacridone violets. What the heck are they? Have a look below.

Purple Iris – 20×24 painted paper collage mounted on canvas
©Alyson Champ

This is the latest in my Iris collage series. For this one I moved away from strong colour contrasts of the previous flower collages, and have opted for a more analogous blue/violet palette, with the exception of the small punctuations of yellow and orange. I wanted the flower to have the appearance of emerging from its background and to make the picture so lush and rich in colour that viewer could just sink into it. Here’s a detail:

Purple Iris detail ©Alyson Champ

So, what’s the verdict? Soothing, calming, peaceful? I think so. I hope you are getting a little bit of what I felt as I watched the blue pigment soak into the white paper which was just, “…oh my….”.

Vive le vent d’hiver!

Alright I confess. I love winter. I suppose this puts me firmly in the minority among my fellow countrymen and women, but there you have it. You might think that in a country where we have winter for at least four and a half months of the year people would get used to the weather and learn to enjoy it. Sadly this is not the case. To confess to loving winter is a bit like saying you love paying taxes: people generally look at you like you’re out of your mind. These are things to be endured, not enjoyed and, whenever possible, to be avoided completely. And yet, strangely enough, when you ask Canadians what makes them Canadian as opposed to American (or something else) the answer is almost always: a) our insanely cold, snowy weather, b) a love of hockey, and c) our social programs. There you have it folks: Winter, a winter sport played on ice, and taxes. Welcome to Canada!

I think it’s a Norwegian saying that goes: There is no bad weather, only bad clothing. I’m in full agreement. If you’re properly dressed, you don’t feel the cold. My sheep don’t seem to mind the cold one bit and will go out in almost any weather. Nature has kindly equipped them with water resistant wool coats to keep them warm and dry. I have been busy knitting their wool into useful woolen hats, socks and mittens for us to use. Bye-bye cold ears, toes, and fingers!
What’s on the Easel

During the holidays I find it almost impossible to get any serious artwork done. Most of my creative energy goes into baking. For the past couple of weeks my mornings, evenings and afternoons have been measured out not in coffee spoons, but in cookie and bread dough. If I’m not producing any artistic masterpieces, at least we are well fed.

Here is a winter landscape from last year. This one is entitled “Bush Road”, 24X20 oil on canvas.

© 2008 Alyson Champ

Happy New Year!

Some of the Nicest People I Know Are Dogs

I love dogs. I love dogs and I have three of them. And while they sometimes drive me crazy, usually I find them charming and entertaining. Happy, optimistic, and easy going almost to a fault, they truly make the best companions.

Cocker Head Study- 8×10 charcoal/white chalk on gray paper ©2009 Alyson Champ

Pretty much anything you would like to do is ok with a dog: You’re going to the store? Hey, can I ride in the car? You want to get the mail? No problem, I’d love to go for a walk. Roast chicken for supper? Great! I’ll just sit here beside you, you know, in case something falls on the floor and that way you won’t have to clean it up!

Just as my love of horses and my need to create often converge, so too does my artwork with my fondness for dogs. From time to time I get asked to paint a portrait of a family pet, usually a dog. Painting an animal portrait, just like painting a human portrait, is a tricky business. The most obvious problem is the question of getting a “likeness” – making the animal look the way it actually does. Photos supply most of the information required, but it is nice to actually be able to meet the animal, to see it move and to touch it. Dogs, like people, have character, and catching that individuality, that spark of life, or soul, is the hardest thing in painting any portrait. A painting can be accurate in representation and still fail to capture the “essence” of the subject. The result is a dead looking painting. Unfortunately, I’ve painted my fair share of those.

Once in a while though, I do get it right. I remember one particular case where I was commissioned to paint the portrait of a dog. The dog had recently died and I was given a stack of family photos to use as reference material. The owners told me a bit about the dog’s personality, the things he would do, how he behaved, and even how he had died. They then left me with my task.
I wasn’t sure how much success I was going to have: I hadn’t even met the dog! Nevertheless, the portrait was painted and when I had finished it, I invited the dog’s owners back to studio to see and assess the results- I was expecting to do a lot of touch ups. I had set the painting up so that it was the first thing they would see when the walked in. They were surprised to the point of silence, and then openly wept. Somehow, and I’m not sure how, I had painted their dog.

What’s on the easel

One of the projects I’m working on in the studio right now is a commissioned portrait of a cocker spaniel. This dog, thankfully, is very much alive and I was able to take the photos myself, so I had the pleasure of meeting him. He’s quite a guy: funny and goofy and full of mischief. The owner came here this morning to decide on the final pose for the painting from the three preparatory drawings which I have just finished.

She has opted for the pose directly below, as she wanted a full body pose, but she loved the head study above so much that, as a kindness, I offered it to her as a gift. Happy owner, happy artist. Now I just have to do the painting!

Cocker portrait study-8×10, charcoal on paper ©2009 Alyson Champ

Cocker portrait study 2- 8×10, pencil on paper ©2009 Alyson Champ

Sought and Found

This past Saturday I had the pleasure of taking a little trip across the Ontario border to visit The Arbor Gallery in the town of Vankleek Hill. The occasion was the vernissage for “Seek to Find”, the solo art exhibition of my long time friend and fellow artist Erica Taylor.


Erica and I met when I was about eleven and she was twelve, and she demonstrated to me her ability to whinny like a horse. Not only could Erica whinny, but she could whinny so convincingly that horses would answer her. In my horse crazy eleven-year-old’s mind, that was a truly awe-inspiring talent. That gift of equine communication, along with our mutual love of art, cross-country skiing and all things horses, formed the foundation of a friendship which has, to date, endured for thirty years.

Erica’s work could not be more different from my own, which no doubt is the reason I find it so delightful and interesting. She is an artist who works in a variety of media, from fairly traditional oil painting and printmaking all the way to wild and whimsical found object sculpture.

Ironwood Tree ©2009 Erica Taylor

I have often wished I had the courage to just let my imagination run wild the way that Erica does. She can look at a box of metal odds and ends, a pile of old barn wood, pieces of an old pipe organ and see the artistic possibilities.Out of that process of creative imagining, Erica makes works of art which are beautiful, sometimes funny and often quite provocative.

Attempt to Quantify ©2009 Erica Taylor

Whether it is seen in representations of the archetypal feminine, childbirth, or the exploration of the common girlhood fantasy of escaping on the back of a horse, the female experience is a thread that runs through all of Erica’s work. Attempt to Quantify (seen above) grew from experiments Erica made striking a wooden plank with antique metal number stamps. She describes the work as the linear, scientific masculine attempting to define the vague and mysterious feminine. Indeed, to me, it looks a lot like sperm surrounding an ovum. It may have begun as unconscious experimentation, but Attempt to Quantify developed into a thought provoking piece of art.
Oil painting Primeval Race, found object sculpture Queen ©2009 Erica Taylor