Sheep Pellets of Wisdom: The Year in Review

Well, here we are nearing the end of another year. Although I am looking forward to what the New Year might bring, like most people I can’t help but cast a glance backward over the old year now drawing to a close. On our farm, 2010 was a pretty good year. We had a number of successes: a healthy little crop of lambs which sold easily, many bags of beautiful fleeces, a freezer full of fat roosters and Guinea fowl, and a wonderfully productive vegetable garden with some of the most beautiful tomatoes I have ever grown. In the failures column, we had no zucchini, inedible pole beans, edible but strangely deformed pumpkins, some trouble with pasture parasites, and a favourite wether had to be euthanized. We got some things right and we got some things wrong. Where the sheep were concerned, 2010 was a year of learning from mistakes made the previous year and, no doubt, making new mistakes- ones which I am sure are bound to reveal themselves in due course. But that’s for next year. For now, here are the top twenty things I learned about sheep in 2010.

20. From the point of view of the sheep, there is no such thing as too many windfall apples.

19. From the point of view of the shepherd, “too many” windfall apples is approximately one half bushel less than the amount required to cause gastro-intestinal upset in sheep.

18. The friendliest, most persistently affectionate animal known to humanity is a 200 lb wether with diarrhoea .

17. Don’t de-worm sheep on a day when it is cold and wet unless you also would like to be cold and wet.

16. Delphinium: It’s sheep Latin for “Poison? No! Eat me, I taste like candy!”

15. If it is thirty degrees and mid-July, and the renderer says he will be coming on Wednesday to pick up a dead sheep, he really means Friday. If it is minus thirty degrees and mid-January, when he says Wednesday, he means Wednesday.

14. Under no circumstances ever tell your dinner guests what is under that tarp outside the barn. If anyone asks what it is, just say, “Stuff”.

13. Sheep who turn their noses up at slightly coarse hay will, in the very next instant, eat their straw bedding.

12. Sheep are untroubled by such concepts as irony or logical consistency.

11. The first time your ewes lamb, your whole family comes out to the barn with you in the middle of the night to make videos or take pictures or to otherwise be a witness to the miracle of birth. Lambing the second time around, when you complain to your husband about having to go out to the barn at two am, he says, “Well, you were the one who wanted sheep,” then rolls over and goes back to sleep.

10. To a lamb, everything looks like an udder except an udder.

9. Ewes can’t count.

8. When given a choice between running through a gate to rejoin its mother and running headlong into a fence, nine times out of ten a lamb will choose to run into the fence.

7. A fat lamb will always find a way to get into the creep feeder. Getting out is another matter.

6. The first time you take your lambs to the butcher, you cry in the truck during the drive to the slaughter house. The second time, you plan the menu.

5. The most agile animal on the planet is not a gazelle, a cat or a squirrel. It is an overweight seven year old Border Leicester ram who does not wish to have his feet trimmed.

4. If your sheep are standing outside in driving rain when they could be inside, one of two things has occurred: either a) the doorway to the barn is currently occupied by a flock of bad tempered Muscovy ducks or, b) one of Dumb Dora’s offspring is in the barn, racing around with a bucket stuck on its head.

3. A long wool sheep with an itch is a force of nature.

2. The number of times a person is willing to replace, repair, or re-position automatic waterers which have been ripped off the wall by itchy sheep before one gives up on automatic waterers and goes back to using buckets is: six.

1. To look out at your pasture in the spring and see it clothed with healthy ewes and playful lambs is possibly the best feeling in the world.

Photo by the artist

Out of Commission



Dori (oil) © Alyson Champ

I had one of those moments recently where I was reminded of why I rarely do commissioned work: it’s a pain in the neck. I didn’t always have that opinion, though. For years commissions formed the main part of my artistic income, my bread and butter, so to speak.

When I spent most of my creative energy producing equine paintings, not only did I accept commissions, I eagerly sought them out. I traveled to horse farms, training facilities, and race tracks. I met all kinds of people- some real characters,too- and got a first hand look at the “back side” of horse racing in all its weird, distasteful, beautiful, hard working, corrupt, and somewhat faded, glory – something most people never get to see.


Fier-a-bras (oil) © Alyson Champ

So why did I give it up? Well, for one thing, the market basically bottomed out. The race track in Montreal closed and a lot of the people who were in the business either got out of racing entirely or pulled up stakes and moved elsewhere. There was also the question of my stifled creativity and restricted artistic growth. When you spend all your time working according to the specifications of other people, you don’t really get to grow much as an artist. Commissioned work very seldom allows you the opportunity to experiment or take chances. He who pays the piper, gets to call the tune, and after a while, dancing to someone else’s tune gets a little boring.
Then there is the Human Factor: you have to handle other people’s egos, their unrealistic expectations, their sentimental attachments, and in the case of the very rich and very busy (mostly) businessmen/racehorse owners, you also have to also have to work around their crazy schedules.
I don’t mean to suggest that doing commissioned work was a completely negative experience, on the contrary! It taught me the two most important rules for an artist: 1) Always Have a Written Contract, and 2) Always Get a Nonrefundable Kill Fee of 30 % Upfront. It also taught me how to say no to jobs I knew just wouldn’t work out, how to humour difficult people, and how to distance myself from my work so that I didn’t take criticism personally. And if I hadn’t danced to the tunes of others, I would have been deprived of such learning experiences as:

– Being commissioned to produce a double portrait of a teenage girl and her horse only to have the ‘girl’ part of the portrait proclaimed unacceptable by the unpleasant mother because the LIKENESS WAS TOO GOOD! The girl had a rather prominent nose, which I had faithfully reproduced. The horse part of the portrait was deemed adequate and they eventually settled on the horse alone.

-Receiving photos in the mail of an aged brood mare and being asked to paint a portrait of the horse, but would I please: straighten the animal’s back, lift the sagging belly, remove a scar on the neck, flesh out the neck a little more, make the eyes more youthful, fill out the mane, and not include all the ear hair. I should have asked them if they would perhaps have preferred that I paint a different horse entirely.

-Being handed a handful of blurry, underexposed, distorted snapshots of a standardbred in a stall, and being asked to immortalize an animal I could barely see.

-Having to do a photo shoot of a racehorse outdoors in a snowstorm because the trainer was only available that one day. The owners wanted a summer scene.

-Delivering a completed racing portrait to an owner only to have him look at it and say, “But that’s the wrong horse.” Whereupon ensued a rather heated cell phone conversation between the owner and the trainer in which the owner said, “Bay? What the hell is bay?!”

-Being paid by an owner in cash,in thousand dollar bills, from a desk drawer stuffed with money, the provenance of which I dared not ponder. Fortunately he didn’t want change, either.

-Being sent to the wrong address and ending up at a sort of abandoned looking horse farm, only to find myself alone and surrounded by Rottweilers.

-Arriving at a training facility to photograph a stallion worth a couple of million dollars, and being told by the trainer that they were too busy to deal with me, at which point he handed me a towel and a bucket full of brushes and said, “Go put him in cross ties and groom him yourself.” So I did.


Idole (oil) © Alyson Champ

You Gotta Know When to Hold ’em

One of the toughest parts of being involved in any kind of creative work is knowing when something is finished. Rarely do I realise my artistic vision so completely that there is no doubt. Once in a while, I’ll call something completed when I can no longer stand to look at it. Most times though, I have to live with a piece for a little while before I can really sign off.

I was working on a large, ambitious collage recently and thought I had finished it, yet there was something about the piece that left me uneasy; I didn’t really feel I had accomplished visually what I had set out to do. I wasn’t happy with it, but I didn’t know why. So I decided to set it aside for awhile- this after having heralded the collage’s imminent arrival on my Facebook Fan Page. That will teach me. The fat lady wasn’t in fact ready to sing; she was merely clearing her throat.

I had the collage set up on an easel in our downstairs hall, a very central part of our house. This forced me to look at the thing, confront it, examine its flaws throughout the day, everyday, for a couple of weeks. That did the trick. Eventually I worked out what the problem was and how to fix it. It took some tough love and a little “renovation” work, but now it really is finished- finished and soon to be up on display at Salle Alfred-Langevin in Huntingdon as my contribution to the local collective exhibition for the Journées de la culture. The vernissage is Friday, September 24th at 5:00 pm. If you are in the area, come and check out the show.

Last Light, Ormstown- 24X30 painted paper and fabric collage on canvas
©2010 Alyson Champ

The Island of Misfit Art

OK, so it’s not really an island. More of a lopsided pile.

On the floor of my upstairs studio there is a stack of unfinished paintings, all of them failures for one reason or another. Mostly they were flawed to begin with: bad colour choices, inherent (but initially not obvious) compositional flaws, or some stupid problem in perspective or anatomy that I couldn’t get right but that I thought would just magically resolve itself if only I kept painting. And sometimes, sometimes, just like kids from good homes who go careening off the rails and wind up in jail, perfectly decent paintings go bad for no apparent reason at all.

Once in a while I will completely give up on a picture and throw it out, but generally I am reluctant to part with my stack of failures. I have been known to hang on to them for years, hoping that my artistic skill will catch up with my artistic desire, or that I will be granted a little flash of creative brilliance and suddenly simply know how to fix something which has, up to that point, eluded me.

This week I felt inspired and adopted a misfit painting out of the stack. It is an oil I had started a year or so ago showing a scene from The Rolex Three Day Event at the Kentucky Horse Park. The reference photo came from a disc of photos sent to me by a fellow artist who had been lucky enough to attend the event. I had high hopes for this painting when I started it and was frustrated when it didn’t work out the first time. This time I figured I really had nothing to lose and decided to make a second attempt at finishing it. There were compositional issues to resolve and aerial perspective problems. It took two days to get it all sorted out. I’m sorry I didn’t think to photograph the before and after so you could also see the transformation. Below is the after. I think it worked out pretty well.

Spring Rider– 9×12 oil on panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

The next painting is the completed landscape from last week: A View of St. Chrysostome. I’m calling it finished, although it’s possible that there will still be some corrections to be made in the coming weeks. I need to look at it for a while first.

View of St. Chrysostome- 20×24 oil on linen ©2010 Alyson Champ

Up and Dyed

Last Monday at Pinehill Farm, my friend Anna-Maria was host to a group of school children from the urban elementary school where she is also a teacher. The purpose of the visit was to give the children, many of whom had never spent any time in the country before, the opportunity to visit a farm, meet the animals, and experience nature. The activities included nature walks, hand carding and spinning wool, and tie dyeing their own t shirts with a natural, plant based dye. I was in charge of the tie-dye workshops and showed the kids how to make basic tie-dyed designs and how to do the steps involved in the dyeing process- except for the actual dyeing part. I did that. For obvious reasons, we thought it best to keep the children away from the five gallon bucket of dye.

Indigofera tinctoria

The natural dye that I used was indigo. Indigo is an interesting plant, pretty in its own right, with a long history of use as a dye plant all over the world. The dye is made from the leaves, and in its natural state, is insoluble in water. The dye must be ‘reduced’, a process whereby the oxygen is removed, and it can then be mixed with water. Jacquard makes a ready to use reduced indigo dye, which is what I used. The actual dye in the bucket was a nasty-looking green, and the tied up shirts came out of the liquid first a bright yellow-green, but then turned a deep blue as they were exposed to the air. This was fun for the kids to watch – like magic! After the dye had oxidized and the children rinsed and untied their shirts, they saw what they had created. This was my first experience working with indigo. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but results were quite beautiful.

These two shirts are ones that I made with the left over dye. And there was quite a lot of extra dye. I hated to waste it, so we now have a lot of blue work shirts and linens.

The Day After the Afternoon Before


My collage exhibition opened at Salle Alfred-Langevin yesterday. In spite of the rather wet and dreary weather, the turn out was good, the crowd was very enthusiastic, and sales were brisk (thank you!). One woman, a fellow artist, liked the collages so much that she went home to get her husband, came back with him and did the tour again!

So, I guess that my fear that people would look at the collages and say, “Well, these are ok, but where are all the horse paintings?” was completely unfounded. If anything, I was pleasantly surprised by just how open minded people were. Yes, I was asked if I had completely given up oil painting- I haven’t, I’m just on oil painting hiatus- but by and large the audience was accepting and encouraging. Several pieces sold, including one of the large Iris collages. All in all, it was a very good day.

These are some of my collages on the walls at Salle Alfred-Langvin. I must mention the real stars of the photo which are the spectacular stained glass windows designed by Detlef Gotzens, a stained glass artist whose atelier is across the river from mine.
Here is a slightly different view. You can see what a large and beautiful space the hall is. Painter Suzanne Olivier, who is a member of the hall’s management committee, did a terrific job of hanging the show. It’s a good thing that that particular task wasn’t left up to me! Merci Suzanne!
And last but by no means least, here is a photo of Luc and me. Luc De Tremmerie is the coordinator of cultural events at Salle Alfred-Langevin, which means that he’s the one who really does all the work. Luc, je ne sais pas comment te remercier…

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 .