Death by Insignificance – Contemporary Landscape Easel Painter

Six inches of wet whiteness filled our long driveway. At its end there is a narrow trail down the middle of the secondary road, with mounds of molded heavy snowballs guarding each side of the single lane made by the plow truck. I power the Outback down the first part of the driveway so as to glide up and over the crest of the steep hill on the secondary road that follows. Now, if I don’t meet anyone until I get to the main road, all will be good. All is indeed good.

Reaching the Japanese garden on the other side of our small island, I notice that the snow has stopped temporarily in the -1 degree Celsius early March wintry weather. I gather a few photographs for a friend and then settle into painting after setting up my French Box easel in the bamboo shelter on the east side of the gardens. I paint feverishly for an hour. It starts to rain and then rain and snow as I am finishing up. My toes are cold from damp wool socks from when I stepped in a puddle getting out of the car. By all accounts the midday light is bleak, the weather miserable and I am thoroughly chilled. But the work is done. I feel like an explorer exhilarated by having clawed my way over a mountain to a new and promising land.

This 11 x 14 inch walnut oil sketch on a panel board is a series of half-finished sentences in a shorthand painting language that provides rough reminders for a later more thoughtful and larger painting.

Early March Snow Japanese Garden Mayne Island BC

Why do I bother I ask myself. Painting as a representational art form offers nothing new to a world that craves discovery and sensational entertainment. Easel painting has been declared dead as art with predictable frequency for the past 150 years. Yet, here I am – painting. Here you are following my adventures, saving the work to your phones, ipads and laptops and even buying a few finished works now and again. The latest of my art books As We Breathe may even grace your coffee table. So why? What is it about these representational landscape paintings and quick painting sketches that repeatedly hold your attention?

My landscape paintings are of everyday moments. They are ordinary easel paintings and the techniques are familiar contemporary impressionists’ renderings. There is nothing new or sensational or entertaining in my. In art history, the subject of landscapes has always been just a little vulgar and unrefined and uninteresting for the tastes of highbrow fine art galleries and juried exhibitions. So right from the start with my choice of subject, the work is placed at the fringes. Eugène Delacroix’s landscape paintings were painted for his own private pleasure and were only sold after his death. Delacroix was a renowned history painter but it is his landscapes that recently discovered and I most enjoy. The impressionist and post-impressionist painters used the immediacy of landscapes to render light and shadow and then to later reintroduce the importance of form before this painting approach gave way to cubism and abstraction. Though a lot of credit is given to the major breakthrough of these painters, it was only towards the end of these impressionist and post-impressionist movements that any of these artists saw what might be considered success. Some were already dead by the time recognition of their efforts, such as Van Gogh whose hard-working sister-in-law was able to successfully promote his work after his death. The history of Canadian Modernism in art exemplifies the landscape paintings of Tom Thomson, Group of Seven, Emily Carr and the Beaver Hall Group in what is touted to Canadians as a uniquely Canadian art approach. But how globally unimportant these works actually are to world art movements is obvious when reviewing a rather extensive European and North America History of Art Timeline. Canadian art is not mentioned – landscape or otherwise.

So I ask again – why? Why do I bother? Why do you bother to view, save images and purchase my work over and over again? What is it that makes you want to feel the sun on your back, the splash of the sea or the wind blowing through your hair as you look at these simple, insignificant, quiet almost meditative landscape paintings? After all, you just need to step outside into nature and notice these moments for yourselves. Possible, though you have stopped noticing as North Korea, U.S.A., Japan, South Korea and China posture on the brink of yet another war on our small planet. Or maybe you read about several famines expected in the next six month that could kill 20 million people? Or possibly you will be impacted by the U.S.A. travel ban or changes in the health care act? Or is it Brexit that is about to separate you from a country you have called home for many years? Under these circumstances, possibly mundane nature moments drift over your sensory apparatus without even a ripple of recognition – until you view one of my landscape paintings. Then you are reminded and even comforted by the work’s ordinariness. I suspect this because it is what you tell me in comments on social media and during studio visits. So it is not a wild guess but rather a plausible hypothesis. This, on some levels, is a good thing. It means there is no immediate danger by your natural surroundings. You do not need to notice the moving light or rising tide or buds on the plum trees. Basically it is safe not to notice the natural landscapes as they change around you. Your energy is free to contemplate other pressing matters.

So why might you notice and use precious minutes of your valuable time viewing these irrelevant landscape paintings? I believe the answer is as simple and uncomplicated as the paintings themselves. These hand-rendered easel paintings speak to our sensory experiences and memories. These paintings help to remind the viewer that they are alive and that this life, their life, is precious, unique and valuable. At least that is my intention and it is something you so often confirm when viewing the results.

There is the potential for this landscape painting language to be vital, fresh, and unique. These landscape easel paintings attempt to capture the essence of a particular time on a specific day. Similar to a snowflake, or a fingerprint, no two brushstrokes of an immediate moment are ever exactly the same. For an art culture, a micro-culture in a larger herd of humanity, that is obsessed with originality and progress, the immediacy of a changing landscape subject and the painter’s individual brushstrokes guarantee uniqueness (please note I am not implying that “quality” and “uniqueness” are the same thing). It would seem reasonable then that landscapes would be the highest most esteemed subject. However, such that “uniqueness” is the strength of landscape paintings, so is “uniqueness” its weakness. Value is most often created by rareness or scarcity. There is nothing rare about the landscape. Further, it is a given that it will always be changing so change is of no more interest than the ticking of a clock. It is a naked fact, that beyond our pleasure from the landscape’s sensory triggers, my paintings are of little of interest and of even less importance to ART with capital letters. For these easel paintings to become significant their subjects, the landscape, would need to become threatened or disappear. Melting ice caps, rising sea levels, or the potential a rupture in the Cascadia Subduction Zone in the next 50 years are not yet enough to declare any kind of rareness. Only once the landscape can no longer be experienced directly and no more painting of it can ever be painted, then there is a possibility, if the paintings were to survive, that they would become important or significant to art movements and human history.

On this note then, I wish for death by insignificance! Whether it is a quick painting sketch like the one above or a more thoughtful work that has been months in the making below, there is something ridiculously freeing in having the paintings overlooked – not by you of course, or by the equivalent of a small city-size of others who follow my work. But overlooked by an abstract subjective notion about what is important contemporary art.

Winter Late Afternoon Georgina Point Mayne Island BC 18 x 24 inch walnut oil on canvas

I can assure you that any description of an important contemporary artist does not include a middle-aged woman living off the southwest coast of Canada who paints the natural world around her. Nope! Her work is of no particular worth in this current context….. and, let’s hope this remains so for the sake of us all!

Besides it leaves you and I to enjoy our time by the sea, in the Japanese Gardens or along the trails under the arbutus trees without the clambering crowds. I kinda like the joy and freedom of this landscape easel painting perspective. It is fortifying, generous, kind and, for the most part, devoid of trolls.  I find it is good and simple way to live in a competitive, chaotic, globally connected world.

Happy International Women’s Day! As and independent artist with a small business, I have my red apron on in solidarity and I shall spare you the details about inequality in the Arts. Maybe another time. Though if you found the fate of landscape painters bleak, we should wait a while. 😉

What do you think? Do I have the answer to the “why” about right?

If you care to browse, new work has been released in my online gallery HERE.

What do you value that has no generalized worth in contemporary society?

© 2017 Terrill Welch, All rights reserved.

Liberal usage granted with written permission. See “About” for details.

Creative Potager – Visit with painter and photographer Terrill Welch

From Mayne Island, British Columbia, Canada

For gallery and purchase information about Terrill’s photographs and paintings go to http://terrillwelchartist.com

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10 thoughts on “Death by Insignificance – Contemporary Landscape Easel Painter

  1. Why do we look? Why do we continue to paint or draw? Canadian or otherwise? Because we want to see what you see…the Magic, the tension, the excitement, the contentment. While it may not be new to you, it is new to me, I want to see what you have done, how much you have grown and, of course, to measure my work against yours…and then try a little harder. There will never be an end to Art, it is a Gift that keeps on giving. Thank you for sharing yours with us!

    • Sandi what a beautiful surprising addition to my musings! You are most welcome and I deeply appreciate your thoughts on the “why” of it all! I believe there is something to the value in what might not be new to everyone still being new to someone. No individual has even a minuscule chance of carrying the knowledge of us all. We will never know everything or stop learning as long as we have the desire. You offer me a different lens yet again in which to consider this landscape easel painting. Thank YOU for this!

  2. I just loved your essay today. A perfect thought and needed art in this international celebration in my red sweater. Just so good I still meditate on your apple blossom -today hopefilled. Thank you

    • You are most welcome Patricia and the funny thing was I happen to come across an image of the apple blossom painting just yesterday and it reminded me of you and our overnight visit a couple of springs ago. Glad to hear you are full of hope today! We need all of this perspective we can muster. All the best!

    • Larry this is perfectly fine with me! I am honoured by the connection. Several years ago I was (with teasing seriousness) called “the Monet of Mayne Island.” I am most often considered a contemporary impressionist painter. The funny thing is that I only started studying their work and approach long after I had established my own painting practice. I was in adult oil painting class at the age of 14 and the method I was taught was based on impressionist principles. However, it was introduced to me as – this is the way you oil paint. The teacher did not credit what she was teaching to a painting movement or possibly with my teenage brain I just never really heard or remembered. From there, even though I took many other painting and drawing courses and used other media, I kept and developed that first approach. It was reinforced by my classes with the amazing Canadian artist and teacher Glenn Howarth as he developed ways of getting us to understand the strength in using our peripheral vision and painting before our brains could name the shapes we are seeing. The science of how our eyes construct images and the influence of our full sensory experience on the process of painting from life and the viewing of that painting has informed my work since 2010. There is no denying the impressionist roots in my work, along with that of Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven and Emily Carr. That said, I have a tool that they did not and that is a digital camera which allows me to gather what I call photographic and video sketches – by the hundreds in just a few hours. This, combined with my plein air painting, allows me to bring the strength of the field work of these earlier painters to the studio more easily. But the intention is the same – how do we paint the magic of colour and moving light – that we experience everyday in the world around us? I am fascinated by this painting problem!

  3. What an interesting post! So much to think about. I think I was drawn to your work because it is impressionistic and captures the essence of the object, whether tree or see of bowl of fruit. It captures something that excites me and stirs the senses, that makes me appreciate “what is there” in a new way. I think I like the impressionistic style because it has so much movement in it. The colors, the lines, the brush strokes, the thing itself appears almost to be breaking loose from itself and capering off the page. It think of the word spirit, that things have a sacredness, a spirit, that is more than the material substance we see and measure in finite ways. And your paintings and that of other impressionists, and other painters who use other styles as well, help us to see that, to tap into it, and it gladdens and refreshes us, and yes, excites us, to tap into that, to be reminded that that “spirit”, that sacredness, is all around us, in “ordinary” landscapes and mundane objects.

    I have to tell you that I recently found a blog site that I now follow that features Canadian artist, and I was skimming through it for signs of your work. What led me there was the discovery (via Pinterest) of an artist I love, who I thought was a contemporary of Van Gogh and Gauguin, whose work his reminds me of, only to discover he is a living artist living in Canada, Peter Doig. I just finished a “study” of one of his works, what I think of as a dreamscape: a river, a boat, a palm tree and jungle on a starlit night. It’s his junglely “dreamscapes” that I’m drawn to more than his other works. Anyway, sorry for such a long reply, but I loved this post and will be thinking about it for a while.

    • Deborah your long thoughtful comment is just what is needed on this misty Mayne Island Saturday evening. I have a large painting in a local group art show this weekend that I am keeping comas part of the time. I think I will keep your words close to my heart as go about my day tomorrow. Thank you for this gift of your observation!

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