Friday, 29 May 2015

Emily Carr

source: Library and Archives Canada
Blog 21

Today, I would like to tell you more about Canadian artist and author Emily Carr (born on December 13, 1871 and died on March 2, 1945). I saw some of her works for the first time at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg during my first visit to Canada in December 1994.

I had not heard of the Group of Seven or Emily Carr before, and therefore did not know about their importance for the Canadian art history. While I liked some of Emily Carr's paintings, I did not know what to make of others. I admired the visual interpretation of the the life of the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, but I have always been fascinated with her later forest scenes.

Over the years, I learned more about the famous Group of Seven and Emily Carr. As a plein air artist, I always look to improve my techniques to be able to capture the essence of a scene. I came across a Emily Carr weekend workshop with one of my favourite instructors, Andrea Mossop, and was intrigued by the workshop description:

“Eccentric, solitary, mystical, Emily Carr gave authentic voice to the experience of listening to the trees. The vibrations of life in nature fill Carr’s intense verdant paintings of British Columbia in simplified forms and rich greens. Following her into this interior world, you will learn her painting techniques, choice of colour and gestural brushwork.”

The goal of the workshop was to learn how to simplify the landscape, and to mix and use different greens in the painting effectively. It was exactly what I was looking for.

However, I learned so much more than just some of her techniques. I can relate to her struggles but also her joy of being part of nature and admire her not only for her painting but also for her writing. Her work is an important contribution to the Canadian art history.

My painting "Emily's Tree, Doncaster Park, Ste.- Adèle", inspired by Emily Carr

Carr's father had encouraged her artistic education, but it was only after her parents' deaths, that Carr pursued her art seriously. Life was not easy for Emily Carr. After attending the San Francisco Art Institute from 1890 to 1892, she continued her studies in England in 1899, but her poor health forced her to enter a sanatorium in 1902.

A trip to Alaska with her sister Alice increased her interest in the life of the First Nations. However, she felt she needed further art instruction, and returned to England and continued to France in 1910. She spent a lot of time plein air painting with John Duncan Fergusson, Harry Phelan Gibb and Frances Hodgkins. She was also influenced by painters like Henri Matisse and André Derain, and started using non-naturalistic colours in her paintings to increase the freshness and strength of her works.

I can relate to the frustration she felt, when an exhibition of her works done from sketches of her visits to the First Nations People, was rather disappointing. She hardly painted for the next 15 years until she met members of the Group of Seven at the exhibition on West Coast aboriginal art at the National Gallery in 1927. Carr got inspired to paint again. Lawren Harris supported and influenced her the most during the following years.

I am sure all artists have had moments when they ask themselves why they continue painting if nobody wants to buy their works. I certainly have had such moments after an unsuccessful show. Luckily, I have friends who remind me of the fact that we paint because we will be unhappy when we do not express ourselves in our art. We do not paint for success, although it would still be nice to be appreciated. We paint because we feel the need to do so.

Another big influence for Emily Carr was the American artist Mark Tobey who encouraged her to concentrate on drawing and observing the forms of nature. During this time, Carr produced some of her best charcoal and watercolour sketches.

I can also say that I have had mentors who have helped me to grow. Today, my painting buddies often fulfill this task but sometimes the inspiration and support comes from people outside the art scene who give me new ideas and opportunities for projects.

In the 1930s, Carr purchased a caravan to be as close to nature as possible. At this point she primarily painted with oil paints. It was Carr's desire to introduce movement, and texture into her work with visible brushstrokes and by moving her whole body to express her emotions.. The thinned oil made it easier for her to introduce light and air into her work.

While I love my moments in nature and enjoy the painting trips with several painting groups, I could not imagine giving up my life in comfort. Running water, electricity, heat, the closeness of shops as well as cultural institutions are very important to me. I am also a very social person and cherish my strong relationships with family and friends.

I will never paint like Emily Carr, and for me that has never been the purpose of any of the workshops I have taken. Instead I try to take whatever works for me and use it when I paint. Just experimenting with a looser brushstroke and mixing many different greens with few colours was an important exercise. The most important message from Emily Carr is however to be present in my painting.

Once you start painting, feel the motion as if you are in the trees, the sky, the ground. Paint very loosely, moving your whole body, and do not paint outlines.

What is your favourite female painter? Did she influence your vision of the world around you? I would like to hear from you, so please leave a comment.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo by Guillermo Kahlo, Oct. 16, 1932

Blog 20

As already mentioned in last week's blog when I wrote about female artists, I will take this and next week to write about the two female artists I admire the most. The first one is Frida Kahlo. I became aware of the artist when the movie “Frida” came out in 2002 with Salma Hayek playing Frida.

Frida Kahlo de Rivera, was born as Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907. She was born in her parents' house known as La Casa Azul (The Blue House), in Coyoacán, a small town outside Mexico City. She wanted to become a doctor and was one of only thirty-five girls enrolled in the “Escuela Nacional Preparatoria”, one of Mexico's premier schools.

Frida was already disabled as a result of polio which she contracted at the age of six. However, the accident of September 1925 changed her life forever. She was riding in a bus that collided with a trolley car, and suffered serious injuries that created lifelong health problems and continuous pain. During the following years, she had to endure more than 30 operations.

Frida was confined to her bed in a full body cast for three months. During this time she abandoned the study of medicine and began to paint, encouraged by her parents. She started to do self-portraits as she spent a lot of time by herself. Of all of her paintings, 55 are self-portraits.

Frida was a big admirer of painter Diego Rivera's work and asked him to review four of her paintings. His positive response and support encouraged her to pursue a career as an artist. He became her mentor and husband. Frida's use of intense, vibrant colours as well as many symbols was influenced by the Mexican folk art.

During her lifetime, Frida created about 200 paintings, drawings and sketches which were often an expression of her experiences in life, her physical and emotional pain but also her resilience and strength, and not to forget her stormy relationship with Diego. Their love was stronger than their affairs, the pressures of careers, their divorce, remarriage, Frida's bad health and her inability to have children.

Frida died on July 13, 1954. Although the official cause of death was pulmonary embolism, there have been suspicions that she committed suicide. The urn with her ashes is on display in her former home, La Casa Azul , which became a museum in 1958. It houses many of her works as well as numerous mementos and artifacts from her personal life.

Aside from the 1939 acquisition of “The Frame” by the Louvre, her work was not well-known. Frida was mostly remembered only as Diego Rivera's wife. This changed in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, with the beginning of Neomexicanismo. Frida gained recognition through exhibitions all over Europe and the United States. Her life has been commemorated in musicals, operas, novels, movies, postage stamps and banknotes.

From October 20, 2012 to January 20, 2013 the exhibition ‘Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics, and Painting’ was displayed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, a dual retrospective of Frida's and Diego's art. I was lucky enough to be able to see it. Even though my taste in art is very different from Frida's style, I can relate to the message of her artworks. I felt the energy of her art, her struggle but also her strength. Despite all the pain, both physical and emotional, she lived life to the fullest. She went for what she believed in and never gave up. Is this not what we are all hoping for? Whenever I struggle in my life, and feel knocked out by circumstances beyond my control, I think of people like Frida and get up again. I would like to hear your opinion. Do you like her paintings? Does her biography fascinate you?

Friday, 15 May 2015

The Importance of Female Artists

Blog 19

Last week, I wrote about my portrait “Mom” in connection with Mother's Day. This week, I want to continue celebrating women by looking at the accomplishments of female painters.

If you think about famous painters, I am sure the majority of names that come to your mind are those of male artists. This is no surprise as the art scene has always been dominated by men. When I checked online for the most famous painters, I found a list of 101 famous painters on

On the list were only three women, at No. 49 Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) whose self-portraits express the pain she experienced throughout her life as a result of a horrible bus accident, at no. 85 Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1654), a very talented artist of the early baroque era, the first female painter who became a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, and at No. 97. Georgia O'Keefe (1887-1986) who is best known for her large-scale paintings of flowers.

There are probably different views on the ranking depending on the experts you ask but it is unlikely that this would change the number of female artists included in the list. So why are there so many women in painting classes and members of art organizations but the majority of famous painters are men?

Women have always been involved in creating art throughout history, but their works have often not been equally valued in comparison to the ones of their male counterparts. While the influence differed in various cultures and areas, their artistic works were often considered craft pieces, like many of the textile arts. These craft related works were usually not signed so there is no proof of the creator.

Moreover, the role assigned to women by society often created a big obstacle in receiving instruction, finding employment and venues to show and sell their works. The work of female artists was generally not accepted by society and especially their male counterparts who felt threatened by the competition and did not consider woman as able to create art as men.

The academic education required the study of the human body which was considered essential for the creation of realistic group scenes, especially for large-scale religious paintings. However, women were not allowed to study male nudes, and therefore had an enormous disadvantage. Instead, some female artists expressed themselves in other genres, like portraiture and still life, which were not as prestigious as large religious commissions.

Most female artists were of wealthy aristocratic circles or nuns. There are many examples of nuns who were involved in the illustrations of religious texts.

A lot of female artists worked together with their fathers and husbands who often received the credit for the work done under their supervision. However, most women - even up to the recent art history - have favoured marriage and the support of their husbands over a career as an artist.

Another reason for the lack of recognition of works by female artists were the traditional naming conventions which resulted in the wife assuming her husband's last name. This could lead to misinterpretation if the works were only signed by the last name. On top of this, art dealers even went as far as altering signatures to reassign them to male artists to increase the worth of a painting.

The feminist movement in the 1960s finally increased the interest in women artists and their academic study. However, male artists still dominate the art scene. 

Judging art is very subjective but the gender of the artist should not be a factor in jurying the quality of a work.

When I visited the exhibition “Female Impressionist Painters” at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt/Main, Germany, in 2008, I was excited about the many outstanding works, and puzzled by the fact that I had never heard of most of the artists before. In the meantime, my studies of famous artists has allowed me to learn more about other female artists. As many of my students are women and girls, I started including one female artist in every session. In the next two weeks, I will write to you about the two female artists I admire the most: Frida Kahlo and Emily Carr.

Do you have a favourite female painter? Has she influenced you? I would love to hear from you. Please feel free to post a comment.

Friday, 8 May 2015


Blog 18

With Mother’s Day only two days away, I would like to tell you a little bit about the story behind my 11” x 14” acrylic painting “Mom”, portraying my mother at the age of a young kindergarten girl. I painted this artwork for the Arteast exhibition “Rearview Mirror” in 2005. It is one of few paintings that I painted in black and white. I love colours and restricting my palette was rather hard for me.

The photograph I used as a reference was taken in the early 1940s. It was printed as a postcard for sending to relatives. My mother wore a nice dress with a small print, possibly flowers, white socks, ankle boots, and a big white bow in her hair. It must have been hard for her to sit still for the photo session at this young age. In another photo from the session, which I only saw later, you see that her fists are balled even though she is smiling at the camera.

My reference photo was rather sepia than black and white. I am not sure if the photo always looked like this or if the colour changed over the decades.

When I read the rules for the exhibition, I immediately wanted to paint my mother’s portrait because the exhibition theme “Rearview Mirror” resonated with me as a view into the past. The old fashioned portrait was just perfect. I also wanted to challenge myself as I had not painted many portraits before and always felt that “they were not my thing”.

As I have not seen many other photos of my mother as a child and did not have any others in my possession, I had to rely on this sole photograph. Usually, I like to have a couple of reference photos to take what is best out of them to create my painting. I found it quite difficult to get the right shades so that my mother looked natural even though I did not use a black from the tube. Pure black is rather cold and better suited for abstract or comic style paintings. I always mix different darks with Payne's Grey, Burnt Umber, Ultramarine and Cobalt Blue, sometimes adding Alizarin Crimson. At the end, I even added some Cadmium Red to add just a touch of colour, hardly enough to make it a pink.

I know my mom really likes the painting, and I am still happy with it after all these years. As for painting portraits, I still find them very challenging and after one failed attempt (not a bad painting but just not what the person expected) will stick to portraits of family members. I need to know the persons well to feel comfortable painting them, and to be able to capture their character.

For all of you who are mothers, I wish you a “Happy Mother’s Day”. If you are lucky like me to still have your own mother in your life , I hope you will be able to spend a couple of memorable hours together.

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Friday, 1 May 2015

Why I love “Painting like Famous Artists” and You Should, Too

Tree of Life after Gustav Klimt

Blog 17

If you are a subscriber to my newsletter or follow me on Facebook or Google+, you have probably seen some of the artworks my students and I created during my “Painting Like Famous Artists” sessions. I have taught this programme for two years to kids from 7 - 12 years at the Bob MacQuarrie Complex in Orleans as well as in separate adult workshops at Wallack’s in Orleans last summer. The students have always responded so enthusiastically, that I am offering adult sessions this spring at François Dupuis Centre in Orleans.

Every session, I pick different artists. At the beginning, I tried to incorporate at least one Canadian painter. Now, I also try to have different genres as well as one female painter among the four artists we study every session. As many of my students are girls and women, I want to make them aware of the fantastic female painters who often get overlooked due to the male dominated art world.

Each series is not only fun and educational for my students but also me. I always prepare a little biography of the painters’ lives, find out what was important to them and their painting process. During the preparation of my classes, I always get some new insights. Sometimes, trying out a different style is very uncomfortable because it differs so much from how I work.

Often, if you try something new, it is uncomfortable at first until you know what you are doing. You might find out that an art style you really admired is a painting technique you really do not enjoy at all. This happened to me with the works of Monet. I have the highest appreciation for his works and still love them but I really do not enjoy painting with the short brush strokes the Impressionists used to create their art.

In my demo work, I try to stay pretty close to the painting I am copying. However, I encourage my students to take liberties. Ultimately, my goal is not for them to become a copycat of the famous painter we are studying but to learn some of the techniques they used, to appreciate the seemingly simple artworks for their proficiency, to acknowledge the artist’s skills independently from the student’s likes of a certain painting style or object.

Whenever I took a workshop studying a certain painter, I tried to implement what I enjoyed in the process into my own painting technique. I also encourage my adult painters who usually already have some painting experience to do the same.

If we think about the history of art, many of the masters we cherish today were completely misunderstood and rejected during their lifetime because the created works of art which did not comply with the way art was produced and appreciated by the majority of art critics and viewers. The had a new vision which differed radically from the academic opinion.

I would like my students to have an open mind when looking at different kinds of art. There is so much variety. It is easy to say “I could do this,” or “A child could paint this.” Believe me, I have had these thoughts at times, too. However, you have to remember that you would only be copying someone else’s ideas. It is always easier to copy but it is a challenge to create something new and fresh.

So if you want to find out how some of the famous artists of the past created their beautiful works of art, the next four week session of “Painting Like Famous Artists” at François Dupuis Recreation Centre starts on May 19, 2015, from 7pm to 8:30pm. We will look at the works from Franz Marc, Lawren Harris, William Turner, and Mary Cassatt. Trying to copy one of their paintings might inspire your own creative juices. In the next couple of months I will write about some artist who inspired me on my creative journey.

To register and for more information please go to for the adult session and for the kids session which starts on May 24, 2015, from 1pm to 2:30pm, at Bob MacQuarrie Recreation Complex. During the kids session we will be studying works of Gustav Klimt, Franklin Carmichael,Gabriele Münter, and Vincent van Gogh.