Creative Expression | July 28, 2021 |

Finding Wonder and Magic with a Pencil: Walking in the Group of Seven’s Shoes

3 minute read
Finding Wonder and Magic with a Pencil: Walking in the Group of Seven’s Shoes

Last August I had the pleasure and privilege of running my tenth artist retreat in the most variegated part of the Canadian Shield, north of Orangeville, Ontario. The purpose of the retreat was to sit in nature, and draw or paint our surroundings in plein air; trees, rocks, water, plants, fungus, bugs, clouds, and sunsets.

I have been teaching for over 30 years and spending a week drawing and painting on location was something I wanted to do since learning about the Group of Seven and Tom Thompson in college.

I spent many weekends before these retreats scoping out perfect locations and planning out when to visit. I planned a morning, afternoon and evening session, each lasting two to three hours each day, as well as sunrise and sunset options. I was using the same framework as the Group of Seven used. In the 1920s the artists used paint boxes that could hold three wooden panels, their oil paints, brushes and rags, as that is all they could carry in the rugged areas of Algoma and Algonquin Park. In theory, this made sense for my group too.

In all that I have read about the Group of Seven and Tom Thompson, in their journals and letters and looking at their art, I knew there could be magic and wonder with plein air drawing. They spoke about God and the spirituality trees exuded. In fact, the way they painted skies changed landscape painting in Canada forever. I accepted their theories and hoped we would tap into that wonder; that magic.

Many of the paintings by Harris, MacDonald and Thompson were spiritually moving but their imagery could be at odds with the basic concepts of creating depth. Traditionally landscape painters would work from top to bottom, background to foreground using large brushes to small brushes to block in colour and the location of everything. The sky is traditionally painted first in a smooth wash or glaze to show the evenness of the sky behind the middle ground and foreground.

This group of artists did not do that. They painted in the foreground of trees and branches first and then wrapped the sky around the trees (like Emily Carr) or they filled in the sky within the branches all in different hues, as if it were a patchwork of cyan, pthalo, ultramarine and manganese blues as the sky changed. Tom Thompson’s The West Wind is a prime example. Here the foreground, background and middle ground all vie for the attention of the viewer. And yet despite this theoretical lack of depth, depth seemed to be achieved. To make the greens seem even more vibrant they wouldn’t use an ochre colour for their tonal shading in the underpainting, but a deep rich alizarin crimson red. They purposely allowed the red to peek through. It vibrated!

Before I started hosting retreats, I didn’t really believe these men really found Divine Spirit, God, or Spirituality. I chalked it up to it being the 1900s, and they wrote in a flowery manner because of the convention of their time. However, I was truly amazed at how easy it was to find the Divine Spirit. By the afternoon of that first day 12 years ago, I found wonder and I most certainly found magic.

For this retreat, I had seven students signed up and knew virtually nothing about them or their desires or their abilities, just their names. After the initial demonstrations and in-depth discussion of long view or short view, time seemed irrelevant. The rocks, babbling brook, and the bark of a tree became my only focus. That session lasted three hours, and it felt like only ten minutes had passed. Each participant focused on their view and there was no talking.

The closeness and solidarity of this shared experience was not lost on me. This time shift happened with every session that week. As the week progressed, the sessions became even longer, and the time flew by even more quickly. The end of a session happened when the work we started was done. And we would come out of our reverie with a sigh and a smile and congratulations in our hearts for each session. We lived in the now of those moments completely. The only comment made was usually when the sun had shifted and our shadows had changed significantly from our initial sketch. “Darn shadows!”

By the last night, we were up until 1 a.m. feverishly painting from our studies of the day with small discourses on art and the process of making and how quickly the week flew by. You would think painting for 12 hours a day would be tiresome or draining, but this was not the case at all. At the end of the week I felt rejuvenated, more connected to the world around me—more grounded than ever before and sad to see it end.

At the end of the week I understood clearly why these artists would sacrifice time; from their families, their jobs that enabled their livelihood, and all the luxuries of an urban setting. Why they chose to be out in the woods with a sketchbook, pencil, canvas, and paint, experiencing the wonder and magic around them. This is an artist’s vacation at its finest!

You can do this even in your own neighbourhood. It just takes a few hours of focused drawing and observing the wonder of the world around you.

About Lauren McKinley Renzetti

Lauren is a practicing artist who lives in Toronto. She teaches drawing, watercolour, acrylic painting, and colour theory with Boomerang. Lauren also teaches these subjects as well as printmaking, and digital painting at the Art Gallery of Ontario and Seneca College.

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