Status of Original Painting – For Sale
All prices are in Canadian dollars
Size: 15 x 20 inches
Medium: Watercolour on 300 lb Arches
Here’s another in the theme of international scenes that I’ve been painting periodically during the pandemic. This is Kinderdijk, a village situated at the confluence of the Lek and Noord rivers, and east of the city of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring some 19 windmills that drain the polder (low land reclaimed from water) upon which Kinderdijk is situated. These windmills date back to 1740 and at least some of them are still active. I visited the Netherlands in 2015 for a conference, and again in 2016 as the external examiner for a PhD defense.
Painting a Dutch scene provides me an opportunity to reminisce about artist William Wegman, who mentored me. He immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands and settled in Richmond Hill, Ontario. (Note: He is NOT the American photographer known for compositions of Weimaraner dogs in wigs, clothing, and human-like poses.)
My elementary school teachers had been telling my parents for some time that I showed artistic talent and should receive formal instruction. That led in grade 5 to the start of art lessons from Wegman, whose children went to the same school as me. Initially lessons were at his home studio on Monday evenings and Saturday mornings. When life got busier during high school, I did Saturdays only. I was set free each summer but told to sketch or paint regularly, and bring that homework to show when I returned in the fall.
Wegman taught me pencil, pen, ink, watercolour, oil, acrylic, and pastels. Very quickly I found I loved watercolour for the effects that can be achieved only with it. Oil is too slow, smelly, and messy. Acrylic is too fast and plastic, without the useful transparency and experimental unpredictability of watercolour. Watercolour is said to be the most unforgiving medium, that it will show all mistakes, unlike oil or acrylic that can be painted over. Well, that isn’t completely true, but it’s best to keep some professional secrets… I know how to make it behave, whereas at other times I let it do its own thing and see what results.
Under William Wegman’s guidance I initially learned by drawing and painting with other artists’ works as reference (you learn by copying or emulating at first). Studying the work of Robert Bateman and Glen Loates enabled me to paint realistic wildlife scenes, which is one of my first loves. Albrecht Dürer’s work fascinated me for detail and anatomical precision, which is something that I would strive to achieve. The Dutch masters showed me rich colours and the importance of contrast.
Wegman would leave me to paint, then come up quietly to look over my shoulder and compliment or criticize as needed. Even when he was stealthy, the scent of his pipe tobacco gave him away. He was always very kind and in good humor. He taught me perspective, composition, wet-on-wet vs. wet-on-dry painting, how to mix or layer paints to create different effects, the usefulness of tissues, how a brush behaves differently depending upon how you wield it, and that the drab yucky dregs of colour dried on the palette are perfect for shadows. His one commandment was that I finish every painting, because there is always something to be learned from it. Also, you never know what a painting will look like until it’s taken off the table, and then you step back and see it on the wall. I took that instruction to heart and have always followed it. I have had many surprises, where what I thought were disasters in progress turned out to be very pleasing. Plus, I learned that what the artist hates or loves is different from what someone else appreciates.
Over time, I progressed to sketching on location, while painting from reference photographs that I’d taken myself. I can’t do watercolour on scene because it would dry to fast (and have insects embedded in it), plus I typically need 20 to 40 hours to do most paintings. Hence, I only paint from reference photos. My colours and layering became much less the watery transparency of typical watercolours that you might encounter, and more the rich and vibrant colours that you can see throughout my website. People still argue that I must be painting in acrylic or oil, that what I do can’t be done in watercolour. But it is.
To this day I retain facility with the other media and use them occasionally. From elementary school onward, I became adept at creating illustrations for yearbooks, advertisements and huge murals for school dances, covers for programmes of school plays or musicals, and logos or stationery for companies. I think I sold my first commissioned painting in grade nine. For a while I drew a weekly cartoon for the high school newspaper. I painted a flag bearing a gorgeous nude that was to fly from the school’s flagpole on the last day of high school – I produced it on request, but my compatriots lost their nerve about hoisting it. Another flag depicting a portrait of The Who’s bass player John Entwistle was proudly displayed in Exhibition Stadium in Toronto during a concert in 1982. Eventually I found myself doing medical and scientific illustrations for journal articles. But my enduring passion remains watercolour painting.
A few years into the instruction, Wegman suffered some health issues and was ordered by his doctor to stop teaching and rest. And give up the pipe. He dropped all his students but kept me on quietly. He said I was his apprentice. He wanted me to go to the Ontario College of Art when I finished high school. But I was an oddity, scoring equally high for science, medicine, and art in all the aptitude tests, both left and right brain dominant. “I have never seen results like this before,” a guidance counselor remarked, and made me repeat the tests…yielding the same results. My parents, guidance counselors, and teachers urged me to go the route of science or medicine instead of art because it pays better with more job security…and funnily enough, I ended up doing all three.
Wegman mainly painted oils and watercolours, and did many religious paintings on commission for churches.
I took lessons for eight years, from grade five through partway through grade thirteen (yes, we had that back then). And then he died suddenly in 1983. At the wake, his widow approached, clasped my hands, and said that the family wanted me to finish his last commission. They would keep it for themselves. What could I do but nervously say yes? I later discovered that his last commission was to be a watercolour interpretation of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” He had roughly sketched it and was using a photo in an artbook as reference. For me as a high school student, that was the most daunting challenge I’d ever undertaken. I was trying to emulate his style and somehow please his family. It seemed he was looking over my shoulder as I painted, I could hear his comments, and I think he approved of the result.
The photo below is the only one I was able to take, using a film camera. It’s on an angle and muted in colour, but you can get a sense of the result. I would do it differently today, of course.
I like to think that he would be pleased with how my work has developed over the years, and that I’ve now done a painting of a traditional windmill in his homeland. There have been many influences, but his were the most important during those formative years. I still miss him, and still have the sense that he’s looking over my shoulder at times, and reminding me about something he told me I should always or should not ever do…dare I forget?