Desire lines


Dear Artist,

My friend Ross was a firefighter for nearly three decades before retiring a few years ago to paint full time. He says riding the city streets for countless hours on a fire truck gave him not only a thorough look at the district but also a special perspective. After a shift of two days and nights at the firehall, he’d spend two days in the studio making art. This cocktail of co-operation and teamwork spiked with solo, creative problem-solving became his life. The studio time, he says, was a way to quietly debrief the life-and-death emergencies of firefighting.


“Phoenix Park Redux”
oil on canvas, 20 x 72 in.
by Ross Penhall

Ross’s paintings have long won hearts and souls with their soft, blocky character and deep palette. He’s a style-man — delivering a comfort and mystery combo that invites the viewer in for a pillowy landing or getaway. His large oils express a kind of loneliness and absenteeism, though they almost always include a strip of hope in the form of light defined by a hard shadow. A location-driven artist, Ross goes to the trouble to name the corner, trail, park or alleyway, as if he’s painting the portrait of a local personality — only in the form of a stand of pines or boxwood.


“Passing Moment”
oil on canvas, 30 x 65 in.
by Ross Penhall

“Painting is a series of adjustments,” says Ross. “As important as executing an idea is admitting when it isn’t right and then modifying elements of the creation until it works.” He says firefighting is not much different when unforeseen events can force a change of approach. In both jobs, sacrifices are required. “Sometimes it’s necessary to let the house burn and to protect the structures on either side with water,” says Ross. In painting, the whole thing may need to be scrapped. “This is painful, as is watching a fire consume a structure. Yet both failed fights result in tremendous learning for a successful next round.”


“Howell Mountain Road”
oil on canvas, 48 x 60 in.
by Ross Penhall



PS: “Once I began to paint trees (forests, specifically), I needed an escape route, a way out, a trail, an open space, to offer my canvas (and my audience) freedom. Manmade footpaths became an efficient way through a landscape. In architecture they are called desire lines, and in a painting they are a vehicle to lead the eye — and the psyche — deeper into my work.” (Ross Penhall)

Esoterica: When Ross’s paintings started to sell, his friends asked him when he would quit his day job. But Ross never thought to give up his double life. Having two careers, he says, has developed his discipline and commitment, allowed him to explore his passions and provided structure, emotional balance and steady support for his family. This month, Ross released a book of his paintings called, Ross Penhall’s Vancouver, Surrounding Areas and Places That Inspire. As part of his longstanding involvement in his community, he’s giving part of the proceeds to his favourite charity. Artists For Kids connects Canadian artists with the North Vancouver School District to build a permanent art collection for young British Columbians. It also provides enrichment programs for students, scholarships and an art summer school. “I am alive and outside is green and waiting.” (Ross Penhall)


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“Current major forces, both in education and in our society, tend to ignore the value and contribution of art. We must, more than ever, support and encourage the arts in everyday life.” (Gordon Smith)




  1. “Once I began to paint trees (forests, specifically), I needed an escape route, a way out, a trail, an open space, to offer my canvas (and my audience) freedom. In architecture they are called desire lines, and in a painting they are a vehicle to lead the eye — and the psyche — deeper into my work.” (Ross Penhall)
    In the early 1980s I created a diptych titled: ‘No Way Out’ Though unrelated- it was just as the AIDS crisis was beginning- and my friend Paul- who commissioned it- would pass a few years later. I truly just hope my collectors get lost in my work and never find their way out- as they are all a pathway into the SELF. My desire line may stem from growing up in- and living in- an abusive world. That (heterosexist) abuse- which continues on unabated today- has damaged untold numbers of creatives- and cause an uncountable number of suicides. And I no longer believe it will actually ever end.
    And then- there’s yesterday’s loss of another truly gifted androgynous music legend… Prince. “Dearly Beloved- we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life…” Life is short. Make art.

    • I know that the abuse can’t stop soon enough for you, Bruce, because of all the loss it’s caused, but I still hope that it’s getting better and may be gone in another generation.

  2. Thank you very much! I am constantly beset by people whomdo not understand the need to other lives than art. When I train and compete as a master’s swimmer I see a world of blue, of peace and playing with the layers of water- whilst as a photographer I am immersed into the mysteries of landscape. As a collagist, I release all my anxieties of current events. Every art has a place in you and working as a Physio brought me back to reality of dealing with wounded people.
    Mr. Penhall is doing what satisfies his spirit and doing it well!

  3. Beautifully written. Captivating, thoughtful work. Obviously a thoughtful, caring human and an inspiration, I’m sure, to many…certainly to me now. Thank you for this introduction. I will take a deeper look into his work and his book. Wonderful post and perfect way to begin the day. Thank you thank you.

  4. Joanne Stange on

    Well written, inspiring story that strongly matched the exquisite paintings. Beautiful package. Loved it. Thank you!

  5. Ross touched a deep nerve, since fire and art transform all of us at one time or another. One of the most memorable wildfires I covered as a journalist burned so high in Southern Nevada’s Spring Mountains that bristlecone pine trees, some estimated at 4,000 years old, turned into ash. Months later, when a forest ranger and I hiked across the charred mountain tops, we found at least four bristlecone pine saplings growing out of the ashes. Painting mirrors this process, Phoenix rising out of the ashes.

  6. Thank you, Sara for sharing this wonderful painter. He has discovered such a magnetic way of drawing us into the peace he finds when her hangs up his fireman’s suit and dons his smock!

  7. My paintings and drawings have been a real struggle lately. This quote, “Painting is a series of adjustments,” says Ross. “As important as executing an idea is admitting when it isn’t right and then modifying elements of the creation until it works.” is exactly what I needed this morning. Thanks for coming to the rescue with this article, Sara.

  8. Good for the double career. With all the “dangers” of art none is bodily dangerous like fire fighting. I really like Ross’s paintings and I see, though probably not consciously planned, an affinity to the work of Grant Wood.

    • Levi……you have a good eye…….upon looking at his paintings, immediately I thought, GRANT WOOD a Regionalist from my home state of IOWA.

      • Barbara Swanson on

        VEry reminiscent of Grant Wood’s rural scenes! The style and content clicked for me right away…a native Iowan

  9. Now that I am retired from a construction career for 16 years , Painting is my full time career . I use to have a hard time painting portraits , but since I started painting portraits of Pirates , it’s much easier and now I’m painting portraits of my church friday morning breakfast friends , when I come in , they are all waiting to see what new portrait i’ve done , I intend to frame them , sell them and contribute $100.00 from each painting to go for cemetery stone repairs .

  10. Such a lovely letter about Ross! I was fortunate to attend a workshop class with him and visit his studio, where he keeps his fireman gear too. Thank you Sara

  11. I am reminded of the attitude of the irish artist jack b yeats who apparently always described himself as a painter as he felt that the only true art was the art of living. I love the way these letters often show how the practice of painting is entwined with the art of living

  12. Thank you for introducing me to this artist’s life and artwork. They are very beautiful. We are fortunate to have such wonderful spirit among us. I love your writing too.

  13. One of my favorite artists is Norberto, an Italian who painted simple scenes of Assisi. Ross is an evocative New World interpreter of daily life – what a treasure! Thank you, Sara –

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