Here in Canada we a have national icon. His name is Tom Thomson. For a brief period of six years he painted brilliant paintings of Canada’s north. His images are etched into the fabric of Canada’s culture. Thousands of artists have been influenced by him. His life was cut short (age 40) by a canoe accident on Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, Ontario in July 1917. Employed as a commercial artist in an engraving and design studio, first in Seattle, Washington, and then in Toronto, his spirit wandered from the office. His summers were spent as a fire ranger and fishing guide. In his spare time he taught himself to commit grand themes to small panels with the use of a simple little paint box that he probably made himself. From what is known of him, I’ve made a few observations that, as an artist, you might find of interest:
First-hand reports say that he was forever dissatisfied with his commercial art. He worked long hours and often trashed his efforts, or tortured them with a burning cigar. He understood where his weaknesses lay. Of the few figure-studies that remain, we see that he wasn’t too good at them. His drawing was tight and theoretical. To my eye, there’s evidence of a wandering mind. It’s easy to see him looking out the window.
His first few oils (1911-12) were fairly standard, horizontally formatted, scenes of distant landscape. His more “mature” work (1915-17) shows full use of the picture plane, strong verticality, confident brushwork, “art-nouveau” design and an evolving colour sense. He was a fast study.
The country of his choice was rough and wild, requiring energy to be in it. His small panels resonate with this energy; juicy, honest, unpretentious, expressionistic, a delicious feeling of understatement.
His favourite book was The Compleat Angler by Isaak Walton. It’s the earliest book that describes the art of fishing. He apparently read it over and over again. Frequent camp photographs of his guiding-life show him with a string of fish. Just as a fisherman might fill his creel with trout or pike, Thomson went into the wilderness and filled his paint box with his feelings.
PS: “Thomson painted not merely to paint, but because his nature compelled him to paint — because he had a message. The North Country gradually enthralled him, body and soul. He expressed the emotions of the country, its moods and passions, and all the sombreness and glory of colour. Words were not his instruments of expression. Colour was the only medium open to him.” (Dr. James MacCallum, patron of TT)
Esoterica: Something I learned from our recent day of telephone conversations was that many artists were not aware of the valuable responses that we publish following every twice-weekly letter. Others told me the responses were “the best part.” These carefully edited letters are amusing, informative, and motivating. They connect a growing community, a brotherhood and sisterhood of artists who struggle daily with the same problems and the same joys. Please take a look. You can cruise back through the previous responses as well.
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Roughing it like Tom Thomson
by Lorna Dockstader
Having recently returned from Algonquin Park in Ontario, I have been considering what most people wouldn’t while viewing the wonderful sketches that were done by Tom Thomson. He would have trudged through the dark damp forest over protruding tree roots, fighting off black flies, belligerent moose, surviving the unbearable humidity, and returning to a smelly, smoky, soggy tent! Campfires, no showers, fish and fresh oil paint — you get the picture (wonder what these colours would look like to a synesthetic individual?). Out in our Canadian west I’ve experienced being chased by a bison, hiding from a bear (the bison was scarier), sleeping in a tent in the pouring rain, being surrounded by tents flattened by snow, being eaten alive by “no-see-ums” and mosquitoes, scorching sun and howling wind — not to mention the spiders one encounters in old bell tower… of course I won’t tell the real secrets about plein air painting!
Priming for Tom Thomson’s sketches
What kind of priming did Thomson use on his field sketches?
(RG note) Thomson explored and played with a variety of grounds. They range from a mere varnish, wood stain, (perhaps mahogany) or shellac which allowed the wood grain or other surface to show through and be part of the painting. At other times there is a standard priming in colours ranging from light grays through middle grays and onto colour-toned grounds such as yellow ochre, a range of reds and pinks, as well as darker reds. This idea of a bright or strong ground was being experimented with by a variety of artists at this time — particularly by Lawren Harris and other members of the Group of Seven, the Nordic School, and others. Bright priming has the effect of “electrifying” the look of a painting as small “holidays” of ground show through here and there. The danger is that strong tones may eventually penetrate the overlying layers, causing darkening or sullying, and this is the case with a few of Thomson’s panels.
Exhibition of Tom Thomson paintings
There is currently a touring retrospective — the first in thirty years — of Thomson’s work at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
(RG note) Tom Thomson opened at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in June 2002. When it closes at the Vancouver Art Gallery on January 5, 2002, it will travel to the Musée du Québec, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Tom Thomson careless?
by Joeseph P Blodgett
Your mention of Tom Thomson “looking out the window” made me realize that we all search and dream for that which we might excel at. From what I can see Thomson not so much pined for the woods, but searched for the thing that would give him some pride of place. At the same time, I see in his work of his last year, a loose casualness and carelessness that was not so evident in the earlier work. Perhaps even he was getting bored. Perhaps he was distracted by a love interest. Perhaps this carelessness extended to the tangle of fishing line that some reported was found around his feet when they recovered his body from Canoe Lake.
Tom Thomson’s paint box
You mentioned a small paint box that Tom Thomson may or may not have made himself. Could you elaborate on this?
(RG note) This box was similar to the one AY Jackson used and was probably copied from it. It was made to hold three of the 8 ½ x 10 ½ inch panels in slots in the lid. This size of panel is generally referred to as the “French Size.” The lid is actually deeper than the box itself — the lower part being used as the palette. Paints, brushes and media would have been carried in another container such as a fishing creel. The use of a single and hard-to-clean palette such as this accounts for some of the stiffness of paint that appears in much of Thomson’s work. Half-dry paint sucks oil-medium from the freshly-squeezed paint above.
Panels used by Tom Thomson
You mention “panels” in your letter about Tom Thomson. What panels did he use?
(RG note) Thomson used a variety of supports for his field sketches. It’s safe to say that he painted on what was available to him, particularly when his supply of birch panels ran out, although this varies from year to year. He painted a considerable number on a composite wood pulp (probably bookbinder’s) board which he either shellacked or varnished. Other supports include plywood, cedar, veneer, commercially prepared “Birchmore” board, artist’s canvas-board, Winsor and Newton paperboard, as well as canvas or paper mounted on plywood. A few of the smallest paintings were done on pine or cedar from flour or orange crates. He and his painting buddies as well as other members of the Group of Seven appeared to order panels from a veneer mill at South River at the entrance to Algonquin Park.
Tom Thomson — The mystery, eh?
by Sylvio Gagnon
I have followed Tom’s tracks to many places in Algonquin park where he painted his famous little sketches on 8×10 birch panels. One of these places is very special to me… it’s about a waterfall, called High Falls, that I had seen on the map at the end of Traverse Lake leading to the Barron river (Achray sector). For some compelling reason, I wanted to see and paint this waterfall. Therefore, one day, I canoed to this spot with my wife and I was not disappointed. What a beautiful sight! It was getting late in the day and I quickly did a little 8×10 before darkness set in. We returned to camp at Achray and, after a few days of painting, back home to Ottawa. Several weeks later, while sipping a coffee and flipping through The Silence and the Storm, I noticed a waterfall painting on page 132. To my utter amazement, Tom and I had painted the same waterfall from the same spot. His was done in about 1916 and mine in 1975. WOW! Un peintre des quatre saisons…
Tom and Ralph create a message
by Annette Bush, Georgia, USA
I often write a note on an artist’s birthday to send to friends. It’s a short little bio with a bit of quirkiness that I hope the readers find interesting. Last August 5th on Tom Thomson’s birthday, I wrote: Today’s birthday artist reminds me of my friend, Ralph. He was a plein air painter before it was cool. Lately, it seems that en plein air is the new catch phrase, but for Ralph and Tom Thomson, it is not new. Tom discovered the great outdoors near Toronto during his early thirties. He returned each year to Algonquin Park and a nearby forest reserve to make sketches. It became his favorite place to paint and he spent his summers guiding others and fighting forest fires in the vast spaces and changing colors of the Canadian landscape. My friend Ralph finds his “zone” when camping for several days to paint wispy fog on mountain slopes or flickering shadows in an Alabama swamp. He has even used a barbecue grill as an easel with the warm briquettes keeping his paint from freezing. He paints with passion, knowledge and love of his subject. I like to think that these two quiet characters would have been friends. Tom and Ralph. Not so good with words, but what a message they write in paint. The beauty surrounding them and their easels translated into colors, shapes and textures with a first-hand knowledge. Today, celebrate the legacy of Tom Thomson; spend some time looking for what is unique about where you live. Create a message.
Slide archives derived from movies
by Elisabeth Lehrer
I am extremely interested in hearing from anyone who may have achieved a way to obtain slides from movies seen on a television screen. I have seen so many beautiful and artistically poignant split seconds of a movie that are works of art, but which I would like to transform into a still so that I might paint it. I am somewhat technologically impaired, but to see these amazing and precious shots disappear so quickly is frustrating — a train disappearing into a station, a woman at a window, etc. And again, we have to consider copyrights. The shots I see for just a second or two have barely time to gel and seem lost forever to anyone who would like to savor them as a still or in another format. The actors are the artists, the director captures that art on film, and I would like to say to the world — look at this remarkable moment. This one moment is a masterpiece! But how to go about it?
I bring this up in relationship to the archival process or the in-studio process versus the outdoors/real life process of expressing oneself as an artist. We artists are always looking for sources of enthusiasm that will almost freeze us in disbelief at the beauty and life in something and a way to express those feelings without using our voice.
(RG note) Actually, sitting in front of a television set and photographing stuff in Africa or other places that you might never get to has been done. It’s called “Laz-Y-Boy-Safaring.” Wildlife is an obvious example. You can get material that is good enough for reference. Use a mid-length telephoto, set the speed at 30th of a second and sit back and watch the show through the viewfinder and shoot when you wish. With regard to copyright, it’s for reference so don’t copy it exactly.
A more sophisticated solution, a little more high-tech, is using a computer to record the material. You need a computer purchased no more than three years ago, a ‘TV tuner’ video card and software. The existing TV cable plugs into the computer (through the ‘TV tuner’ video card) and the software will record the programming content on demand (much like a VCR). The software can help edit a recording to ultimately obtain the stills you seek. Finally the still images can be printed with photograph-like quality, projected onto a screen or simply stored as part of an electronic slide bank. Provided you have a computer, this setup is fairly inexpensive and easy to use. Copyright here is another matter.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes Zelda, who says, “I just finished a book entitled, Canoe Lake by Roy MacGregor. A fiction book, based on fact, about the life of Tom Thomson. Well worth the read, as the info in the book came from people who actually were part of his life at Canoe Lake.”
And Alfred Muma who says, “My art teacher in college took me to Smoke Lake and gave me a personal tour of that lake and others, passing on his knowledge of where and what Tom painted. Tom Thomson, though long dead, was very much alive for me and became my first art hero.”