18 December 2014

War Progression

War Progression #1–4

After finding a great photo of a soldier walking down a road, completely loaded with gear, my brain started developing a loose narrative for him and his experience during the war. When I say "my brain" I'm referring to my subconscious collating a lot of the research I'd been ingesting and presenting me with ideas I still don't have a complete understanding of.

Is this one soldier's progression during the war? Is it a physical or psychological progression? Both? Does it represent soldiers in a broader sense? Is it the progression of the war itself? All wars? Is it my own psychological progress while spending nine months on this WWI painting project? These paintings could represent all of those, and any "interpretations" I offer would only be retroactive; as much as I "planned" the compositions, colours, and techniques used in them, they weren't as consciously planned out, metaphorically or symbolically, as, say the three paintings of Toys or Hangin' on the Old barbed Wire (among a few others).

Initial drawings.

Photoshop tests.

The ideas my brain presented were these: #1 would be rather straight-forward; #2 would have a double image and a cut in the canvas which I stitch up with red thread; #3 would be utter chaos, stylistically; and #4 would be serene but moody with a stark white background. I tried these concepts in Photoshop to see if I liked any of those "directions" from my brain.

War Progression #1
20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

The straight-forward one; a brown background instead of green for better contrast. Ring on right hand unpainted, and a slash across his left leg, both showing the orange acrylic ground I use in almost all my oil paintings.

War Progression #2
work in progress

Like I said, giving my interpretations about what's going on in these paintings would be no more insightful than anyone else doing so. Guided by my subconscious, I can only guess at the double image symbolism here: is he literally beside himself, baffled by the horrors he's seen? Am I beside myself, afraid I'd be overwhelmed by the enormity of this project? (this mini series was done quite early on in the overall production (July-ish, I think)). Maybe both, maybe something else entirely.

War Progression #2
work in progress

Based on my brain's initial direction (and the initial Photoshop test) I thought this painting would end up mostly white, like he's in a snowstorm or is fading away from reality, but I still wanted to put in some details and sub-surface colours before the white-out occurred, with the thinking that this would give the final painting some depth and richness. Or not –it doesn't really matter if you can glean any of this in the final painting...at least I know it's there (and I have the photos to prove it!).

War Progression #2
work in progress

The cut. It had to be done. Most likely inspired by seeing a painting an artist (and former colleague) made where he slashed one of his paintings and then stitched it back together. There's certainly an injury/amputation/loss theme happening that my subconscious has a better understanding of than my awake-brain.

War Progression #2
work in progress

It had to be red thread and it had to be substantial. Krista suggested needlepoint thread which worked perfectly.

War Progression #2
20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

The final painting wasn't as white as I had imagined, but, as is, it's the way it has to be.

War Progression #3
20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

"Chaos" was the direction for this one. Absolute insanity. Even though it's very abstract and surreal, this could be in his head or a representation of external conditions. Whatever the hell the case is, I knew I had to look at some abstract art to get a sense of how I wanted this to end up.

I looked at a lot of different stuff, but my mind kept coming back to Jean-Michel Basquiat and his distinctive work. In the Photoshop test I ganged up a few of his paintings in various layers to get a feel for it and to see if it would work. Then I made up a composition in Basquiat's style but appropriate to my project. I was very satisfied with the result and this painting emboldened me to try other artists' styles (where appropriate) to diversify the story-telling in the overall project. It also helped me learn a lot about painting, trying to figure out how others did their work. Exciting!

War Progression #1 & #4
initial drawings (comparison)

I began the last painting with a very loose drawing of the soldier, thinking maybe the lines would be visible in the end, creating a kind of blurry effect, but then I kept adding things...

War Progression #4
work in progress

For richness and depth I used red and blue acrylic as the ground and, if I remember correctly, that's white gesso. I wasn't sure if the lines scratched into the gesso would be seen (even texturally), but they're there because they had to be. seriously: this mini series was like working on autopilot; if I believed in a muse I'd say I was guided by a muse. But it was my subconscious (through years of experience making paintings, and experiencing the world in its infinite variety) telling me to do things without explaining them. It's weird, but I'm satisfied with that understanding of it.

War Progression #4
work in progress

In comes the white oil paint after the blackness on the figure. I wanted something dark and textural, and for inspiration I was predominantly looking at the cover of Peter Gabriel's Passion album: 

"Study for Self Image II" by Julian Grater

I didn't mix as many media for my painting as Grater had for his (charcoal, bitumen, graphite, pastel, acrylic, beeswax, dry pigment, straw, and flower petals on paper), and mine's not quite as nuanced, but I knew it had to have a similar feel.

War Progression #4
20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

In the end I swirled the back end of my brush in the soldier's chest, revealing a tangle of red spirals, and scratched at the left leg, revealing red lines. Dripping water onto the leg made the paint run a bit, creating the trails.

17 December 2014


12" x 24", oil on wood panel, 2014

I deliberately borrowed/stole from the styles of other painters for a small handful of pieces in my WWI painting project, but I think I could have done just a wee bit more of it, if only to get myself painting differently and eventually incorporating what I've learned into my own "style," whatever that may be.

When it finally came time to depicting one of the more horrific weapons used in this war I felt it would be an unusual and maybe unsettling juxtaposition to paint it in bright, cheerful colours. I could have gone in any one of a hundred directions, but the fauvist colour palette of Henri Matisse came to mind almost immediately, so I had a good look and proceeded to borrow heavily from him. I'm happy with the results, especially with the blue cloud of smoke, but I would like to explore working in his style a bit more...

16 December 2014

Armistice Day, Toronto 1918

16" x 16", oil on masonite panel, 2014

I wanted to include at least one painting of actual joy in my 100-painting project inspired by World War One and, when I saw this picture of a young girl celebrating Armistice Day in Toronto, I couldn't resist. I colourized the flags to add some cheer to the picture but I kept the rest monochromatic for that patina of history.

This was the very last painting I did for To the Sound of Trumpets (in the Remembrance section) and it was finished (and still wet) about four hours before I hung the entire show on November 10 (the show opened the next day).

15 December 2014

"Send More Men"

"Send More Men"
16" x 12", oil on wood panel, 2014

During the exhibition of my WWI painting project at Macaulay Church, these two were hung in the middle of the same panel as the Wounded mini series, the subversion of a propaganda poster in the painting above serving as a macabre punchline of sorts.

When I was doing The Devil's Harvest section (as a 24-hour painting marathon of PEC soldier portraits), I found myself painting way ahead of schedule (I'd planned to complete one portrait per hour, on average), so to keep occupied and still have something to show viewers (the event was streamed live online) I started and completed the painting above.

16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014

“…Each man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
John Donne

13 December 2014

More Wounded

Wounded 3
16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014, private collection

Wounded 4
16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014

Wounded 2
16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014

I felt painting one wounded soldier being carried on a stretcher (Wounded 1) wasn't enough, and I had a lot of room (100 paintings) for some pointed repetition, like verses in a song.

During the exhibition I included many quotes dispersed among the paintings. Below is one of the quotes on the panel on which these were hung:

“For the first time the British army lost its spirit of optimism, and there was a sense of deadly depression among many officers and men with whom I came in touch. They saw no ending of the war, and nothing except the continuous slaughter such as that in Flanders.”
British war correspondent

12 December 2014

At What Cost Peace?

20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

Many of the paintings from To the Sound of Trumpets, my WWI-inspired art project, work better when viewed with the rest of the pieces than when taken out of context. By itself, this (and others) may seem a little heavy-handed, but I think it's a key piece in the Remembrance section.

The main inspiration for this painting came from a scene in Alejandro Jodorowsky's extremely surreal Holy Mountain where little, blue birds flew out of a small hole in the chest of a man who was recently killed. After seeing image after image of peace doves and hands holding doves, I subverted a painting by Nancy Howe and added the visceral connection to the soldier to indicate that peace may be the goal, an ideal, but it comes at a price.

The working title for this was Peace Extraction, but I opted for the longer, Star-Trek-third-season-era-like title because it's a little more narrative, but I still like Peace Extraction.

10 December 2014

Seizing the Day (x2)

Nunc est bibendum
14" x 11", oil on wood panel, 2014

The titles of these two translate from the Latin as, respectively, "now is the time to drink" and "now is the time to dance footloose upon the earth," both phrases intended to convey the same sentiment as carpe diem, or "seize the day."

With these paintings I wanted to show moments (like with R&R) when the soldiers took some time away from the harsh reality of war and made the most of those rare opportunities.

Nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus
20" x 16", oil on wood panel, 2014

The top painting is based on a moment in a documentary I found quite moving, one soldier helping a wounded one have a bit of a drink, combined with an image of barbed wire from elsewhere. The bottom painting is based on a photo I found in the Belleville Armoury and I was so taken by the sheer joy of the men in it that I had to include it in my WWI painting project. I don't know if they knew exactly what they were getting into, but these men from the Prince Edward – Hastings Regiment (the Hasty Pees) were certainly having a fun time in the snow before going overseas.

06 December 2014

R & R

16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014

I wanted to have a truthful but diverse representation of what the soldiers experienced during World War One. Even with 100 paintings I knew I couldn't be truly comprehensive, but I did manage to show some non-horrific, non-combative aspects in a few.

One thing that struck me during my research was the very strong bond many soldiers made with each other, despite differences in class, education, wealth, etc., and that these bonds were often maintained after the war among the survivors, these comrades being the only people who could understand the experience.

So I wanted to illustrate a moment or two of levity, or at least a break in the terrible fighting where they were able to take their minds off of it for a while.

05 December 2014

This Silent Countryside

16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014, private collection

Taken out of context, apart from the main body of work that makes up To the Sound of Trumpets, my World War One-inspired painting project, this is simply a nice winter landscape –a silent countryside, as the title would have it. And that's all you'd get unless you saw the exhibition in the church museum at Macaulay Heritage Park from November 11–30 this year (or read this here blog post) and read the accompanying quote from an onlooker in Europe in winter 1917:

"There was something suggestive of tragic drama in this silent countryside where millions of men were waiting to kill each other."

My intent was that if you now look at the painting again you'll see it differently, maybe with a sense of foreboding, doom, or even tragic drama.

04 December 2014

Memento Mori x9

Memento Mori #1 through #9
8" x 8" oil on canvas, 2014

During my research for my World War One painting project, I kept coming across many quotes from soldiers, sentiments in books, poems, songs, etc., saying in one way or another that nobody ever wins a war (it's even the title of the collection of diaries by Prince Edward County's own Ella Mae Bongard). Growing up in the 80s with the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (via the USA & the USSR, the two nuclear superpowers) hanging over our heads, this notion has been on my mind for most of my life, so I knew I had to address this in my project somehow.

I also wanted to include a memento mori to reinforce the real reason for Remembrance Day. Combining these two concepts via a tic-tac-toe board ending in stalemate seemed like a handy solution (and a handy way to do 9 paintings rather quickly). I ended up doing a few more paintings that are literal memento mori and some that can be interpreted as such. Of course, the entire project itself serves as one big memento mori.

Memento Mori #1 through #9
initial drawings

03 December 2014

Dance Partners 6 through 9

Dance Partners 06
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

Dance Partners 07
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

Dance Partners 08
work in progress

Dance Partners 08
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

Dance Partners 09
work in progress

Dance Partners 09
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014, private collection

These are the last remaining paintings in the Dance Partners section of my World War One-inspired painting project, To the Sound of Trumpets.
See also Dance Partners #1 for more contextual info, then have a look at Dance Partners 2 through 5 to see the rest.

02 December 2014

Dance Partners 2 through 5

Dance Partners 02
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014, private collection

Dance Partners 03
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

Dance Partners 04
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

Dance Partners 05
20" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

I had initially planned to do ten paintings of shoes (to represent the beginning of World War One) to make it a nice round number, but deleted one (and re-used the canvas to paint "Why Are We Here?") because I then thought hanging nine in a square would look nice (coincidentally, the one I chose to delete is the one in the middle covered up by #7). Then I realized the display panels I'd borrowed wouldn't fit a square of nine 20" x 20" paintings, so I ended up displaying them horizontally:

Dance Partners during the exhibition.

 Below are the initial ten paintings prepped and ready to go. You can see Number 1 here, and 6 through 9 here.

29 November 2014


Monkey Gun
20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

Like Bang Bang (and, indeed, these paintings are displayed alongside that one in the current exhibit of my WWI painting project) I wanted to emphasize the youth of the soldiers who went off to fight in World War One (the average age of the Canadian soldiers was 26 years old). Unlike Bang Bang I haven't included any young boys, but rather the toys they gave up when they took up arms to fight.

I know that's an ape, but Ape Gun is nowhere near as good a title.
The bullets are years.

Hockey Gun
16" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

The pucks and bullets encode a common Morse phrase.

Toys 3
20" x 16", oil on canvas, 2014

This one doesn't get a cute title or layered symbolism because its subject matter didn't suggest either.

26 November 2014

The Kindest Cut

16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014

Considering the subject matter, my 100-painting project inspired by the beginning of World War One doesn't have very many paintings with blood in them. In fact, blood appears in only 5% or the paintings in an obvious manner (but may appear in a few of the monochromatic ones and also blood may be inferred in a couple others). My intent was to limit the usage and make the red so...red and explicit...to make the impact of it stronger and more visceral.

I've used song lyrics (from trench songs and modern pop songs) as inspiration/titles/etc. in many of my paintings (from this project and elsewhere), but the title of this one came to me subconsciously. "The kindest cut" is a fairly common phrase, but, sure enough, my brain picked it up from "All of My Heart" by ABC, which sounds sweet and romantic, musically, but is in fact quite bitter and desperate, lyrically. Appropriate.

23 November 2014

The War at Home

The Lady Irwin, Defiant
18" x 24", oil on wood panel, 2014, private collection

Quaker Barn Burning
16" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

The Quakers have had a strong presence in Prince Edward County since the late 1700s, building communities throughout the county and prospering. By the time World War One came around, their status as peaceful conscientious objectors who refused to fight in the war became well known, but not gladly accepted by everyone, namely the Ku Klux Klan who, believe it or not, had a faction in PEC and Quinte area. Before the KKK were outed as the horrific bigots they really were and eventually driven out, they were simply seen as just another Christian group (their white robes and hoods are, in fact, based on Catholic ceremonial outfits).

According to one report, the KKK had already burned down at least one Quaker barn out of anger at the Quakers not wanting to fight in the war, and they were on their way to destroy another barn in Ameliasburgh when they were stopped by the neighbour, Mrs. Irwin, who was also raised a Quaker but, in her own words, "didn't exactly follow their peaceful ways." The story she relates of the incident involve her using her .22 calibre rifle to put a few rounds in the Model T the Klan members arrived in, and when that didn't deter them, she shot a hole through their leader's tall hood, prompting them to get back in their car and drive off, leaving the neighbour's barn alone.

These paintings are in the War at Home section of my WWI painting project, and that sentiment couldn't be more apt here; while local County boys were overseas fighting an enemy they had no personal quarrel with, folks back home were also confronted with an enemy, the only quarrel being the one instigated by the local KKK. When I came upon this information early on in my research, I enjoyed Irwin's tale (however embellished it may have been), but I struggled with the idea of including an explicit scene of a barn burning because who, apart from a Klan member or other such bigot, would want that image in their dining room? Weeks went by until I finally decided that this project had to include images that were not only not likely to sell, but ones that may unsettle me deeply –and no painting in this group gave me more discomfort than the barn burning. But I'm glad I did it as it's historical and important to the overall story/point of view I'm conveying. Plus, it's happily balanced by the humour of Mrs. Irwin's feisty defiance in the other painting.

Note: the red circle on the KKK guy is actually meant to be their symbol, but I rendered it so loosely that some people think it's supposed to be a poppy. That's not my intent, and poppies didn't become common symbols of remembrance until the 20s, but I don't mind (and don't discourage) that accidental interpretation as it lends the painting a touch of surreal irony.

21 November 2014

The Tyranny of Distance

16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014

I knew when I painted Writing Between the Fighting that it would need a companion painting to go in my War at Home section of my WWI painting project. I constructed this scene from a few different elements including the young woman who was volunteering at Ameliasburgh Historical Museum and the main setting which is from a photo I took while painting at Rose House Museum.

The title powerfully conveys the heartbreak of being very far away from home and loved ones. I thought I was borrowing it from a line from Six Months in a Leaky Boat by Split Enz, but I discovered that they got the line from a book with that title by Geoffrey Blainey (the subject of the song being the same as the book).

18 November 2014

Snow March

16" x 20", oil on wood panel, 2014, private collection

Part of my goal for my World War One painting project was to try to convey how difficult this war was even when you set aside the fighting and the advanced weaponry which nobody had experienced before. This was not the glorious adventure overseas the propaganda posters promised.

16 November 2014

The Poison Bakery

18" x 24", oil on wood panel, 2014

Back in the deep freeze towards the end of last winter, I was at the archives in Wellington, poring through microfilm of the Picton Gazette from 1914 and 1915, looking for letters from the front, or old ads, or anything else that could give me ideas for paintings for my War at Home section of my WWI painting project. By sheer happenstance I saw these two letters to the editor out of the corner of my eye:

Letters to the Editor, Picton Gazette,
14 September 1914

Mr. Editor: it appears that evil-minded persons have circulated reports to the effect that, being in sympathy with the Germans in the European war, that it was unsafe for the public to use bread and provisions sold by me for fear of it being poisoned.
I am surely at a loss to know what the objects of such statements could be.
I can scarcely imagine that persons in the same business would be unscrupulous enough to fabricate such vile slander to build up their business on the ruins of mine.
As a British subject I intend to invoke the protection of the law, and if evidence of such slander be secured, will bring the guilty offenders into court for prosecution and conviction.
S. E. Van Horn

To whom it may concern: This is to certify that I have made investigations regarding reports that have been circulated to the effect that the bread sold by Mr. S. E. VanHorn has been poisoned, he being a German. I have found these reports to be entirely false and without foundation. Mr. VanHorn is not a German, nor of German descent. He is of Dutch descent, born in the United States, but is now a citizen of Canada, having some time ago taken out all necessary papers. I have no hesitation in stating that the patrons of Mr. VanHorn should have no fear whatever from such defects in purchasing his bread.
C. A. Publow, M.D., Medical Officer of Health

*    *    *

I printed out the page these were on, but struggled for a few months with how to best illustrate insidious rumour; I chose to go with the vandalism angle and, while the skull and crossbones implies poison, a subtler implication is the shape of the hole in the broken glass. The date of these letters makes them extra troubling since the propaganda machine wouldn't have been in place yet.