Basic brush strokes: seeing, perceiving

canada travel
By Patricia Harris
Globe Correspondent / May 4, 2008

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My journey to these wilds began at my local art supply store. Four friends and I had booked a four-day painting workshop, and I needed provisions.

The pierced and tattooed clerk helped me select watercolor cakes and brushes and then led me to the piles of sketchpads. Even with someone clearly a novice, he was unflaggingly optimistic. "Be sure to buy standard-size paper," he said. "That way it won't cost you as much to frame your final pieces."

I didn't have the heart to tell him that I didn't expect to bring home anything I could hope to hang on the wall. Instead, I hoped to learn to see like a painter: better, more clearly, more deeply. My friends and I had picked the right place. The pristine lakes and old-growth forests of Northern Ontario were frequent haunts for the Group of Seven, the early-20th-century landscape painters who went into the Canadian wilds and came back with vigorous new visual language.

Tom Thomson's iconic paintings of twisted pines on rocky headlands say "Canada" in a single glance. As the five of us began our 275-mile drive north from Toronto to Smoothwater Outfitters and Ecolodge on James Lake, we stopped at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg to experience first-hand the work of Thomson and the painters who coalesced around him.

"Before the group was formed, Canadian artists were painting idyllic landscapes that could be in England or Scotland," said Stephen Weir, a guide, as he led us through galleries filled with images of wilderness lakes, primeval forests, and mountains undulating on faraway horizons. "The Group of Seven was an extreme revolution in terms of art."

They also had a pretty good time. The artists' macho excursions apparently involved a lot of drinking, smoking, and boisterous singing. There were no smokers in our testosterone-challenged group, but we did have a couple of cases of Ontario wine in our van. We'd have to see about the singing.

When we finally rolled into the village of Temagami (population 1,000) and made our way to the shore of James Lake, Caryn Colman was waiting to greet us. She and her husband, Francis Boyes, a photographer and outfitter, have owned Smoothwater lodge since 1994. An accomplished watercolor artist, Colman's style is much gentler than the manly style of the Group of Seven.

But she has a similar no-nonsense approach to the wilderness. She guided us around the property, pointing out the swimming dock, a small island just offshore where moose have their calves, hiking trails through thick stands of ferns, the sauna, and even a hammock where we could dangle our hands into a patch of woolly thyme as we gently swayed.

"There's no reason for bears, moose, or wolves to come near here," she told us. "So don't be afraid of anything." There were, alas, mosquitoes. "Don't worry about mosquitoes," she said when she noticed our frenetic swatting. "Just grab them in your hand and smudge them against your leg."

Colman is a woman at home in the outback, undeterred by the minor inconveniences of backwoods living. "You have to have a sense of adventure, enjoy what nature and the wilderness bring you. We'll get some skills this week," she assured us before the first lesson, "but most important is to enjoy the experience. The landscape will inspire us."

But Colman wasn't leaving it all up to Mother Nature. She began our first lesson by ensuring that we grasped the basics. "Don't use colors straight from the palette," she said. "You'll get more depth and vibrancy by mixing at least two colors." She encouraged us to experiment with the amount of water on our brush and paper to achieve the luminosity of a good watercolor painting.

But most of Colman's lessons were less about technique and more about seeing. On a sunny afternoon she sent us outdoors to practice contour drawing. "Look for something that inspires you," she said. "Sit still in a place that feels right and you will find something." My eyes landed on the bright garden of milkweed and daylilies that I usually breezed past on the way to my room. When I stopped and looked, I discovered caterpillars among the blooms, busily spinning cocoons.

Although we stole time to canoe around the lake in search of moose, our days revolved around the studio building, where we worked at large tables overlooking the lake, and the lodge, where we gathered in the sitting room to talk, study art books, and listen to music before meals. The food, prepared by Colman and sous chef Josh Atkinson, was a revelation: freshly caught whitefish with sweet fern, St. John's wort, and maple syrup; chickpea and carrot fritters with homemade spruce jelly; a wild blueberry tart with shortbread crust. Sometimes we had to remind ourselves that we had come not to eat, but to paint.

On the Fourth of July, Colman surprised us with a strawberry rhubarb crisp topped with blueberries, strawberries, and cream and blazing with sparklers. At the urging of the Canadian women who were studying with us, we sang "America the Beautiful." Then there was no stopping us as we launched into "The Star-Spangled Banner," "The Yellow Rose of Texas," "Dixie" . . . I even threw in a couple of choruses of Arlo Guthrie's "Massachusetts," our state's official folk song. It was a Group of Seven moment, and, yes, wine was involved. Later that evening, in lieu of fireworks, we watched lightning flash over the lake.

Much as we learned to tolerate mosquitoes, we came to appreciate the weather's changing faces. A gray sky threatened rain as we traveled by barge to High Rock, an island and First Nations ceremonial site on larger Lake Temagami. "An overcast day is great for painting," Colman chirped as she handed us each a rain jacket. "The tones of gray recede and you can see lots of layers in the landscape."

When we reached the 200-foot summit, the scene before us looked more like a soft Chinese landscape than a bold Canadian wilderness. I chose a spot on a rocky headland and unpacked my supplies. I studied the patterns of the islands marching across the lake. I looked for the horizon where the blue-gray sky faded into the smooth surface of the lake. I finally narrowed my vision to a single twisted pine and tried to channel Thomson. I could see what he saw in that little tree - its strength, its resilience, the sheer Zen of its tortured form - but I sure couldn't paint it like he did.

For our final lesson, Colman challenged us to paint a landscape without using green - and then conjured up a tree with confident strokes of orange, blue, and brown paint. We usually chatted easily as we worked, but the studio fell silent as everyone concentrated on the final challenge. Then it was time to lay out our work. Colman approached the work tables holding several mats. With the practiced eye of an artist, she laid them on our work, singling out and highlighting the strong areas, isolating the interesting patches. She cropped my paintings very tightly, but I'd managed a few small bits that were . . . not bad.

Truth be told, I haven't returned to the art supply store to purchase frames, so none of my work hangs on my walls. But in the changing light of a true north landscape, I did learn to see into my surroundings. It's a skill I will continue to practice, even without paint and brush.

Patricia Harris, a freelance writer based in Cambridge, can be reached at