Two senior artists share their wisdom

by Stephen Thirlwall

IMG_0308(1) Agnes Ivan

Artists are not born overnight. They develop and evolve over time. A gifted few have a head start, but they too must go through periods of learning and testing out different methods and approaches and face frustrations and successes before they hit their stride.

While drawing, painting, sculpting, or mixed media work may be done in solitude, the artists are influenced by past teachers and famous artists, as well as contemporary artists, critics, dealers, collectors, and others, who form the artistic community that interacts with them. Similarly, those who just “appreciate art” also evolve their perceptions and understandings. In this context, it is wonderful to see older, well established artists giving their time to present talks, workshops or master classes to others.

In early May, I attended a free talk at Wallack’s Gallery on Bank Street. The front window and gallery walls displayed a suite of primarily large abstract works of Agnes Ivan, the speaker, carefully selected from a much wider pool of her paintings by Dan Pellerin, the gallery’s manager. While only nine people attended the talk, attention and enthusiasm were high. AIVAN (as she signs her paintings) spoke about her artistic training, her early period of urban landscape painting in browns, grays, bronzes and black, and her movement into brighter colours and increased abstraction since spending time in Spain in 1987. An earlier fixation on shadows and silhouettes in landscapes as captured in photographs suddenly transformed into bold black marks across swirling colours “as emotions poured out with the paint.” She says, “When painting, conscious thinking stops. The hand knows where to go.”

Ivan was born in Budapest, moving to Canada in 1962 and Ottawa in 1967. She began art studies at Ottawa Tech, continuing at the Ontario College of Art. Through the 1970s, she received various Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council grants that spurred on her work.

Her numerous exhibitions have extended from Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto to London, Paris, Spain and Germany. Professionally, Ivan continues to both create new paintings and teach classes at the Ottawa School of Art.

These days, Ivan paints on the floor to compensate for the limitations of her apartment space. Often, she starts a work after being stimulated by a piece of music, a film or book. Her preferred medium is acrylic paint, which she applies with a brush, typically following a circular motion.

Beginning with one colour, she then places both harmonizing and contrasting colours. Bright reds, blues, and oranges are her favourites. She spontaneously mixes colours, particularly using white to produce various shades of the dominant colours. Except for a few recent paintings, most contain bold black strokes. Ivan makes strong use of how colours change with the light levels in a room. A well known local artist present at the talk pointed out her “confidence and moxie.”

She always seeks a balance between colours and forms which emerge on the canvas, and between the background and foreground. Vision, intellect, and emotion must come together. She then stops, observing the painting over a few days, weeks or months while she begins work on the next one.

The flow of movement in the picture is important to her. If a work does not stand up to the test of time, she goes back to it until she can’t think of any more additions or changes. Some paintings happen quickly, others unfold with time.

To enhance certain pictures, Ivan scribbles on them with oil sticks. These marks appear like calligraphy. In the 1980s, she especially used small personalized figures—X, O, a heart shape, bicycles. An influence of graffiti shows in her later works. As one attendee commented, “There are so many elements and things in the picture to look at. You don’t get bore. It’s like a fancy carpet.”

Her concluding advice was that artists take time to truly get a sense of each medium they use.

The conclusion of the others present was that one of her larger works would look great in a wider viewing space, such as the National Gallery.

Paul Saindon's painting, La pratique de chant.

Paul Saindon’s painting, La pratique de chant.

(2) Paul Saindon

Paul Saindon is a man with a mission. He has been holding painting workshops at almost all branches of the Ottawa Public Library throughout the spring to share his learning and techniques. In these sessions, he goes over both the basics of beginning a painting and important insights into how to achieve a mature level through knowing how to properly use watercolour, acrylic and oil media; the various tools (brushes, trowels, and putty knives); working surfaces (stretched canvas, board, glass); and other necessary props (carrying bags, easels, palettes) in conjunction with essential principles of light, perception, and colour. Saindon studied with the Ottawa School of Art, but then pursued his own experimentation, drawing on experiences of other artists.

This program is quite unique for Saindon, who, while he had professionally worked as a school teacher, as an artist (now full time), he usually works in the background. He keeps present but not really noticed. As he rides on a bus or sits in a cafe, he draws continually with pen or charcoal, catching the setting and the movement of people within it. While living in Gloucester East, he sometimes visits Centretown. Standing in a small nook along the Bank Street, he quietly paints, nearly invisible to those passing. He observes, takes photos or does pencil or paint sketches from which he develops larger works.

Saindon produces a considerable number of beautiful landscapes, both urban and natural, with majestic mountains, billowing clouds, sweeping fields, quiet forests at midnight in the winter, and village and city streetscapes. He gave examples showing final works and a series of slides covering the main steps in development of the paintings.

I can now understand why he is a master at capturing and displaying light. Saindon makes full use of the fact that the contrast of light and darkness, and the tones in between, are the primary means by which humans visually see and comprehend things. The first step in his painting is to mark the different areas of light and dark, with a few simple lines. Then he begins to lay on paint in each area, giving colour to the patches of light and darkness.

At each following step, he refines his colour selection (shade and intensity) and details of the features in the picture. Saindon emphasizes that each colour strongly influences the colour next to it. He displayed how one colour can cause optical illusion in the shade of a neighbouring colour. If you don’t pay attention to this, you may not portray the colours you want.

Personally, I am moved most by his portraits. Not only do they exhibit exquisite light in human form, they capture something close to the essence of the real people he paints. His portrait catalogue includes nudes, musicians, friends, family, and people on the street. Some are presented in interesting home settings (“indoor landscapes”). For him, capturing “essences” does not mean portraying the subject in hyperrealism. Instead his paintings have a partial impressionistic feel.

He strongly argues “Don’t paint all that you see, just the essential parts that get your message or image across.” Also, he can replicate the nuances of individuals to such a degree that if you knew the person in the painting, but only their back was shown, you would still recognize them.

His next mission is to write a book in French on painting “en plein air.”