Saturday, 5 January 2013


SKETCHING TRIPS: Walter J. Phillips on the West Coast

Canadian Landscape artists have been making sketching pilgrimages throughout the 20th century, often travelling deep into treacherous terrain to find the perfect subject matter. A selection of the more legendary Canadian sketching grounds include Quebec’s Beaupré, Charlevoix County, and the Laurentians; Ontario’s Algonquin Park, Algoma, and Lake of the Woods; the Rocky Mountains, and the coastal Indian villages of British Columbia. These regions each offer their own characteristic attractiveness; but in order for an artist to capture the essence of the land they often must deal with challenging climates and topography. We can marvel at the beauty of an artists’ end product, but all to often the means to the end are forgotten. What mirth or misery did artists encounter before achieving depictions of the perfect light falling on a mountainous glacier, or the early morning hoarfrost glistening on the branches of trees? We may never know what some artists experienced on their travels, but fortuitously many artists wrote firsthand accounts of their voyages. These accounts allow us at least some awareness of the activity behind the finished art. Some artists' sketching trips may have been more rugged or rustic than others, but all have an interesting story to tell about their experiences; whether it be Lawren Harris in the Arctic, A.Y. Jackson in Quebec, or Emily Carr on Vancouver Island. One well-known Canadian artist who relayed his experiences was Walter J. Phillips. Phillips is one of Canada’s most accomplished printmakers and watercolourists, but he was also an extremely accomplished and entertaining writer. The following gives some insight into Phillips’ first sketching trip to the coastal villages of British Columbia in his own words. His account of the trip is compiled in Phillips in Print: The Selected Writings of Walter J. Phillips On Canadian Nature and Art from Phillips’ newspaper column in The Winnipeg Tribune and his publication Wet Paint.

Phillips and his brother embarked upon his sketching trip by renting a 30 ft. gas boat named the Ludo. Phillips wrote, “I am on the British Columbia coast for a definitive purpose. I am here on a sketching trip, that is, to gather material for possible easel pictures, dignified or otherwise.” They went up past Jervis Inlet, stopping first to visit a friend at Sakinaw Lake and then proceeding on to their lodgings at Alert Bay on Cormorant Island. Phillips describes Alert Bay as a “picturesque town,” and the view looking down Johnstone Strait from his rented house at the Eastern tip of the Island as “forever changing colour and shape with the mood of the weather.” At this stage they hired a smaller boat called the Anne, which with its kitchen, lounge and bedroom did not appear completely devoid of creature comforts. After a less than impressive visit to Tsatsisnukomi, Phillips arrived next to Mamalilicoola, where he considered the “surroundings beautiful,... [and the] village strongly attractive.” Phillips wrote about Mamalilicoola: “I found material for several days sketching: the outlook across the bay, with interesting foregrounds, views along the street, and from the beach.” He wrote, “the humidity of the air produced wonderful tones od blue in every background and a range of soft harmonies which never occur in the mountains or in the prairies… as pure landscape it is the finest I have been privileged to see.” Phillips next moved to the village of Karlukwees, calling it “more interesting than the others,” and claiming that it, “provided many subjects for painting” and “In fact, never have I seen a more delectable sketching ground,” he says. These marvelous simple statements relate to some of Phillips’ most cherished West Coast watercolours and woodblock prints- both colour and monochrome.


By: Jill Turner

: W.J. Phillips, Siwash House Posts, 1928, colour woodblock print, 8 x 6.25 in.

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