Did you know that each summer the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg hosts an En Plein Air Competition? This competition has historically invited contestants to draw inspiration from the gallery grounds as well as the gorgeous views of the surrounding Humber River Valley. For its 2020 competition, due to the requirements of social distancing and limiting travel for COVID-19, the competition was held virtually, with resounding success.
In these times where a connection to the outdoors has become even more vital for our personal and creative wellbeing, participating artists were challenged to draw inspiration from natural sites that were easily accessible from where they lived. As a bonus, the McMichael En Plein Air Competition was extended to include artists and landscapes from across the country!
En Plein Air and the McMichael connection
If you are familiar with the McMichael Gallery’s awe-inspiring tribute to Canadian art, then you will know that one of its key pillars is its collection of works by the world-famous Group of Seven. Active from 1920 to 1933, these Canadian artists (originally consisting of Frederick Varley, A. Y. Jackson, Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer and J. E. H. MacDonald) were known for their landscape paintings, and believed that an art style that was distinctly Canadian could be developed through direct contact with nature. In other words: en plein air.
As depicted in stirring works like Jackson’s Red Maple, Varley’s Gas Chamber at Seaford, and Harris’s Lake and Mountains, en plein air is about interpreting the landscape. It is often associated with the impressionist style and, in fact, the Group of Seven was heavily influenced by European impressionism, whose advocates included heavy-hitters like Monet, Renoir and van Gogh. The en plein air method needs portable supplies, and often presents the artist with unique challenges like wild animals, pesky bugs, gawking onlookers and weather conditions which may range from less-than-ideal to downright yucky. But just like mother nature herself, a session of painting in the great outdoors, in which the artist is inspired by whatever moves him or her in that particular moment, will almost definitely result in a creation that is nothing short of breathtaking.
With six Group of Seven members being buried on the property, as well as an extensive collection of their works and even the Tom Thomson shack on the grounds, McMichael is your destination for this iconic Canadian artistic group. “We consider ourselves the spiritual home of the Group of Seven,” says Jennifer Withrow, head of exhibitions at the gallery. As the only art museum in Canada dedicated solely to Canadian art, your visit will also include contemporary Canadian and Indigenous art, which are two further key pillars of the gallery.
En plein air: the artist’s perspective
Monique Lopes is an instructor with the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. A 2020 graduate of the joint York University and Sheridan College YSDN design program (Congratulations, Monique!), she is actively pursuing a career in digital design. While her future as a professional artist leans to the technology side of the field, her beloved hobby is painting. Throughout the year she can be found at the gallery, teaching in the special camps and programming that McMichael offers. “These are both my passions: design and art,” she says. “I use a lot of my art principals in the values that I teach to kids, and I put that forth in my design practices as well. It all stems from my visual arts background.”
For the past few years, Monique has participated in the McMichael En Plein Air Competition. “It has been such a cool experience,” she recalls. “I love the gallery and I love art. So, I thought it would be an amazing experience to paint on the grounds for a couple of days. But I had never done it before; two years ago was my first time doing en plein air.”
Of course, en plein air is a different experience than that of other types of art, and presents the artist with its own unique challenges (aforementioned gawkers, bugs and bad weather aside). In a landscape, Monique explains, there are so many different subjects to choose from. And sometimes, selecting just one sub-aspect of what the artist is looking at can be as much of a challenge as actually sitting down and painting it. How much, for example, of what your eye sees do you paint? Is it the whole garden, or a single cluster of blooms? Is it the water lily on the pond, or is it what floats beneath the lily pad, too?
Monique recalls with humour being overwhelmed in her first year of the competition for that reason—what on earth to paint (literally!). In her second year, however, she approached her task determined not to overthink the process. “It is simply where your eye takes you,” she says. “It is what interests you, and you build around that specific part of your composition. For my second year, I walked around the grounds for a while, taking everything in and finding what inspired me. Then for my piece in particular, I found a log that had fallen over. There were lines and colours that drew me to it, so that is what I decided to focus on.”
The end result of a day of painting outdoors is a creation that is as much a part of yourself as it is your subject. This is what makes en plein air an art experience like no other. “Just seeing how your brain interprets that information onto canvas is the best thing,” Monique exclaims. “I’ll look at my landscape and then look at my work and think, ‘Wow, I created that.’ In the competition where there are other participants, it’s beautiful to see their paintings, too. To see how they envisioned their subject and made it their own. It tells you a little bit about them, I find.”
For more information about McMichael’s En Plein Air Competition, visit their website at www.mcmichael.com/event/virtual-en-plein-air, or call (905) 893-1121.
Check out our video where artist and instructor Monique Lopes details the process of en plein air painting.
Story by Katherine Ryalen