Painting from observation: ie creative

Since returning home to Vancouver from Spain (which I’ll cover in another blogpost), I got back to my exploration of painting and drawing from direct observation, this time at i.e. creative, the workshop/studio on Granville Island of an art school alumni friend, Cheryl Hamilton. She and her business partner, Michael Vandermeer, make public art, and I’ve always enjoyed their witty kinetic sculptures they made for the entrances to Science World and Ocean Concrete, which to me are like large-scale drawings in space.

Ocean Commotion, artwork by ie creative, 2006 (photo credit: ie creative website)

When I asked Cheryl if I could hang out in their studio to make a painting of their activities, she and Mike were completely trusting and supportive of the idea, and welcomed me to stay for as long as I needed to make my work.

My first visit was for scouting and planning where to put myself and my easel. After making a quick sketch I could see that the best painting place was at the back of the shop. It was a good vantage point from which I could take in activity around a large steel pole that thrust back toward the front windows, and I could paint there while not interfering much with the studio’s operations.

I really love this angle, but I couldn’t physically fit in the easel,  painting gear, and my body at this exact spot. So I opted for a shift three feet to the right, where I could show more of the space, and include the bright light from the windows.

Preliminary drawing at ie creative by Val Nelson, 2015

i.e. creative always has several projects on the go.  During my painting sessions, Cheryl and Mike were in and out of the workspace, sometimes meeting at the big table in the shop, sometimes upstairs in the office;  they planned project logistics, met with clients,  wielded power tools and prepped materials for casting, mentored Emily Carr University students, and fielded questions from visiting tourists. Somehow throughout their busy days they also managed to fit in polishing and welding jobs for a metal parts foundry, and grab some friendly conversation with their Granville Island artisan neighbours who occasionally dropped by.

Michael Vandermeer and Cheryl Hamilton in their studio, 2015

Meanwhile, the polishing of four long steel poles for a large-scale artwork in Steveston was among the works in progress. Jeff, the studio assistant, walked slowly forward and back along the first pole which was resting horizontally on supports. All day long, there was pressure on his right arm as he worked the handheld electric Makita polishing tool.  Beneath his construction earmuffs he wore earbuds so he could listen to his Ipod, and over his face, a respirator and goggles (it’s not a good idea to breathe in steel particles). In my conversation with Jeff about the intense physicality of the task, he likened his body to a lobster, with one outsized claw.

Polishing and painting at ie creative workshop (photo by Cheryl Hamilton)

My painting came together quickly, as I wanted to treat it much like a drawing with lots of white space.


One morning I arrived to find the artists out in the alley with a finished pole, treating its surface and washing it down.  Its surface shone like a mirror. “How long will you be working on this?” I asked them. “About an hour,” Cheryl said. I quickly grabbed a large sheet of paper from my portfolio and some pencil crayons to draw gestures of the activity as they finished the cleaning process and wrapped the gleaming pole with layers of plastic sheeting for storage.

Cleaning and wrapping at ie creative, by Val Nelson, 2015

During one of their breaks Jeff and Cheryl were having a friendly chat about cooking, which seemed to be a regular topic of conversation in the studio. Jeff quoted a famous television chef who said “You don’t really know how to make something until you’ve done it one hundred times.”


On my sixth day, the painting felt near completion, so it was nice to have a little quiet time for contemplation to understand the last moves to make. The transitory feel of a sketch that I was aiming for called for a light touch. I brought in the ghost of a doorway and subtle outline of Cheryl seated at the table on the left-hand side. Full rendering of everything would have felt like overcooking this piece.

Polishing, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, 2015, by Val Nelson

Cheryl said I was welcome to come back anytime if I need to do more work there. What I find myself reflecting on is how art and life at ie creative could flow so seamlessly in such a graceful way.



Painting On-Site

The past two weeks have been super interesting. I’ve been making a painting on-site in my local art store, Opus, on Granville Island. The staff there have been great in welcoming me as I test out painting live in a public space, to learn how the experience might affect my painting practice. Standing on a platform in the paper and sketch-book section affords me a high-angle view of the space, where I can get a bit of distance and a dynamic perspective of the aisles and shelving.

Day 1 at Opus–the first panel of the diptych

What interests me about this part of the store are the rhythmic patterns of different colored papers as they recede in space, and the wonderful childrens’ paintings hanging on the back wall below the managers’ office windows. I always find it interesting making paintings of paintings.

Opus-Day 5
Day 5 at Opus

For quite some time now I’ve been wanting to act on the strong compulsion to be in the world as I render it; in contrast to the isolation of the studio and working from the flattened image of a photograph, I’m finding the immediacy of painting from direct observation to be incredibly energizing and challenging. And I’ve always loved a challenge!

The occasional conversations with interested passers-by is a welcome break from the focused intensity required to do the work outside of my comfort zone; and the happenstance chats with Opus staff throughout the day have enriched the experience––most of the people working there are artists themselves, so it’s lovely to hear a bit about their backgrounds, and share conversation about creativity, the value of time, some nuggets about the history of Granville Island, and how this month’s friendly goal-setting challenge of “28 days of art practice” has been helpful in encouraging them to draw or make something every day. The wall at the entrance to the store is gradually filling up with wonderful little drawings made over the past two weeks.

Opus daily practice wall of drawings, by customers and staff

This new way of working has been a bit of a learning curve: the first week I painted four days in a row, then worked on another project and did some teaching on the weekend. The second week I painted three days, and by the fourth day I realized how challenging this process has been on my energies.

The heightened stimulation of this new painting situation, which in a way is a kind of performance,  means I have to monitor how it’s affecting my physical well-being. On Wednesday night I slept twelve hours, and I then took it easy Thursday. I visited the store only in the afternoon to show the painting to a couple of artist friends, but didn’t paint that day. I’m learning that the time between painting is important, to recharge, think about the work and where it’s going, and what might come next.

Loosening Up! with Craftsy


My new online painting class with Craftsy has launched! I’m excited to announce this because over the past five years I’ve been honing a painting class called Loosen Up! that helps students be more relaxed about their painting process. People seem to really enjoy my classes, and it makes me so happy to see their work blossom! I teach out of my studio, and as a guest instructor in some art schools and various art guilds around BC.

As the Craftsy catalogue already has some solid classes on basic painting technique, they wanted me to deliver something more like a “tips” class so people could take their painting further. So in the class I talk about brushwork, and tips on avoiding muddiness, and light and dark patterns. I especially focus on edges; in other words how to paint objects without hard contours around everything.

Craftsy flew me to Denver for a three-day shoot in October, and everyone there was fantastic and they all love their jobs! I met some other lovely instructors there, like knitters (one in particular whom I will talk about in another blog) and cake makers, who help people to get better at making things they love.

Over the winter the Craftsy editors have been putting it all together and now that it’s live, it’s starting to attract new students from all over. Students can play the video lessons and review what they’ve learned,  as many times as they want, and they can access the classes forever.

Here’s what students have been saying:

“Val, I loved everything about these lessons. The way you communicated the step by step processes, taking us through from start to finish was easy to follow and clear. The filming was fantastic and the way you talked to us made me feel like I was in the room. You’ve inspired me!
Highly recommend this for any painter wanting to loosen up or just enjoy painting! Thank you.”

“Val Nelson’s experience with painting is a joy to watch and learn. Her approach is encouraging, informative, and she offers a variety of techniques of how to paint more loosely. She shows how painting in a more expressive way is about using the materials in a thoughtful and resourceful manner. I highly recommend this course to any artist who wants to learn how to paint in a more expressive style.”

“This class has revealed so many techniques that I have missing at my level of painting. Thank you for sharing your expertise. I’m self taught so my knowledge of the essential elements of composition, structure, and brush work is weak. This class has been so very valuable to my artistic journey. Thank you, Val Nelson and, once again, Craftsy!”

Here is a link to my Craftsy class. Check it out and tell me what you think 🙂






Shooting for fun

I came across a quote by Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu on “Brain Pickings”, one of my favorite blogs about the creative process by the excellent Maria Popova. I think it speaks volumes about the importance of enjoying the process, without attachment to outcomes.

Jasper Johns, Target with Four Faces, Encaustic, newspaper, cloth, canvas, plaster, wood, hinges, 33 5/8 x 26 x 3″, 1955, MOMA

Certainly in painting, I find that the best work comes when I’m relaxed and curious, rather than trying to make something that I think someone would like. First of all, I have to enjoy what I’m doing, and then I need to be sure it’s something that resonates for me. If I’m trying to second-guess an audience, the work is usually dead in the water.

Here’s the quote:

When an archer is shooting for fun
He has all his skill.

If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.

If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind

Or sees two targets –
He is out of his mind.

His skill has not changed,
But the prize divides him.

He cares
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting –
And the need to win
Drains him of power.

~Chuang Tzu

The Gap between your abilities and your taste

This excellent video by Ira Glass gives inspiring advice to creative people everywhere. It speaks to the fact that, when you’re first starting out on your artistic adventure,  your work will fall short of your expectations. The trick is to MAKE A LOT OF STUFF. Through sheer persistence, and logging in a lot of hours you will get there.

Play as a creative strategy in the work of Sara Ogilvie

The following article, about play and the creative process, was written by Catherine M. Stewart, who graciously allowed me to include it in this blog. It originally appeared in Malaspina Printmakers‘ Chop Magazine in 2004.

Sara Ogilvie, Little Runaway, lithograph, 61 x 44 cm
Sara Ogilvie, Little Runaway, lithograph, 61 x 44 cm

Play is the exaltation of the possible. – Martin Buber, 20th century philosopher and theologian.

The word ‘play’ is often used in a pejorative way as being a frivolous activity that has little value or purpose. However, it is precisely the freedom from practical purpose associated with playful activity that allows creative people to open up their minds to new possibilities and relationships, to break the bonds of ‘the expected’, and to arrive at fresh ways of interpreting reality. Eighteenth century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, used the phrase “free play of the imagination” to describe this unfettered mindset that he considered to be an essential part of the creative process.

“Free play of the imagination” is very evident in the work of Scottish artist, Sara Ogilvie, who recently exhibited a series of original prints at the Malaspina Printmakers Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The artist, who presently resides in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, also spent a month at the Malaspina Print Studio as artist-in-residence. In a slide presentation on the work she had done since graduating from the Edinburgh College of Art in 1993, Sara explained her modus operandi. In the initial phase of her creative process, she collects fragments from her surroundings – images that she has either sketched or photographed, textures, signage, and peculiar or absurd things of interest that she has come across in thrift shops, city streets or the library. Nothing is too mundane or insignificant for her consideration. Her visual appetite is voracious and she perceives her surroundings in the greatest detail. From carpets to insects to superheroes, it is all ‘grist for the mill’. As her storehouse fills, Sara begins “playing” with seemingly random elements, exploring the potential meaning that comes from serendipitous combinations and then applying them to particular themes or projects.

Her exhibition at Malaspina, entitled Hither and Thither, focused on considerations about “getting from A to B and the pitfalls, non-starters and spaces we move through to get there”. The prints that Sara selected for this exhibition speak about entering spaces that are known and unknown, imaginary and real, personal and social. With the exception of one, these experiences are examined through the eyes of a variety of animals and toy figures. Besides being very playful in character, the images are thought provoking as well. They pose more questions than answers and are wide open to individual interpretation.

For example, in Husky’s Private Pattern, a dog sits in the driver’s seat (UK) of a parked truck. What is it thinking? If it could go anywhere, where would it go? Does the circular stream of sled dogs around the periphery of the image make reference to its genetic history and, in this sense, reflect this husky’s yearning? Or is the print a more general statement about the frustration of this breed’s present day role in society vis à vis its traditional one– the transportation of goods and people – a function that has been usurped by mechanical invention (i.e. the truck in which it is entrapped)?

Several other prints in the exhibition echo this sense of thwarted purpose. In Little Runaway, a caged hamster is pictured running on a circular wheel. In Midnight Mule, a toy mule with moveable joints is ‘clip-clopping’ in space and getting nowhere. Chuf Chuf Ch shows a humanoid toy figure, eyes wide with anticipation, approaching a break in a circular track. While these prints deal with interrupted or obstructed movement, others relate to unanticipated changes that come about when one enters unknown spaces. In her exhibition statement, Sara cited her time as visiting artist/lecturer at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2002 as being the initial impetus for this body of work. The piece Yonder, which she links directly to this experience, is a metaphor for “venturing into unfamiliar territory and returning, initially seeming the same, but undoubtedly changed”.

To heighten the theme of coming and going, or being caught in between, the walls of the gallery were punctuated with black neoprene cutouts of people and animals attempting to move through portals in space and time. These added to the humorous and quirky character of the artist’s approach to the topic of personal transition and are further evidence of the artist’s willingness to try the unexpected.

The sense of enjoyment in the creative process conveyed through the work, as well as Sara Ogilvie’s mastery of silk screening and lithography, made Hither and Thither a pleasure to experience. Furthermore, the “free play of the imagination” that is so evident in the creation of the prints acts as an inducement for viewers to open their own minds to imaginative readings as they contemplate the images. One can’t help but wonder what new space Sara Ogilvie will occupy next and what intriguing things she will have to say about it.