The Leighton Art Centre’s newest exhibit, Come Paint Alberta, showcases an unexpected collaboration of both seasoned painters and the wider community to produce an unpredictable art form.
The exhibit explores the practice of plein air painting, which is French for “outdoors,” a method made popular by 1800 French Impressionists hoping to capture the landscape as authentically as possible by painting outside.
This art medium presents a number of challenges to those who undertake it, such as dealing with changing light conditions, harsh weather, dust and insects.
But for the artists behind the project, Theresa Williams, Laurie Aldridge and Louise Lacey-Rokosh, this is exactly what makes plein air painting so appealing.
“I find for me, it’s almost like a sport. It’s very, very challenging. I don’t know on any given day what’s going to happen,” Williams, who has painted plein air since 2018, said.
Aldridge, who is new to this medium and focuses more on oil painting and portraits, echoes this sentiment, adding that it serves as a way to refine one’s abilities.
“Plein air painting,” Aldridge said, “is the ultimate challenge. And for me, that’s why it appeals so much. I like to challenge myself.”
“So it’s, I think, the best way to hone your skills and to really be accurate with your colours and be quick, because you have to be.”
Speed sets plein air apart from still life painting – artists must capture their scene before it shifts too much.
Williams emphasizes the rarity of being able to return to a scene to complete a piece. Oftentimes the area no longer looks the same, or the artist is no longer in the same frame of mind.
“Where you are on any given moment, you’re painting from what’s happening in your life at that moment. So yes, you’re painting life, but you’re painting life from life,” Williams said.
Fellow organizer Lacey-Rokosh imagined the project as a way to promote the Leighton Art Centre, which is located 45 minutes southwest of downtown Calgary, near Millarville.
Williams, Aldridge and Lacey-Rokosh met through the development of the project, and neither of them really knew what to expect at first.
“Group projects and collaborations are always interesting. You can’t predict anything. You don’t know which way the project is going to go. You don’t know which way you’re going to respond,” Williams said. “The unknown tends to bring you places. It’s like travelling – it’s like going and exploring it.”
As the project evolved, however, it became clear that hosting two-day paint-outs in locations such as Lethbridge and Medicine Hat as originally planned would not be feasible. So the artists shifted their focus to local areas instead, eventually hosting paint-outs in five locations – Canmore, Fort Macleod, Nanton, Bar U Ranch and Orkney viewpoint near Drumheller.
“One of the things that we really hoped as we put this together is that we would attract people that were seasoned plein air painters, but also those who had never painted outside before,” Aldridge said.
The first day of each paint-out at the five locations offered an opportunity for people to work with the artists and practice their skills. On the second day, Williams, Aldridge and Lacey-Rokosh collaborated on a unique piece, “deconstructing” the area they were in.
“We wanted places that had iconic views because we were talking about … taking these iconic views and doing something completely different to them,” Aldridge said.
Differences are a common theme throughout the pieces, as artists Williams and Aldridge emphasize that no two pieces are the same.
“We literally could have stood side by side with our easels touching, looking at exactly the same scene and ended up with something so different from each of our paintings,” Williams said.
“Everyone has their own style and that’s one of the things I love about painting in a group, is that you could all be painting the exact same thing, but it will look so different,” Aldridge adds.
Continuing a legacy
Barbara Leighton opened the Leighton Art Centre in 1974 as a way to bring art into the community while showcasing the landscape artwork of her late husband A.C. Leighton.
Amanda MacKay, director of communications and marketing at Leighton, says the artists created a project which holds true to Barbara’s original vision.
“I think that is just so in keeping with what Barbara meant Leighton Art Centre to be all about,” MacKay said. “I do think that their interest in bringing other people into the art world in any way, any level, is really admirable and very in keeping with our mission and our mandate at Leighton Art Centre.”
For many, art can be intimidating, but Williams, Aldridge and Lacey-Rokosh hope to show people that anyone can take part in whatever way suits them – a perspective which mirrors how Barbara approached art.
“She really believed that art didn’t need to be intimidating and that everybody was born creative and it was just a matter of finding out what you really enjoyed in the creative areas,” MacKay said.
By showcasing professionals’ work alongside beginners’, the exhibit exemplifies the value of stepping outside of one’s comfort zone and attempting the unknown.
“Sometimes I think you can do your best work when you’re not comfortable,” Williams said.
“I would just say, go for it,” Aldridge said. “If you have any desire, go for it, because it’s something that you can improve on if you work at it.”
Come Paint Alberta closes on Oct. 23.