Curtis Van Charles is part of a crowded scene of landscape artists. But he manages to stand out with his hip-hop inspired Cubist painting technique, allowing him to become a well-known Calgary artist and an advocate for the great outdoors.
As a child, Van Charles could often be found either exploring the sights around his home in Saskatoon.
“Growing up, I spent a lot of time just exploring the riverbanks all by myself when I was a little kid. I loved doing that more than anything else,” he explains. Beginning when he was 12-years-old, Van Charles — who had never been good at school — took that love and combined it with his interest in art.
“I remember drawing realistic graphite illustrations of owls and foxes when I was a little kid,” he says.
He tried to pick up other hobbies as he was growing up, like the time he spent being a teenage punk with his band. But he always found himself being drawn back to his drawing and painting. That’s why he committed to becoming a full-time artist, deciding to make a move to Calgary and enroll at the Alberta College of Art and Design. During his time at ACAD, he worked as a graphic designer and started to build a reputation for himself as an artist in Calgary.
All the while, Van Charles had the goal of being a painter.
“I had to sit down and think about what was the most honest thing I could paint. And that was something to do with nature, to inspire other people, to either get outside more, to understand it more, to learn the names of trees, to explore their region,” says Van Charles. “That way I feel like I’m making a difference maybe in some tiny light. I’m not just doing it for myself. I’m doing it for everyone.”
Using certain colours and textures in his art allows Van Charles to pair the pieces of art he creates with design elements in the homes of his buyers. Since his art is meant to be in homes, not just galleries, this is an important concept for Van Charles. “I also want to make artwork that has substance and meaning that, no matter how many times you see it, still tells a story that draws you in,” says Van Charles, adding that he incorporates “a lot of really subtle layers” into his work too.
“That is something that keeps it interesting. If it’s something that is in your home, you see it a thousand times, you see it every single day. I try and keep it interesting for my clients,” he explains. Taking a moment to appreciate a Van Charles piece will leave you wondering where that landscape could be. There is a certain level of familiarity for some of the scenes but they never look cliché.
“There’s a billion artists out there doing the same thing. So when I started doing it, I had to make sure that I was doing it in as original a way possible.” Through trial and error and by incorporating some of the skills he picked up at ACAD, Van Charles was able to create a unique style of painting that starts with a computer screen rather than a canvas.
“I started using Photoshop a lot to create my compositions to figure out what colours I was going to use so that way I could really think about it and stand back and look at it and try all the different options before I started painting. Once I started painting, I could still take those graphic elements, print them, and incorporate them onto the canvas,” he explains.
Iceberg Sunset Photo by Curtis Van Charles
“People always ask me, ‘Oh, where is this? Where did this come from?’ I don’t always know because I just happen to find myself around these things because I like to explore and that’s what I did growing up as a kid. I think that it just makes it more interesting and magical that way,” he adds. This magic is especially important in the crowded field of landscape photography and paintings. What you get from a Van Charles art piece is not quite photography, but it’s also not a painting.
“It’s kind of the best from both worlds. You get these really sharp details from the photography and it’s not just the photography that I’ve taken. It has also been cut apart and then put back together into the composition that I like,” Van Charles explains. This concept of creating art by recreating something that’s already there is similar to the musical art of sampling.
“Hip-hop was literally my inspiration for my process,” says Van Charles. “It’s a place to start and it gets you started, right? And if you end up in a completely different place, you’ve created something that is uniquely your own. No one can easily trace it back to its original form. And I think that’s great.”
“I think that is progression. That’s taking the art form and moving it forward. So thank you to everyone who came before us.” As an example of that technique, Van Charles bought a photo of an iceberg just to get the texture of ice and snow. He then cut it apart and put it into Photoshop. “So I had an idea of how I wanted the shape of it to look,” he explains.
He then continued to manipulate these ideas on his computer until he liked the outcome. “A lot of times, I’ll add my own painted elements into it so that the line between what’s painted and what is a photo is blurred. I think it’s hard to tell and that’s one of those details that draws people in,” he explains.
One of the other techniques which can be seen throughout Van Charles's art is the use of cubism. “It’s the same thing that Picasso used to do when he would paint portraits —he would paint the side of his face, but then he would paint another side of the face as part of the same portrait. So just telling us a little bit more about that person. I’m doing the same thing in these landscapes,” he explains.
“I had to sit down and think about what was the most honest thing I could paint. And that was something to do with nature."
This skill creates an abstract view of a subject which can make the scene appear different at every glance, helping Van Charles stand out from all of the other landscape artists. But he also wants to send a clear message through his art.
“That has always been my goal. It needs to be something that is going to last no matter what type of environment is put into.”
As times change, Van Charles’s work emphasizes the importance of conscious living. At first, he wanted to communicate the importance of being outdoors and enjoy the nature in which we live among. But after seeing firsthand the impact of climate change on the Athabasca glacier, his message took on a deeper meaning on conserving the environment.
“That’s why I started painting these glaciers and icebergs because it is an important conversation to have right now. I aspire to be a certain type of person, someone who cares about nature, someone who cares about the outdoors, or just someone who loves spending time outside,” he explains.
Ha-Ling Peak & Athabasca Glacier Photo by Curtis Van Charles
His success in doing so “has been just getting out there and meeting people in person, shaking hands with all of my clients. A lot of it has been creating something that is different from what’s out there,” he says. Another element to being a professional artist, according to Van Charles, is being really stubborn.
“No matter how many times I fail, I continue doing it and getting just a tiny bit better each time. Being an artist is hard no matter what. So that really has been the hardest part. That’s something that I think every artist struggles with,” he explains. Van Charles believes his success has happened for one reason.
“Consistency. Having a clear message, for me, maybe it is making something for the people and serving the people and giving them what they want as opposed to making art for myself.” The consideration of a client is the most important factor for him.
“I know a lot of artists who paint for themselves as therapy. I think there’s a balance there. Otherwise, it’s not honest.”
- By Ricardo Andres Garcia