Harry Stooshinoff has made thousands of landscape paintings – he has been producing artwork on almost a daily basis for over 35 years. Many of his works are based on his local area, just north of Lake Ontario, and embody a beautiful balance between abstraction and realism. We caught up with this painter and teacher to find out more about his practice and how working plein air influences his work.
Debbie Chessell: The bios on your Instagram page and Etsy shop are fantastic: ‘It’s a big, NOISY world… so I make small quiet paintings…’. How long have you been making paintings and what is it about making small, quiet works that appeals to you so much?
Harry Stooshinoff: I’ve been painting steadily ever since university days when I did a BFA in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, then an MFA in Calgary, Alberta, (about 1975 onwards). The business of earning a living got in the way a few times, but I always figured out strategies that allowed me to make art regularly. I retired from teaching high school art after 26 years, about 3 years ago, and even during those very busy teaching years at a wonderful private school, I always found time in my schedule to make work. The small pieces actually started while I was teaching, because in Canada, when you teach at a private school, the hours are very long, and you often need to be on campus after regular school hours, with some breaks of ‘down time’ in between. I’d use my extra time productively, and all holidays, to make small pieces that could be finished within an hour or two. Small pieces on paper or panel are also easy to store, and I am very prolific so it’s important that I don’t have mountains of work everywhere. There is something about a small scale that also encourages all manner of exploration and experimentation. My methods are very intuitive, so all kinds of surprises regarding the process can happen easily and naturally. There is also something that seems secretive, confessional, and very intimate about working small. Perhaps it’s because the work can be easily hidden, or slipped away. I make work every day…..this process is very much like a diary, so this scale suits me perfectly. I also love to sell my work online to people all over the world; small, unframed pieces on paper or panel are easy to package and inexpensive to ship. I love putting my work into the hands of others. The world is filling up! With a population explosion, with ever-increasing competition for scarce resources, the making of things smaller in scale coincides with practicality. While I have made 1000s of paintings, and have sold 1000s online, I always keep a ballast of about 300 works. I couldn’t imagine storing that many large canvases, but it is not a problem at all holding that many small paper works, and I’m able to find each within a few minutes when an order for a particular work comes in.
Debbie: So many of your paintings are focused on landscape painting and the practice shows – your work captures such vast, complex expanses of land in so few, highly refined marks. It’s very impressive and beautiful to look at. How did you develop this language of mark making? Did working plein air help?
Harry: That is an interesting question! Although I started painting on location as a teenager, I painted in other manners and subjects for a number of years, before coming back to painting landscape primarily. It is not a very precise business tracking one’s influences over many years, but I think my great concern with mark making started as an undergraduate when I spent a lot of time looking at the American Abstract Expressionists. Canadian landscape artists such as David Milne, and so many European artists dating from the impressionists, post-impressionists, expressionists, and on through the whole careers of Picasso and Matisse, were all of huge importance. Somewhere along the line, I came to understand that every fraction of a second the surface of the painting is touched, is of paramount importance. The painting is a record of one’s touch, which must always be purposeful and alive. The paint must look like it was wished on, or carried in by some electric force…..it must not look laboured or conscientious. When some passages inevitably end up this way, I edit and simplify so as to start almost fresh again. Although painting is not easy, it needs to look easy! Working plein air perhaps helped with this. There were certainly many wonderful examples to look at. I can see in my mind’s eye, a wonderful branch painted by Cezanne…..an arching branch, painted in one single slow brushstroke of dark….no fussing…just paint it and leave it! Painting on location for me does require a very abbreviated, quick, and decisive approach. There are many ways to make paint look ugly…and fussing too much is pretty much a sure fire way of achieving that!
Debbie: What types and shapes of brushes (or other tools) do you use to create these marks?
Harry: I use primarily fine soft bristle round brushes, of various sizes, with a few flat bristles thrown in. I use my brushes forever, and can’t even remember the last time I bought brushes! Every so often I’ll get a few tiny new brushes for details, but otherwise, I just adapt to the way my brushes behave as they age. I also use small house painting brushes for covering sheets of printing paper with my leftover paints: I use these sheets, of which I have 1000s, for starting my collage paintings. I also use the tips of my brushes to sometimes scratch through the wet paint (this must be done quickly when working in acrylics, as I do, usually within about 30 seconds of applying a layer of paint). I also use a hard pencil to scratch through paint, and to draw on top of dried layers of paint. The pencil is very useful because it almost automatically gives a very small scale of mark, which is hard to achieve in paint, even with my smallest brushes.
Debbie: What mediums and surfaces do you use and why? Do you use different materials when you work outside compared to working from your studio?
Harry: I work almost exclusively in acrylics. Sometimes I’ll also make finished pencil drawings on location (these are meant as works complete in themselves, and not as preliminary studies for paintings). At times I’ll also work with brush and India ink, but the vast majority of my output is acrylic. My all-time favourite surface is archival paper, of all types. I use Stonehenge, Whatman, Arches, Somerset, and others. I like painting on unprimed paper as well as covering it with one or two coats of gesso. I also love painting on thin Masonite panels and thin birch panels. I have these commercially cut for me, but I further prepare them myself. My panels have 2 coats of gesso on each side, with the edges taking more coats because they are the parts most sensitive to bumping. I apply gesso to both sides so there is no warping, and so that each panel is very warm and welcoming to the touch. My work is small and meant to be handled. Sometimes I laminate a fine tooth canvas paper to panels before applying gesso, and I also laminate paper to panels and use these either with or without gesso. Paper laminated to a panel is the most welcoming and intimate of surfaces….probably my favourite! I make these types of panels myself because commercially made panels do not seem to have the same level of quality. When I paint outside it’s usually on a gessoed panel that is attached to a drawing board. I also use all the same methods when I paint inside, but I also do collages inside, which require a studio setup because there are so many materials involved. At the end of a collage session, I have remnants of cut paper all over the floor. A pail of water with a rag and towel sit beside me at all times for the collages, because I have to constantly clean my work surface of excess glue, and it’s also more comfortable and better for good craftsmanship if one’s hands are always clean of glue.
Paper is a wonderful surface….it’s so accepting and forgiving. Canvas is not really necessary for the sizes I work with, and sometimes the texture is too pronounced and can get in the way of the painting. Wood panels are also great; they are almost as accepting as paper, with the added advantage of perfect stiffness and no buckling. I use a variety of brand names of acrylics, and I mix only with water, with no other mediums or additives. I also like to use a wet or damp cloth to remove wet paint at times….this has been a useful technique in the last few years and allows for a certain softening of edges between slabs of colour. This technique, though, is used only for the in-studio pieces, because I need a pail of water sitting right beside me.
Debbie: How long will you typically spend on a plein air painting? Does this differ to a painting made in your studio?
Harry: There is a bit of a windup for every painting I make. I have to get energized for the session, and I have to decide what the daily session will be. And everything is a certainty. I have no rejects or half-finished painting. I commit to making a painting, which means the process will take my full focus and energy, and the work will be resolved in a satisfying way. If it’s an outside work for that day, I sort all my materials and pack them in the car, which only takes about 15 minutes. Finding a scene that fits my requirements for that day can be a bit tricky because suitability is dependent upon light and other factors, but this usually does not take longer than a 15 minute -half hour drive. I take a few minutes to mentally compose the scene once I make my selection and then I set up my palettes from the back hatchback of my car, and I carry this material to my front passenger seat which I first cover in plastic. I tend to work very quickly on site, and the overall feeling is one of racing, but the complete painting takes about an hour to 1.5 hours. I’ll always step out of the car and view the finished or partial image from a distance, and sometimes changes need to be made based on this short critique. I always set up coffee to take with me when I paint on location, and it’s funny because I never take even one sip before the work is fully complete. I fully intend to enjoy my coffee in the process, but I’m usually so intensely focussed that I don’t get to the coffee until the moment when I declare the piece complete. Although working on location feels more intense, the pieces I produce inside take about the same time, perhaps just a touch longer.
Debbie: When choosing a subject for a plein air painting, do you search for a landscape that will match your preformed ideas or do you let all your decisions come from being inspired by whichever site you happen to stumble upon?
Harry: Well, since I grew up on the prairies in Saskatchewan, I must have been trained early to look very far into the distance. This is still the case. I am drawn to very open views than allow me to see a long way, at least in some portion of the configuration. But all places are very ‘emotionally loaded’…there is a feel to them, and I’m very attuned to this aspect when I’m out in the countryside. There is an emotion attached to the location that compels me to do something with it in a painting, but there are also considerations of composition, light and colour, that need to suggest to me that something fascinating could be done in the painting. As well, I need to be reasonably comfortable for a 1.5 hr. duration, so it’s very rare that I will paint in full sunlight in summer (it can get incredibly hot!). I’ll also avoid someplace that is full of mosquitos in wet or damp summer, or someplace that is very windy when I’m sitting outside because acrylics will dry too quickly in the strong draft. I also want not to be disturbed while painting and need to feel that the location encourages solitude, even if there is some road traffic. All of this still leaves many options and I am usually set up and ready to paint on location within an hour of leaving the house.
Debbie: Are there specific qualities that you look for in the landscapes you paint?
Harry: Places seem to have stories to tell….secret little arrangements of colour and space that seem to signify something other than themselves. Special places at special times seem almost to hum. It is the emotional tone of a place that makes me stop and consider it as a place to paint. The location itself is important, but aspects of light, weather, time of day, time of year, also greatly impact the feeling. I’ll often stop and just sit and absorb the feeling of a place before I begin, and often, I’ll say ‘no, not today’ and go to another place. If the feeling of a place is strong enough, the technical considerations of the painting can be worked out fairly easily. Some locations have such a strong character and feeling, under varying conditions, that I want to return to them over and over. I have made countless paintings of ‘Lost Dog Hill’, for instance.
Debbie: Which method of painting do you feel makes a more accurate representation of a landscape: working plein air or working from sketches, photographs and other materials in the studio? Why?
Harry: It’s not so much an accurate optical representation of the landscape I am after in either case – plein air, or studio painting. I do want many of my paintings to have a strong representational aspect, but they are also interpretations based on my mood, memories, and a host of personal baggage that accompanies me everywhere at all times. Most often I do rely strongly on what I see, but the picture requires more than a recording from the scene. Some sort of distillation, twisting, abstracting, happens…that leads to an image that seems somehow a bit true, and worthy of reflecting upon for a time. The fact that everything and every place seems so laden with emotion, is part of this whole equation and therefore my method cannot be based only on a matching of optics from one place, to the painting. I try to avoid a predictability of method, particularly in the studio pieces so as to constantly aim for stronger emotional content, but it might be true to say that the plein air pieces are more closely tied to the pure optics of a particular scene.
On a side note, it is interesting to note what happens when one photographs a scene, sets the photo completely aside, and then paints only directly from observation on site. A photo will often look flatter, unfamiliar, and not strongly related to the scene in front of one. The human eye and mind make constant selections about what to observe, and what importance to give to the detail being observed. This ‘distortion’ made by the mind and eye working in tandem, seems to create a realism more powerful than what is offered by the camera.
But, many of the paintings and collage paintings I make in studio, away from the scene, are very strong in a slightly different kind of way, because the emotions associated with the scene can be more fully addressed through abstraction and distortion, without the full intention to transcribe what is seen optically in front on me.
Debbie: Your plein air set up varies from quite a traditional, travel-easel-in-a-field way of working to painting from your car – why do you use these different techniques? What tools do you require for each method? What are the biggest challenges that you face when working plein air and how do you deal with them?
Harry: I have 2 methods of making plein air work. The method I now favour and use most often is painting directly from the front seat of my car. I pack all my painting materials from my studio, including decanted mixing and cleaning water for the acrylics, into a large pail, for ease of carrying. I also take another container so that I can easily bring my still-wet palettes with excess paint home to make collage papers for studio paintings (as a long-time art teacher I have learned that it’s a good idea to not waste materials!). I most often paint on small Masonite panels outside, which I attach to a larger Masonite board with masking tape. This masonite board will later be duct taped to my steering wheel on site. This serves as a perfect easel for my needs. I started painting from the front seat of my car for a few reasons. First, there is no wind in the car. Acrylics dry so quickly with wind, and being in the car means that I don’t have to continually spray my acrylics with water. Even in intense black-fly and mosquito seasons, I am more protected in the car. As well, I have shade in the car…temperature can get extreme on hot summer days. Finally, I can paint in snow and rain inside the car, usually with one or more windows open, so no weather fully stops me, which is a large issue in Canada. At the start of each session, I set up my paint palettes at the back of the hatchback. I spread a large plastic sheet over the front seat and over the gear shift so that I never end up with paint mess, I spread my paint palettes on the front seat, and work easily through the whole painting process. I keep a spray bottle of water on hand, and paper towels, but I seldom make much of a mess because the scale I work on is small (most often 8 x 8, or 8 x 10 inches). Every so often I step out of the car, to better assess my work. Clean up at the end of the session takes only minutes. I bring enough water to fully wash my brushes.
I also produce complete pencil drawings on 11 x 15-inch paper this way. I use 2b, 4b, and 7b pencils, with the pencil moving continually on the surface of the paper for about an hour.
I also paint outside at a small easel, sitting on a fold-out stool, and using a small folding table to hold paints and water. I still use this method, especially when I want to go someplace that is distant from the roadside.
I also paint landscapes in the studio, either from small 1 minute diagrams produced on location, or from memory, or from cropped digital photos. Often these begin with a collage stage, where 3 or 4 colours are glued over the entire image surface, and acrylic is painted over sections to more fully develop the image. One of my main aims is to produce a work daily, so it is important to vary my processes to avoid any sense of repetition that might lead to a loss of energy for the task.
Debbie: A lot of your paintings appear to have a peachy-pink underpainting of some sort – why do you work with that colour as a base? Do you prepare your surfaces before you go out to paint or do you start from scratch when you’re out and about?
Harry: I often undercoat my panel paintings with a wash of unbleached titanium plus a touch of cadmium red. I’ve gotten into the habit of doing this recently because, since the majority of the landscape will be in cool colours, a warm under-colour offers visual excitement, with the warm still remaining in the minority. In the past, I’ve mixed a variety of warm washes this way, and they all accomplish the same purpose. I lay this wash in on-site……it usually takes only about a minute to apply, plus perhaps a minute or two to dry sufficiently before I proceed to the next stage. I love to paint on a variety of heavy archival papers, either gessoed, or raw, but when doing plein air work, I tend to favour small Masonite panels which I prepare myself. I sometimes do paint on paper in plein air situations, but my paper works tend to have more washy, liquidy early stages, which can get a bit messy in the car. My Masonite panels are fully prepared well in advance, and I like to do this preparation work myself. With small-scale work, I think it’s important that everything remains very intimate, with a lovely feel to the hand.
Debbie: Leading on from my last question, a lot of the pigments you use in your paintings look quite opaque (your under-layers only show through because you’ve applied the paint very thinly or even scratched away at the top surface). How do you choose what colours to mix or use when you’re working and why do you choose these opaque colours over more transparent tones?
Harry: I think in a lot of my works on paper, there are more under-layers of colour that show through, particularly in the pieces that are done on unprimed paper. Absorbent papers really welcome a wet approach in the early stages of a piece. But the whole issue of colour is important and so complex. It’s perhaps important to know that my approach to landscape is not at all traditional, nor is my art training traditional. Rather, my training is a result of analyzing so many methods of painting within the history of art primarily from the 18th century forward. My experience with acrylic is long; the medium does favour opacity and is perfectly suited to building a work through successive layers of paint. I use a simple, very practical colour theory when matching colours. I first match the hue by mixing adjacent hues, if necessary. I then match the intensity or saturation of the colour by mixing with the opposite or relative opposite, mixing very slowly and watching the greying effect. Lastly, I match value by adding the necessary amount of white. My paintings are mostly based on how blocks of flat colours interact with each other, how colours are repeated to create connection as well as tension, how greys give life to brights, how darks and lights balance throughout to create a sense of implied space, and how warms and cools oppose, to create a sense of liveliness. The process is additive, with much editing along the way. It’s possible that entire areas are lost, only to be rebuilt later in the process. The only thing that’s certain in the procedure, is the constant watching for a sense of interaction between colours that either creates a sense of life or falls short. The painting is only complete when some sense of life is kept, in a fully balanced whole. I know the painting will be resolved to my satisfaction….but I don’t know in advance specifically how this will happen.
Debbie: Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects? Where can our readers see more of your work?
Harry: I keep some stock in local galleries, but I tend to be very protective of my time these days, so I’m always very reluctant to book shows because of the time commitment involved. Instead, I use most of my time producing daily paintings and I list everything I make on my various websites. I love sending my paintings all over the world and it`s a pleasure interacting with buyers directly. Everything I make gets listed daily on Instagram, my FaceBook page, Twitter, and Pinterest, and is instantly available for purchase at my Etsy store, and my website. I also have a selection of images available for prints which are matted, framed, and mailed, by the elegant print house, Artfully Walls.
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