By Ken Tolmie

For my first fifteen years as a working artist I explored a wide variety of styles and techniques, all the way from total abstraction in drips, stripes, and textural experiments to varieties of realism and surrealism. I was trying to absorb what was going on in the art world. Incidentally I was acquiring a broad background that I later applied to the development of my current realist technique.

As I slowly worked toward realism I worked from life only. This meant keeping odd things frozen in a locker freezer and hauling them out for a few hours a day. The subject matter was therefore limited.

Conceptually I wanted to broaden my content base and technically I wanted to move away from standardized artistic solutions. I wanted more of the 20th-century ideas in my paintings. Most techniques in a realist painting have been available since the Early Renaissance, as, for instance, the solution to the problem of perspective. 20th-century art, however, is all about the picture plane without any perspective or allusions to depth.

My early rural work was almost all watercolour, or drybrush watercolour, along with a few oils on canvas, and I continue to do both watercolour wash and drybrush watercolour in my current work as well. The paper is usually 300 pound Arches in 57 cm x 77 cm (22" x 30"), or cut to 39 cm x 57 cm (15" x 22"). Occasionally I will do a larger piece if I can find a heavy paper. Quite a number of the drybrush watercolour pieces in my current project, the Window Series, are larger, 72 cm x 103 cm (28" x 48") or larger still.

The application of paint is very free, with many layers of washes to build a wide tonal range. As an oil painter as well I am prepared to push for a broader range of tone. The paintings have many layers to achieve more dark and middle tones. All of the extensive initial work is done with house painters’ brushes, and I splash and use sponges, sandpaper, and rags or anything that will keep the painting alive and unpredictable. This is an inheritance from my earlier days of experimentation in many mediums and styles. The paintings are tightened up only at the last moment, and the real structure is in place in the underpainting.

The Window Series

I have worked for the past decade on a group of paintings called the Window Series. These works have followed along from my first rural series. The Window Series is technically and conceptually more complex than my earlier rural work, and is designed to contrast with it. Using the Cubist idea of a very shallow space and a deregulated environment in terms of perspective, the Window Series paintings explore almost every technical painting idea from the last hundred years of development. For a realist it is very exciting to break out of the strait-jacket of vantage point perspective. In any one painting the image may be composed from parts of different windows, and perspective and focus may vary from point to point. The paintings tend to be larger oils, close in size to the windows they come from.

Early Work: The Bridgetown Series

After a number of years of artistic experimentation in Europe and various parts of Canada I began a series of paintings in 1978 of village and country life in and around the Annapolis Valley town of Bridgetown, Nova Scotia. At that time they didn’t have cable TV or movies, and the place functioned with most of the traditional small town values. As a Nova Scotia native I was accepted into that society as much as an artist could be allowed to penetrate local life for my subject matter, and I had a chance to do a technical review of the traditional uses of realism. Sometimes it was like living inside a painting.

I was aware that this was a re-use of the 1930s applications of realism, with the limitations of those styles (social realism, Grant Wood, Thomas Benton, et al). But it was also one of the last times an artist could explore village life in a North American town in a pre-high-tech era. It was a last peek before the deluge. So I went ahead with the project that still has paintings added to it today, twenty-odd years later.

I decided on a policy of painting things that the community valued or was interested in, to avoid having my own artistic and city based opinions cloud my observations. I let their gossip and activities be my guide through their world. It was eye-opening and exciting to see, and revealing to find that my urban mind was missing so much. By inference other urban minds must also have lost touch with the village mind that has formed so much of human experience.

So there was a subtext to this series about the loss of a tried and proven social view that is being displaced by the new urban mind. In fact, everyone in that village was pretty up to date, so modern life was no surprise to them. But they did live together and stick together in old and familiar ways. Those ways were my focus. What I wanted to do as a realist painter was find images of the physical interaction of the people and to some extent the animals and the landscape. People plough and plant, build barns and fences, and they and the weather and the animals erode and modify the countryside. That was something I could paint. The series became the illustrated story of those relationships.

Bill Foster’s Barbershop

While I lived in Bridgetown, I showed the paintings in the town barbershop window for the local people to see first. This gave me a unique chance to bring art and life together. People seemed to enjoy seeing themselves in real paintings, and their reactions often gave me suggestions for other subjects to follow upon. I also established my own art gallery there so visitors could see the paintings where they were made and could find the subjects themselves. For me there was a great satisfaction in seeing the paintings viewed in this interactive way, before they were sent out into the world as “art,” pictures that meant little to their buyers in faraway art galleries.