When you look at an artist’s work, what may it reveal about their life and passions? Painter Bob Young’s latest series reflect his musical bent and environmental concerns — well, environmental dread.
Some impressions: Maple leaves dancing in shades of red and orange. Textures from smooth to spattered. A lone black pine against a sky of red, purple, and green, broken by hard-edged rectangles. Or spicebush leaves marching like musical notes across the picture. Natural greens accented with greys, pinks, and reds. Each painting pulses with rhythm, whether stately or jazzy. Varied textures and transparencies add further interest. And the focus on tree- and leaf-shapes invites the viewer to better appreciate the species portrayed.
Bob grew up in Guelph, Ontario, a university town lying one-hundred kilometres west of Toronto. Born in 1960, he showed an artistic bent from age eleven, when he took his first classical guitar lesson. “Before visual art attracted me, music did,” Bob recalls. “I remember the first time I heard Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on my parents’ record player: it was like a religious experience. With age, I no longer get that feeling when I hear the sonata, but when I was 12, it was so strong!”
He was soon playing in a classical-guitar quartet, doing concerts at churches and cafés. Also, he played first flute in his secondary school’s concert band. At seventeen, he passed the Grade Eight performance and theory exam at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto.
But visual art — initially photography — attracted him next. In high school he spent countless hours roaming with a 35mm Nikon; he developed black-and-white film and made prints in a darkroom in his parents’ basement.
Despite black-and-white photography’s charms — this was two decades before the process went digital — drawing and painting came to command Bob’s interest. They did so in three ways.
First, as a half-Jewish Canadian adolescent in the 1970s, he sought identity through the country’s Group of Seven landscape painters, who had been active a half-century earlier. (Bob counts four ethnicities in his background: Irish, Scottish, Polish, and Romanian. His mother grew up Catholic; in his teens, he already was — and remains — an agnostic.) Among the Group of Seven’s output, Lawren Harris’s spiritually-tinged landscapes became favourites. “Like many artists, I find that making and experiencing art are as close to religion as I get,” Bob admits.
His second creative spur was Allan Ackman, a surrealist artist and friend of Bob’s father. Ackman made eerie charcoal drawings of intertwined figures and faces, depicted with subtle shading. During Bob’s teen years, the family occasionally visited Ackman’s farm near Eden Mills, a village near Guelph. There they would chat with the reclusive master in his studio, a converted barn. “After a trip to Ackman’s studio,” Bob says, “I would sit in my room with a sketchbook and 4B pencil, and try to conjure shaded, mysterious figures. The experience had heft. Though I was mimicking Ackman’s style, I still sensed I was crossing a threshold into something deep, almost sacred.”
Third, in a less personal but powerful way, the Canadian school of High Realism made an impression on Bob. Its practitioners included Lionel LeMoine Fitzgerald in the 1930s, and Ken Danby and Alex Colville from the 1970s to the century’s close. In particular, while training in fine art at York University, Toronto, Bob often imitated Alex Colville’s precise skill and geometric designs.
Day Jobs and Colour Insights
After he finished his Bachelor of Fine Arts from York in 1983, the need to earn a middle-class living asserted itself. Bob decided to try architecture. Four years later he completed his B.Arch. at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. From 1988 to 1992, he worked as an intern architect in Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph. But he left the field, feeling better suited to a related discipline, urban planning. In the late 1990s, he shifted again, with work involving the early commercialization of the internet.
In his off time during those jobs, Bob kept painting. Wanting to broaden and improve his skills, he joined an informal group of Guelph artists and produced impressionistic landscapes in the 1990s. And doing so taught him a lot about colour, oil paint, and composition. Landscape painting, though, failed to satisfy him.
One experience that did satisfy Bob during this time was reading Charles Le Clair’s book Color in Contemporary Painting: Integrating Practice and Theory (1991). In particular, Le Clair posed a simple question: what is good (or interesting or dynamic) colour? The author based his answer on the three basic aspects of colour:
- value (aka brightness)
For any painting to have “good” colour, it should have variety among two — or ideally all three — of the dimenions. So, for example, a sucessful painting might have areas of dark, medium, and light value; and areas of the hues red, blue, and yellow. The two properties in this case, value and hue, would actually meld within the composition’s shapes: say, a dark red, a medium-value sky blue, and a light yellow. Today, to plan and develop each painting, Bob still uses Le Clair’s good-colour test.
Leaving the Rat Race
In 2009, Bob decided to devote his full time to painting. Switching from oils to acrylics, he created a series called Tree Silhouettes. Its compositions marry tree outlines with hard-edged rectangles.
Executed from about 2013 to 2017, the Tree Silhouettes paintings rely on the quick-drying nature of acrylics to build up many glazes. Also, asymmetrical balance marks the style of this series. For example, a tree’s silhouette placed to the picture’s left side gets balanced by vivid rectangles along the right edge.
To Kingston, Ontario
In 2018, Bob and his wife Jeanine moved 260-kilometres east from Guelph to Kingston, Ontario. (Toronto lies between the two small cities.) The couple wanted to be closer to Jeanine’s family in Quebec, especially her aging parents.
Being the home of Ontario’s Royal Military College and Queen’s University, Kingston offered a historic downtown and the sparkling waters of Lake Ontario. The city also boasted first-rate cultural sites, like the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts and the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning.
New Locale, New Series
With the change in locale, Bob transitioned from his Tree Silhouettes series into a focus on individual leaves. He chose the new subjects with a goal in mind. Climate change, falling biodiversity, and other environmental issues weighed on him, but he wanted a positive art about nature; the mass media were already covering the risks of inaction. “And, for me,” Bob says, “I wanted to celebrate — almost in the religious sense — the ‘simple’ shapes of plants. By myself I can’t change the world, but my paintings can nudge viewers toward greater reverence for nature.”
He continues: “Each Leaves painting stars one species of tree or shrub. That content is important. But I’m equally concerned with achieving mood and rhythm by repeated shapes, colours, and textures. I want to make shifting patterns, like the minimalist and postminimalist music I love to listen to — except in visual form.”
To create clear patterns, Bob paints the leaf-shapes with hard edges. But he also spatters acrylic across the picture to contrast the sharp shapes. Glazes show the spatters underneath, while opaque layer do not. The result is a variety of colours and textures across the canvas.
Making Kingston Connections
As Bob and Jeanine were settling into their Kingston home in early 2019, he already had the Leaves series in mind. But his connections to the city’s arts community were nonexistent. So, he volunteered as a mentor to emerging artists for the Kingston Arts Council. And he attends the Tett Centre’s First Thursday events — gatherings of Kingston artists to network and share art techniques and business ideas.
“I love First Thursdays at the Tett Centre,” Bob says. “It brings Kingston’s visual-arts community together and clears everyone’s mental cobwebs. And the Tett itself is an inspiring place — a public building with studios for pottery, dance, music, theatre, beside visual arts. And it has a café on the water — beautiful!”
Queen’s, QUBS, and Onwards
Despite having to acquaint himself with Kingston’s arts sector, Bob did have a link to the city’s university, Queen’s. His long-time friend Dr. Stephen Lougheed, a biology professor, is the director of the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS), located on the shores of Lake Opinicon, about 50 km north of town. QUBS is the largest inland field station in Canada.
Research occurs at QUBS, but so does teaching. To help furnish a new library there, Bob donated his painting Spicebush Leaves, Exuberant. “I’m really happy about the donation,” Bob says, “I know that ecological science and conservation must struggle for funding as much as the arts do. I hope more public institutions can display my paintings, where’ll they’ll reach the greatest number of people.”
Whether his paintings hang on institutional or private walls, the artist hopes his subject matter will help bring people to a greater love of nature. “You don’t kill what you love.”
Copyright © Bob Young, 2019.