The spot where Alex Emond finally decided to stop and sit down and paint what he saw was in the middle of a moose meadow. This was 20 minutes up the highway toward Lake Louise from Banff, followed by a 15-minute tramp through the forest. The clearing was a patch of marsh grass, yellow and flat and worn out from winter, crowded by waist-high willow bushes. The tips of the willows glowed red with new growth, a vast optical barbecue. It was a breezy morning in early May. The haze in the air gave the day a blousey, lazy feel, like someone at a picnic doing a lot of talking but not much of the set-up.
Emond is 62 and has been making art in the 150-year-old plein air tradition for more than two decades. In the contemporary art world, his work might be deemed old-fashioned. But this is the strange thing about the tradition of making art outdoors: It never dies. Somehow, we need this.
“I haven’t been as intrepid in the past year,” Emond said, explaining that his father, a teacher, had died and left him a little money, with which he had bought a small house, in Ponteix, Sask., that he had been fixing it up. It had become a bit of an obsession, as some things do with him. He spoke in declarative phrases bunched here and there like the willows, an intelligent, funny guy. Jeans, glasses, white hair, black boots and a multicoloured ball cap that seemed to be made from especially tasteless rec-room sofa upholstery.
We had met a few weeks earlier at a talk about Banff’s history. I asked him if I could watch him paint outdoors, and he said it would be a useful challenge to his introvert ways.
Out in the damp clearing, he emptied his orange backpack: inflatable folding chair, two plastic jugs of water, orange-and-white plastic paintbox, a fistful of brushes, a saucepan (for brush cleaning), a plastic palette, a block of watercolour paper, biscuits, chocolate, roast beef sandwiches. (He likes to eat well: Once, in Vancouver, he wandered into a store that sold nothing but olives. He liked the idea of an all-olive store so much, “I thought I might have to rent an apartment next to it.”)
Emond pointed his seat toward Castle Mountain to the north, and started sketching. A gifted draftsman who studied at the Ontario College of Art and Sheridan College, he didn’t seem to have to think about it much. Fifteen minutes later, he was laying in washes of bright yellow. “You lay the yellow down wherever you see warmth,” he said. That seemed like a lovely idea.
He talked as he worked. Money was the usual problem. “If all you’re doing is painting artwork outside, it’s hard to break even,” he said. “Because of the weather, the cost of framing. So you start saying, okay, you can’t be a brush monkey all your life. Though I’d like to be.” Emond has lived in Banff for 45 years –“almost a local”– eking out a living painting houses and living in apartments so he can paint what moves him. For years, it has been lakes and mountains. Soon it will be vintage trucks and abandoned churches on the skeptical Saskatchewan prairie.
I sat down on a thick blanket and admired the compactness of his kit, the way he carried everything he needed. Digital cameras have allowed him to make faithful reproductions back in his studio, but he still camps out for days at a time, hodding a 60-pound pack and waiting for moments when the light makes a picture. “You sit there all day, or for a couple of days, and magic moments come and go. The landscape is a moving target. The shadows move like a sundial.”
There are 140 billion photographs posted on Facebook these days. Hundreds of millions are landscapes snapped on cellphones. For the most part, they’re forgettable: no moment to capture, just an opportunity to take another shot, pleinairism at maximum cliché. There is only one painting like the one Emond was painting. I keep hoping this is significant.
Pleinairism gave the world Manet, Monet and company
The practice of making art outdoors with the transitory effects of sunlight (the formal definition of plein air art) has been around a long time.
In the early 1600s, Nicolas Poussin spent so much time sketching certain neighbourhoods in Rome that they were known as Poussin’s Walk. But the sketches were never exhibited or sold: They were research for larger, more formal, often duller paintings produced with the help of assistants back in the genius’s lair, his studio.