Skip to main content

Alex Emond is 62 and has been making art outdoors in the 150-year-old plein air tradition for more than two decades.Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail

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.

It wasn't until the 1830s, as everyone knows from Grade 9 art, that early French Impressionists began to paint from life outdoors, in reaction to the formal constraints of the Academy. Pleinairism took off, giving the world Manet, Monet and company and (later, in Canada) the Group of Seven. The art world, rabidly commercial, loves a movement: Plein air was one, with real subjects painted in real settings in real time and real space, the here and the now and the human.

That was the romantic theory, in any event. Kitty Scott, curator of modern and contemporary wonders at the Art Gallery of Ontario, has pointed out that the new rage to paint outdoors was actually the result of three new technologies – ready-mixed tubes of paint, the retractable French easel and trains (so painters could travel to the suburban wilds of Paris).

More than 150 years later, artists are still making art outdoors, albeit more self-consciously. This summer, the Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Centre (named for a beloved Western plein air painter) will mount Pleinairism, a new edition of a show that graced Quebec City's Musée national des beaux-arts last summer.

One classic modern plein air work in the Phillips collection is Rebecca Belmore's Speaking to Their Mother – a seven-foot-high, eight-foot-long, hand-carved megaphone that Belmore, an Ojibwa artist from Southern Ontario, conceived at Banff in the early 1990s. Belmore set up the megaphone all over the country – on Parliament Hill, by lakes, in the forest – so people could speak to the landscape. They got up to all kinds of antics, apologizing for clear-cuts, playing drums, reading poems. Speaking to Their Mother let people do what outdoor art has always done: capture a moment in time and bring the present closer, in the same way people remember who they were with when they saw Christo's silky saffron gates in Central Park in Manhattan. Outdoor art may be old-fashioned, but it has a knack for connecting with common folk.

It probably helps if money is not an issue

The breeze picked up, and Alex Emond set his pad against his boots to dry the washes of yellow, rose and blue he had been applying to the paper in layers. He was talking about the independently wealthy Lawren Harris, who also painted outdoors in these mountains. "Unquestionably a genius. A master, master painter. But you wonder how it helps when you know money's not ever going to be an issue."

Emond began to brush in shadows of lunar black, followed by washes of a thin and transparent viridian green.

Sometimes while out painting, he runs into bears, or wolves denning in the spring. "It's kind of thrilling. Because how else are you going to see a bear close up without getting the shit scared out of you?" When he tires of painting greens – the curse of all landscape painters – he moves higher, above the tree line. "That's the other thing. You get any heat at all, you get a billion bugs, which only make it harder to sit on your ass. But any day that's above freezing, with watercolours, you can paint." Pause, look, dab.

Emond turned to the mountain itself, and its largest tower. "It's called Brewer Buttress," he said. "I don't know too much about the guy it's named after, but I think he was hit by lightning." Pause, look. "Railway worker." Pause. "Not a bad way to go. Gets you right away." Pause, dab, dab, look, dab. "I used to say my preferred way of dying would be to be in a tent and have a meteor go right through me. Then they could name the rock after me. Emonite." Something to be remembered by.

Contemporary artists work in a hive of assistants and curators. Alex Emond works alone. He has never married. "I've had a few girlfriends, of course. And all that. But I like my independence. Like being able to pick up and go when I want to go." His solitude seemed to be a necessity, rather than a stance, broken only by his two Australian cattle dogs. He paints them, a lot. He once lived alone as a fire watcher in a tower on the edge of Jasper National Park. He saw two fires start in three seasons. He never felt bored. "A lot of people don't like any form of alone."

Whatever else Emond paints outside – cars, cabins, creeks – he is also painting a chronicle of his solitude. It seemed admirable, but difficult. The way he kept going, faintly apologetic but never resentful, because somehow he had to. He keeps trying to find "the elemental," the quality he admires in the work of his favourite painters, Edward Hopper (seaside light), Peter Doig (emotional mystery) and Doris McCarthy (the spareness of the High Arctic).

He sat back and looked at his picture. "It's starting to happen a little bit, without flogging it to death." Normally his work is exacting and precisely realistic, but he liked the looseness of our experimental speed painting. He broke out a packet of shortbread cookies.

I looked up. The sky was changing again, lightening in places and intensifying with bolts of brighter blue in others, the haze firming into ropes of cloud – as if the sky had risen late, and was only now showered and dressed and ready for work. "More product," Emond said, stabbing his brush into a mound of blue paint and turning the painting upside down, in the hope that gravity would help him make a sky.

Setting seems to focus the attention of contemporary artists

Even contemporary artists come back to working outdoors. The setting seems to focus their attention.

Modern expressionist John Hartman recently turned to watercolours to paint the mountains of the Columbia Valley. Brian Jungen, the indigenous B.C. sculptor, has filmed his moose hunts. Michel de Broin, a Montreal artist, made a video of a shirtless lumberjack felling a streetlamp with a chainsaw at night in suburban Montreal. All this work was made outside to make us think about what passes these days for nature.

In 2009 at the 53rd Venice Biennale, Ragnar Kjartansson, an Icedlandic performance artist, presented a video in which he and a composer pal perform modernist bluegrass music in a series of majestic outdoor locations near Banff, including on a grand piano on the middle of frozen Lake Minnewanka. The Banff show will display paintings of his ex-girlfriend's house that he made on an easel at 3 a.m. in subzero temperatures by the light of the Icelandic midnight sun: a parody of plein air painting and his own pathetic life, but still trying to achieve what outdoor painting is good at, which is capturing the moment – in this case, of despair, as the artist realizes how pointless it is to repeat what others have already done. "I am just trying to paint an honest subject in an honest mood," Kjartansson noted in the catalogue of the Musée show. "I am painting something because I have promised myself I will paint it. It is a useless action." This is how we all live, sometimes.

Francis Alÿs, a Belgian artist, is famous for having pushed a block of ice through Mexico City until it melted. In his off hours he makes small oil sketches of outdoor scenes, "out of pure pleasure and the desire to retain moments of pure happiness."

Painting doesn't have the 'edge' that defines modern work

By a quarter to 2, three hours after he started, Alex Emond had finished his painting. "I think it's better to just stop there," he said. He slipped the painting into a plastic grocery bag, and we tramped back to the car and town, where we ate our sandwiches.

I have the picture in front of me now. Emond wouldn't claim it was anything more than a rapidly and happily executed experiment. But I find I can look at it for a long time. It does not have what Jesse McKee, the 28-year-old curator of the Walter Phillips Gallery, refers to as the "public edge" and the "larger social implications" that define the best contemporary outdoor work. Emond's painting is the work of a private and personal practice. It requires no explanation.

I called Kitty Scott, to ask her if it was old-fashioned of me to like Alex Emond's painting.

"I think yes and no," she said. "We live in a time when people still write with pencils, but we have computers. It's among the great pleasures people have, no matter what their skill set, to sit in the landscape and make something beautiful. And I find that quite lovely, quite vital. All of these people, whether they're working in a more traditional form or more modern, they're all attempting as best they can to capture a moment. And that moment always escapes them. It always escapes your grasp." But, she added, "art is not just one beautiful view any more."

She's right. But I still look at Emond's painting, and when I do, I remember the details of the pleasant morning I spent in the company of someone who does what he does because he can't help but do it, regardless of what it pays him. His decades of quiet commitment feel almost like a performance piece, except that he didn't plan it. I remember how fresh the conversation was in the clearing, and how the light sat up and gathered round the mountain, as if it and the day were a fantasy. I see all that in the picture.

"The art gallery has replaced the church as a place of worship," Jesse McKee told me. This is true. But you can also just step outside.