AN INTERVIEW WITH CALGARY ARTIST COLIN BELL
Colin Bell is an artist who brings his passion for the outdoors and many years’ experience into his acrylic, watercolour, and oil paintings. In this interview Colin shares his artistic process, his inspiration, and – most importantly – his wisdom.
When and how did you decide to become an artist?
Now that I’m over 80 years old, I suppose I can call myself an artist with some confidence.
When I was very young I loved to doodle with a pencil. In school in Argentina I began to draw more accurately than my peers, and won a couple of prizes for art. There were several members of my extended family – accomplished artists in their own right – that took an interest in my progress. One uncle paid for me to have private lessons for several years, until university studies in architecture took too much of my time. The artistic impulse never left me, however.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Inspiration is a fleeting thing. Someone said “art is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration”. Rejoice when it strikes, then put in the needed work to make your vision a reality. I may get inspired by nature, places, or other artists’ work.
Most of my work deals with landscape. As a (now retired) mountain hiker and cross-country skier I have a lot of photos from those outings. Looking at them from time to time revives memories of good times with my wife, our kids and friends. I sometimes do still life paintings, figures and animals, but feel most competent dealing with the idea of open space and tension between foreground, middle ground and background.
Tell us about other artist’s work that has inspired you.
Art that I relate to most starts with the French Impressionists – offshoots of them are John Singer Sargent (though not his portraits) and Joaquín Sorolla. Closer to our time I admire Carl Rungius’ oils and Walter J. Phillips’ watercolours. Today my favourite watercolour painter is an Australian: Joseph Zbukvik. I like paintings that show the artist’s commitment to the subject, with bold strokes, patches of vivid colour and strong contrast around the centre of interest. I try to incorporate these concepts in my work, with varying success.
Gondolier’s Siesta, c. 1904, watercolour
John Singer Sargent
Bighorn Sheep on Wilcox Pass, c. 1912, oil
Long Bay Lake of the Woods, watercolour
Walter J. Phillips
Passing Shower on the Plaza, watercolour
Do you work slow and carefully, quickly, or somewhere in between?
I work quickly. Someone said that taking more than 40 minutes to finish the first draft of a painting is to waste one’s time. So let your brush for the first draft be the biggest you can use, leaving details, merging and edge softening for later.
Tell us a bit about your studio: tidy or chaos?
I am not naturally a neat person, but recognize that one needs to systematize one’s workspace to save time and avoid going mad.
I have a large flat file (which I built myself) where I store watercolour paper and canvas boards, and which provides me with a large worktable for cutting mats and framing. I also have a couple of storage units with drawers for labels, tools, reference photos, unframed and unmatted work, crystal clear bags, etc. Finally I have a large shelving unit for my paints and smaller paintings (watercolour and acrylics).
Living in a seniors’ residence, I quit using oils in favour of water-based media. I have a small standing easel in my studio, and another portable easel I leave in our car for field work.
Sounds pretty tidy to me! How do you manage lighting?
In Canada natural light is very variable from winter to summer, with sunny days interspersed with overcast, rainy and snowy days. Paintings hung on walls are seldom viewed in natural light. So I try to work with a combination of warm and cool lighting in my studio, similar to what would be experienced in most indoor spaces.
What’s an unexpected tip/trick that’s been crucial for you as an artist?
Experiencing confusion with one gallery over a work that they had changed the title of, I adopted an inventory numbering system (now up to 1200) for my work, so my inventory number takes precedence over the sometimes changeable title. It helps a lot with managing inventory after developing paintings over so many years.
How does your background, and a career in architecture, influence your paintings?
Architectural training included a detailed study of perspective, shades and shadows, which still helps me with problem solving in my work. My art teacher in my teen years required me to keep a sketchbook to be filled with abstract compositions. This homework helped me understand that good composition does not need to be representational.
How do you manage creative “dry spells”?
When other problems impinge on my life, I sometimes go through dry spells in which I lack motivation to paint. Luckily I have a network of artist friends that help to get me going again. Joining an art group back in 1982 was crucial to get me going and raise my level as an artist. I met other artists and attended classes, workshops and demonstrations by professionals. Our son is also a professional artist, an instructor at the Alberta University of the Arts. We have enjoyed many plein air painting outings with other artists or just the two of us.
Do you have any advice for new(er) artists?
Keep it simple. My art teacher in high school days told me my early paintings were “like the measles, full of good spots.” This meant they were full of detail and too complicated to achieve a strong composition.
Be humble. Accept that you seldom will hit a home run. Strive for competence. Be thankful for sales: they mean the work has struck a chord with a viewer, who will gladly open their wallet in order to experience pleasure whenever they see it on their wall. Open your mind to new possibilities. Participate in art workshops: even when the instruction may not be that inspiring, you will meet and exchange tips and views with other participants. That will also get your juices flowing.
What keeps you painting, after all these years?
I think it is because the act absorbs me, transporting me to another state. In that condition I am oblivious of my surroundings. If the telephone rings it is an annoyance. Now in my eighties, with some visual problems and a body that can no longer reach summits or hike long distances, I still produce competent work. I still enjoy the activity. It still gives me a reason to get up in the morning, and I still look younger than my age. Artists may not live forever, but their work can live on beyond the grave.