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Cedar House Staircase and Sunburst, c.1912
watercolour on paper
62.9 x 54.0 cm
British Columbia Archives
Memalilaqua, Knight Inlet, 1912
oil on canvas
130.0 x 89.5 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Purchased 1950
Indian Church, 1929
oil on canvas
108.6 x 68.9 cm
Art Gallery of Ontario, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto, 1970
Wood Interior, 1929-1930
oil on canvas
106.9 x 70.2 cm
The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Gift of Isabel McLaughlin, 1987
Emily Carr's commitment to the western landscape and Aboriginal cultures never wavered, but her approach to the subject matter changed dramatically over the course of her career. Modifications to her artistic process usually resulted from the encouragement of mentors, artistic and otherwise, who helped her achieve new awareness and insight. However, in the final stage of her career, Carr's technique and process were entirely her own—she needed to look only within to discover both the confidence and the skills she required.
Carr's early education emphasized direct observation, careful study and many sketching exercises before attempting a canvas. Her teachers imparted a faith in the importance of sketching that she retained throughout her career. In her early years, Carr painted exclusively in watercolour, using ink, pencil and watercolour as her sketching mediums. She worked mostly with still life and landscape, which she rendered as accurately as possible in a light, muted palette.
When she studied the "New Art" in France, Carr's technique changed dramatically. For the first time she exchanged watercolour for oil and worked directly from the subject without sketching. Her intent, to find simplified forms to represent the French landscape, was better realized in oil. With this medium she could also emphasize the picture surface and brushstrokes, relegating the subject to peripheral importance. The pale watercolour palette that she had previously used was more appropriate for rendering an accurate depiction of nature, and Carr, now committed to exploring the expressive power of art, was particularly attracted to the vibrant colours of the Fauves. When she worked with oil in studies of landscape, village life and cottage interiors, she could experiment more boldly and bring more intensity to the work than she had done to date.1
Still in France, Carr returned briefly to watercolour while studying under the direction of Frances Hodgkins in Concarneau. Despite the change in medium, Carr did not revert to her previous technique, but reconciled her French painterly style with the watercolour medium. She continued to use a vivid colour scheme, short, painterly brushstrokes and minimal attention to detail. Hodgkins taught Carr to use black outlines to give form to her subjects, and the vitality of her Brittany street scenes surpasses that of even her oils from this period.2
Carr's time in France dramatically altered her artistic practice. Upon her return to British Columbia, she continued to use both oils and watercolours, and her work would never again resemble her juvenilia in the nineteenth-century British tradition.
On her trips to First Nations villages, Carr used watercolour as a sketch medium to document her subject matter, then created studio canvases that embodied more depth and feeling. A comparison between the watercolour Cedar House Staircase and Sunburst (c.1912) and the corresponding oil, Memalilaqua, Knight Inlet (1912), demonstrates how Carr exploited the two mediums to serve different intents. Though the subject remains consistent, Carr used oil to expand on the source material by changing the scale, introducing human figures and altering the overall mood of the painting. She strove for accuracy in her watercolours, but through her experiments with oils, she could achieve an artistic rather than a documentary objective.
During her prolonged hiatus from full-time painting, Carr continued to produce small oils of the Victoria landscape in her French style. She also began to work with craft materials such as clay and fabric to create wares that she could sell in the tourist trade. She decorated her pottery and hooked rugs with First Nations designs, which provided a creative outlet for her interest in Aboriginal themes, albeit one she sensed was exploitative. At this point in her career, she possessed neither the artistic technique nor the knowledge to create the powerful canvases for which she is best known. Her artistic process changed dramatically after her trip to Ottawa and Toronto in 1927, when she had the opportunity to visit the Group of Seven in their studios.
In Toronto, and in Victoria after her return, Carr made a series of sketches to experiment with the ideas and techniques that she observed in the Group's work. After feeling "a little as if beaten at my own game," she became committed to the study and experimentation necessary to elevate her work to their level.3 She was particularly moved by the work of Lawren Harris, most notably the spiritual presence she sensed in his art. Harris, a dedicated theosophist, lectured Carr on the tenets of this religious philosophy, which supposes that humans have intuitive insight into the nature of God.
The wealth of sketch material, in both graphite and charcoal, that Carr produced in the five years after her introduction to the Group marks an important moment in her career, when she was most heavily influenced by external sources. In some of her early sketches, Carr plays with stylized trees and totemic forms that show the influence of Harris and his theosophical teachings. These studies are also evidence of Carr's regard for Ralph Pearson's book How to See Modern Pictures.4 She copied diagrams and applied Pearson's emphasis on design and abstraction to her drawings of totem poles. While Carr worked under the tutelage of Harris and later Mark Tobey, her artistic process was thorough. Her formal canvases were often highly conceptualized and designed, and she required lengthy studies and numerous sketches to work out her ideas. Canvases such as Indian Church (1929) and Wood Interior (1929-30), with their geometric and fragmented foliage, were the products of this careful study.
In working out canvas from sketches, the sketches should convey the essence of the idea though they lack the detail. The thing that decided you to attempt that particular subject should be shown, more or less. Take that small sketch home and play with it on paper with cheap material so that you may not feel hampered but dabble away gaily. Extravagantly play with your idea, keep it fluid, toss it hither and thither, but always let the idea be there at the core. When certainty has been arrived at in your mind, leave the sketch alone. Forget it and put your whole thought to developing the idea.
– "Growing Pains" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, p. 453.
The graphite-on-paper sketches make an excellent comparison to the charcoal drawings that she produced for a brief period in 1929-31. While the graphite sketches are quite timid and focus on one specific technique or approach, her charcoal work is more symbolic and abstract.
Working with charcoal on large manila paper allowed Carr the freedom to experiment without the complication of colour. Many of these works investigate a specific formal problem that would eventually make its way onto a canvas. They also represent some of the earliest examples of Carr's exploration of the relationship between the natural environment and Northwest Coast monumental carvings. Her work with charcoal signals an important transition in her career: she used the medium to confront conceptual problems of volume and space when depicting the landscape. Many of the charcoal drawings she produced in this short period anticipate the canvases that she developed over the next ten years. Once she had worked out her approach to volume and form, she sought a new sketching medium, one that would permit her to focus on movement and spontaneity.
When Carr set aside Aboriginal imagery, she started sketching frequently in and around Victoria, observing the seascape, forest and mountains. She began using an oil-on-paper medium for both its economic and artistic benefits, purchasing large quantities of inexpensive manila paper, and white house paint that she mixed with artist's colours and thinned with gasoline. This medium combined the best attributes of watercolour, which was fluid and fast-drying, and oil, for its coverage and intensity of pigments, into an economical mix that allowed for unmitigated experimentation.
To gain freedom I saw I must use broad surfaces, not stint material nor space. Material in the West was expensive, space cheap enough. I bought cheap paper by the quire. Carrying a light, folding cedar-wood drawing board, a bottle of gasoline, large bristle brushes and oil paints, I spent all the time I could in the woods. Once or twice each summer I rented some tumble-down shack in too lonesome a part to be wanted by summer campers. Here, with three or four dogs and my monkey, all my troubles left at home, I was very happy and felt my work gain power.
– "Hundreds and Thousands" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, pp. 677-78.
Carr's desire to introduce movement and rhythm into her work was easily accommodated by the oil-on-paper medium. She could translate an idea pictorially very quickly, which infused the work with spontaneity, and her intent and means of production became joined seamlessly. With the thinned oil, she could better introduce light and air into her work. The canvases she created from her oil-on-paper sketch material were almost identical to the original in composition and tone. Carr was able to preserve a sense of spontaneity in her oils, although she took a long time to create each canvas and often had to make many intermediary oil-on-paper studio sketches to develop her ideas.
I've learned heaps in the paper oils — freedom and direction. You are so unafraid to slash away because material scarcely counts. You use just can paint and there's no loss with failures. I try to do one almost every day. I make a sketch in the evening and a large paper sketch the following morning — or vice versa.
– "Hundreds and Thousands" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, pp. 731-32.
Throughout her career, as her intent shifted, her artistic process and selection of medium also evolved. A pivotal moment in her career was typically marked by the introduction of a new medium or technique, although sketching in some form remained a constant throughout.
1 Ian Thom, Emily Carr in France (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1991) p. 29.
2 Thom, Emily Carr in France, p. 29.
3 Emily Carr, Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of an Artist (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1966), p. 5.
4 Ralph M. Pearson, How to See Modern Pictures (New York: Dial Press, 1925).