On a grey day in March after a thaw, I’m crouched on the banks of the Pretty River. To my untrained eyes, the landscape in front of me looks dull and drained after months under the snow. But when I settle in to observe Mark Berens on a plein-air painting session, I start to see things differently.
Words: Ned Morgan
Plein-air takes its name from a 19th-century French expression meaning “open air” and refers to a style of painting done outdoors, in one sitting, to capture a moment in nature. Inspired by the French Impressionists, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven gave plein-air a distinctly Canadian flavour in the first half of the 20th century. On the riverbank, I’m witnessing a rebirth of the style.
Dressed in several layers of sweaters, a faded Maple Leafs hoody, and a bomber hat against the chill, Berens starts on his small field easel with a few strokes that appear random, resembling nothing in nature, yet. We’re at a bend in the river, the shallows choked with deadfall, and the far bank overgrown with cedar, their winter-faded green dominating the scene. Berens, who works in oils, sees in the landscape a nuance and variety that escapes me. For my benefit, he’s telling me what he’s seeing as he paints it.
“We’ve got layers of trees here…” he trails off as he stabs at his canvas. ”I’m filling in all the shapes, and figuring out my horizon.” He points to the dead trees lying across the riverbed and says, “I might take a couple of these logs out…” (He means, erase them from his picture, not physically move them.)
As I talk with the Montreal-born, Collingwood-based artist about plein-air, the subject of Tom Thomson—just “Tom”—comes up a lot. Last year, to mark the 100th year since Tom’s death, Berens and 10 other Ontario landscape painters became rugged pilgrims, tracing his canoe routes through Algonquin Park and Georgian Bay, pinpointing many of the scenes of his works—and painting as he often did, en plein air. In September 2017 Toronto’s Arta Gallery held an acclaimed show, Untamed Things, featuring many of the resulting works.
“I’m filling in all the shapes, and figuring out my horizon.”
“That tribute to Tom started all this plein-air for me, and I’ve maybe done a dozen in the last year,” says Berens. Venturing outside to paint brought about a change in Berens’ outlook; before, he was primarily what he describes as “a guilty studio artist, painting from photo reference. Tom was painting 100 years ago, backpacking around by himself, and I’m a landscape artist who’d never really gone out there to do it in person.”
Watching the river flow, I try to envision the scene as a painting. It still looks dull, almost monochromatic to me, but not to Berens.
“I’m trying to make this tree disappear so I can get the background behind it,” he tells me. “And then I do little dash patterns to add to the glow, even if there is no sun.”
As he adds his layers, he builds a scene that almost pulses with light and texture. I ask him how he finds a scene to paint. How do you pick one spot over a thousand others? What draws you to a certain portion of land, rock, water, trees and sky?
“There’s beauty everywhere. As an artist, you just have to stop and look.”