Whether he’s tromping the Bruce Trail or climbing Metcalfe Rock, Cam Lawrence always brings his sketchbook. words & portrait :: Kristin Schnelten.
Cameron Lawrence is a soft-spoken guy, mild-mannered and modest. Asked about his training in drawing and painting he simply shrugs, “All children create art. I just never stopped.”
No, Lawrence wasn’t an art major—and he doesn’t have a wistful story about being discovered and encouraged by an inspiring high school teacher. What he did experience in youth, though, is a family brimming with talent, and a long history of it.
The walls of both his childhood Toronto home and the family ski getaway in the Blue Mountains are covered with original artwork, most of it from his great-grandmother, a landscape painter inspired by the Group of Seven; his grandmother, a docent at the Art Gallery of Ontario; his father, architect Doug Lawrence; and with his own work, some of it stretching back to middle school.
The family’s passion for creating and appreciating the arts is rooted in a deep respect for the outdoors. Canoeing at the cottage, surrounded by the quintessential wind-blown pines of the Canadian Shield, is a recurring theme in pencil and paint through at least four generations.
Unsurprisingly, Lawrence feels called to landscapes. And, choosing to work en plein air rather than from a photograph, most of those nature sketches are completed in pen and ink—primarily for its practicality but also for its expressive nature: “I like ink because of the permanence and how much you can convey through the linework. The way you create the different values requires a lot of thought.”
Taking part in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection’s En Plein Air Competition two years in a row, Lawrence pushed himself to complete multiple paintings over the span of two days, taking home first place in his category in 2018 and the Young Artist Award in 2019.
But most of his work is created where he happens to find himself. A four-year tree-planting veteran, competitive mountain biker and rock climber, the bulk of his time is spent outdoors, invariably with a simple kit tucked into his pack—sketchbook, watercolour set, container of pens. “Sometimes while I’m climbing I’ll need a bit of a rest, and I’ll sort of sit to the side and do a quick 20-minute sketch, but other times I’ll specifically go out just to draw.”
Working in place has its limitations, from changing light and weather conditions to that persistent Ontario pest, the blackfly. A video on his Instagram that hasn’t gone viral, but really should, is a painful loop of Lawrence’s face swarmed by what clearly is a few billion blackflies. Although he was technically tree planting at the time, he could have been sketching. Buzzing pests are to be expected when you pause from your day’s kilometre or vertical goal and truly look around you.
“Light is very dynamic, and you’ll only have that light for a very brief instant. You don’t really pick that up when you’re just walking through,” says Lawrence. “When you’re looking at a landscape for an hour, you really notice how much it changes.”
But when the rain starts to fall, or the light entirely disappears, “It forces you to be a bit looser and to quickly capture the feeling as opposed to every detail,” he says.
When Lawrence says “you,” he really means you. Art to Cameron is something every one of us can, and should, do. “I think a lot of times it’s hard to really be present when you’re going out for a hike. Often you’re thinking about getting a photo instead of creating an experience,” he says. But sketching “is a bit like a journal. You can pull out a sketchbook at the top of the hike, while you’re resting. Record your memories, record the landscape. The longer you sit in one spot, you’ll see small details start to reveal themselves. That’s one of the reasons I like drawing. You get a different level of connection with the environment you’re in.”
His stacks of sketchbooks, documenting portaging adventures, climbing afternoons, world travels and mountain streams, are primarily private chronicles for Cameron. He does sell prints and has completed commissions, but as a recent graduate with a master’s degree in environmental engineering, the work of art marketing takes a backseat to his day job modeling sustainable buildings.
Art, though, isn’t completely off his radar for a possible career path. Lawrence recently completed a series of workshops through Etchr Studio, teaching live master classes in ink and watercolour. The process reenergized his eagerness to empower others.
“People tend to stop drawing at a certain age, and they get more critical as they get older,” he says. “They always say, ‘Oh, I can’t draw.’ But there’s a lot of value in creating for the sake of it. You don’t have to worry about the finished product so much. Just pull out a sketchbook and draw what you see.”
“I don’t have a political message in my art, but I do hope I can inspire people to get outside more or to be creative. Although,” he adds, “if you draw beautiful places, hopefully you remind people to appreciate them, as well.”