Outdoor Inspiration

The beauty of Kawarthas Northumberland has always inspired artists, and the many studio tours throughout the region are proof. We spoke to three artists who draw directly from the local landscape to learn about their process—and picked up a few ideas for outdoor exploration in the bargain.

Victoria County Studio Tour

“It’s just a painter’s paradise,” Kelly Whyte says, of her 100-acre property south of Bobcaygeon. Whyte opened Rapley Fields Art Studios in 2020, where she focuses mainly on landscape oil paintings. Her home turf of Kawartha Lakes has proven a reliable source of inspiration ever since.

“It’s fields and trails and woods. I ski on it, I hike on it, I snowshoe, so a lot of my scenes come from just my backyard, so to speak,” she adds. When she does venture further afield, it’s seldom a very long drive—the nearby Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Provincial Park or the Kawartha Highlands also appear in her work. “I take my own pictures and I try to paint from those in the studio if I can’t paint on location.”

Whyte prefers painting in oils because the vivid colours help her capture the vibrancy of leaves in fall, or the deep blues of a lakeshore. “there’s just something about the richness of the colours that you can paint in oils,” she says. Striking colour provides a throughline in a style that varies between naturalism and impressionism. “If I’m in one of those moods where I don’t want to concentrate and do a lot of detail it’ll end up very impressionistic. And then there are days I’ll go in and I’ll really focus, zero in, and do a really detailed painting.”

The quality of her work as well as the subject matter made her a natural fit for the Victoria County Studio Tour, an annual self-guided art tour in the Kawartha Lakes region. The 2023 season features twenty-three stops, encompassing potters, jewellers, metal workers, painters, and more. It also marks Whyte’s third year participating, though she had admired the long-running tour well before she joined it.

“I always thought to myself when I moved up here, wouldn’t it be great to be on the studio tour? I guess it was kind of a lifelong dream to show my work,” she says. Whyte considers the tour a vital opportunity to see the diversity of artwork being produced locally, and to connect directly with artists to talk about their process. “I think my highlight of the whole season is the Victoria County Studio Tour—I just love it.”

The Victoria County Studio Tour runs from 10am-5pm September 23-24 and September 30-October 1, 2023.

Kawartha Autumn Studio Tour

Nan Sidler’s preferred mediums are watercolour and graphite, but the appeal goes beyond the aesthetic. “They’re both easy to pack up and quick to use,” she says. “When we go camping I can pack up a little spit box and take the watercolours and grab some water out of the lake or river or whatever, and bingo.”

That factor is important, because she draws a lot of inspiration from the local landscape. Past subjects have included Peterborough’s Jackson Creek, and the popular paddling destination Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park. “I just know so many places in this area that are so inspirational and beautiful,” she explains. “I’ve often had viewers who say, ‘I know exactly where that is’ or ‘I thought that was that place’ or ‘I’ve been on that canoe trip!’ So it’s an advantage in some ways to have an audience who recognizes those places, and it resonates with them.”

For several years now, her attic studio in Peterborough has been a stop on the Kawartha Autumn Studio Tour, one of the longest-running studio tours in Canada. The 2023 season features dozens of artists working in a wide variety of styles and mediums, including painters like Sidler as well as ceramics artists, stone carvers, and others.

Since it’s organized by the Art Gallery of Peterborough, the KAST has the unique advantage of showcasing examples of each artist’s work at a central location. Stop in at 250 Crescent St, Peterborough and you can peruse the work on display, building an itinerary based on whatever sparks your interest. The online Toureka! map, meanwhile, will allow you to chart a course digitally.

The art is the main attraction, but Sidler adds the fall scenery you encounter en route is practically an artistic display in itself. “We’ve got so much artistic talent in our community—and such a beautiful drive to get to all these [studios],” she says. “I just feel so fortunate to be living in a place that’s so beautiful.”

The Kawartha Autumn Studio Tour runs from 10am-5pm September 23 & 24, 2023.

Northumberland Hills Studio Tour

For Jane Robertson, seeking artistic inspiration starts bright and early.

“I have a dog, and every morning we go for a two or three kilometre walk,” she says. “I walk the same trail day in, day out, and you know, four years later I still see paintings that I should do down there.”

As an oil painter, Robertson finds herself drawn to the agricultural landscapes and rolling hills of Northumberland County. Robertson considers her work design-driven, meaning it’s the intriguing, harmonious arrangement of patterns and shapes that attracts her most. “I look over the landscape, I see this great big yellow field ahead of me dotted with some trees here and there, and it’s almost done the abstraction for me. In many ways that simplified agricultural landscape that we’re in very much suits my style,” she says.

The turning of the seasons ensures a steady source of inspiration, though what draws her eye is constantly evolving. “I think really what draws me isn’t so much a specific spot, it’s more about the elements that kind of typify this area,” she says. “Right now it’s the hay fields and the hay bales attract me. I’m fascinated with them right now, and in the fall it will be the patterns that the harvesters make in the crops. In the winter it will be the colour and the shadows of the snow. It doesn’t have to be a specific area.”

Robertson serves as a committee member for the Northumberland Hills Studio Tour, a showcase for the range of artistry throughout Northumberland County. There are 30 artists featured in the 2023 season, including Robertson herself. As both an organizer and a participant, she has some simple advice for visitors. First, take time to enjoy the breadth of options, but don’t be in a hurry to see everything too quickly. Second, take advantage of the unique opportunity to engage directly with artists.

“If you want to engage that artist, the fail-proof question is, ‘what is your process?’ How did you get from some idea up there in your head to this product here. Artists can also be shy, but that’s one question I can guarantee will solicit a response.”

The Northumberland Hills Studio Tour runs from 10am-5pm September 9 & 10, 2023.

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