Ron Parker met me at the Avenue Gallery where he was surrounded by his latest paintings, most of which were sold on the opening night. He is tall with sparkling blue eyes, and spoke with the enthusiasm of a recent convert. Looking around, I could see he has reinvented himself yet again.
A native of Vancouver, Parker came to my attention in the early 1980s, when he was one of the leading lights of wildlife art. His meticulous and fully realized nature scenes in watercolour were popular as limited edition prints for the Millpond Press, where his sales were second only to Robert Bateman’s. Since then, he has divided his time between painting and coaching young athletes in track and field. The man surely has focus.
With the new millennium, Parker set aside the “every hair on the wolf” strategy and developed a new form of image-making, which he called Essentialism. This stripped-down style of landscape owed a certain inspiration to the magisterial mountain scenes of Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven. Working with acrylic paint, Parker reduced local scenes to their basic elements and rendered them in beautifully graduated tones. This, like his earlier style, was very satisfying and very successful.
“With the Essentialist work I had to be so careful about what I tried to portray,” he told me. “Only certain scenes seemed to work. I was running out of subject matter.” The problem was that with that sort of simplification you can’t effectively render objects in the foreground. “A bush is just a big circle,” he laughed.
Parker’s eldest daughter told her dad that she wanted to try oil painting, and he dutifully contacted local artist Deborah Tilby and went with her to Tilby’s studio.
“After the first two sessions, I started painting in oils,” he confessed. “It’s so easy!” He had tried oils 30 years previously but found “the turpentine really got to me. I tried it once and almost passed out.” Water-soluble oils weren’t much better. But now he discovered odourless mineral solvent and the doors opened.
Of course, Parker brings a full kit of artistic know-how to the task. He knows how to draw and is good at making colour choices. And, best of all, he found Tilby as a teacher.
“She is amazing,” he gushed. “She’s a tiny little woman, very generous and soft-spoken. She says: ‘Do this, do this, do this,’ and it all works. It was that simple.” Realizing that she had an above-average student on her hands, she asked: “What do you want to know?” and then told him the answers. Set your palette like this, stay with the same brand of oil paint, use these brushes.
“This expanded my range so much,” Parker concluded, and the results were hanging on the wall all around him.
His subject matter remains largely the same: the hills, trees and shoreline close at hand in Victoria. While the Essentialist approach forced him to even out all the transitions between elements, he now positively revels in the articulation of a single tree at the water’s edge, the clutter of logs on the beach and the rising billows of cumulus clouds.
As ever, Parker paints in the studio, basing this realist work on his photographs. He considers what he wants to take out of the composition, and very occasionally adds a little. He draws directly on his canvas, using a lacquer-based pen that doesn’t bleed when he puts oil on it.
“Correct drawing is where all the creativity is,” he said.
Parker’s effects are achieved by “straight painting,” involving no particular technique with the brush. After selecting a few colours, he begins putting them in place, working meticulously across the page from the upper left corner. “I paint once across — one coat of paint,” he explained. Sounds simple, but I can think of very few artists who behave that way. And, in line with Tilby’s teaching, he mixes the paint directly on the canvas as he goes.
“Blending, it always delights me,” Parker effused. He sets one colour in place, puts the next one beside it and then brushes the two gently together. It doesn’t run — like watercolour — and it doesn’t dry — like acrylic. It just blends.
“Blending is absolutely amazing,” he went on. “It’s so much fun.” This is the sort of statement so obvious that it could go unnoticed, or might just be the key to everything.
Doesn’t oil painting depend on secret recipes for complicated chemical media to thin the paint, to give it special gloss and so on? Apparently Tilby taught him to use the paint just as it comes from the tube. He does add a little medium when the paint is too dry — one part linseed oil to five parts odourless mineral solvent — and that’s it. Parker paints for two three-hour sessions per day.
A simple process, and the results speak volumes. Parker’s representations of our shorelines embody the truth of this place. The current show was only in place for a week, and I expect the happy owners have taken their new treasures home by now. but you’ll see some of his work at the Avenue Gallery on an ongoing basis.
Ron Parker at The Avenue Gallery, 2184 Oak Bay Ave., 250-598-2184,
Deborah Tilby, 250-370-9974, deborahtilby.com
In my column on Sept. 28 regarding the 20th anniversary of the Winchester Galleries, I detailed that gallery’s beginnings. Marilyn Cunningham wrote to inform me: “In fact, I was a framer at Kyle’s Gallery along with Bernie Raffo. When Kyle’s Gallery folded in 1981, Bernie and I became partners and took over the gallery. Three and a half years later I headed east, and sold my interest in Winchester Gallery to Bernie Raffo.” Further, Cunningham explained that the gallery was not named for Raffo’s hometown. Winchester was a name suggested by the real estate agent who rented them the premises. “I’m from Manchester,” Raffo told me with a laugh last week. “If I’d come from a nice place like Winchester, I’d probably have stayed there.”