When I sit down to interview artist Charlie Easton, he tells me about his off-grid cabin that sits on a tiny island in the Pacific. Helby Island, he says, is part of a smattering of islands called The Broken Group that lay scattered off the coast of British Columbia in rough ocean waters. When I look at the map, these tiny islands look like flecks of green paint splattered across a blue canvas.
Easton’s cabin has a fire, a sauna and a backyard most plein air artists and outdoor adventurers could only dream about. “You look out at the most unreal view,” says Easton. I picture wind-whipped landscapes, threatening inky tides and kilometres of untouched nature that beg to be explored. It sounds like the perfect place for a landscape painter like Easton to gather inspiration.
Easton’s studio is on mainland Vancouver, but many of his scenes come from this rugged off-grid heaven. “The scenes that I love painting are the ones where you have the drama,” says Easton. That sounds about right.
Easton’s art is stunning. Looking at his scenes, you can almost hear driftwood washing up onto a quiet beach. You can feel the prickle of cold wind on an exposed, snow-capped mountain or jagged rocks underfoot after summiting a steep peak. It’s like he’s captured more than just the visual component of a day outside in Canada.
That’s probably thanks to his process which requires him to be fully present and fully dedicated. The questions Easton considers before starting any painting are similar to ones that would enhance any day exploring outdoors: What’s interesting about this place and what’s it telling me? How could what I learn up here impact my day today? That moment of pausing to reflect shows through in the final product.
Painting is something Easton has always done. During his past travels, his companions would snap photos or journal to remember the highlights of time spent abroad. Easton sketched the south of France, architecture and the exteriors of churches and cathedrals. “I remember those places in so much more detail because when you paint or draw, you have to really look, observe and understand something,” he says. He moved from the U.K. to Canada in 2006. Where he once recreated buildings, he now became interested in painting the Canadian landscape—outside, plein air style, a tradition in Canada made famous by The Group of Seven.
“It’s a hell of a challenge,” says Easton of painting the outdoors. “You get your butt kicked. Let’s be honest: Whatever I create is never going to be as beautiful as the real thing, but sometimes I’m able to capture a bit of that quicksilver, that real magical nature of a scene that people who explore outdoors sometimes get to witness.” That word, quicksilver, hangs in the air. He’s right: these places that we often explore on foot, skis, bike or kayak do have that quicksilver appeal. But it seems so common to miss that full effect. When Easton talks about considering the environment, being fully present and asking that key question (what can this place teach me and what impact could that have?), he’s talking about slowing down and fully allowing the senses to experience what’s on offer. He notes how opposite that is to mindlessly snapping photos for the Instagram profile or leaving the summit too shortly after arriving.
I stumbled across Easton’s work after seeing a photo of him painting at an easel on skis perched on a mountain clad in gloves, a toque and ski jacket. He seemed to be really living the dream by blending a passion for the outdoors with a creative one. And that’s how he describes his perfect day. Obviously, as most outdoor and creative pursuits go, there is no typical day. And plein air isn’t known for its predictability. Sometimes he accesses his painting spots via foot; other times, he skis. Sometimes, he even paints out of a kayak. (His wife is a former kayak guide and major backcountry skier and much of his location spotting comes from these types of endeavors.) Then it’s just a matter of holding space for his artistic process. “If I’ve spent time hiking up to the top of this peak to get to this place, then I’m going to really commit myself to this canvas,” says Easton. “I love it for that reason. There’s a real honesty to it.”
An ideal day for the painter could involve painting from sun-up to sundown. A piece could take 15 minutes or it could take hours depending on the subject matter and day. Before leaving, he’ll prepare for a day outside the same as any avid hiker or skier: packing extra layers, water, snacks, sunscreen, perhaps a tent, safety gear… the works. Then it comes down to bringing the appropriate painting kit. If it’s a shorter day trip with relatively predictable weather, his acrylic kit is a go-to. For a longer trek or ski with the possibility of being confronted by harsher elements, he brings oil paints which pack down small and stand up better to tough weather. A farther multi-day trip that requires camping and loads of gear will call for his smallest gouache watercolour paint set.
Then it’s just Easton, his talent and whatever the wind, fog, rain and lighting decide to throw at him. “I love going out plein air painting,” he says. “It’s such a challenge but as with all challenges, it’s incredibly rewarding.”
As for those challenges, they’ve really run the gamut since he started: avalanche risks, a grizzly bear and her cub, storms, vertical drops, a ledge that looks as if it could give way before the last stroke of paint dries. But that risk, being at the mercy of Canadian wilderness, is kind of the point. Most outdoor adventurers don’t explore these natural spaces for their predictability. Most of our favourite outdoor sports and hobbies don’t come neatly packaged and tied up with a bow. The same goes for painting in this paradise.
“My mood absolutely impacts the paintings that I do,” says Easton. That’s to say that Mother Nature’s temper tantrums are just as valuable as her warm welcomes. “You can’t remove that from your painting. It gives the painting the mood and feeling that you wouldn’t get if you were snapping a photo and trying to recreate that scene in the studio. I’m so happy with what I get to do. I’m really honoured to do this for a living.”
His passion is obvious as he tells me about his most moving experience in Haida Gwaii, an archipelago in northern BC with a mystic charm. When Easton arrived for an artist residency with Parks Canada and the Haida Nation, he fell in love with the place, its spirit and the generosity of his hosts. When Easton talks about being fully attentive while exploring outdoors, he can also tell you about the power that that can have. There, painting in Gwaii Haanas surrounded by seafoam, thick mist and evergreens, he was overwhelmed. “All of these wonderful emotions came rolling and I was in tears painting,” he says. “It was one of the most spectacular experiences that I’ve had.”
That’s saying a lot considering all of the wild places he gets to explore for his art. As Easton reflects on this experience in Haida Gwaii, I’m already anticipating future glimpses of more of his work: paintings with vibrant oranges spread across the sky, turquoise blues showing lakes I’d love to swim in and strokes of a brilliant white illustrating the morning sun on a snow-capped mountain.
For now, I just picture Helby Island, Easton’s slice of west coast Canada and his rustic cabin with the three paint sets hanging on the wall, awaiting their next adventure.