The Sketch and The Painting: Two Northern Rivers?

northern river oxtongue lake header
May 12 2015

The Sketch and The Painting: Two Northern Rivers?

Think there are two paintings of Tom Thomson's Northern River in the mural collection? Think again: one is the initial sketch and the other is the studio painting.

Now remember – cameras were not that advanced or accessible during Thomson's lifetime and, although he himself owned one and used one while camping, the equipment was not always reliable for capturing the moment (and colour film was not yet invented either).

So instead of photographs, Tom Thomson and his friends (whom would later become The Group of Seven) would carry small-sized wooden panels in their painting kits. When they would go out on sketching trips, and in Tom's case, when he was painting in Algonquin Park, they would scout out a good painting location and begin to paint the scene about them. The objective of the initial painting was to sketch out the scene and try to capture the essence of the moment in colour. Using their oil paints, these artists would work at their paintings on site. When finished, they would slide the panels into another wooden box that was specifically made to hold a few of their sketching panels (generally 8" x 10" in size). Their sketching trips could see them painting anywhere from one to more than ten of these preliminary works.

When the painters returned to their studios, they would look at the works they created outside and choose the better paintings of the lot. Once they selected their favourite pieces, they would then decide whether to create a larger version for presentation at art shows. When they began the larger versions, they would study the original sketch and then enhance the works further by changing the composition a little, or by experimenting with colour and brush stroke techniques. This is why there are many paintings by members of The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson that have the same title or even similar look.

However, if you look close enough, you can almost always tell which paintings are sketches and which are the studio versions. The sketches tend to be lyrical in their broad sweeping brush strokes, which turn and twist with movement in them. You can see where the colours have been pulled through other colours on the panel and dragged along into a brush stroke to make a tree or a cloud. These paintings were usually painted fast and sometimes furiously to capture the moment in a few quick minutes in an outdoor setting, whereas in the studio the painters were at their leisure to recreate these paintings and could work on them for extended periods of time. The studio paintings tend to be more refined in their brush strokes, paint application, and the attention to the finer details.

Please visit both murals and bring your camera so you can compare the two. See for yourself the differences between the life of the sketch (on the right) and the majesty of the studio painting (on the left) of Tom Thomson's Northern River.

northern river studio  northern river sketch


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