Recently, I got a phone call from a friend asking if we could meet to chat about a commission he would like me to think about. For a while now, I’ve been painting on old paper and he had some old paper that he wanted like to talk about.
This old paper stock I’ve been using is broadly called ‘ephemera’, and it includes everything from letterhead and maps, to accounting paper, envelopes and more. For the most part, this is bond paper and more often than not it takes watercolour well and doesn’t bleed through - unlike the shiny magazine paper that doesn’t take watercolour.
Bill knew I’d been painting on this old paper stock and had an envelope and letter he wanted me to look at. We met at the studio and he passed me the envelope to have a look at.
The letter he had was written to his father during World War II (1944). Seems his Dad had written to his priest back in Ontario for some advice, and the letter contained the priest’s response. What a wonderful piece of personal history, and the envelope had all the earmarks of the day - slightly yellowed paper, beautiful cursive handwriting on the address, and a distinctive King George VI Second World War stamp that cost a whole .04 cents.
We talked for a while about what I might paint on the envelope. He didn’t have much of anything from his Dad’s time in the war, though he did have a small concertina from the day, and we talked about an array of nautical images and themes that might reflect his Dad’s time in the Canadian Navy on Canada’s east coast. Toward the end of the war, he had been stationed in Nova Scotia in the HMCS Cornwallis, which I gather was a coastal patrol boat not unlike the US Navy’s ‘PT Boat’, only larger.
In the end, Bill left it up to me to find and paint something on this beautiful old envelope.
Hold that thought.....
Around the same time, I was in the Kelowna Public Archives doing some historical research for a development company in the Kelowna area. After spending so many years in the Museum field, I still do some historical/heritage/museum contracts, and I find myself in the archives from time to time.
On this particular day, I had wrapped up my research of old maps, historic photographs, newspaper clippings, and early telephone directories and I was about to leave the Archives. As I passed one of the research tables, I noticed it was stacked with small piles of new donations that the Archivist was assessing. There, on the top of one of those piles of documents, was a photograph that stopped me in my tracks!
What caught my eye was a small old black and white photo of a dog, and around the dog’s neck was a life ring - the kind you would find on pretty much every commercial ship to this day. As usual, the name of the ship was emblazoned on the life ring and it read - HMCS CORNWALLIS!
I asked to look at the photo more closely, and when I turned it over I discovered a brief description. This dog’s name was ‘Mike’, and he was the mascot for the HMCS Cornwallis at the very time Bill’s Dad served! Now, how was that for synchronicity - I knew I had the image I needed for the commission.
I asked for a copy of the photo, and I headed back to the studio. With my sketchbook in hand, I played around with a few versions of the piece until I had what I thought was needed. From there, I took the envelope and carefully used an exacto blade to slice each side of the envelope to give me a larger painting surface on which to work. (Yes, I’d checked with Bill about this ahead of time!)
The envelope, to me, was looking for something fairly straightforward. So I simply took the photo image and, using a 2B pencil, sketched the scene directly onto the envelope. Light outline pencil work filled in the life ring and the dog, and a few bits of shading added some depth to the piece.
For the painting itself, I used shades of burnt umber to add shading to the dog, and I painted the life ring with a lightly watered down white gouache. For the lettering, I used a standard fire engine red; though in real life the lettering may have been done with black paint. In this case, I wanted to have the lettering stand out more than they would have if I had used black.
In the end, Mascot Mike and his life ring tucked nicely onto the available space with the top of the life ring just hinting its way over a few letters of the address. At the bottom of the artwork, I added the caption taken from the back of the original photograph: ‘Mike loved to parade’.
I’m pleased to say that Bill was happy with the painting, and neither of us could have imagined coming up with the image that I happened upon. Serendipity gives us all kinds of connections, and I am thankful to have been open to this bit of good fortune!