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“It is the act of painting that allows me to live in harmony with myself, my work and my world,” says renowned Canadian artist Barry McCarthy. Born in Deep River, Ontario in 1951, McCarthy grew up experiencing the vast shores of Lake Superior and the dense woods of the far north. McCarthy’s deep connection with the landscape of his youth continues to inform his work. In his words, “to paint a subject, you must know it, understand it and live it before you can say something about it.”
After studying fine art at the University of Guelph, McCarthy’s appreciation of Dutch landscape painting of the 17th century stimulated his passion for the watercolours. He developed an outstanding watercolour technique to convey soft impressionist light. In scale alone, often on paper five feet by three feet, and in absolute command of the transparency of this medium, the artist achieved memorable results and challenged the very concept of this traditional art form.
Based in southwestern Ontario, McCarthy first painted and exhibited the farm country surrounding Fergus, with its Grand River and majestic waterfalls. Gradually, searching for expanded views and coastlines, a family visit to Atlantic Canada led to summer images of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. The artist always saw himself as an ambassador of the Maritimes. “I must be there to feel the wind and air, so that I can bring these thoughts and visions back to the studio,” says McCarthy. His plethora of visual discoveries soon became oil paintings. The new medium allowed him to adopt and refine the light and transparency that made his watercolours so memorable. The small watercolour studies provide him with confidence and comfort in a medium for which he is renowned. McCarthy chooses his best efforts in watercolour and commits them to a large format in oil. Enlightened by his constant travels throughout Canada and abroad, McCarthy always seeks new imagery and ideas for his compositions. He looks for subjects or situations imbued not merely with beauty but with a sense of angst and tension.
McCarthy’s recent is an evocative series of watercolour studies and oil paintings of the gently rolling landscape of southern Ontario around the artist’s home in Elora, and wondrously detailed studies of Nova Scotia with its windswept coastlines and haunting lone houses in east coast landscapes. The Atlantic, with all its austere foreboding appears in much of McCarthy’s work. The vast body of water holds his eye in constant fascination and respect with its rugged topography and tonality changes. Houses like the ones in the paintings “In the Bay”, “Houses on Stilts”, and “Atlantic Retreat” are perched on cliffs and precipices clinging to life. McCarthy finds solace and retreat in these places of solitude. He leaves the viewer with a resonant and haunting afterimage.
McCarthy’s work transforms the common object, ordinary person, or familiar landscape. The colour, light, and texture in each composition engage the viewer. We recognize the subject but, more than viewing it, we experience the moment in time that impels the viewer’s mind to thoughts of human history. The counties of Wellington and Waterloo are atmospheric; early morning vistas with the cool mist rising, softening grass, trees, and water in scenes like “Misty Morning”, “Tired Road”, and “Spring Field and Lilacs”. In the work “At Dusk” and the watercolour “Study for Waiting for Halloween”, McCarthy shows us a different time of day and that smoky gray skies and dusk make for great paintings. He captures this low light with amazing clarity and precision. Whatever the subject matter he chooses to paint, McCarthy reveals its spirit, its inner self, and its mysticism.