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Terrence Heath

Dorothy Knowles

artscanada, autumn 1972
[ 1,835 words ]


The appearance in the Spring of a maroon van and the slight figure of Dorothy Knowles sitting near it sketching is probably considered by many farmers around Saskatoon to be as inevitable as the changing of the season itself. When the back roads and fields will support her mobile art studio, she sets out daily to paint the scrubby, rolling landscape of the prairie parklands.

Many landscapes evoke such strong, consistent emotions in the viewer that they become difficult to render in a way that is not an overworked cliché. Somehow the grandeur of mountains, the peacefulness of lakes, the latent power of oceans, etc. pre-empt the emotions of the viewer before the landscape artist can assert his right to interpret the scene anew. Perhaps one of the salient characteristics of the prairie landscape is that it does not suggest such a stock reaction. Or, better, the stock reaction of someone not from the prairies and that of the natives are so diametrically opposed that there is only the irreconcilable alternative. The former finds the prairies monotonous and boring; the latter, varied, exciting and provocative. It seems to me no accident that landscape painting has survived and flourished in Saskatchewan as nowhere else in Canada.

For someone born, raised, educated and domiciled on the prairie, it might be anticipated that the surrounding landscape would provide a natural subject matter. For Dorothy Knowles, however, the choice has been a very deliberate one. She began her serious painting in abstract work and it was not until the early sixties that she moved completely into 'representational' work. In the last decade, her painting has undergone very distinct changes. The lighter abstract painting yielded to the solid techniques of the early 60s. In this latter phase, she used oils heavily diluted with turpentine and allowed the paint to run. By using a few bright colours and heavy brushstrokes, she created the effect of intense, hidden light in selected areas of the canvas. A Summer Day (1963) is an excellent example of the technique. This style was transformed into one characterized by the use of paint as a linear, drawing medium and a freer, longer brushstroke. These are, in my opinion, the least successful of the decade. They tend to be muddy and ill-defined. Out of this period of concentration on the drawing possibilities of paint have come the recent works that I shall discuss in this article. At first these were nearly monochromatic, but she has added colours to the basic greens until her paintings now have a wide spectrum of colours that are used in their pure, bright tones. I see her recent style as a full, mature and unique handling of the medium that justifies the frequently expressed hopes of the art critics.

Colour dominates the paintings of Dorothy Knowles, whether they are watercolours, acrylics or oils. The surfaces vibrate with lucid blues, greens and yellows. Yet the colours are not applied over large, coherent areas; they are worked and intermixed with short brush strokes which could become fussy but which in fact retain a certain sharpness and separateness that prevent the viewer's eye from running them together. Scant Season shows this use of changing colours very well in the working of the foreground. The colours are patterned quite abstractly and pick up other areas of the composition. The effect is often the same as that of purely abstract art and here we see perhaps the vestiges of her formative concern with abstract and semi-abstract use of colour. What she is doing is paying far more attention to overall colour pattern and less to the tonal values of the colours than is common amongst landscape painters.

It is this energetic patterning of colour which gives her paintings their immediacy. The depth in the landscape and the surface of the canvas are manipulated with colour until many areas of her paintings seem to pulse; background colours move forward, foreground colours recede. The composition is held in balance by focusing on the middleground. The clearly defined, detailed middleground acts as a sort of pivot for the colours. This pulsing is heightened by a unique handling of the outline of natural objects in the compositions. In Range, for example, the strong outline of trees is retained but she blurs parts of the foliage. In many recent paintings, the contrast between sharp outline and blurring is much greater. When several areas of the painting are treated in this manner, a waving or undulating effect is created which is not unlike the sensation of looking down at seaweed through the continually moving surface of the water. Another patterning is created through a colour transition and the two techniques are used either in conjunction or opposed depending on the emphasis in the painting. The impact of both types of work is difficult to appreciate in black & white reproductions. In her most recent paintings she tends to model natural objects more solidly, while retaining the colour transitions. This is a very exciting development in her work and promises even stronger paintings than she has so far executed.

In her past work there has been a marked reluctance to model in painting and drawing. This reluctance is most noticeable in her drawings and can be used to good purpose. In Becky, for example, she has captured the face of the model in minimal, strong lines. The rest of the body and the clothing are rendered very lightly with hardly any shading or indication of form. The result is a very successful capturing of strength and delicacy. It can, however, yield very unsuccessful results. In her sketches of landscape, the technique produces what I judge weak drawings; deprived of colour, the fine lines remain static and uninteresting.

The entire problem of form seems to be occupying her more and more in recent paintings and she has begun to evolve a technique for combining linear form and colour in her recent acrylics. In her large, acrylic of a mountain lake she is using charcoal and paint simultaneously — that is, there is no preliminary drawing as a guide for painting. The two mediums are used mutually to build up colour areas and to complement them with a suggestion of structure. She handles the overall composition in a relaxed, almost casual manner and leaves bits of white in the overlaps and many areas flat. The acrylics have also tended to take her away from the wash effects of her oils and she is glazing and building areas up with bright colours. This technique allows her to project the immediacy that has been the strength of her paintings into works which are solid, almost monumental in structure. The colours are as varied and distinct as ever, but the patterning has a substructure that is needed.

The briefest way to describe the success of Dorothy Knowles's work is to say she has produced full-scale paintings that retain the freshness of sketches. The division between field and studio that is so noticeable in a painter like Tom Thomson is becoming appreciably less noticeable in her work. This accomplishment is particularly important for her because she is by nature a painter who is governed by her reactions and moods. She states bluntly, 'I simply cannot work intellectually.' By that, she means she cannot sketch and take field notes and then return to her basement studio and execute a large-scale painting from her adumbrations. The sketches and the paintings are two totally different products. Her surroundings are a part of her painting and she has to work quickly in a variety of ways to finish her works.

One of the problems she has in all her drawing and painting is how to handle the foregrounds. A number of her paintings, and I would include Scant Season among them, are weakened by a hesitant treatment of the bottom third of the canvas or paper. In Scant Season, she has tried to bring this area to life by variegated colour and rapid brushwork. It doesn't seem to me to be entirely successful. In the most recent paintings she has done, however, she tends to fill the foreground with objects so that the sharp middle ground is seen through or past the subject matter of the foreground. Here the combined use of charcoal with washed paint and sharp, delineated edges with blurred areas begins to work very successfully. The sharpening and blurring give the foreground objects the same waving pattern of movement on which the entire composition is built. Again, the effect is to give the immediacy of quick, rhythmic sketching to large pieces of work. The work in progress is the first I have seen that seems to me on the verge of accomplishing this daunting task at a high level.

I don't think that Dorothy Knowles is primarily an interpreter of the prairies. She gives the viewer a canvas of the topology of her personality rather than an insight into her environment. She has been called a diffident person, but in her paintings she is far from this. They are passionate, joyous, spontaneous paintings that use the landscape as an occasion rather than an objective subject. When I asked her, 'Why landscape?', her reply was, 'Some sort of specialization is necessary.'

And on a recent trip to French and English galleries and museums, she found herself involved more in the still lifes she saw then than the landscapes. Her overriding concern is colour: 'I find myself composing with colour' 'I just let it go and it takes on its own rhythm.' The spontaneity of her painting derives from this energetic involvement with the act of painting itself.

Because the unity of work and artist is so great, it is as hard to imagine followers as it is to name influences on her work. She not only handles subject matter and materials in a highly personal manner, but she also seems to absorb and rework totally the techniques and ideas of other artists. She is a loner whose encouragement comes most often from her painter-husband, Bill Perehudoff, a man whose exposure in the galleries has been less frequent than one would anticipate given the quality and quantity of her work. Even at that, she claims, 'if the gallery people didn't buy me, I'd starve'. She hastens to add that she is not dependent on selling to eat, but the point is nevertheless clear. She is not a popular painter and remarkably few people own one of her paintings. There is, however, a growing number of admirers and more galleries are including her works in their collections and exhibitions. In the new year she will have a two-man show along with her husband, Bill Perehudoff, at the Waddington Galleries in Montreal in the autumn (they had a two-man show there in 1969) and next spring there will probably be a one-man show of her work at the Edmonton Art Gallery. She is a painter of national stature and should be better known in Canada.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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