Conception, Where My Ideas Come From

Someone asked me last week about my painting process, ie, how I go about actually finding a landscape to paint. I’ll give that one a go.

The first thing that happens is that I usually find or see something that takes my eye or gives me an idea, it’s something that evokes an emotion, and 99% of the time it comes from matching a memory from being in the landscape to imagining a finished painting.

I find that thinking about what a work might look like before I even start painting helps to decide if I will take it to the next step, which is preparation.

If I am working from a photograph and a location I have already been too, it must contain at least one major element that I can work from. I normally like this to be a great sense of light. If it has that, I can work around the other things a painting might need by improvising, inventing, good planning and perseverance.

A few years ago I changed the way I worked and began to go out at first light and in the evenings to capture either by sketch, photograph or in my mind, a place I wanted to paint. I would plan a morning or evening trip, where I was going to go, my arrival time, where the sun would rise and the composition I wanted. Nine times out of ten I was in a place that gave me something really wonderful. I use maps and experience to do this and an app that tells me the time of sunrise and sunset. It’s a lot of preparation but my work immediately became better in quality. If I am working on location it really pays to get there at the right time in the right place, you get to dig in to the things we rarely see if we are still in bed! Those twenty-minute sunrises can knock your socks off, so making the effort is very worth it.

I never paint a place I haven’t been too, every work I have ever painted I have visited at one time. I was in Jasper National Park over 10 years ago, but I still produce paintings from that trip. I photo sketch a lot, especially on quick trips where you have to fly to get to a location. Sometimes I won’t look at the images for month or even years. This works for me because my memory of a place diminishes over time and when I eventually dig out the photographs they are very fresh and new, this way I can be more astute and tougher when deciding what I might paint.

I have a library of about 8,000 photographs I can work from and combine the photo with memory and experience from actually being there. When the image, memory and experience come together I tend to get something that is a good representation of my initial response to being there.

In the past year or so things have changed, I tend to no longer be looking for the typical landscape but more the basic elements of the land, as in my current Bare Elements series. These days I am mostly looking down instead of up and out when I am in nature or wilderness areas. I want to find the subtle parts of a landscape that we seldom pay attention to.

I was a big fan of David Bowie as a teenager and I read about how he would form his lyrics for some of his early and most significant work. He would use a method called ‘cut up’ where there is an element of not knowing the outcome of a lyric line when you throw words together from written sentences that have been cut up. Then there is Robert Frank the great street photographer, a good friend of mine who knows him told me about a time when he took his camera and threw it in the air to take an image. I took Bowies cut up method and Franks and adopted them by taking out my video camera and pointing it in random directions within the landscape, twisting turning, hanging it out of the car window or the canoe, throwing it up in the air, all while filming if course. When I get back to the studio I go through each frame and begin to find the qualities I am looking for. What this does for me is that it initially takes away my influence. I am in the landscape pointing the camera but I am not sure what I am getting. In the studio I am looking at images I hadn’t yet seen so it comes to you pure.

The painting I posted above, ‘October The Boreal Forest’ which is currently at Argyle Fine Art was conceived this way. I am looking forward to working like this for the next few years. It took two years of thought, frustration and experimentation to get to this point and I am interested to see what comes out of it. If you are a painter, maybe you have tried this or use other methods? I would be interested to know.

Share if you enjoyed this post! TKS

Daybreak At Taylor Head

On Saturday 9th September I had a magnificent morning photographing a small part of the wonderful Taylor Head Provincial Park, Nova Scotia. Watch below as I explore and attempt to express this headland wilderness on the Atlantic Ocean with a 4×5 film camera. Parts of this Atlantic headland are seldom visited much of the year  and this is when I love to be able to work alone within this stunning landscape.  
This was the first real time I had my Sinar P camera in the field, slowly I am coming to find my way with it, embedding a process of actually taking an image so that it becomes second nature. It is important to be patient with new equipment or new processes and allow for mistakes. I made a few during this outing but by the time I had taken my sixth photograph, the uneasiness was becoming less and the familiarity with this large format camera began to show.
I am drawn to places like Taylor Head because the landscapes within them are many, from sandy beaches to steep cliffs along with boreal forest and old homestead pastures, places like this are a landscape photographers dream.  Hope you enjoy the film!

Doing It For The Birds

I had a amazing interaction with this little guy today. He had flown inside the barn during the high winds and I found him exhausted. A rest and a drink later and off he went back to the high canopy. About an hour later I heard a Red Eyed Vireo singing, I hope it was him. Red Eyed Vireos are migrating right now, they are migrating south to end up in South America for the winter, they are incessant singers and need open woodland to thrive. It not often you get to be this close to a tropical migrant like. I cant imagine the journey ahead for him and millions of other birds who are on their way or just about to leave. It can be perilous and many dont make it. God speed as they say!


New Photographic Print Portfolio, the 6X6’s

When I look back through my photographs I get a sense of how incredible Canada’s Landscapes are and the places I have been, so many amazing memories. I can go back to the late 90’s and see images from Vancouver Island, The Gaspe, Quebec, Algonquin Park, Killarney Provincial Park Ontario, Labrador, Newfoundland, Northern New Brunswick, Saguenay Quebec, Banff, Jasper, Glacier National Park, Yoho and of course Nova Scotia – phew!

Here then is the beginning of something new for me as I continue to reconnect with landscape photography. Tiny 6×6 inch limited edition landscapes, a collection that I hope to grow over the coming weeks on my website. These are of the highest quality and follow the same process as my larger prints, each is singed and numbered and limited to 10 prints only.×6/

A thankyou

I sent this to my Tobeatic Wilderness Guide, Blake Milbury, last week, it’s a large charcoal sketch of him and his friend Kevin on Moosehide Lake deep into the wilderness area when myself and three friends were guided by Blake in June of 2017. There’s something about those rough sketches, the rawness and honesty of them if they are done quickly. I owe a lot to Blake, without him i’d be a few paintings and photographs less. If you need to go into the Tobeatic, seek him out! Thanks Blake.


Waiting For The Light

A lovely early morning on a misty Stewiacke River, Nova Scotia, this morning – shooting medium format film.

Very Old And Very New Surprises

Cresent Moon Rising, Northern Nova Scotia (1 of 1)


One of the things I enjoy most about working in film is the surprises you get weeks or sometimes years after actually making a photograph. It’s not like digital, when you can see the results instantly, adjust the settings then retake the photo if you have to. Film is far less forgiving, if you mess up on the exposure, its over! I had completely forgot about this morning in June when I photographed the crescent moon over a lake near Trafalgar, not too far from my studio. I was there really early and knew I could get a good photo if I was patient, here is the result.

The past few evenings I have started to scan many of my black and white negatives from the 1980’s and am looking at landscapes I took with my old 35mm when I was just 18. It is amazing to me to be able to see the development and the common denominators, especially in how I framed the landscapes and how that has stayed with me for years. Also interesting is the subject matter, water and woods! The second image is a landscape from Dartmoor in the UK. I made the trip from Swindon to Plymouth where I was based in the Royal Navy over Dartmoor and photographed the wild ponies there. This was one of my first films I developed in my parents bathroom and one of the first photographs I actually printed in 1988. Like the crescent moon photo, a lovely surprise to see this again. It was around this time I bought my first watercolor set and began to paint. The photograph, Crescent Moon Rising, is now available as an archival signed print.

Finally, Its Ready, Large Format 4×5 Camera

IMG_5790 IMG_5794 IMG_5791

Well after months of searching for and collecting all this gear I am now ready to go into the field with my Sinar 4×5 Large Format Camera to continue my work on the landscape. The prints from this camera (4×5 inch negative) can be enlarged up to 50×60 inches or larger with incredible detail. Back in the 1970’s this piece of engineering would have cost $8000 in todays money, I feel very lucky to have it. The ‘dark hood’ arrived today, its the cloth you can see on the rear, that was the last item I needed. I have been working with it most evenings in the back yard, getting to know the controls, the lenses, focusing, depth of field and exposure. I can hardly wait!

The Bare Elements Landscapes

bare elements

Loading up my tiny Yaris with 5 large new landscape paintings today, on route to Halifax and Argyle Fine Art first thing in the morning. The bubble wrap weighed more than the car! It feels good to have these leave the studio. In these paintings are almost 2 years of work, lots of thinking, lots of painting, working through a new process takes time and patience. I can see the artistic development in the rendering of each piece and how the technique slowly changes over time.

THE BARE ELEMENTS – landscapes




Snow Shadows, French Mountain

Winter Shadows, French Mountain, Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia (1 of 1)
Well, its been a very busy few weeks finishing up paintings, varnishing them, preparing them for the trip to Argyle Fine Art this weekend for an impromptu show. The past few days I have had some time to take a serious look at some of my photographic work. It’s a ruthless process of pulling out the very best work for publication, and this one made it. I spent quite a bit of time tonight writing about my experiences in the Cape Breton Highlands, you can read at the link below. It amazes me the differences in landscapes like this from winter through to spring summer and fall, so on the same page is a morning chorus recorded very near here in June 2011 in which you can compare the image during the silent winter to that of an abundant important ecosystem full of tropical migrants and frogs in late spring.
Here’s the link.

October, The Boreal Forest

October The Boreal Forest oil on canvas 36x48 inches, Mark Brennan 2017 (1 of 1)

Another large work from the Bare Elements series, 36×48 inches, oil on canvas, heading to Argyle Fine Art this weekend along with 5 other pieces from this series. This work, October, The Boreal Forest is a rendering of the landscape as I would see it in October, I used some photographic reference to start and then painted purely for expression based on memory and experience. You have to really be unafraid and confident to work like this, if you can find this ‘place’ within yourself, the results can be quite telling.

Sunrise At Torbay Provincial Park

An early start found me on location at Torbay Provincial Park on Nova Scotia’s Atlantic Coast to continue my series, Coastline.

Bog Edge, Spring, Mark Brennan, oil on canvas 20x24 2017 (1 of 1)

In 1970 the American Photography critic Nancy Newhall remarked upon a portfolio of Ansel Adams textured black and white landscapes,
” …this world contains or suggests more images than the whole history of art, which includes photography, has ever yet discovered. And that most of those images ‘Man’ has discovered still endure, and wait somewhere for you. New images cry out to be seen and realized…”
I have spent a lot of time just looking over the years, the more I look the more I see, there is a heightened awareness that develops over time that doesn’t just include our vision, for me at least it is this heightened sense of aliveness that continues to give me a continued fascination with life, I am not yet bored!
The photographs Nancy Newhall refers too are a small collection of Adam’s almost abstract photographic landscapes that peel away the realism of his vast mountainous vistas he is known for to reveal a process developed on a deeper level that gives us insight into his growth as an artist.
My own artistic growth has always been important to me and although I love to paint landscapes I am also very interested in trying to explore moments of awareness in a way that tends to push beyond trees rocks and lakes. From this has come the series I am currently working on, The Bare Elements.
This work, ‘Bog Edge, Spring’, 20X24 inches, oil on canvas, is one of those pieces from the series. It depicts a moment spent with the edge of a bog in the Boreal forest, it is a rendering of the shift of morning light at sunrise, the quivering new growth in May, the shimmering reflections of snags and the coolness of that morning. There is also bird song and the last calls of the Spring Peeper as night turns into day. Little attention has been paid to realism, it is a felt landscape, an intimate moment, one of those images waiting to be discovered and found.

Winter Morning At Five Islands, Nova Scotia

Dawn, Five Islands, Winter 2017 Nova Scotia (1 of 1)
I have to say that the 2 hours I spent on this beach near Five Islands, Nova Scotia, was one of my most memorable in a long time. I always get a sense of what this coastline must have been like thousands of years ago, it seems so random and changing with inlets, rivers, incredible tides and wildlife, unlike anywhere else in Eastern Canada.
The first thing that struck me was contrast between the foreshore and the islands, the clouds above were floating right to left, coming off the Bay of Fundy, out of the South. They were moving quickly even although it was so still at ground level. I arrived on an incoming tide and anyone who knows this area also understands that you have to move quick! A few minutes later I was wading out of the water, backwards, grabbing my camera bag that I had left on the shingle.
Winter Coastline, Bay Of Fundy, Near Five Islands, Nova Scotia

Rural Landscape, Elgin, Pictou County, Nova Scotia

winter landscape northern nova scotia (1 of 1)

Rural Landscape, Elgin, Pictou County, Nova Scotia. Interesting light here, the brightest part of this landscape is the farmhouse on the hill, so you have to be careful not to overexpose it. The long shadows do a lovely job of pulling us into the landscape and the foreground fence gives a nice sense of depth and detail when compared to the distant trees. It was a just a perfectly still, bitterly cold winter evening with that evening light pouring out of the Western sky for just a brief moment. These rural areas are dying unfortunately. Those old homesteads are mostly homes now and the fields unused, so it was nice to capture this rural landscape as a representation of what ‘once was’. I think we have all seen these old farms, I always feel those from the past lived more simple, quieter lives when compared to today. Bronica ETRSI 645 Medium Format Camera, Ilford Delta 100 pro film.

Late Summer Sunrise, Bras d’Or Lakes

So it was a 3.30am start this morning to get one good photograph at sunrise on the Southern tip of the Bras d’Or Lake. I had slept on it over night and decided this might be the place, somewhere near Dundee where the sun would appear in the right location in the right weather.

I got here with about 5 minutes to spare after about 180km on the road. Loons were calling, shoals of fish were feeding, a Kingfisher clattered off in the gloom, somewhere out in the shadows I could hear a single Canada Goose calling. Everything was so still, not a wave or a ripple, the water was an exact opposite, upside down world, of the dawn sky above.

I set my tripod up on the shingle and waited. As the sun began to rise a lighted area began to form on the left, it reflected in the water, it was a perfect lead line and I settled the lens on this image I have posted here. I took light readings every 30 seconds to make sure the exposure was spot on, ready for when the light was perfect. I took two photographs as the light changed using my cable release with the lens at F11 focused on infinity at 1/4 and 1/8th second about 30 seconds apart using Ilford Panf Plus 50. This is a very slow film with a very small grain structure, perfect for printing very large with a medium format negative. The light changes very quickly at sunrise and you can easily miss the exposure if you are not measuring it constantly.

So the bigger question is why would someone travel that distance for one photograph? This image for me expresses the Bras d’Or Lakes in late summer the way I have experienced it over many years. It represents a time stamp on one of the most incredibly diverse and beautiful places in the whole of Canada. To do a place like this justice could take a lifetime of work or it could be done in one image, I am not sure. I do know that to honor a place through art does take work, photograph, painting, poem, you have to be there, immersed in the subject until it touches you. Then you are allowed to express what you felt!

If you want to see the location on google Earth, it is here:

Not far from West Bay, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Sunrise Near Dundee, Bras d'or Lakes, Cape Breton 12 Augusut 2017 (1 of 1)

A New Medium

Well, my first photographic prints are here (Low Tide Ecum Secum, Nova Scotia), all the way from the studio of Master Printer, William Oldacre in Toronto. This is my first Limited Edition print from real black and white film (Ilford Delta Pro 100) and I am blown away by the results. There will only be three (3) prints in this edition available, I wont be printing any more of this photograph for the foreseeable future. As you can see in the images each one is embossed, numbered, titled and signed.

I have gone for absolute quality for this new medium, in all parts of the process, from the camera/lense used to the development of the film, the printing process and the archival paper. It should last 100 years or more if professionally framed.

This has been a lot of work, but I am so happy to have got to this point! I am offering my photographic prints at a low price to start with $95.00 including shipping. I did this with my paintings many years ago and gradually raised the prices over the years. The 3 prints are available individually at the link below, or if you want to read the story of this work, it is also there.

Low Tide Ecum Secum print (1 of 6) Low Tide Ecum Secum print (2 of 6) Low Tide Ecum Secum print (3 of 6) Low Tide Ecum Secum print (4 of 6) Low Tide Ecum Secum print (5 of 6)

Lake Pines At First Light

Lake Pines At First Light (1 of 1)
‘Lake Pines At First Light’, oil on birch 16×18 Inches. I’ve seen a lot of sunrises, especially when I have been out to record the morning chorus of bird song in spring. Somewhere I have the recording that goes along with this painting. This was the sky at 5.10am on June 11th 2016 at Middle Lake in the Liscomb Game Sanctuary. I had arrived here at dark after walking down a long road and then feeling my way through part of the woods.
Usually I am out of bed at about 3.30am to get on location to record the bird song in late spring. When you are up with the birds there are incredible sunrises. This was the view across the lake from me. You can see the pines silhouetted against the Eastern sky and the growing light, the colors like this last anywhere from a few minutes to perhaps 10 or 15. They grow in intensity and as the sun rises further, the colors begin to lose their saturation, often there is a slight wind as the sun comes up, subsiding eventually to stillness, you can smell the water, it is earthy and sweet. On this morning a woodpecker drummed nearby, its call echoing over the lake to come back again from the distant woods, it really was magical.
Experiences like this are a whole body experience for me, I try really hard to just be there and take everything in I can, for me this is true wealth. I have always wanted these experiences, they give me a sense of wholeness and I even find them calming. I remember doing the same thing as a teenager in Scotland, rising before everyone and finding myself in the woods well before dawn.

Acadian Forest, Winter, March 2017

Dalhousie mountain winter (1 of 1)

This is an image from my medium format film camera. I wanted to find something of the Acadian Forest in winter and searched for quite a while. This is northern Nova Scotia and there’s not a lot of intact forest remaining here. It was evening and I climbed up a steep incline up in the Pictou, Antigonish Highlands, no show shoes, sinking up to my waist in snow! You’d think I would know better. There was a lovely evening glow on the snow and this was the surface of a small brook starting to show it’s self in mid March, I could hear it running beneath me. I loved the texture on the rocks, how they must have been heating up during the day to melt the snow, and the way rocks take your eye into the image. The small bent tree on the right took my eye too, it adds interest. I might go back there again in the fall to take another image. I work with an old light meter, the same kind Ansel Adams used in the 80’s and took a light reading off the brightest snow, I nail the exposure every time! “Acadian Forest, Winter, Dalhousie Mountain, Nova Scotia” Part of a series I am doing on remnant wild places.

Bare Elements Series, Low Tide At Hichens Cove

Low Tide At Hichens Cove, Seal Island NS oil on canvas 36x48 inches

Here is the third piece in my series ‘Bare Elements’, oil on canvas 36×48 inches, Low Tide At Hichens Cove, Seal Island. This was from my 8 day visit last October. Seal Island lies about 40km SSE of Yarmouth. When we left from Barrington this group of islands couldn’t be seen, they were over the horizon. You really got a feeling of isolation here, just a small group of us staying in one of the old homesteads. We were surrounded by history and tragedy of course, many ships have gone down on the outlying reefs with the loss of likely thousands of lives.

I really didn’t have any preconceived idea of how this work was going to progress, but had a general plan in mind. I paid very close attention to each tiny mark on the canvas, wanting the marks themselves to become places where the movement of the brush could be seen, but I wanted the brush to take on more of a life of its own in where the marks were made. There is much more of a randomness in the placement of the paint, the way you would see in a beach at low tide. You will see areas of long brush strokes, short, dabs of paint, flicks, straight lines, rounded lines, all taking on a life of their own. I tried very hard to do this subconsciously. Other areas have been more thought out, like the rocks and the light falling on them, but I wanted the rendering of these areas to remain loose and organic in their shape/hues.

I covered the larger areas with broad washes of very thinned paint using rags and used these undertones to build the painting, you can see this in the foreground sand color and sky.

From this point we are looking South East, out over the Atlantic.

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