Crafting Paintings from Personal Memories

Capturing the essential and filling in the gaps where no photos exist

Evergreens under fresh snow, Montreal. Print pictured in the studio.

Personal stories and memories are becoming increasingly the thread that runs through all the work that I create – whether the story be mine or a client’s.

Some artwork is about a significant event – such as family illness and loss. Others, are of small magical moments that caught my eye and stayed in my memory: the way the fog wraps around a bridge, smoke curls from a chimney within an expanse of rainy grey skies and bare branches, the dotted amber of city lights coming on at day’s end, or a summer tree in the wind.

Small moments such as these capture, for me, the true essence of my lived experience. They often don’t show the big things – homes, people, life accomplishments and signposts easily understood by others – but, for me, they are deeply meaningful.

They are able to bring back the feeling of a particular moment in time and the life experiences and stories that went along with it.

What to do when there are no photos?

I often work from a photo or collection of photos to piece together the most important aspects of a story. Sometimes, however, all I have to go on is a memory – a glimpse of a moment in time that carries deep personal significance.

My recent print, Flooded Gardens (below), is a perfect example of this. It is part of my Between Cities series based on my experience of travelling back and forth between Ottawa and Montreal over the course of a year.

The finished screenprint, “Flooded Gardens”, based on my memory of a glimpse of flooded hotel gardens just outside of Montreal.

How this piece was created

The spring of 2017 brought much flooding in Quebec. I remember water coming up the highway’s edge, trees standing, surrounded by water, in a still mirror of the sky… and I have an image in my mind – a brief moment seen in passing, of the somewhat surreal scene of a grand hotel’s formal gardens submerged in overflow from the St-Lawrence river. I found the image of the white statues rising out of still water so instantly captivating that it has stayed with me since.

Because it was an unexpected sight, seen in passing from a car window, it was gone within seconds, and I have no photos of it. In order to recreate the scene, I first wrote down the colours, feelings, and elements of the scene as I remembered them. I then looked the area up on Google Streetview. I went through the various timeline photos that existed there and selected several shots – one that captured the angle I remember, another the bare trees, and another the curved drive and row of statues.

I found photos of the flooding that took place in the area, and an aerial video that showed the gardens under water. This helped me to capture the stillness of the water, the row of willows, and the sculpted shrubbery. I referred back to my original notes and vision often, as I worked, to ensure that I was capturing the most essential aspects of my memory.

My Memory / Your Memory

It is likely more straightforward to begin to capture a memory’s details and feeling when it is my own memory and story. I have, however, worked with clients to craft a painting of a moment or place that is important to them for which there were no or few photographs – such as this portrait of a long-gone family grocery store, this portrait of a cherished vegetable garden of which there were no photos, or this portrait of a childhood cottage no longer in the family.

In each of these cases, we based the painting on memories, descriptions, and the associated feelings that could be invoked with a particular season, light, colour, and weather.

The painting as a key back into the memory

For me, capturing the feeling and personal significance of the moment is more important than getting every tree branch or shrub that was ‘really’ there. I use my knowledge of visual language and storytelling to tie the various elements together in a unified colour scheme and beautiful composition. The resulting imagery has a bit of a magical quality to it, like you might get from a storybook or a classic animated movie. It’s meant to transport you back into the moment that carries such meaning for you.

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If you have a personal story that you’d like to capture in a finished painting, you can learn more on my Custom Paintings page, or get in touch. I’d love to hear your story.

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