My 2020 in Paintings

I hope everyone’s 2021 is a better year. Last year was what it was, and I think that’s the best way to describe it. For me objectively on paper, it was actually a better year than most of the recent years. I can make quite the list of good things that happened to contrast the bad, but I’ll pick a short few: I went to a hot country for the first time in my life; I finished learning to drive; and it was the best year for my art business so far with the most original art sales and prints.

There’s many little reflections I felt like I picked up on. One I think we all picked up on is how important our routines and casual connections are outside of the more important relationships in our lives. One of the appeals to living in a city, for me as an introvert, is being in the company of people without having to be directly involved. So, I really miss seeing people in stores, working in offices and cafes, exercising in the gym, and generally looking like their lives are in forward motion. It’s also strange how some of the emptiest places have become some of the most crowded (parks, nature trails) and the busiest the most empty. I didn’t jump on the bandwagon to make COVID art because I think all this needs time for reflection rather than reaction. I think reflection is the theme of the year, as most people are forced to sit at home and think about life.

Pedestrian City Streets

One change I enjoyed about the city was the closure of major streets to be more pedestrian friendly. I think towns and cities suffer from design flaws from previous decades obsessed with shopping booms and sacrificed a sense of community from having open pedestrian walkways. Ironically, what made malls work was being seen in the mall, walking about and shopping, not just the convenience of all the stores under one roof like some of the hideous warehouse stores we have now.

I remember a TED Talk from a few years ago talking about how the flow of traffic in a city is actually better when there are dedicated pedestrian & car streets, and pedestrian streets allow for seating and larger walkways. Not too much later, I read the city of Montreal is planning to convert some of the major streets (such as Saint-Catherine) to pedestrian shopping districts with the faster traffic roads that everyone uses anyway dedicated to traffic. I’m all for this as long as it’s not under the delusional guise people will stop using their cars, and so parking buildings need to come with this change.

Here is an urban sketch I did in the company of 2 friends when Montreal was a little less locked down on Wellington Street. It captures the relaxation and openness of a pedestrian street. My hypothesis is Montreal took advantage of COVID to test whether this layout can work because it happened all across major streets in the city, and I remember reading that there was definitely an increase of foot traffic to shops. Perhaps not what you want to hear during a time we’re supposedly social distancing, but it demonstrates the idea works. Unfortunately, it gets muddied up with other controversial ideas like green no-car streets instead of looking at the basic practicality of not mixing people and cars.

covid wellington st verdun urban sketch montreal watercolor painting by karolina szablewska
6″x9″ plein air painting. Watercolor painting and ink drawing created on Wellington Street, Verdun, which closed for COVID to allow more space for pedestrians. ~2020

Another personal reflection I had was realizing the importance of scheduling time to experience things with people. Sure, I can spontaneously go on a road trip some random weekend, then put it off because I’m busy, or forgot to book things, or some notion of saving money then buying $60 of take-out, or So&So is suddenly not available, or just plain not knowing what to do. When it’s in the calendar and everything is already paid for and set up, it’s near impossible to back out. Planning a local trip to go hiking or something bigger like going to Cuba turned out to be some of the most important decisions of the year because it really saved me from the dread, monotony, and other negative things that happened. Had I not gone to Cuba, I would have not seen one part of my family at all for over a year because I have to cross provincial borders that are closed for COVID and Cuba was the last place we met up. Some days Justin & I have worked so many long hours for weeks or months with no change, the boredom of repetition really bubbles to the surface.

cuba catamaran watercolor painting by karolina szablewska
9″x12″ watercolor painting. Catamaran on a resort in Cuba, plein air painting in watercolor and ink ~2020

One trip we planned to hike further North in Quebec, and it was tempting to cancel because the weather had turned for the worst. Rain, more rain, and 0*C. We decided to go anyway, and thankfully took some of the most scenic, beautiful photography! I made this painting, which is one of my favourites from this year:

scotora trail foggy mountain watercolor painting by karolina szablewska
9″x12″ watercolor painting of a mountain near Scotora Trail in Park Jaceques-Cartier, painted from memory/observation and from photo. ~2020

I used to be very committed to the urban sketchers manifesto when I started exploring painting outside, but I think I am moving on to just general plein air painting. Urban sketchers want you to be on location to do the entire painting, and as much as I’ve tried to find ways to make it work… it’s very hard without loads of free time to drive around and paint…or being a traveling artist hobo ready to camp anywhere. There is a point I feel most urban sketches begin to feel the “same”. Yes, artists have their own style and all, but the restriction of not ever taking it to the studio really limits the creative potential to the constraints of the environment. I would not be able to produce the painting above if I did not rely on memory and photography. It was pouring freezing rain! It’s as simple as that. I think this will result in better paintings, because memory captures mood and light better than cameras and painting in the studio allows for more time. I won’t stop doing both, but there is times it’s better to just look and go home to paint.

For 2021, I will be focusing on my animal series. It is unfortunate my cyborg series has taken a back burner; it’s because these paintings are big and hard to produce in my space, and the search for a better space continues. Depending on how hard it will be to go out, I will continue to paint outside.

wellington st verdun montreal urban sketch watercolor painting by karolina szablewska
6″x9″ plein air painting in watercolor and purple ink created on Wellington St, Verdun on a 20C November day. ~2020

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