A Tradition of Painters Inspired By One Majestic Location

Painting is something that I can’t seem to get enough of. The more I paint, the more I want to paint! Maybe it’s an obsession, maybe it’s the endless possibilities of this area—but each painting feeds the desire for the next.

Lake of the Woods (and area) is a one-of-a-kind place that I can’t get enough of.

Like so many others, I’m drawn to the water and landscape; the infinite adventures, and sense of wild; the afternoon light sparkling on the water, the sunrises and sunsets. This place holds a magic! And I believe in magic. Those fleeting moments of wonder that fill my soul. 

Strawberry Island, Lake of the Woods by Melissa Jean

Although I wasn’t born here, this place is my home. I’ve lived in many places across Canada, but this area was always special to me. I’ve been here for 12 years now; my husband Bill and I are raising our kids here, and this is home for them, and for us. As an artist, I am pulled in by the endless amount of subject matter—this area really is a hidden gem, much of it undiscovered, an artist’s paradise, and an adventurer’s dream.

I have a little studio attached to my house, from which I paint almost every day. My technique is gathered from living here year-round: watching the change of seasons, appreciating every sunset and the beauty of a sunrise (which is slowly turning me into a morning person), swimming, paddle-boarding, exploring the lake by boat, and just being here. My technique is also based on three sources of gathering….

  1. Painting on location or “Plein Air.”
  2. Painting from photographs that I’ve taken.
  3. Painting from memory.

Photography is a great tool for a painter, but it can also be a terrible master. It’s great for reference, and I definitely take a lot of photos… but it really has to go beyond that and remain a tool, not the only tool. There is always so much more to something than a photo can truly capture.

Cannonball! Inspired by many dock days and nights with good friends at Lac Lu.

Memory is wonderful, and all of those late afternoon swims, the sparkle hitting the water, the gorgeous sunsets, and the walks through the forests—they burn into my memory, and I paint the feeling of it… the emotions that spring from those moments of magic feed the painting. Maybe you know that moment? When your heart races and your mind becomes still? This is the feeling that I try to capture when I feel there’s just a little more than what appears before me. Memory is a great and necessary tool, but it can’t be relied on for everything.

Plein Air painting is the paradise of them all. Sure, it’s limited to its seasons, weather, and time of day—but it is one way that I connect with the lake. To be surrounded by the inspiration that fuels me; the sounds, the smells, the changing light, the grandness of nature, and to translate all of that 3D experience into a 2D canvas is a fantastic experience. I start with a sense of wonder, an open mind. I follow my nose, wherever it leads me. I open my travel easel, squeeze out my paints, and prime up an 11x14. Then I focus on whatever catches my eye. It can be overwhelming to have so much subject matter around me to choose from, but I focus on the main idea. There is an urgency, because the light changes, weather changes, and things move—so I gather what I can, when I can, and get to the heart of the matter, with fewer and wilder brushstrokes. The painting that I bring home at the end of the day isn’t what I’m there for. Sometimes, I don’t even finish it. It’s the experience that comes home with me and feeds hundreds of other studio paintings.

With over 14,500 islands on Lake of the Woods, there’s subject matter for every artist in Canada and then some. But, very few have painted on Lake of the Woods. Some more well-known artists who have are Walter J. Phillips, Robert Genn, and Frank Johnston. All very accomplished Canadian artists, they captured Lake of the Woods in a way that changed the way it was seen.

Evening, Phillips Islet by Robert Genn

I met Robert Genn in BC about six years ago. We bonded over Lake of the Woods and became friends; he was also the greatest artistic mentor I’ve ever had. He had a really fun and interesting hobby too. He found spots where his favourite artists painted, then painted there himself. Like a treasure hunt! On Lake of the Woods, he looked for places Walter J. Phillips painted, based on rock formations and island layouts and set up there as well. He got me hooked on this game too. In 2004, Bob Genn found the island that Phillips captured in watercolour in 1926, and later made into a wood-block print called Sunset, Lake of the Woods. 

He said if I ever found it, to let him know. And I did. 

In 2011, I painted there as well. I unofficially named it “Phillips-Genn Islet,” although the islands in that area, like so many on Lake of the Woods, don’t have registered names. I’ve been back there several times, and started calling the island from which I painted "the Island of the Muse." It is particularly rich with inspiration, and I also feel the spirit of fellow artists who have gone before me when I’m there. I feel a part of the lineage of artists who have gone out and become a part of the world around them. Humbled by the scenery, inspired and reverent of those who went before. This last month I painted it on a larger scale, with “Phillips Genn Islet" in view from the “Island of the Muse.”

Island of the Muse by Melissa Jean

Over the years I’ve found many other spots that Phillips and Genn painted, and have painted there myself. I’m still on the search, another wonderful pastime in the summer months. I’m always discovering new and incredible places to paint on Lake of the Woods, and the surrounding lakes and forests in Ontario's Sunset Country.

Plein Air is great, but like I said, it is limited to its seasons—that’s why all three tools and the simple love of loading up the brush with paint and moving it around a canvas, are the ingredients of any of my paintings.

I paint every chance I get. it’s something that I can’t seem to get enough of. The more I paint, the more I want to paint. Maybe it’s an obsession, maybe it’s the endless possibilities of this area, but each painting feeds the desire for the next. Every one leads me to a new idea for the next.

I am filled with an irresistible urge to create, a sense of wonder and curiosity. An adventurer’s spirit. I can’t think of a better place to find endless subject matter to feed this painting obsession of mine (if it is that). Those moments of magic that Lake of the Woods and area are so abundant in—they stop me in my tracks, something calling me out of it all. Something inside me is trying to answer, in my own rusty ways, in whatever ways I can. To appreciate, to speak back, and to be grateful. I am forever learning, in every respect. I keep an open mind and I smile at the brush strokes that have become my own, like an old friend. We travel together and explore the hidden treasures of nature.

For more, follow Melissa Jean on Instagram and Facebook.

About Melissa Jean

A nationally recognized artist, Melissa Jean, paints across Canada, on location, and throughout the year in her Kenora, Ontario studio. Melissa captures the dance of light, the rhythm of water, and the strength of the Canadian landscape with acrylic on canvas. Her artwork can be found in public and private collections worldwide, and in galleries across Canada.

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