Cumberland-based artist Clive Powsey discusses the lighting on white objects at the end of his first Composing Light and Shade class at TOSH on Thursday, June 1. — Adam Kveton

The sublime in light and shadow

Artist, teacher seeks out the heart of darkness on Van. Island

Clive Powsey may be teaching a class on composing with light and shade, but its the heart of darkness that he’s after.

Though many artists are mesmerized by the the Island’s idyllic shores and treescapes, Powsey said, he looks to emphasize the opposite. He searches out the bleak, the stark, the overbearing and barren — dangerous mountainscapes with views that can kill.

Those are the focus of his latest work, which the Cumberland-based artist refers to as psychotopographies. In some ways, they exemplify the things he is teaching in his class at TOSH, Composing with Light and Shade. The class runs Thursday’s through June 29, and is still open to new participants.

Primarily a watercolour artist and printmaker, Powsey was one of those kids who, as he grew, never stopped drawing.

After four years of study at the Ontario College of Art, Powsey eventually went on to work in animated film and television, creating the backgrounds — the stages upon which characters lived — and then got into art direction.

He worked on TV series like Rupert the Bear and Franklin the Turtle, and movies like Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas.

He likened the work to set designing and lighting.

“It would be like setting up all the theatre light in the theatre … and figuring out how the characters are going to emerge from darkness or be dark against lightness,” he said. “It was applying the very principles that I’m teaching in this class.”

He’s trying to get his students to focus on the effect of light and shade on form. “What makes it difficult is there’s local colour,” he said. Everything has colour. You have dark hair so it’s very difficult for me to see what is light or what is shade on your dark hair or your dark pants, so we are doing exercises where we are going to try and really focus on looking at what is in light, what is in shade.”

To differentiate between the colour and the light and shade, he’s using a Renaissance painting technique where you create a monochromatic underpainting, upon which you layer transparent glazes of colour.

After understanding that differentiation becomes learning to compose with light, which he shows as being particularly important in painting the grand landscapes of the island, with mountains stacked behind mountains, and clouds letting in light in one spot, but not another.

The effect of light and shade is more or less Powsey’s medium in his psychotopographies, which feature rocky, mountainous terrain and where light reaches or can’t reach.

The pieces are prints made from etchings he creates by making many many cuts into large plates of plastic. He then presses ink into the scratches, and using the plastic plate to transfer the ink to paper.

His hope for his work is that it captures the inexplicable beauty of the terrain he said.

Having taken up mountaineering himself, he said finding these bleak places devoid of life actually enlivens him. “It helps you to kind of enjoy the present, you know… you savour the moment, when you are in the mountains… you feel more alive because any minute you could take a step off a cliff or an avalanche or rockslide could hit you… you feel incredibly alive.”

“A view to die for… I love that idea in landscape.”

For more information on Powsey’s class, go to www.theoldschoolhouse.org/ClassesOverview.html.