Seeing In Black And White

Seeing In Black And White

Yesterday evening I was on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore at one of my favorite places, Taylor Head Provincial Park. Taylor Head is a long headland that juts out into the Atlantic and I’ve spent a great deal of time here over the years. On hot days this headland has a dreamy quality when the sea fog rolls in off the Atlantic to mix with the warm air overland. The fog subdues color and at times the sun will make an appearance, yesterday it was hanging like a white ball low in the West. When I am using black and white film I have to look for subjects in a different way than I would with color. I’m looking for contrast and value, textures and even movement.

Yesterday though it was almost effortless, the whole landscape reduced itself to monotones in the fog, creating a lovely sense of depth, when the sun came through the light shimmered, the landscape glowed, light dripped from the branches and blanketed the shoreline granite, it moved on the calm water, distilled and subtle. Timing is everything and in the course of the 4 hours I was there the light appeared perhaps 4 times, it was fleeting, sometimes for just seconds. I spend a lot of time hanging around in situations like this, looking for compositions and waiting. I shot a roll of Ilford Detla 100 (15 exposures) and it was the last shot that I think summed up the experience of yesterday.

I had spotted some long whale back granite ridges pointing out to the ocean from the shore, the sun hovered above and the mist moved over it like a veil. At one point the rocks were split setting up a perfect place to let the light come through, I took two photos of this scene while balancing on a steep cliff! The first was the rocks with the light coming down between them and for the second I wanted to add something more, another dimension to the photograph, so I asked my kid who was with me to stand on the rocks, looking out to sea, into the light. It worked, adding a human element into this already dreamy yet mysterious scene gave the image what it needed. Below you can see an iphone image of what I was intersted in, I got my kid to stand on the right side of the gap. This was taken after the light had gone.

The Granite Ridges With The Gap, iphone image, the light has gone!

It is hard to post online images from film right away! The above photograph was taken with my iPhone, sometimes I will use the phone to get a look at something I am interested in before I take the photograph. I convert it to black and white on the spot which helps to see if everything I think I am seeing is there and will work on film. Below are two other images from my iPhone, both of which I did eventually take with my medium format camera.


The Unfamiliar From The Familiar

“Homestead Near Canso” Nova Scotia, Bronica etrsi 645, Ilford Delta 100 film. Winter 2017

It’s a hot sticky August day here in Nova Scotia, I cant stand this heat and usually stay indoors when its so warm. I’m waiting for the sun to dip a little when it will cool and the light will begin to change. That’s what I am after today, the magic hours, about 2-3 hours before sunrise or sunset. I will head out in the car for a few kilometers looking for something that takes my eye.

This evening I’ll be taking photographs with my medium format camera using black and white film, wandering through the rural areas looking to discover something. I work like this a lot, it’s spontaneous with interactions that are unplanned, you never know what your going to get and that’s part of the appeal. The problem is that the landscape, its forms and the way we use it are very familiar to me and its that familiarity that reduces the awareness. I think this way of seeing or interpreting is in all of us but those of us who can overcome this predisposition to the familiar can notice the unfamiliar or the story that needs telling.

I am getting better and better over the years, learning to see without having the mind interfere. You can learn to see patterns, shapes, relationships instead of houses fields and roads you have watched for years. If  you are wondering what this feels like, to see this way, turn yourself upside down and you will see the world new again, that’s right, just bend your head under your arm and look! When you do this the brain cant filter what you are seeing and you see things the way they are, major shapes, angles, color and values. It’s almost as if you are separating yourself from what you know about a landscape and trying to look at it in a way that someone being there for the first time might. Being able to do this consistently can reap benefits in the way you interpret what you are seeing, you strip away the preconceived and come towards a more truthful understanding of what is ‘there’ before you.


My New (to me) Sinar P 4X5 View Camera

The Sinar P 4X5

A few days ago I was browsing Kijiji and stumbled across a listing for a Sinar P, 4×5 View Camera in Ottawa at a great price. This classic camera of the 1970’s would have cost about $8000 in today’s money. The owner was a retired photographer who by all accounts had a very successful career. Three days later and it’s sitting in my studio on a tripod complete with 3 top of the line lenses from that era. I feel so fortunate to have found this camera.

Over the past year or so I have been working in medium format to photograph the landscape, making trips to the coast and the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Medium format keeps up with some of the best digital cameras out there today, its also small enough to carry around in a small back pack. The 4×5 view camera I have on the other hand weighs a massive 13lbs, it’s a dead weight, and will travel as far as the photographer is prepared to carry it! The advantage of this camera though is the negative, at 4×5 inches it can gather more information than some of the most advanced digital cameras today. One of the other key things with a view camera is its movements, these movements help with depth of field, focus, changing, composition and even angles within the image. I am after a photographic image that is top quality and I hope I can do this with this camera.

The 4×5 film is on order and should be here in the next few days. With a camera like this, you don’t waste your film, each press of the shutter is going to cost me almost $10 per shot! But there’s an advantage to that in the way it slows you down, makes you pay attention, prepare and check, and this is the process I love. It’s a deliberate way to create something special in a medium that is really quite versatile.

My hope of course is to continue to explore the landscape with this new equipment and produce a much broader body of work that complements my painting and sound work. The camera can indeed be used as a form of expression just as well as a painting and the process or the creation of a work, while somewhat different, still maintains a type of thought process similar to making marks on a canvas. The next few years will tell.



Fall, Northern Ontario

Mark Brennan In Killarney Provincial ParkIn the late fall of 2015 I made a trip to Northern Ontario to visit a place I had been dreaming about for many years. That place was Killarney Provincial Park, about 80km west of Sudbury, on the shores of Georgian Bay. I flew to Ottawa and rented a car, driving the hundreds of kilometers North West the same day, to arrive in what can only be described as one of the most incredibly diverse landscapes I have seen. Killarney is a jewel in more ways than one, its quartz La Cloche mountains rise up inland to form an undulating series of white ridges and outcrops that to a landscape painter is overwhelming. It is not just the colour of these hills but the diversity of the land its self, a jumbled collection of rugged and ragged vegetation, rocks, cliffs, eskers and skies. It is no wonder that Canada’s first true landscape painters found themselves here in the early part of the last century.

Killarney was not my only destination but also Muskoka, a few hours north of Toronto, along with Algonquin Provincial Park, the Algonquin Highlands and Georgian Bay. Much of the trip was spent seeking out those places that would inspire me back in my studio in Nova Scotia as well as sketching and writing a journal of the trip which I will use to rekindle the subconscious reaction to the landscape, eventually building a new body of work from the region. Below you can see some of the 20 sketches I did and a few of the developing landscapes.

It seems that I am slowly covering the country, seeking out those places that remain ‘wild’ to me. I think a part of my journey as a landscape painter is being used to connect me more deeply with life, to enrich my sense of awareness and aliveness and to also draw attention to the natural world as something ‘we’ are not separate from but a part of.  As  Satish Kumar said, “We have to shift our attitude of ownership of nature to relationship with nature. The moment you change from ownership to relationship, you create a sense of the sacred.

When I am ‘in’ wild nature I feel the most alive, it is in these places where my sense of self expands to include all living things.

Posted in Wilderness Trip

A Northern River

Here is a story of how I first came into contact with the work of the Group of Seven and specifically Tom Thomson. At around age 23 I had a part time job framing in a local gallery in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, the owners were keen on Canadian Art. I had been painting for about 5 years by this time and had been in Canada less than 4 years. On their bookshelf was a large thick book on Tom Thomson, which I became enthralled with, I used to look at it on my breaks, in between making frames. I knew very little about the Group of Seven at this time.

The above small sketch is from my trip to Algonquin in 2003, 5×7 oil on board, Sunrise.

If we go back a few more years to the late 1980’s when I first came to Canada with the Royal Navy, I was so keen on seeing the county’s wilderness that I was willing to take a taxi from Halifax dockyard to the Waverly Game Sanctuary to see and experience some wildlife, quite a long way! I never did, but little did I know that in a couple of years I would be living here. I have always had this connection to wild things, growing up in Scotland and being exposed to such an adventurous childhood had caused something to seep into my soul.

Above, my ‘old’ rendition of Tea Lake dam, Algonquin. oil sketch 6×8

Not long after I began work at the gallery, my wife and I managed to pull together some money to take a train trip from Truro, Nova Scotia to Vancouver. It was two weeks of looking out the steamy windows of a train as it rumbled through Northern Ontario, the Prairies, the Rocky Mountains and finally into Vancouver, then all the way back again! Luckily, on a one night stop in Toronto, we took a frozen, March evening walk from the Royal York Hotel to the Art Gallery of Ontario, where lo and behold there was an exhibition on the work of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson.

Above, Thomson’s magnificent Northern River,

Seeing this show opened my eyes to what was possible with art and I don’t mind admitting that Tom Thomson’s, ‘Northern River’ had me in tears, he had somehow captured what I had felt about wild Nature! Remember, I was no Canadian, I had never seen an original Group of Seven painting with the exception of small images in books! When you are an aspiring artist and you see work like this, you realize how far you have to go, but it planted a seed at that time, one that I will likely continue to nurture for as long as I can paint.

Not long after this, I saw Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, Monets ‘Water Lillys’, Renior’s ‘A Bather’ and the paintings of Seurat, Turner, Constable, the war art of John Singer Sergeant with his incredible work, ‘Gassed’, all in London. There was even a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But, it was Thomson’s work that spoke to me the most, and likely because of a childhood spent immersed in Nature, a childhood, which at that time, I seemed to be leaving further and further behind.

The photo at the top of this page is myself visiting Tom Thomsons original gravesite in Algonquin Park.


Walking Into Awareness

This Forest Has Now Been Clearcut by Wagner.

This Forest Has Now Been Clearcut by Wagner.

A few days ago, during our first snow storm this winter, I made my way down through the back fields, across the stream, to disappear into the waiting woods. High wind and blowing snow made it almost impossible to see at first, but once in the calm of the forest, a winter wonderland passed by with each step.

I walk a lot in winter, preferring the woods to the dirt road that runs past our house. It seems every time I pace my wooded trails, in all seasons, there is always something new waiting to be discovered. I have been tramping the same forest for over twenty years, and even now, after hundreds of visits, I am amazed by the depth of experience, the subtle change and the wellness it seems to give.

For me, the biggest benefit of a daily walk is the clarity of mind it produces. Those steps become a walking meditation, bringing me back to the present. If life is about depth of experience, then training ourselves to become more attentive every day is a worthy goal and should give us greater insight on what it means to be truly alive.

On a walk my mind is usually active and wandering for the first few minutes, then I begin to notice things that interest me, usually I go slow, touching things, looking, listening, smelling, as I move through the forest, my awareness deepening with every step.

On the return loop, I speed up and look more towards feeling my body working hard, enjoying the aches and pains, the breath, my heartbeat, all signs that I am wonderfully alive!

As an artist I am used to looking, but over the past six years I have come to use another sense to increase my awareness levels. Now I also pay close attention to the sounds I hear and will often stop on a walk to just listen, to pick out the sounds of life all around me. It might be the smallest detail of a sound, a bird, a leaf flutter, the drip of rain from a heavy bough, the faint gurgle of a stream buried underneath a thick blanket of snow, each sound bringing its own uniqueness to the journey.

For me awareness and presence are the foundation of my life as a painter, taking time to cultivate this through walking gives me insight and clarity. I get to find the beauty in every step, in every breath, in everything around me, something that I can take with me throughout the day.

We seem to habitually rush through our lives, seeking reward in thoughts of the future or even the past, but, if you think about it, our mind can be a thief, stealing away the richness of the present moment, which is there right now, for you. To cultivate awareness through mindful walking is like planting a seed, one that with continued watering, food and love, could grow into something quite beautiful.

Mark Brennan

Posted in Uncategorized

Winter Solstice

Winter-SolsticeSaturday December 21st is the Winter Solstice here in the northern hemisphere, the shortest day of the year, and also the time when the days begin to lengthen, if only slightly! On this day the sun is at its lowest point in the sky. In the southern hemisphere, it is of course the summer solstice, the longest day of their year. The word solstice actually means ‘sun stands still.

Winter solstice celebrations date back centuries and can be found in many cultures. Festivals have been held the world over, even as far back as the Romans. The Norse called their celebrations the Yule, a word we still recognise today.

Observing the solstice has continued to be a part of the lives of those who pay attention to the cycles of the Earth. Near my own birthplace in Wiltshire, England, Stonehenge is well known for its gatherings. On December 21st druids will gather to end the mourning of the ‘death of the light’.

Being a part of solstice celebrations can put us back in touch with the ebb and flow of the Earthly cycles. It reminds us of where we come from, of the cycle of our own lives and perhaps even helps us to think of Mother Nature in our day to day life. Here are five things you could do to celebrate the solstice, where ever you are.

  1. Light candles, each person saying something that they are grateful for, the light steadily growing as each candle is lit, signifying the beginning of the return of the light.
  2. Gather, talk and tell stories around a bonfire, this will be me this year!
  3. Turn off your tv, phones and computers, returning to and being aware of simplicity.
  4. Celebrate with food, perhaps a potluck with good friends and family.
  5. Simply watch the sun rise and welcome the return of longer days.

In the Northern hemisphere the Solstice also signifies the start of winter. If your weather has been anything like ours here, in Nova Scotia, Canada, winter has been present for a while! From the solstice onward, the sun begins to move northward, surely that’s something to celebrate.

Posted in Life Is Short and tagged

Christmas For The Caribou

The-Caribou-Land-Jasper-National-Park-oil-5x7-inchesA few years back I read the book, “Being Caribou” by Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison. Caribou are increasingly threatened in some areas of Canada, including Northern Alberta where the tar sands seem to be ever expanding. The question of its survival will become a larger issue as we continue to encroach into areas they desperately need to survive and flourish, as they have for thousands of years. Caribou in Canada have come to define the First Nations through the long intimate relationship each have had with the other for thousands of years.

Karsten and Allison were so passionate about the Caribou they decided to bring attention to the fragility of the Porcupine herd who make their annual migration from the Yukon, north into Alaska, to arrive on the shores of the Arctic Ocean in early June, giving birth in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The couple’s idea was to follow this herd for five months, walking and ski-ing all the way. They started their journey in May of 2003, from Old Crow in the Yukon, and what a journey it was.

I have seen caribou on my travels in the back country of Gros Morne National park in Newfoundland and again in the Chic Choc Mountains of Quebec. My sightings were in late summer, we would see them in the distance, stood into the wind, high on a precipice, to ward off the incessant biting insects. They are built for this type of terrain, a hardy, gutsy mammal with a survival instinct to match. To me, they appeared ghost like. At times we saw them in fleeting glimpses and in others they would come into full view for a minute or more, then silently disappear.

What surprised me about the experience of the two who followed the Porcupine heard was the connection, compassion and admiration both showed at the end of their journey, almost coming to know the Caribou the way the Gwetchin first nations have for millennia. I could tell after reading the book and watching their film, that after five months of living and moving with the heard, the Caribou had seeped into their very being.

In my experience, when you let nature in, you gain a new dimension to your life, but also a profound kinship and a deeper understanding that we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves. For me this was very evident in Gros Morne, sat at the bottom of a waterfall one morning, I felt so very insignificant; the surrounding wilderness though, was not the foreboding entity it was supposed to be, but a seemingly natural extension of myself.

There are two great films portraying the personal journey of Karsten and Allison, with an intimate look at the life and plight of the Caribou. I wont give too much away, but both films are worth watching if you want to understand the emotional depths of this story and gain some insight into the future of this magnificent being.

The Film: Being Caribou can be seen here.

The public talk and presentation can be seen here.

The book, Being Caribou.

End Quote: “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.” Rachel Carson.

Posted in Wilderness Trip

Observations While Sitting

Observations-While-SittingOutside the studio window is a world of grey, it’s a December, Sunday afternoon, and in typical Nova Scotia fashion, it’s either freezing rain or snowing over the past few hours, a half a million people without power in Eastern Canada, nasty stuff. Down in the valley, I can see the soft edges of wind blown, old Pines, set upon by the grey curtain of mist that seems to envelope the day. At the bird feeder, not five meters from me, Tree Sparrows, Junco’s, Blue Jays, Chickadee’s and five big male Pheasants share the snow covered seed I have scattered on the ground, Grieg plays in the background.

On days like this I go deliberately slow. We need these idle hours, moments our mind is forced into doing nothing, so the overtaking, ever thinking brain finally catches up to its self, begins to level out and just be. I find myself watching the birds closely, discovering how the Blue Jay looks around after each peck of the sunflower seed, always aware, then the burden of the long frozen tail of the Pheasant, dragging over snowy ground, and the hopping puff ball of the Tree Sparrows, who spend their summers in the Arctic, they are in their element here on the frozen hill.

It’s a day to ponder, to plan, to recharge and reconnect. I consider days like today as important as days of getting ‘stuff’ done. It is a re-balancing of the ‘life scales’. I have a feeling of having time in front of me, something I personally need to begin a new landscape painting. Looking ahead, I don’t see much, but feel a sense of space having thrown off the blanket of other duties I know we all have. Allowing yourself this ‘space’ in life should be a priority, putting aside the built in guilt complex, where we label ourselves as lazy or inefficient if we don’t join the frenzy, as if time is running out.

You know the feeling, you have felt it on holiday when you flop onto the hotel bed after a long flight or on a Christmas morning for just an hour, while you watch your loved ones open their gifts, the last day of school, the final exam, or on a Friday when the work week ends. I wonder why we allow this calm to come into our lives so seldom? Is this state what it feels like to be enlightened? It is as if we have to earn our calm, that we are not worthy of it until we do.

Out across the yard, the bright red of the rose hips show off their colors, giving a zing to the greyness, a female Pheasant jumps, plucking them one at a time, a mad squirrel dashes from hole to hole beneath heavy spruce boughs, burying his food, he can’t settle, there is work to be done.

End Quote:Everybody seems to think I’m lazy, I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy. Running everywhere at such a speed Till they find there’s no need.John Lennon

Posted in Life Is Short

The Great Silence

In his book, Reflections From The North Country, guide and wilderness advocate, Sigurd Olson talks about, the great silence. Anyone who has spent more than a few days in a wilderness setting will know if they have heard the great silence.

Olson calls it ‘ancient overlapping silences’, those sounds that we come to know subconsciously, something from within the realms of our own evolution that settles us, that evokes gentle feelings of calm and knowing. Here in this release then is my own experience of the great silence from recordings made during a late summer wilderness canoe trip with a close friend. Edited down to 15 mintues, this is what we heard, this is our great silence.

The sounds you hear are quiet, as you would hear them in nature. I would suggest finding a quiet place and, to listen with headphones. If you can, try to really listen, to pay attention to all the intricate living sounds of this wild place, almost like a meditation. The hope is that it will enable the listener to understand the depth and interconnectedness of wild nature and then take this new awareness out into the world.

I have deliberately left out a description of this track, everything a surprise, a puzzle, just like being there.

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