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  • Michelle Sirois Silver

manmade paths: An interview with Ross Penhall

A desire line. The first time I heard this phrase was during an interview I did with Ross Penhall back in March. It’s a landscape architecture term that describes an unintended pathway created by humans and animals.

Ross Penhall is a painter who works with oils and paints large canvases inspired by the west coast landscapes of British Columbia and California. His economical landscapes are punctuated with voluminous shapes of trees, clouds, and buildings. Ross refers to them as “simplified sculptural forms.”

Howies Hill.

Ross Penhall. 55" x 45"

Within the landscapes, he creates pathways that lead the eye through the paintings to an undisclosed destination. Along with his use of saturated colours, it’s what drew me to his work. Sometimes he paints a physical path, other times he uses light in the distance to create the pathway. I have felt hope and trepidation looking at his work.

While Ross is best known for his large scale works he also works small.

Purple Horizon, Ross Penhall.  7" x 10"

Purple Horizon. Ross Penhall. 7" x 10"

In my own art practice, I approach my small and large works differently. I often wonder how I might scale up the ragged line of a deconstructed screen print or a hand stitch that works beautifully in small, but whose delicate features become lost when used in the same way in a large work. Or when I work large with the hand hooked surface, the scale of the work creates unique compositional opportunities and there is a wide range of materials that I can choose from. And while small hand hooked pieces are physically restricted by their very size, it's not to say that I can't create a detailed work. In fact I can, but the considerations are different.

I asked Ross how he transcends scale when working small, particularly for the pathways that are a pivotal compositional element in his large work. This is the last in a series of three blog posts exploring small venues and small work.


Horseshoe Bay Circle. Ross Penhall.  7" x 5"

Horseshoe Bay Circle. Ross Penhall. 7" x 5"

M. In your book (Ross Penhall’s Vancouver, Surrounding Areas and Places That Inspire) you wrote how manmade paths become an efficient way to move through the landscape.

R. That’s true.

I want people to think “where is that path going?” Trigger something from their memory. But what I find interesting are the desire lines. Landscape architects design pathways and then there are these desire lines where people take short cuts. You see them on hillsides where animals travel back and forth. You see them everywhere. You see them in Stanley Park and Central Park. It’s a dirt path through the grass. Cutting a corner. I’m far more interested in the desire lines.

There’s not as much real estate on the small wood panel. They are their own little world. I do put paths in some of them but it’s about leading the eye through tonal values as opposed to paths. I try to have a strong foreground, middle ground, and background, leading the eye more that way.

M. What do you believe is the most important piece of information you need to put into your piece to tell the story?

R. I’m always editing and cropping. What to leave in, what to leave out. I’m more interested in balance. Tonal values, a point of interest, and balance. In my work the point of interest is brought about by colour and tonal values which comes from my etching background - when you work in black and white you need to understand tonal value and what balances a work. My most successful pieces are the ones that have the shockingly white areas balanced with black and gray. It’s an instinctual thing… a lot of playing around to get it right.


M. Can you give me an example of something you can do with a small work that you can’t do with a larger work?

R. I would say, mostly risk. Just risk.

Banbury Vines. Ross Penhall. 8" x 10"

Banbury Vines. Ross Penhall. 8" x 10"

It’s easier to get started on a small panel. You can sit down and goop up the surface. It’s like a meditative practice in a way.

You start into it, you’re less precious with it. You can go in very quickly and know something isn’t working. You can wipe it off. You turn the thing upside down and start over. Meanwhile the surface is still wet and you’re just going back into it and working it. I take more risks but the risks are also smaller too, it’s easier. I still do that with the larger works but I map things out more closely than I do with the smaller works.


M. Can you share one unexpected pleasure you discovered when working small?

R. When I paint it’s the brush work, how a simple brush stroke can say so much.

City Stroll. Ross Penhall.  7.5" x 8

City Stroll. Ross Penhall. 7.5" x 8"

In a small painting, you can describe the trunk of a tree by wiggling your brush and then dabbing light onto it. It works. I think that’s where the economy and the simplicity of it comes – it’s hard to do on a larger scale.

When I’m painting outside in plein air, when things are working it’s so great. I don’t always get that in my studio where I’m painting big. There’s something about standing outside on a sunny day in the shade in front of something that is so cool, and it’s working out. When I finish the painting and I’m happy with it, it’s such a great feeling. With outdoor painting, painting small, there is something so freeing and you’re just in the moment. You can’t be sad standing outside on a sunny day.

Photo credits: Ted Clarke (artwork), Ross Penhall

Ross Penhall is represented by Gallery Jones, Vancouver; Caldwell Snyder Gallery, San Francisco and St. Helena in California; and Campton Gallery in New York.

You can see Ross Penhall’s selected works (big and small) at Gallery Jones, May 4 – 30, 2017.

Ross Penhall, “Living in the Complexity of an Effort”

Opening reception: Saturday, May 6, 2:00pm – 4:00pm Artist in Attendance Gallery Jones

Selected new works inspired by the west coast landscapes of British Columbia and California.

Ross Penhall’s Vancouver, Surrounding Areas and Places That Inspire

Learn more about Ross Penhall

Follow Ross Penhall on FB and IG.



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