17 July, 2023

Capturing the Beauty of the Trail Through Plein-Air Painting

David Kearn painting outside on the trail

David Kearn is an artist, author, teacher, blogger and creative coach, based in Gatineau, Quebec. He and his life partner, France, have a successful visual arts workshop practice and David teaches at the Ottawa School of Art.

David explains, “I now infuse my experience and love of art into everything I do. Creativity is always an opportunity for growth as well as being motivating and fun.”

His most recent artistic path has taken him towards plein-air painting in nature, using oil paints. Last year, he decided to focus on the Trans Canada Trail as the subject of his artwork: he spent hours on the Trail, focusing on the sights and sounds around him and transforming his impressions into a collection of paintings set along the Trail.

The Trail is front and centre

A daily user of the Trans Canada Trail, David walks his local section daily. He and France frequently walk, run or ski along the Trail for fresh air, to relax and regenerate, and even to walk to work. Throughout the past year, he’s also been out on the Trail over 60 times to paint!

“I’m not exactly sure when the idea of painting along the Trans Canada Trail crept into my psyche,” David says. He continues, “As I ventured afield with my backpack, the Trail was always informing my footsteps to the next location. Right at my doorstep, there it was, heading east, west and north: what a fitting theme for a season’s painting!”

One Summer along the Trans Canada Trail: bringing nature to life

David Kearn Plein-air paintings of the Trans Canada Trail

What emerged from time enjoying the Trail was a series of plein-air paintings. The tradition of plein-air painting goes back hundreds of years, but it is most often associated with the Impressionist movement, which included renowned artists Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, among others. “Plein-air painting can be just a simple paint sketch or indeed an elaborate finished work; the artist uses whatever methods and techniques inspire,” David explains.

“When painting outside, I often choose watercolour for its portability and immediacy. This last year, however, I decided to use oil, in order that I might feel a little closer to those who have put Canadian landscape painting on the map, notably Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. I was not going to paint like them, nor follow their methods; however, I did decide on a similar portable 8”x10” format, to keep my kit light. Those painters chose wild places (as they saw them); I gravitated to urban parks and places with a sense of history and human connection,” he says.

He spent last summer plein-air painting along his local Trail section. By fall, he had 60 paintings for an exhibition at the Ottawa School of Art. Forty-three of these paintings were then assembled into a book, along with comments describing these experiences along the Trail. His most recent book, One Summer along the Trans Canada Trail – Plein-air Painting in Ottawa-Gatineau, was published in March 2023.

Before long, a sense of connection grows

In the Ottawa-Gatineau area, the Trail is omnipresent – easy to access and to explore. “For me, the Trail is synonymous with access to the natural world, as well as a connection to other places and communities. As an artist, it provides endless streams of seasonal themes,” David explains. There is “a sense of connection that is fundamental, elemental even, about human movement along a trail,” he continues.

Take a good lungful of fresh air and begin!

David Kearn Plein-air paintings of the Trans Canada Trail

For those looking to draw, paint or create along the Trans Canada Trail, David is emphatic: get started! “My main advice is to start with a small sketch pad: sit or stand; don’t look for the perfect spot, just take a good lungful of fresh air and begin!”

Some more specific tips about painting outdoors? “Include something firm to support your work, keeping in mind that you are outside without studio equipment. I use a smaller format: 15″x11″ maximum. Plein-air painting is all about sensing the atmosphere so if, like me, you tend to pack the proverbial kitchen sink, don’t.”

David’s suggested checklist for plein-air painting on the Trail 

  • Something to sit on, such as a small cushion or a fold-up stool or chair  
  • Sunscreen, a sunhat and sunglasses  
  • Something windproof and layers in case of weather changes 
  • Something to drink 
  • A bag to put rubbish in 
  • A large plastic bag as an emergency rain shield  
  • A camera for recording the scene  
  • Plus… a painting kit! 

About David Kearn 

David’s first book, Eighteen Pieces, was published in 2021 and his second, One Summer along the Trans Canada Trail – Plein-air Painting in Ottawa-Gatineau, in March 2023. David and France are currently working on a third book, scheduled for publication in 2024. Find him on Instagram (@davidkearn1) or his website for more. 

Thank you