It is conventional art wisdom that it’s best to paint what is around you. And what is around the artist Ben Walmsley is children. He has four of them, ranging in age from nine to 19. “I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for 20 years now,” Walmsley tells me during my recent visit to his Toronto studio.
He paints his own children, but more often he paints children in his neighbourhood. “I can’t get ahead of the commissions,” says Walmsley, adding that he is a bit wary of “being trapped as a society painter”—regardless of how charming and infectious the society.
He didn’t always paint children. Back in the late 1980s, when his avant-garde reputation was forged, Walmsley’s work was photographically fuelled. His Colourplate series of paintings (from the 1989 exhibition “Colour Atlas of Anatomy: A Forsaken Garden,” at Garnet Press Gallery), for example, featured carefully painted nude figures juxtaposed with and adorned by colour names from the Pratt & Lambert paint catalogue and attended by Swinburne’s poetry. In his better known Still series from the 1990s, Walmsley painted hyperreal, human-scaled bottles of liquor, each one placed on or accompanied by geometric bars and blocks of pure, uninflected colour extrapolated from the hues of the bottles.
The bars and blocks are still there in his paintings of children. In his Untitled (Boy with Red Boots), a little boy—who is wearing a red shirt, blue jeans and red rubber boots—stands in the shallow central space of the painting, flanked by bright bars of colour: blue running up the left side, and red up the right. In the delightful Untitled (Boy with a Blue Water-gun), a tousle-headed kid stands in profile, his hair a luminous conflagration of blond light, his basketball shirt as blue as his water pistol. Horizontal and vertical blue planes (under him and to his left) hold him in place. If Walmsley were Whistler, this would be an “arrangement” in blues and gold.
Walmsley says he started painting children because he had “never really tried his hand at portraiture” and because he wanted to create his own version of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, the Old Master painting that he most admires. Since then, his commitment to the portrait—to the child portrait—has been total (“I have to get the eyes right…that’s where the child’s character lies”).
Why children in particular? They’re all around him, he tells me. “Children,” he says, “are so changeable and open. Their emotions can always go either way.” And Walmsley is there, in gentle but virtuoso pursuit of them.
This is an article from the Fall 2009 issue of Canadian Art.