Virginia Wilson’s Yukon landscapes

Landscapes. There is probably no other subject that has inspired so many painters in the Yukon. Every artist brings to their work a particular perspective that informs their style and distinguishes their landscapes from those of other artists.

Virginia Wilson, whose exhibit Travels with a Sketchbook is currently showing at Yukon Artists @ Work (YA@W), approaches landscapes with a background in geography. In discussing the significance of her academic education to her landscape practice, Wilson says it’s similar to having specialized knowledge in anatomy when drawing or painting the human figure.

“What I have is a background in the anatomy of the landscape, because I have a smattering of all the earth sciences,” she explains.
When one has such a background, Wilson says, “You look at a landscape in a completely different way. You’re looking for shapes in the rocks, structures, vegetation zones…the way water moves…the way it meanders around.”

At the centre of the exhibit are several sketchbooks with watercolour drawings of places where Wilson has lived and visited. She created most of these scenes on paper en plein air, working outdoors directly with the landscape. Many were later used as references for acrylic paintings that Wilson completed in her studio.

The gallery walls include some recent acrylic landscapes, with scenes of the Yukon including downtown Whitehorse, Miles Canyon, Fish Lake and others. There are also panels featuring reproductions of selected watercolour sketches which are used to illustrate and illuminate Wilson’s artistic process and development.

For example, one panel demonstrates how she first began creating watercolour sketches while on a trip to Alaska. For these first efforts, she used a pen to draw the scene, then filled it in with watercolour. This took hours, because she used the pen ink to create effects such as shading.
Later, for a trip to the Grand Canyon, she turned the method around and started with watercolours. This allowed her to work quickly to apply the washes before the spectacular light and colours of the canyon scene disappeared. Then she used the pen to create lines and distinguish forms. This technique was faster and much more efficient, and she’s used it ever since.

Another panel shows how Wilson discovered that Crayola crayons could be used to create lines. When ink wouldn’t work because the wash was still wet, Wilson grabbed her granddaughter’s black crayon to make lines instead. The on-the-spot improvisation proved successful. The method became part of Wilson’s ongoing practice, so that she was buying boxes and boxes of crayons just to get the black ones (she can now buy black separately).

A third panel demonstrates Wilson’s use of both sketches and photography as references for her final paintings. Photographs are certainly useful, but often fail to reproduce the desired composition or the subtleties of light and colour. This is evident in an acrylic painting of Quill Creek which is a work-in-progress in the gallery. Wilson explains how the watercolour sketch she’s using for reference reflects the brilliant turquoise water and river beauty flowers on the creek banks. These elements don’t come through in the reference photograph.

The photograph also fails to convey the emotional response to the landscape, or the “sense of drama” which Wilson captured in her sketch. Through her watercolours, she can recreate the feeling of being overwhelmed by looming mountains, or awed by the depth of a gorge. The sketches also allow for some “artistic license”; for example, Wilson will move mountains over a little to allow for a feature in the foreground to be highlighted.
“Mount Lorne sometimes gets nudged over a bit,” she admits.

If you visit the exhibit, you probably won’t notice where Wilson has moved mountains. However, you will learn about her artistic journey as a landscape painter. Give yourself time to read through the panels and browse through the sketchbooks. That way, you can fully appreciate the transformation of the watercolour sketches into their final acrylic counterparts.

Travels with a Sketchbook is showing until May 29. Wilson will be painting in the gallery every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 11:30 am to 2 pm for the duration of the show. You can also check out her webpage at