A series of small abstractions

By Aaren Madden, October 2015

Rod Charlesworth celebrates both place and paint.

When a viewer stands close enough to the surface of an impressionist painting, he or she will see the image disperse into its component parts. A sun-dappled tree, say, will become flecks of brown, yellow and green; a field of flowers flies apart into dashes of red. The image at close range speaks to the perception and activity of the artist, revealing choices made that result in a recognizable arrangement of colour and form. Not only does the viewer realize the relationship between the whole and the sum of its parts, but there is a kind of communion between painter and viewer that moves beyond seeing toward a sense of shared experience. 

Painter Rod Charlesworth cherishes this exchange. “I love it when I see somebody walk right up to the canvas and get their nose two or three inches away. And then the natural response is to move back. After you do that, everything pulls together.” 

For Charlesworth, that nearness belies a fascination with the infinite possibilities of oil paint. It’s what motivates his practice and attracts him to other artists’ work, no matter the subject matter or style. “The thing that always draws me into a painting is the qualities of paint, the way the artist has applied and manipulated the paint in the colour and texture.”

His fascination for art making reaches about as far back as Charlesworth can remember. Born in Terrace in 1955, he says, “I drew all the time. My parents would take me to things like church, and I didn’t listen to anything. I always had my pencil; I was drawing the whole time.” Despite his inattention to sermons, his parents kept their young artist in materials even if it meant peeling the labels off of soup cans in order to provide a surface for his constant drawing. Such efforts were a reflection of “trying to find paper up there at the time,” Charlesworth laughs, adding, “I don’t know why I was so inclined that way, but my great grandfather was an artist in Winnipeg, and also my dad was drawing all the time.”

Charlesworth’s father made his living in construction, however, and in 1962 the family moved to the Okanagan. Once in his teens, Charlesworth joined his father building houses for a number of years. Between jobs, the young artist would paint in a surrealist style aligning with his introspective imagination. These works attracted praise—and buyers. “It put the little seed into my head that I would sure like to have a career at this at some point,” he recalls.

A two-year diploma program in Fine Arts at Okanagan College exposed Charlesworth to other influences, especially impressionism, the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, influences he continues to explore in his practice. He painted landscapes “because they were there,” he says with a laugh, but with the goal of conveying his own sense of place. “For me the landscape was how I developed and how I learned. No matter where you are in the world, you are affected by where you live,” he observes, “So it was wanting to put the place into [my] own visual language. I’ve never just wanted to replicate a certain place. I go more for the feel of a place.”

It took a few more years before this became a full-time endeavour. Charlesworth married at 21 and worked a variety of jobs to support a young family in Kelowna, where he still lives. In the early 1980s, a friend offered him a temporary job in a gallery and framing shop in Yellowknife. The landscapes he painted there sold well in the gallery. One day his wife, who was still in Kelowna, called with news that a few additional galleries were interested in representing him. “So sales picked up at that point, and I said ok, let’s give this a shot,” he says. Today he is represented by galleries from BC to Ontario and in many public and private collections. And, taking up the family business, the youngest of his three sons has just completed a fine arts degree at UBC. 

Attending exhibitions of current work with his son keeps Charlesworth’s creativity stimulated and feeds his continuing fascination for the possibilities inherent in oil paint. It is, for him, a source of delight: “It’s just paint. Have fun with it” has become his dictum. “Sometimes, when I’m working, I photograph my palette,” he shares. “I’ve got lots of those photographs. Before the paint even hits the canvas I’m just, ‘wow’, realizing how beautiful paint really is in itself.” 

That notion inspires Charlesworth to paint in a way that celebrates the medium. Impasto application of colour works toward form in a way that always reaches back to the properties and capabilities of oil paint: how thick layers create a relief that changes the image in a raking light, and how combinations of colour value emphasize pure form while communicating content. “I’ve always believed that in order to make a good painting—any painting, I don’t care if it’s abstract or realistic or impressionist or what—it’s just a series of small abstractions,” explains Charlesworth. “If you take a viewfinder and go into one of my paintings, and I do this all the time, I find these little areas and sometimes I think, ‘if that were blown up to a big abstract painting, it would be beautiful.’ Those are the qualities that I try to get into the paint. I’m not trying to paint blades of grass so much; I’m trying to just create luscious shapes that trigger your mind to think of grass, or foliage on a tree, or whatever.” 

This month, Charlesworth will exhibit a series of new paintings at West End Gallery. Among them will be landscapes from a recent trip to Haida Gwaii and a few whimsical scenes of children at play in the great outdoors for which he has become known. At the opening, nothing would delight the artist more than to see attendees positioned as near the canvas as safely possible, then backing away slowly to take in the complete picture of practice and product. If asked, he’s not likely to say he has a favourite painting. “What I say is, I’ve got a favourite area in this piece or that piece, and then I show them what I’m talking about with these little abstractions,” he says. “That gets people looking at the paint a little bit more.” And there, up close in the thick strokes of colour and mark, is where Charlesworth provides viewers with the complete picture of his practice. 


Rod Charlesworth’s 15th solo exhibition at West End Gallery runs from October 3-15. Opening reception October 3, 1-4pm; artist in attendance. 1203 Broad St, 250-388-0009, www.westendgallerylyd.com. Find Rod Charlesworth online at www.rodcharlesworth.com.

Aaren Madden can often be found in art galleries walking up to, and slowly backing away from, deliciously textured paintings. Importantly, she always resists the urge to touch.