Illuminating the everyday

By Aaren Madden, February 2016

Barbara Callow uses light to bring life to the painted form.

Apples in a Wooden BowlWHEN BARBARA CALLOW is at the grocery store or the farmers’ market making produce selections, she has a larger set of criteria than most. Fruit and vegetables in particular need to meet standards not just of freshness and nutritional value, but of aesthetics as well. Such is the case for many a still life painter like herself. “An artist is always looking at the world in terms of what they can paint,” she says, admitting, “Quite often I will buy something just because I like the look of it, then I will bring it home and take photos, then eat it later.” 

The tantalizing, lumpy irregularity of a pear’s surface will catch the light in just the right way when tumbled onto a crisp white cloth laid over a wooden table. So, into the shopping basket it goes. An apple may be attractive because of the way the skin, with its mottled swaths of red, gold and green, already looks painted on. Gather several into a wooden bowl, and again the light’s reflections rendered in oil on canvas is what brings them to life.

Though Callow paints in a variety of genres using different media, she says, “I like painting these [still lifes] because it’s fun to use light to make the form. I like to paint the reflections, that way you can get the highlights on fruit especially. A very strong directional light on your subject makes a strong form,” she explains. Many of Callow’s still life paintings are of a traditional style—fruit, vessel and swag of fabric arranged on a table—but some present a contemporary view, such as “Apples in a Wooden Bowl,” which zeroes in on—and thus communicates—the sensual potential of the humble fruit. This and other paintings bring to mind works by prominent East Coast painter Mary Pratt. So taken was Pratt with the way sunlight came through her kitchen window to illuminate fruit, preserves or even filleted fish on foil, she produced paintings from these scenes that seem to layer sanctity over the domestic sphere. 

“Light is important to most artists,” Callow says. “They use light a lot and it influences whatever they are going to paint.” It plays as much a role in meaning and delineation as the object itself, no matter the style of painting. While Pratt’s works are nearly photo-realistic, light is just as essential to Callow’s practice. “Not that I don’t admire the highly-detailed painting, but it’s not quite as moving—to me, anyway—as more impressionistic, gestural painting,” she relates. Immediacy of experience is conveyed by the quick gestural stroke. 

Callow has come to her preferred style over a life which, from an early age, nearly always included an art practice. She was born in Victoria in 1956. Her father worked in the printing industry while her mother was a homemaker. Seeing an interest and aptitude in their daughter—“I was addicted to drawing as a kid,” Callow laughs—they enrolled her in art classes. As a teen she was “lucky enough at Oak Bay High School to have Carole Sabiston and Bill West as art teachers, which was phenomenal.” She credits both national luminaries for their early support and guidance.

In fact, Callow attended the University of Victoria with the intention to become an art teacher herself. However, “I ended up getting married and having kids instead,” she says. Moving to Vancouver in 1977, she had a son and daughter and completed a two-year Visual Arts Diploma program at Langara College. Callow eventually worked in the printing industry as well, mainly in graphic design and pre-press areas. Returning to Victoria 15 years later, she worked for the Queen’s Printer before “retiring” in 1996 to devote herself to art full-time. “I never worked this hard when working at an outside job,” she laughs, quick to add, “It doesn’t feel like work.” A member (and former executive) of the Federation of Canadian Artists, she has become an award-winning and internationally-collected artist.

Early on in this phase of life, looking to heighten skills she was not previously able to hone daily, she took workshops and masterclasses from artists like Caren Heine, Marney Ward, Deborah Tilby, and Keith Hiscock. Many went from being mentors to friends and colleagues, and Callow herself teaches many workshops now (including one in February at Coast Collective Gallery). It is as valuable for her practice as it is for the students of a wide range of experience that attend them. “When they ask questions, you start to realize what exactly you are or aren’t doing. You become more aware; you have to figure out why and how,” she says. 

The why and how, for her, usually returns to light, no matter which genre she is working in. Besides still life, Callow paints landscapes and urban scenes in oil and watercolour. Like the Impressionists, the Group of Seven and Emily Carr, from whom she gathers the most inspiration, she is an avid plein air painter. Painted sketches done on sight are of a subject chosen because of the way the fog plays on a beach or, in the past seven-odd months, how the light will hit a particular branch or mossy patch in the woods near her new home in Cumberland. In “The Road Home,” the long shadows reaching across the bumpy road are compelling to Callow and compositionally satisfying in the horizontal counterpoint they add to the vanishing road. 

The raking light of winter and, any time of year, the early or late day are what she likes the best. “I am just looking out my window now. It’s late morning and there are beautiful long shadows,” she describes over the phone. “It’s the low light at this time of year. I guess it’s the moisture in the air from the ocean,” she suspects. More diffuse, perhaps, than the crisp prairie light. 

It is a major component of generating sense of place, as is local specificity. Again in “The Road Home,” one will notice how the light plays on the rugose surface of the road. Callow likes its roughness: “It is a sort of subversiveness,” she offers, adding, “There are very interesting back lanes around Cumberland here—old garages, chimneys sticking out of them, that sort of thing. They are not manicured; they have just sort of evolved over the years.”

Callow is attracted to the particular quirk inherent in any urban area that has seen such an evolution. It’s what she explores in her urban scenes, which she usually does in watercolour and ink to heighten the character of the architecture. In “Fernwood Square,” ink snakes in a fine, jittery line along the building’s cornice to suggest its weathered state. And then the pale watercolour wash of sun on its façade gives it vitality. Follow that light as it spills through the upstairs window, and one could imagine it landing, just so, on a perfect bowl of apples.


See “Apples in a Wooden Bowl” at the juried group show, Red, February 3-21 at Coast Collective Gallery. 103-318 Wale Road, Colwood, 250-391-5522, Barbara Callow is teaching a workshop at Coast Collective, February 13 & 14. See Find Barbara Callow online at

For the very reason that the raking light illuminates the moss the way it does, Aaren Madden’s favourite West Coast season is winter.