Artist Feature: Barry McCarthy

Finding the Power & Living in the Quality of Life

“To paint a subject, you must know it, understand it

and live it before you can say something about it.”

There’s power in a moment; it can be found in the sun breaking through dark clouds or the early dawn light that bathes everything in an earthly glow. There are reasons why we are struck by old buildings, lighthouses and forgotten farms that stand stark against the landscape – these places have stood the test of time in a way that we cannot, each part of their story layering over their faded paint, and seeping into the textured wood.

Power can be found in the simplest places; the familiar and mundane can catch our breath because we’ve finally seen it in the right light or time of day – the one that reminds us to really look. It’s this magic that exists in the otherwise ordinary that artist Barry McCarthy spends his career attempting to capture – and he is humble enough to admit that he has only achieved this, to his satisfaction, a few times … a mere 50 paintings out of 3000. 

Barry grew up in Thunder Bay in a busy house – 8 boys and 1 girl – and he credits this upbringing for a life time of experiences. Our childhoods are critical years, laying the foundations for many of the things that we become. Even when we think that we’ve left it all behind, it returns to us, in little ways we don’t always notice. For Barry, living on the shores of Lake Superior, camping in the raw wild wilderness and exploring abandoned buildings for ghosts who never appeared, gave him a love for the power, mystery and magic that can be found in these spaces and now his landscapes.

By the time he reached Grade 7, he knew that he wanted to create art, and that teaching it to others would provide him with the freedom to support his eventual family while still exploring his own work. Although he is now retired, he still shares his knowledge in workshops which  have taken him to places around the world teaching plein air painting. Teaching others gives Barry the reward of meeting likeminded people, sharing techniques and watching new artists grow into themselves, finding their own voice and style.

Although Barry’s finished work is all in oil now, watercolour has remained his first love. In the 80‘s and early 90’s, he was known for creating 5-7’ watercolour paintings – the biggest in Canada, according to Paul Duval, a noted art critic.  Unfortunately, manufacturing handmade paper changed all of that in 1995, forcing Barry to switch mediums, executing even larger works in oils. Watercolour, however, still influences his work and serves as experiments and studies for his larger works in oils.

Every oil painting starts its life as a smaller watercolour. It is in this smaller painting, with his preferred paint, that Barry allows himself the freedom to explore. Only when satisfied does he start on the oil painting, bringing those watercolour techniques with him, giving his work a unique recognizable style. Another reward he’s had in his career? Hearing “That looks like a Barry McCarthy.”

He knows that his work has been a success, that it has connected with someone the way that he wants it to, when they feel what he feels. He’s had people return, four or five years later, asking if he has works like the one they had seen last – because the image has haunted them ever since. One of the highest praises he’s received is when someone, looking at his painting, told him they could feel and smell the air – they could feel the moment, the power within!

Like some of his heroes and mentors – Monet and American artist Andrew Wyeth among them respectively – Barry wants to see his brush strokes in his work; each swirl of the brush is a layer that’s added to the story. To Barry, the painting process is a search, the culmination of each stroke coming together. The real art is taking all of those individual pieces, stepping back and seeing how they weave together to build a picture. Smiling, McCarthy says, “And of course, many of those strokes are happy accidents!”

I wish that I had more time and space to capture the passion and joy that is both Barry and his work, however we are quickly running out of room. So, I’ll leave you with this: Some of Barry’s favourite works are the ones that have taken him by surprise, which appeared and demanded attention – the “that’s a painting” moment. It’s an energy that you can feel for yourself if you view Barry’s work at Loch Gallery, a family gallery in Toronto, or other local galleries where he has been featured.

In the meantime, continue to watch for that power. Once you learn to see it, you’ll find magic in all the spaces you least expect it – then maybe, you too will be living in the quality of life!

WRITTEN BY: JILLIAN KENT | RESOURCES: BARRY McCARTHY

Author: LivingSpaces

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