– Words by Laura Langston Photographs by Don Denton
When she first started to paint, Sheila Warren received an important piece of advice. “Pick something you really care about because if you don’t love your subject, it will show.”
The Nanoose Bay artist took the suggestion to heart, letting passion be her guide and embracing what she calls an empathetic relationship with her art.
“I try to pull out the soul and energy of what I see,” she adds. “That’s the reason I do art; I need to have that emotional connection.”
Sheila’s oil paintings feature bold, deeply saturated colours and a strong sense of light and movement. Nature is her muse and the deep affinity she feels for the natural world is apparent in everything she paints, especially trees.
“It physically hurts when I see trees cut,” she says. “They are often my inspiration.”
Nature greets you when you step into Sheila’s Nanoose Bay home. The hilltop house, where she has lived since 2012, offers sweeping views of gardens, trees and the natural world from almost every room. Sheila says the light-filled space gives her the solitude she craves to pursue her art, while the nearby hiking trails and kayaking options provide her with endless changing scenery.
Nanoose is a far cry from the Montreal area where Sheila was born and raised. While her family wasn’t artistic, her father always encouraged her artistic pursuits. Sheila’s first hero was Monet, though she didn’t realize who he was when she insisted on hanging a Monet poster in her room.
“I loved his interpretation of the natural world, his colour choices and compositions, but I certainly had no language to explain that when I insisted my parents buy the poster,” she says. “And while I knew I wanted to do something artistic with my life, I never thought I’d be a painter like that one day.”
Instead, while still in elementary school, Sheila spent so many hours drawing and designing clothes she was sure a career in fashion design was in the future.
However, pragmatism intervened. “I wasn’t brave enough to just paint,” she admits. “I needed and wanted security.”
So, Sheila embraced commercial art as a way to marry the creative with the practical. She attended Dawson College in Montreal for two years, majoring in commercial art, before moving with her family to Alberta where she finished a degree in visual communications from the Alberta College of Art and Design (now called the Alberta University of the Arts).
For decades, Sheila excelled as a graphic designer and illustrator, working as in-house talent for large organizations and design firms, as well as taking on freelance work. She found pockets of time for personal art but the day job demanded most of her focus. However, as the graphic design field evolved and became less hands-on and more digital, Sheila’s desire for a more personal artistic outlet began to grow. And then 9/11 happened. It was the catalyst that would change her life.
“I realized things could end in an instant, that nothing is guaranteed, and that I couldn’t waste any more time,” Sheila says. “I wanted to give something back; leave something of me after I was gone. And with the global energy feeling so dark and out of whack, I wanted to add a little beauty to the ugly world too.”
So in 2001, Sheila began to paint in earnest. “I started off in a more realistic vein, but as I progressed, I naturally became more impressionistic,” she says. “I want my art to be more evocative and leave room for people to interpret it for themselves.”
Along with an impressionistic feel, her art also evokes a Group of Seven influence, which is fitting since Sheila has been deeply inspired by Tom Thomson.
Sheila’s studio is tucked in beside her living room and she’s there just about every night after finishing her day job in the strategic marketing department at Vancouver Island University. “Painting is my reward at the end of the day,” she says.
Sheila begins each image by underpainting or mapping it out with acrylics. She overlays with oils, sometimes allowing the colour underneath to poke through. She loves depth, saying, “It breathes life into the work,” so layering has become a large part of her process too.
She knows the rules well enough to understand how and when to break them. She always mixes paints because she finds the colours in the tube “too raw,” adding that she likes “to contaminate but at the same time refine.” And she uses brushes typically for acrylics to paint with oils because she likes the effect they give. Listening to her instincts is a large part of her process. “Art is my safe place to do what I want and I am always guided by my intuition.”
Some paintings come together easily, but Sheila labours with others for a long time. Once she thinks a piece is done, she’ll take it off the easel, and put it in a different area of the house to see how the light affects it. Sometimes, even as long as six months later, she’ll see it needs tweaking and she’ll take it back to the studio for a little adjusting. That’s all part of her process, she says.
As for the future, Sheila doesn’t like to plan too far down the road, preferring to go with the flow. Her goal is to keep growing, interpreting, sharing and exploring art.
Her biggest wish is that her art helps people look at things a little differently, “because sometimes you need to look at the world through a different lens to appreciate its value.”
Sheila says that unfortunately some of the galleries where she has previously displayed her paintings have closed, but her work is still periodically available at the Village Gallery in Sidney or through her website at sheilawarren.com.