J. Allison Robichaud is one of those intelligent, interesting artists who's as lovely to converse with as his paintings are to look at. His playfully-common subjects, loosely rendered in atmospheric tones and anchored within solid compositions, beg us to linger. So do his "Robichaud-isms", many of which can be found in the books he's penned. When asked if we were interested in exhibiting his works, we couldn't say "Yes, please!" loudly or quickly enough.
Elizabeth's Art Gallery: Your works are wonderfully fresh and loose plein-airs and still-lifes set in beautiful gold frames. How and when did you begin painting?
J. Allison Robichaud: I always wanted to paint from the time I was a kid. When I was in the military at Camp Borden I took a painting course. Well, it was 15 women and me, and when you're in the military, and you're 20-some years old, and you're surrounded by everybody's ideas about all that, how do you continue on with painting? I just couldn't possibly. It became dormant.
The best thing that could have happened to me was when Dow Chemical moved me to Varennes outside of Montreal: one night I was hiding behind a building, trying to do a little painting, and 17 of the best illustrators in Montreal fell on top of me. Two were members of the Royal Canadian Academy -- they really were the best. They were out painting, and they said to me, "We do this every Wednesday night; would you like to join us?"
I said no.
They adopted me and were instrumental in one thing: to make me more determined that I would paint my way.
I had such a hard time... We're out painting, and Bruce le Dain (whose brother is Judge le Dain of the Supreme Court) and Stuart Main -- there they are three-quarters complete, and I haven't even basically started. I'm walking back to my car kicking myself until I realize they're them; I'm me.
Stuart was known by his peers to be one of the best illustrators in Canada. How do you compete with that? You don't.
The nicest compliment I ever had was from Montreal's best freelance illustrator, Larry Paul. We were on the side of the road painting under an electric-blue sky. He asked me, "How do you get that sky colour?"
I answered, "Holbein Colbalt Blue and Blue-Gray," and I showed him how I mix it (I use a lot of Blue-Gray; in the winter I might put in just a touch of manganese).
Anyway, Larry put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Cut the apron strings today."
Best compliment I've ever received. It's a long, hard struggle when you're doing it on your own, but one thing that does happen is you become very uniquely yourself.
E: What did you become?
JAR: I really don't know, to tell you the truth. Despite the fact that you would like to change, you can't change. Your technical competence increases, your colour knowledge deepens, but your art is like your signature: it never changes.
E: Do you always paint en plein air?
JAR: I also do still lifes. But all my landscapes are plein air. It's not fun standing outside in minus-20 weather, but when you get back and you've done a good painting, you've really won over yourself.
E: What are your materials?
JAR: Oil paints, usually on synthetic canvas which, according to the technical people of this world, will last forever and ever.
E: You were born in 1933, and here you are on Facebook with your own website (www.jallisonrobichaud.com). How do you feel about that?
JAR: Over the four years I've had my website, I haven't had one person call me from it for a painting or a book, even though an average of 35 people are on my site every day. Facebook? I do it to torment my friends.
E: Do you ever make a thumbnail sketch en plein air then create the final piece in your studio?
JAR: Never. You can't get the freshness from plein air back in the studio again. The great artists will tell you that the freshness is in plein air. In the studio the light never changes, the coffee's ready, there are a thousand and one excuses. You have time to think, to mull over. You can't do that in plein air painting -- sure, you can take moments to step back, see if the composition or colour is right, but that's it.
Plein air -- that's where it all begins and ends.
Speaking of which, to know when to stop is one thing. It takes three guys to make a painting: one to paint, and two with hammers to hit him over the head when it's time to stop.