At our Cork & Canvas Winemaker’s Dinner and Art Auction on March 14 (one of six fundraising events held in March) you’ll see a live painting! Calgary artist Doug Levitt will paint our Assistant Principal Cellist, Britton Riley, as he performs. Doug paints Western art and Native/cultural paintings. His work has been juried into the Calgary Stampede’s Western art show each July, and you can also see his paintings at the Calgary Hyatt Regency art show with Reflections West Art, and the Keynote show in downtown Calgary.

When did you start painting?

I first started painting in 2001 after an accident forced me to leave my career at that time. I nearly died and had to have 8 surgeries over a 3 year period and during the recovery between the 1st and 2nd surgery I decided I wanted to try painting. I’d always wanted to but never made the time and after that near miss I decided I shouldn’t waste any more time. I started in watercolour and acrylic but quickly moved to oil paint as my preferred medium.

What type of painting do you specialize in?

My first paintings were of my daughters as I’d always heard you should paint what you love, and I have continued to paint mostly figurative work – some historical and some modern. I love painting from life so I’ve also become an avid “en plein air” painter of landscapes (painting outdoors). Early in the painting process, I started having extremely vivid dreams of Native people and they were such strong images I began to paint them out of my head upon waking. I did this for several pieces and then went to the Indian Village at the Calgary Stampede. I was becoming very curious about the images, ‘were they historically accurate at all?, did they have a deeper meaning, or were they just anesthetic hangovers of Clint Eastwood movies, etc.’. So I asked several people what they thought and that led to a strong appreciation for the Native culture and I began to use my new friends as models and teachers so I could do paintings that were more realistic and accurate to the culture as well. This has led me down a strong western genre in my painting career. I am enthused by the act of painting itself, however, and I strongly believe in giving myself the challenge to paint anything that captures my eye or imagination. This, I believe, is the way to pursue excellence as a painter.

 Where do you get your inspiration?

As I mentioned previously, I get inspiration in everything. I have a form of dyslexia that is very visually based which I think helps me a lot as an artist. As a result, just about everything I see makes me want to paint. This has become even stronger as I’ve grown as a painter. At first your ability to capture what you see is weak but as your skills grow, you become better able to achieve what you are aiming for in a painting. I give myself room to paint all of this inspiration. I paint very modern pieces, landscapes, ocean scenes and portraits. My main body is historical and western work but I make sure I paint all manner of styles during the year to maintain a growth curve. Painting a shiny car is a very different skill than a horse or tree, for example. Painting those and everything in between keeps me learning more about values, colour, texture and the sheer application of the paint.

 Why did you choose to become involved with Cork & Canvas?

I was asked by Jessica Sale, the manager for special events at the CPO to participate. I have donated a lot to charities over the years and when I was asked to participate in this event I was excited to do so because music is a big part of my own life and I want to see the CPO flourish. I believe that as a civilization develops, cultural pursuits take a very important role in developing a society. It’s been proven in dozens of studies that troubled youth, as only one example, benefit from exposure to the arts – in all their forms. This helps combat self esteem issues that can lead to violence, drug use and many other woes that end up affecting us all. Along with social programs and better education, I strongly believe that the arts are on the front lines to help develop culture and deepen sensibilities in us as individuals and also collectively. Anyone who has been moved to tears upon listening to a profound piece of music well performed or wept over the power of a painting knows what I’m talking about. The arts deepen our empathy and our humanity and as such, I think it’s crucial in our world that the arts move in cooperation with one another. So it follows that painters and sculptors and writers and musicians band together (no pun intended) to help each other move forward. It is through this deepening of our own artistic community that we can see art and culture thrive in our city. Supporting entities such as the CPO then becomes crucial and I’m honoured to be involved in this event.

 Where did the idea come from to do a live painting of Britton Riley?

When I donate to a cause it is for one reason – I believe in that cause and want the painting to bring them as much money as is possible. I’ve noticed over the years that auctions can be iffy in results. I’ve also painted live at the quick draw event for the Calgary Stampede and seen firsthand how excited the audience gets seeing a painting produced right in front of them which can help to achieve a higher value. So when I was invited to participate in the Cork and Canvas, I thought why not paint live at this event as well? The idea to paint one of the CPO’s artists was an easy jump – the audience will get to hear the artist, Britton Riley, perform music as I paint him which combines the best of both of our worlds and will hopefully bring a higher level of enjoyment to the audience. Britton was recommended as the Assistant Principal Cellist and he will make a striking model. My hope is that the act of him playing will feed my spirit and yield a painting that is richer in emotion as I will be inspired by his art while I produce my own. I’m very excited to see how this collaboration will end up.

 What are you most looking forward to about doing this painting?

I would say the biggest thing I’m looking forward to, besides getting to listen to Britton as I paint, which will be a joy for me, is the sheer challenge of painting a largely moving subject. There will be moments when he is still between performing pieces but for the most part he will be in motion. This forces me to capture his essence more directly and will make me rely on anatomical knowledge in the configuration of his hands and head placement. I’m very excited by this and knowing I have to produce a saleable painting for the auction just increases the adrenaline. Great terror but great fun – this is what painting was meant be, I think!

 How does the type of painting (live) challenge you as an artist?

Aside from what I touched on in the above, I would say the biggest challenge is not giving in to the pressure of the situation and staying focused as a painter. It’s scary to paint in front of people. Audiences themselves don’t distract me. In fact, I invite people to ask me questions as I paint – it helps to involve them in the process and makes me a good ambassador of my craft. If I need to really focus I just let people know and then re-engage with the audience more when I’m done that passage. The distraction I’m more referring to is the internal mind game. The worrisome questions that can eat at your focus:  ‘will I mess up, will it look like Britton or more like Quasimodo, will I embarrass myself, will it fetch the CPO a good result, etc’ – this is the trap to avoid. My task is to paint. Everything else will take care of itself.

 What do you hope to “capture” in your painting of Britton?

Music. Britton’s passion for his craft. I hope to convey through a one dimensional image the illusion of depth, of course, but more importantly the feeling of the music and the intensity of Britton as an artist – I want the viewer to ‘hear’ him playing. To feel the music coming out of him as they look at the painting. That’s what I’m hoping will pour into me as he plays while I paint. I hope his music falls out of me and onto the canvas. That’s as important to me as the composition and accuracy of detail and brush work. I think that would bring honour to him as an artist.