Every year, Dan Gray paints a New Year’s Day spectacle in Parksville, on Canada’s Vancouver Island, that lasts just minutes.

The event is the Polar Bear Splash, in which about 100 people don swimsuits for a quick dip in the cold Pacific Ocean at noon on January 1. This was the 27th year for the event, and the seventh time Dan Gray has painted it.

Participants in the Polar Bear Splash stream past Gray as he finishes his painting
Participants in the Polar Bear Splash stream past Gray as he finishes his painting

“The swim is held at the same beach, so I have painted it from most vantage points,” says Gray. “This year I chose to be further back and found a place to stand (which also had a wind break). This year’s high tide, with the background mainland mountains covered in snow, were elements I wanted to include.”

Gray’s block-in before the participants entered the water
Gray’s block-in before the participants entered the water

The participants in the Polar Bear Splash run into the water and get back out about as quickly as one can imagine, given the temperature. This made timing crucial.

“Polar Bear Swim,” by Dan Gray, 2017, pastel, 18 x 24 in.
“Polar Bear Swim,” by Dan Gray, 2017, pastel, 18 x 24 in.
Gray and his setup
Gray and his setup

“The swim is short, so my plan was to be in place early, find my composition, get my back and foregrounds worked out, leaving the middle ground to place the Bears as they run in (hopefully where I expect them to be),” Gray explains. “Working as the swimmers and spectators headed past me to the event allowed those interested to see my start and comment on my effort. I noted the spectators watching, and dropped them in place. As the swim began I tried to observe the color, size, and movement of the stampede. I then had something to show the participants on their return. Always there are friends that stop to wish Happy New Year and many others that have watched me paint this event and others along our shores of this Pacific isle. My usual retort to their comments is that I get the benefit of being expected to paint on New Year’s Day and getting my first painting of 2017 finished before lunch time!”