Jean Koeller has fallen in love with a place of turquoise waters and fascinating rock formations. In many ways, it reminds her of a scene she once saw outside of Nice, France.
Lead Image: “Shoreline,” by Jean Koeller, 2013, oil on paper mounted on panel, 12 x 12 in.
But this spot is in Canada — in the province of Ontario, just a few hours from Toronto. It’s called Tobermory, and it’s on the Bruce Peninsula. “I was made aware of it by a person who had been studying painting with me,” recalls Koeller. “She asked me to check it out. Once I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It’s such a fantastic landscape.”
Her favorite location for painting is a nine-hour drive from Koeller’s home in Ohio, and the change in latitude comes with other changes. “I arrived in Canada in 2013 with my Ohio palette and found I needed other colors,” Koeller says. “My friend shared colors with me. I had not used manganese blue in I don’t know how long.” Most notable for Koeller was the hue of the water. “The water was turquoise, clean and clear,” recalls the artist. “It was so unusual. I had experienced water that color once, in France, north of Nice. I was very surprised to find it in Canada.”
Excited with her find, Koeller returned to Tobermory this past spring — and discovered she needed even more colors. “When I went back in the spring, Payne’s gray was very important. Usually I use chrome oxide green, and I didn’t even touch it. And I found myself using some English red that I happened to have left in my paint box.”
The water was higher in the spring, forcing Koeller and her artist friend to scramble over rocks to get to a good vantage point. Koeller had planned her approach at Tobermory, but she had to largely abandon her ideas. “I was a little more limited in the spring because of snowmelt,” she says. “And it was a good hike to get down there, making it difficult to work on a large canvas over the course of several days.” The rock formations that caught her eye looked different, too, in the higher water. “Those formations were very difficult to think about and to figure out,” says Koeller. “You would see these colors in the water that would pull forward, and then the rock formations seemed to recede because of their muted tones.”
But the hard lines of the rocks against the tonal look of the sky and water hit a sweet spot for Koeller. “I like contrasts — thick and thin, fast and slow, organic lines versus architectural forms,” she says. “It creates a context and creates a language for me in describing form. Subconsciously when I’m painting, I am talking about those things.”
Koeller draws a lot before she begins to paint. “I do thumbnail sketches and determine what scale I am going to work with,” says the artist. “I don’t know what I’m going to paint at that point, but I do decide on scale.” In the end, her pieces show a heavy influence of abstract painting. “I’m often on the fence between abstract and representational, and I kind of like that,” Koeller says. “I don’t know how you can be in the 21st century and not be open to both of them.”
She’ll go back to Tobermory soon. Koeller isn’t finished there, but she now knows what she wants. “I know I want to go back again in the fall. The color and light was different then. Spring was whitish and blinding. The algae wasn’t in bloom as much, and the algae gave me that yellow green in the water that is just so seductive. I like the angle of the light, and color temperature of it, in the fall.”