ALTHOUGH WATERCOLOUR PAINTING in Saskatchewan began in earnest in the 1930s, it had precursors in Inglis Sheldon-Williams, Augustus Kenderdine, and possibly R. D. Symons. For some reason it took hold in Saskatoon with a strength that wasn't found in Regina.
The establishment in a provincial city of a nucleus of significant contemporary paintings can be a powerful encouragement to developing artists. In Saskatoon, just such a nucleus developed in the '30s. Their choice of medium was probably influenced by its convenience and portability as well as its relatively modest cost, the latter an important consideration in a province devastated by depression. Stimulus came initially through evening classes taught by Augustus Kenderdine and Ernest Lindner complemented by a lively interest in contemporary art from a handful of professors at the University of Saskatchewan and, in the '40s, by Eva Mendel and her father Fred. Eva Mendel was herself a trained artist, familiar with contemporary French and German painting; with her encouragement her father had begun to collect contemporary painting, installing some of it in his offices at Intercontinental Packers in Saskatoon.
The medium was in such common use during the '40s and '50s in Saskatoon that it attracting and influenced artists from outside the city such as Bart Pragnell in Moose Jaw. Some credit for its flourishing state is owed to night classes in art in Saskatoon, as well as to the university's summer art classes at Emma Lake both before and after the war. But questions remain. The art scene in Saskatoon over several decades appears to have had an extraordinary cohesion. Artists in Saskatoon tended to stay, whereas in other cities many moved on.
Watercolour, of course, is bound up with amateurism, but not so much with what is known today as folk art. Folk artists in Saskatchewan gravitated more to oil paints, perhaps because their art was more anecdotal, more frequently done from memory and hence indoors. Since the 18th century in England, watercolours have been an indoor-outdoor medium. Many of the Saskatoon painters used it to work directly from the motif; many came to use it as a medium of choice indoors, or carried something of watercolour transparency into their work in canvas.
This richness of interaction among artists in Saskatoon during the '30s through '50s laid the groundwork for extraordinary development in the '60s and '70s. It provided a platform for the mature work of Dorothy Knowles and Reta Cowley. In their work, the English tradition was influenced by three decades of modest modernist experiment and a kind of synthesis was achieved. With Cowley it was primarily a synthesis of Marin, Klee, and naturalism via Walter Phillips, with Knowles it was the result of a number of influences -- Cézanne among them. She applied classical watercolour technique to her large canvases as well as to works on paper.
This development was reinforced by the Emma Lake Artists Workshops.
Ironies abound about Emma Lake and its influence upon Canadian
Prairie art. The lake was discovered in the 1930s by Ernest Lindner,
who introduced it in turn to Augustus Kenderdine. Kenderdine in
his turn persuaded to University of Saskatchewan to acquire property
on the lake at Murray Point and he subsequently established university
summer art camps there. Ironically, it was Regina painters who,
in the mid '50s, took over the two weeks in late August following
the art camp for an artists workshop, yet it was this Regina-inspired
workshop which proved to stimulate Saskatoon artists, many from
a new generation, and Saskatoon reinvigorated the workshops in
the 1970s and '80s. Although the Emma Lake Workshops were ostensibly
led by abstract painters and sculptors, landscape painters from
across Western Canada were among the outstanding beneficiaries.
Hence it is that Saskatoon has remained a vital center of stimulus
for landscape painting and painting in watercolours that continues
to this day.