Alex Colville’s process is best exhibited through his preparatory drawings, which reveal a deliberate, painstaking method. In May 2013, Colville donated over 3,000 preparatory drawings to the Library and Archives at the National Gallery of Canada. This donation was the artist’s third gift to the Alex Colville fonds, which also encompasses student drawings and archival materials. The generous gift from the artist is being presented to the public for the first time in this installation.
The preparatory drawings demonstrate how Colville gradually turned a first sketch of a concept into a finished work, a process that often took several years to complete.
Drawings of multiple studies of a single object reveal the careful decisions Colville made in terms of which elements to include, and where. They reveal Colville’s use of geometric devices in order to distill the image into a representation of an objective moment. These are complemented by extensive annotations detailing dimensions, mathematical calculations and colours. Other drawings show anatomical studies, comparisons of objects, figure positioning, simple line drawings and perspective studies. These features are all part of Colville’s editing process when composing a work.
Snowplow embodies Colville’s pervasive theme of inherent danger. The preparatory drawings reveal how Colville formulated the image using a series of interconnected squares, a geometric structure that incorporates elements of a golden section rectangle and Le Corbusier’s Modulor. The plough and the figure are positioned within this framework in order to maximize the tension evoked by the image: the man is caught facing the trough of the oncoming machine, whose path and speed are unknown. The other drawings accentuate Colville’s meticulous focus on accuracy: many contain notes about the dimensions of the objects and the figures, and mathematical calculations Colville used to scale the objects to the appropriate size for the serigraph.
Heron represents Colville’s interpretation of the physical beauty and inherent virtue of the animal. A composite image, it evolved from observations of the landscape near Colville’s home in Wolfville and anatomical studies of heron. Colville experimented with both Le Corbusier’s Modulor and a golden section rectangle in structuring Heron. The wings of the heron were positioned with the use of radial arms stemming from the geometric structure, and are carried through to the reflection of the animal in the water below. The preparatory drawings for this serigraph also include an early colour study that was ultimately simplified as Colville chose to develop this concept into a serigraph instead of a painting.
This serigraph was released as part of A Book of Hours – Labours of the Months, a limited edition album of prints. Hotel Maid presents an innocuous moment: a woman engrossed in the simple labour of ordering a chaotic space. It is a testament to the beauty of order, but also to a chaotic environment Colville associated with “repetitive maintenance.” The preparatory drawings for Hotel Maid contain simple line drawings of a doorknob, a lamp and the female figure, as well as a dual study of rotary and touch-tone telephones. Colville ultimately selected the latter for the final image, but this sketch underscores his attention to the smallest details.
Sleeper represents an intimate, commonplace moment in a relationship. Colville's first sketch for this serigraph was composed on the back of a National Gallery of Canada admission card from when he was a member of the Board of Directors. Other preparatory drawings reveal that Colville briefly considered placing the female figure at the foot of the bed, but that ultimately she was returned to the foreground of the image. Colville formulated Sleeper with the aid of a unique geometric device, a five-point star. This structure positions the head of the woman at the apex and aligns the bed in the middle ground with the horizontal reach of the star.
“I have to assume that if my images are good enough that they may be accepted as appropriate and may become meaningful.”• Alex Colville, 1979, on the subject of his fastidious designs and editing process