Microbes Swabbed From a Palette Used by Tom Thomson

Written by Helen Humphreys

At first glance it looks like an xray for a bad diagnosis. The lacy white form on the left looks like a lung, and the hard, brown kernel in the centre of the piece looks like a tumor or a bullet, something embedded in a body and not meant to be there.

But look again and it changes to landscape, with ice floes and bog and the brown nugget could be a tree stump or a pocket of mud. It’s a landscape from above, with a cold grey ocean and icy shores.

A third pass reveals nature close up. What seemed like a lung at first glance could now be the filigree of a leaf, turning to humus on the forest floor. That small brown dot becomes an acorn. What was once the ocean from above is now just water in a puddle, decorated with frozen blooms of ice.

This all happens without thinking of Tom Thomson. All the images and associations are free of larger meaning, are just themselves and exist within that realm. But when you do add Thomson to the mix, everything changes again.

A painter’s palette is personal. It’s intimate. It’s what the painter uses to choose and fix colour. It operates almost as a part of his body, and having a glimpse inside the workings of it is akin to looking inside a body. It is no accident, perhaps, that at first look, these magnified microbes from Thomson’s palette resembled an xray.

Tom Thomson worked largely outdoors and speed was a factor in his sketches and paintings as he needed to get things down before the light changed, or the wind shifted and altered the scene he was trying to render. The quickness of his process translates on the canvas to brushstrokes that have energy and movement, that almost seem alive in their vitality. So it seems fitting that, years after he used his palette, years after he himself was dead, it would still contain organisms that would show up under a microscope and imitate the landscape he spent his short life inhabiting and painting. It seems fitting that, even past his own death, the materials he used, which were the language of his creative expression, would still be alive.