Between Realism and Abstraction

Canoeing Down Under, Debra Bannister, Watercolour, 12” x 9.”

The Link, Summer 2019
| by Josie Newman |

When Debra Bannister was in high school, her art teacher allowed her to take tubes of oil paint home for the weekend, where she would study books by portrait artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, and paint to her heart’s content.

“I was always captivated by people and their portraits. I loved painting with oils because they stay wet longer than acrylics and they’re more malleable,” reflects the Buckhorn artist. “At one point, I thought I would be a fashion designer, though, because I loved drawing clothes that I imagined certain people wearing.”

“I work anywhere between realism and abstraction, depending on what I am trying to say through my painting.”

God’s Canoe, Debra Bannister, Watercolour, 9” x 12.”

As a teenager, she was the first female to join the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment army reserves, a group of reserve soldiers with the Canadian Armed Forces who can be called to various assignments at any time. “We were trained, just like the regular soldiers, and could have been called to war. I got to travel all over and meet a lot of interesting people,” says Bannister, who worked security support at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Bannister’s parents were military personnel, so she was used to the lifestyle. Her two brothers recently retired from careers in the Army.

Her fascination with people and their activities is not surprising, considering how friendly and talkative Bannister is. In fact, it is how she made the unanticipated shift from oil to watercolour painting in 2006.

“My husband and I moved from Kitchener to Six Mile Lake near Buckhorn because he got a new job. I would frequently walk along the lake, and it was there I met a woman who was part of a watercolour painting group in Lakefield. After we’d talked a few times, I decided to visit the group,” she recalls.

Once Bannister joined the group and started painting watercolours, she never looked back. Now she spends three days a week painting everything from portraits of people and animals, to cottage country landscapes and nature, as well as still lifes of plants.

“What I like about watercolour painting is it is challenging. You have to be good at planning and executing the watercolour pigments on the canvas, whereas oil is more forgiving. What I really love, though, is the fluidity of watercolours which is how you can exploit the medium,” says Bannister.

That fluidity suits her modus operandi of painting, which is to express her feeling about the subject she is painting, rather than trying to paint it accurately. “I work anywhere between realism and abstraction, depending on what I am trying to say through my painting.”

Some of her portraits reflect the abstraction Bannister speaks about. For example, hair can flow sideways or upwards, and faces can be slightly distorted or undefined. “I do that to depict a characteristic, like freedom or softness, I pick up on in the subject’s personality.”

At the Back Door, the painting on this magazine’s cover, is based on Bannister’s English garden, which she created in her backyard in Kitchener, as a retreat from the stress in her life at that time. The painting is a riot of colour, with contrasting light and shadows.

“I was a medical lab technologist for 20 years, and I managed a hospital’s lab in Kitchener. When you do that kind of work, you can never make a mistake, so I took up gardening because it was so relaxing and it doesn’t really matter if you put one of the seeds in the wrong spot,” she explains.

When Bannister’s two children, Lee and Heather, were growing up, she did not paint but made stained glass windows because they were easier to work on in the hectic environment created by young children.

In addition to painting, Bannister teaches at the Art School of Peterborough, and conducts workshops on various painting topics at the Art Gallery of Bancroft, the Kawartha Artists’ Gallery & Studio in Peterborough, and a workshop location in Lindsay. Most recently, she was asked to paint all 21 illustrations for a children’s book.

Debra Bannister’s work is available for purchase by contacting her online, or at the art festivals and galleries which are listed on her website,

Josie Newman, a previous full-time journalist who now works freelance, is a lifelong writer and lover of the arts. She lives in Oshawa, in an older house surrounded by antiques, plants and cats.

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