Drawn to Distance


Dale Syrota poses with 2 of her framed watercolour paintingsWritten by Deb Guerette
Photography by Sean Trostem

Watching paint dry is never boring for Dale Syrota; but then again, she’s not just watching.

A master watercolour painter, Syrota says there is a chase and demand in applying water and colour to paper that makes the medium her favourite.

Drawing comes naturally to her, and doing portraits or painting in acrylics is a comfortable extension of that talent. But, the dare in working quickly with natural absorbency, shaping ripple or run of wet colour, has been the draw to a career in watercolour work for her.

“Sometimes the nicest thing is when things don’t go as planned – and you have to work with the way things are going. It makes you grow a little as an artist.”

Watercolour Painting, Inside Passage, by Dale Syrota

Inside Passage by Dale Syrota

“In watercolour you are forced to work very quickly, because you are quite often using water on the paper and have to get paint on before it dries. I have an idea in my head and can have it all drawn out, but that is why I think I like watercolour—the surprises that can happen.”

“I found that when I did acrylics, I would work and work on a painting until I thought it was right. Once I tried watercolour, it made my work more spontaneous. Even though I tend to do things in a controlled manner, aspects of water colour lend themselves to working quickly and letting the paint do the work,” said Syrota during an interview at her home in Grande Prairie in January.

Although her talent drawing was evident early, she can remember childhood drawings that won a prize at a fair, or were displayed in her elementary school entranceway for years. Syrota’s practical side directed her university education to a degree in child psychology. Fortunately, her artistic pulse beat on nonetheless.

Watercolour Painting, Kinney Lake by Dale Syrota

Kinney Lake by Dale Syrota

“My extra classes were always art,” she said, “mainly drawing and art history at the University of Saskatoon. It gave me a really good fundamental education.”

Before Syrota married and moved to Alberta, she studied with Rita Cowley, one of Canada’s top watercolourists, and enjoyed her first experience landscape painting during a university summer extension program that took her to Yeovil, in Summerset, England.

“Up to that point, I did mainly figure drawing and portraits, but then I went to England and all of a sudden we were out in the countryside. That was my first opportunity to do landscape, and that was a really good experience.”

Always a Vibrant Arts Community

Syrota didn’t know what the Peace Region landscape or arts community had to offer when she moved to Grande Prairie in 1979, but she certainly was not disappointed.

Watercolour Painting, The Last Stand, Haida Gwai by Dale Syrota

The Last Stand, Haida Gwai by Dale Syrota

“I remember one of the first shows I saw – it might have been a Peace Watercolour Society show – and it had people like Euphemia McNaught, Bob Guest and Jim Adrain, and I was just really pleased to see the quality of work that was here, and such a vibrant arts community…, because I didn’t know what to expect.”

Syrota says it was easy to get involved, and she did. Painting and taking workshops in the early years from or alongside McNaught, Guest, Adrain, or other Peace Region artists such as Jim Stokes and Carmen Haakstad.  She was also one of the founding members of the Grande Prairie Guild of Artists in 1983, and volunteered for a number of years as a board or executive member for the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie, Art of the Peace, and the Peace Watercolour Society.

Once her three daughters became school-aged, Syrota made the choice to paint full-time and not return to work in child psychology. Her involvement in the Grande Prairie arts community expanded then too, to teaching drawing and watercolour painting to children and adults, at schools, and the Prairie Art Gallery.

“I had already started to do as much as I could, I just tried to do more as years went by,” Syrota said.
Landscape All the Way
Syrota found her stride in watercolour work out in the Peace Region countryside, and enjoyed painting alongside other artists in the Guild, as well as the places it took them to.

“One of the goals of the Guild was to provide opportunities to paint together. We did a lot of plein air outings, painting outside, being right there with the landscape in front of you,” said Syrota who still looks forward to getting out to paint in new locations whenever possible.

“It’s very portable and easy to do on-site,” she said. “You set yourself up and hope for the best as the light and weather changes. I remember once, on Spirit Island in Maligne Lake in Jasper, I had a painting wash away right in front of me when the rain came down so fast. That’s part of the fun of it.”

Watercolour Painting, Monument Valley by Dale Syrota

Monument Valley by Dale Syrota

Landscape views have remained the dominant focus of Syrota’s work, which she has shown and sold at exhibitions and shows for three decades now.

“I wonder if that comes back to living on the prairies?” muses Syrota, who grew up in Regina, “you tend to see a lot of atmospheric effects or something.”

“Even though I started out doing portraiture, and I can certainly do closer things, I’ve always had a long view. I am drawn to landscape; the big view; the distance. I do really tend to focus on landscape.”


Transparent, but Solid Style

As comfortable as she is painting the landscape her eye calls her to, Syrota’s style as a watercolourist also emerged early, and she is happy to stick with it.

Drawing and art history classes in school taught Dale how to look at art, but her experience painting alongside others like Bob Guest taught her how to observe the landscape.

“I think it’s a combination of those experiences that I feel I established my own style very quickly, and I think it has been pretty consistent.”

Watercolour Painting, Waterton Lake by Dale Syrota

Waterton Lake by Dale Syrota

“I am a traditional transparent watercolourist, but at the same time I think I see things in a very clear way. I have been told that my work has peacefulness about it.”

“I still like it to be immediate, and clean and simple…, but sometimes I do enjoy immersing myself in more detail.” Referring to a painting entitled The Last Stand, she says “for example, look at the totem poles. The carvings themselves are very detailed, but are juxtaposed with a background that is much more stylized and simple.”

“I do like areas where your eye can rest; I do like big washes of paint and areas of quiet; and that is some of the feedback I have gotten about my work.”

Syrota recalls a review she received from western watercolourist Robert Genn that she appreciated. “He noticed that my work is quiet and clean. He said, ‘I could tell you how to be more vibrant and dynamic, but I don’t think that is who you are.’ I think he noticed that I found my voice in my work.”

Syrota’s watercolour work earned her an invitation to join the Peace Watercolour Society in 1995. In 2005 she was accepted as a member of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour (CSPWC). Founded in 1925, the CSPWC has included members of the Group of Seven. Awards she has received along the way, such as receiving the CSPWC Heinz Jordan Award at the Open Water Exhibition in 2013 for The Last Stand, are always encouraging, as is feedback from other artists, Syrota says.

In a CSPWC symposium in Calgary a few years ago, Syrota remembers one of the instructors mistaking her work for that of Walter J Phillips.

“It was a wonderful compliment,” she said, adding she found it interesting to find out later that Rita Cowley, one of her first instructors, was one of Phillips’ students.

Horizons Ahead

Watercolour Painting, Through the Trees by Dale Syrota

Through the Trees by Dale Syrota

There’s never been a lack of upcoming shows spurring deadlines to complete new work, but Syrota feels the hectic years are behind her.

“I can literally remember bouncing a baby in my arms and trying to paint,” she said of her early years in Grande Prairie.

With her husband now retired, the couple spends half the year in Arizona. Along with the new landscape to paint as that location offers, there is also now more time for travel and exploring other countrysides as well.

“I am happy to be where I am at,” Syrota said. “As far as opportunities for showing my work, I can go in a variety of group shows that fit my lifestyle.”

“I am really painting what I want now and it’s a nice place to be,” she said.

The most recent show Dale was a part of was Ribbons of Art, the Grande Prairie Guild of Artist’s 30th Anniversary Exhibition at the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie this past winter.

Syrota’s work can be viewed on the Grande Prairie Guild of Artists website.



Latest Facebook Posts Like us on Facebook