Top artist (twice) Peter Rotter returns to McMichael for 2011 Autumn Art Sale

Peter Rotter - Deep Snow

Rural landscapes with an urban eye

Realist painter Peter Rotter discusses his lifelong passion

By Lina Nijmeh

In Peter Rotter’s brightly lit basement studio stands an easel where his latest canvass sits. Below is a large bin filled with tubes of oil paint, while scattered on a white futon are dozens of bent and wrinkled photos he’s taken of the area surrounding his cottage. This is where he conceptualizes the landscape he’s going to paint, incorporating elements from one or more photos.

Although half of Rotter’s landscapes are made this way, his vision is only realized once it’s finished. “You can say I Frankenstein them together,” he said of his style. “I don’t need to go far. I love light, and I love lack of light.”

At his cottage in the Kawartha Lakes region and in his home studio in downtown Toronto is where the Scarborough native documents Ontario’s beautiful scenery on canvass. This dichotomy is not obvious looking at his paintings: A young urban dweller who exclusively paints landscapes and has no interest in painting anything city-oriented.  

The recent move to the basement from the main floor of his house was, in his words, to spare his wife and new baby from the paint fumes – and to avoid distraction. Leaning on the basement walls are empty canvasses awaiting his attention, including a partially painted one he lost interest in and abandoned in 1990. He won’t dispose of it because he thinks he just might get back to it one day, while the paintings he outright doesn’t like find a home at his mother’s house.

“I still haven’t mastered oils yet so I still got to keep working on it,” Rotter humbly admits. “And I just like the feeling of them. I like how they’re not dry the next day. In a way they’re messy, but in a way they’re not messy.”  

For admirers of his work, Rotter believes it’s a subconscious familiarity with the scenery that grabs their interest. “I think people are drawn to my work because of the sensitivity of it. I think they like the way I design it,” said the realist painter. I think they know it’s not fake and it comes from a place.”

Rotter was just 12-years old when people began to take notice of his talent. His summers were spent at art camp in Bancroft, Ontario where his teachers recognized the quality of his work.

“They wanted you to draw the scenery. I was really good at it and the teachers were impressed and wanted to see more. I stuck out. I always did it [landscapes] after that,” Rotter muses. “I used to do them for Christmas presents.”

While the photos he takes allow him to sketch out his subjects, Rotter uses his iPad to keep the images organized and to narrow in on the details.

“It actually helps me make it simple instead of guessing and actually overworking,” Rotter explains. “Seeing more detail actually makes me do less detail – it’s nice. It’s a weird thing my head does. I don’t have to fake it.”

In his current piece, inspired by the work of Jackson Pollack, lines he calls “spaghetti” are spread in different directions. But he sees similar design elements in other artists’ work, like Gustav Klimt, that guide his hand. “He influences me a lot. He was the same way; he didn’t have to go far–right out of his backyard–to get inspiration. I take what I see around me,” Rotter explains. “The Group of Seven is always an inspiration, too.”

One can draw parallels between Rotter and the Group of Seven. He is part of the artist collective City Field North Shore–a group of friends he occasionally exhibits with and who serve as support for one another. Rotter fulfills the North, while Stewart Jones (City), David Grieve (Field), Joe Sampson (Shore) complete the group.

“Being fulltime artists is kind of lonely, so we need to have a network, but we don’t need to be in the same room together,” Rotter said, pausing. “You just get lonely.” The group all paint individually but speak regularly to break the solitude and keep each other motivated. Rotter also regularly visits galleries to recharge after a show. “I kinda need to be alone,” he said.

After studying design at the Ontario College of Art and Design and computer animation at Sheraton College, Rotter worked as an illustrator for the award-winning preschool TV program Hoobs, which was created and produced by The Jim Henson Company between 2000 and 2002. “It was the best. They still play the crap out of it,” Rotter said excitedly.

Since then he’s been a dedicated artist, working six-hour days­–painting winter landscapes in the summer, and fall and summer landscapes in the winter. “I think what it is with my work is, I still have that illustrator mentally in my head of everything has to be organized so I design everything. I think it’s subconscious,” he muses. “There are certain things that I have to organize and that’s the obsessive compulsive part of me. Everything has to be in threes. I like three.”

He points to the trees on his canvass, ones he obsessively counts to ensure they aren’t even in number. As he’s describing his technique, the painting doesn’t look so abstract anymore but carries a sense of design and structure.

Although he’s been painting for most of his life, he never loses passion for painting landscapes. “I would be doing this even if I had a fulltime job; I’d be doing it at night,” he said passionately. “And I’d be working so hard, that I’d want to quit my fulltime job. That’s the way it’s always gonna be with me, it’s never gonna change. I’ll keep doing landscapes until they’re irresistible.“