Mike Efford, landscape artist

the color of dreams and the forms of the earth,
inspired by music

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Artist’s Statement

My landscape art comes from two sources of inspiration: large scale abstract expressionist painting, and classical music.

I like to fuse the bold strokes of abstract art with the rhythm of line and tone inspired by symphonic classical music into colorful landscape impressions that deliberately intensify one’s experience of the land…

and I like to orchestrate it all using 3D animation software.

The goal is always to make the unseen spirit of the land visible, and to me that means going beyond realism into a bolder, expressive style.

I think of myself as orchestrating color and form, every bit as much as “making a picture”.

It’s in the abstract rhythms of form, whether in the visual arts or classical music, where we experience the pure, universal structure and pulse of art. It’s the crossover and bridge that connects all art forms. Both classical symphonies and abstract expressionist painting are abstract art forms, and I have experienced the connection between them intensely since my twenties.

In my twenties, on trips to the Adirondacks at Lake Placid New York, and to the Canadian Rockies, I first became acutely aware of how certain pieces of classical music conveyed a powerful feeling of the mountains. To this day I can’t listen to Beethoven’s 7th symphony, especially the first two movements, or Mahler’s 5th symphony, without being transported back to those places.

Nowadays, whether traveling by car through the farmlands of southern Ontario or along the coastlines of Italy and Spain, I love to soak up the abstract qualities of the passing landscape while listening to the symphony.

I visualize landscape in my mind very easily when I hear certain compositions.

Not all, of course… a lot of Rossini and Verdi simply dial up Bugs Bunny! But if you grew up watching The Bugs Bunny Show (it was brilliant), or if you’re just a big fan of the show, odds are Rossini makes you recall the show too. It’s a great example of the visualization power of music.

For me, that power is a driving force behind my landscape art.

Another big influence, abstract expressionist art, has captivated my imagination since my first meaningful exposure to it in 1975, while studying fine arts at Humber College in Toronto.

On a class field trip to the David Mirvish Gallery I got a life-changing visual epiphany. The Mirvish Gallery was one of the premier showcases of American abstract expressionism in the world, and on display was a current show of works by Jules Olitski. There were also large scale works by Frank Stella and Jack Bush. I was blown away. It lit my retinas up permanently.

For decades since that day, great abstract art has moved and inspired me. My own abstract experiments with acrylic paint, however, never really went anywhere, and it was only when I turned to a medium I had long mastered for commercial purposes that I found my voice as an artist.

An important analogy between classical music and my own abstract landscape art is the thread of precision that runs through both, even though they have a big, organic, “force of nature” flow that can feel completely spontaneous, as if it materialized all by itself.

The precision comes from the instruments that create it, and 3D animation software is my primary instrument.

I work with digital tools, 3D animation software, for a few reasons. One, because it has become second nature to me in my 22 years as an animator, and two because of the huge range of expression you can achieve with it. Way beyond most people’s idea of “digital”. To me it’s like a full orchestra of possibilities… only visual.

It may sound obvious, but it’s essential in my own art for me to create, not re-create.

For example, 3D animation software is widely used in architectural renderings and movie special effects, and these days can achieve precise photo-realistic environments. But they’re largely RE-creations, not original works, to me. The real creative artist is the architect or the film director who designed the building or the scene, not so much the 3D artist who rendered that original vision.

Not everyone agrees on this, it’s controversial. But it’s not just a theory of mine: I’ve done both original works and renderings, I know whereof I speak through personal experience, and that’s my take on it. And that’s why fine art captivates me so.

There are, in fact, “landscape generator” software programs capable of outputting ultra-realistic landscapes and scenes, even using actual geophysical data. The results are typically a photographic realism, with all its complex detail. I have used them in 3D animation projects, and it’s all fascinating and fun to do. But it’s nowhere close to being as expressive as my own process. Landscape software tends to be constrained by conventional realism.

But my intent is to conjure up the unseen spirit of the land, which means going beyond realism into a much bolder, looser, expressive style.

A key part of that style is the rhythm and character of line.

Throughout my commercial career as an illustrator and later as an animator, I have enjoyed representing sleek, dynamic curves in a variety of subject matter, from car illustrations to logo animations. Combined with a couple of decades of life drawing, the rhythm and inflections of those curves has carried over into my fine art landscape work. It forms the basis of my own personal style. It’s an essential part of every work I create.

And finally, I like to improvise: to me, no truly original work is created without it.

In my case what ends up as a work of art full of complex and fine detail, begins as a group of deceptively simple 3D forms. The geometry of those primal forms is much simpler than you’d expect. I map textures onto them, and then combine layers of 3D renders with textures and reflections, with no preconceived plan of what they will become. I play creatively with the rotation and position of several elements until a particular correlation seems to “click”. And the landscape has formed.

After that, all my efforts go into refining, and playing with image processing until I get a dynamic orchestration of colour and rhythm of form. A digital force of nature, ready to take on physical form in a fine art print.

An expression of the spirit of the land, and the echoes of music that resonates with it.