Rene Thibault 

RENE THIBAULT, DIPLOMA, 1969, ADVERTISING ART
ALUMNI DISCOVERY INITIATIVE INTERVIEW BY SUSAN JOYAL, JUNE 2015

From top left to bottom right: Eskimo Theme – Fantasyland Hotel, West Edmonton Mall (1985)
Alberta Foothills, Low Light (2010)
Office complex in downtown Calgary (2004)
Rene Thibault in his home studio (2015), photograph taken by Susan Joyal
Above Castle Mountain #4 (2007)

Rene Thibault greeted me at the door with a smile and suggested we head directly to his studio in the basement. The space was open and bright and well organized, with only a few of his paintings on display. Several distinct work areas hinted at a number of projects on the go. Along the back wall, for inspiration, three large cork boards were installed and pinned with mostly abstracted landscape images, including several by Lawren Harris and Franklin Carmichael of Canada’s famed Group of Seven. The boldness of vivid colours, the play between light and dark, the precision of geometry and the intricacy of pattern – all of these descriptors would apply to Rene’s paintings too.

Born and raised in Saskatchewan, Rene moved to Calgary in 1965 after graduating from high school to attend the Alberta College of Art (ACA), where he earned his diploma in Advertising Art in 1969. In those days, ACA was a department of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). There were about 75 students in the first (foundation) year and half would declare Advertising Art as their major. The years at ACA would require a great deal of dedication and diligence of Rene and his classmates and not all would graduate. In fact, Rene recalls that there were only about 13 students in his Advertising Art graduating class.

He believes creativity is a uniquely human character and is delighted there’s now plenty of evidence that students exposed to the arts, regardless of whether they are training to become a scientist or a visual artist, show improved critical thinking and problem solving abilities. ACA fostered creativity and helped students become aware of career choices, especially in their last two years of study, when students were encouraged to focus on what they liked. The option of doing substitute projects was especially valuable because it allowed students to build a portfolio of works that truly interested them. For Rene, the art of illustration appealed far more than design. And that realization would spark a career that spanned 43 years.

After graduation, Rene worked as an employee with three different firms over an eight-year period. In fact, that’s one bit of advice he’d give to new graduates: “work for someone else first because you’ll build on ACA basics, learn about the business, and gain confidence.” After just one year at National Neon Displays Ltd., Rene sought a bigger challenge. He requested an interview with Nelson MacDonald, a highly reputed architectural illustrator, and managed to land his next job. For the next five years, Rene would learn the disciplines of studio and technical production from one of the best who proved to be a wonderful mentor and role model. Employees were given the opportunity to work on all types of projects, to fumble and then figure out solutions; always, they learned. Nels ensured the final work met the firm’s high standards before presenting it to the client. In 1975, Rene applied to be the Art Director at Quad-M graphics, a position he held for two years, in which he gained experience dealing with clients. After working eight years for others, it was finally time to set out on his own.

In 1977, Rene established, Thibault Illustrations Ltd., which specialized in commercial architectural illustrations. It wasn’t a large firm, never having more than four employees at any one time. And, after struggling through the recession of the early 1980’s, his firm became a “one man shop” from 1986 onward. Still, it afforded Rene the luxury of being his own boss and the chance to earn a living doing work he truly enjoyed. He mused, “I wasn’t the most talented student at ACA but I was well equipped for a long term career because of hard work, persistence and self-discipline.” He then showed me some of his architectural renderings, including those for the West Edmonton Mall. One of his favourites was the Eskimo Theme.

His work as an architectural illustrator also subsidized a second career choice, painting. In fact, Rene remembers the exact moment he realized that painting was what he really wanted to do. It was in 1986, when ACA was celebrating its 60th anniversary — a weekend event, open to the public, to which alumni had been specially invited. There was an exhibition in the main gallery with a selection of artworks by professors and ex-students. Rene was inspired! He remembers thinking, “that’s what I want to do!” And so a new adventure began.

For the next two years, Rene painted whenever he had the chance. His two favourite mediums and supports: acrylics on canvas and watercolours on paper. By 1989, he’d found a gallery to exhibit his first paintings. Rene described those early paintings, from 1989 through to 1994, as “standard landscapes that were basic, with a simple vocabulary.” He then experimented with abstract painting for nearly three years, and eventually transitioned back to landscapes, but this time they were more abstract. Effectively, Rene was developing his own style, which he would characterize as, “representational but stylized through the use of patterns.” Over the years, the patterns would become more refined — small abstract shapes that led to a representational composition of big, bold patterns.

Rene thinks in patterns; he always has. A 10-page feature article in International Artist magazine (June/July 2007) described his paintings as, “designed compositions (that) are visual statements created by joining simple elements with complex tonal and textural patterns, infused with the clever use of light.” We looked closely at 2007 painting, “Above Castle Mountain #4” (watercolours), and he points out that large simple forms broken into smaller, patterned areas add interest and depth. I can see exactly what he means. Rene continued, “painting is a pure art form — it is art for the sake of art,” and painting and his use of dramatic patterns is what he wants to be recognized for, even more than his commercial renderings. He would add, “commercial art is for others but painting is for yourself.”

Rene and his wife, Jean, are very active; they travel and hike and canoe. And, as much as possible, Rene takes photographs on these outings. In 2004, he even got an Alberta Foundation for the Arts (AFA) grant to charter a helicopter and capture over 500 aerial photos of the Rockies. Those photos resulted in some favourite paintings from not-so-common vantage points. When deciding on his next painting project, Rene looks through a short list of photos, does a few quick sketches and tonal studies and, once he has a composition that he likes, draws it onto a canvas (acrylic) or paper (watercolour.) He really doesn’t do many sketches and hardly ever re-starts a painting (a habit he attributes to the discipline of being a commercial illustrator). Rene contends that it’s also because the work evolves and it isn’t possible to plan for everything. Besides, he adds, “a painting has a mind of its own and it’s the artist’s job to just keep up and react to previous brush strokes.”

Rene is careful to build an inventory of paintings before approaching a gallery to exhibit. In his career as a painter, he has exhibited in dozens of galleries, including an eight-year association with New Image Galleries (which has since closed its doors). Since 2006, he exhibits locally at the Collectors’ Gallery of Art in Calgary. To increase his exposure through galleries, both locally and nationally, he became an associate member of the Federation of Canadian Artists (AFCA), and a member of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour (CSPWC) and the Society of Canadian Artists (SCA). On his website, renethibault.com, there are over 100 national and international juried exhibitions, 10 publications and 13 awards listed, all of which are a testament to the remarkable artworks of this Canadian artist.

In 2012, Rene closed Thibault Illustrations Ltd., the timing was right. The advent of desktop computing had started impacting his industry in the 1990’s and, today, the field of hand-drawn architectural illustrations is almost non-existent. Of course, there remain a few clients who still prefer the warmth of hand-drawn renderings but most of the large firms do the work in-house, on desktop computers with sophisticated software. Rene also noted that computers have affected painting too, not necessarily creativity but livelihoods. More and more, he says, it’s difficult for an artist to sell original art with the increased popularity and availability of lower priced limited edition prints and giclée reproductions. Still, he isn’t discouraged because an original artwork must first exist before it can be reproduced.

When asked, “What insights did your years at ACA give you?,” the answers come quickly: “to constantly LOOK” and “to really study, appreciate and observe what other artists have done and then try to develop a confidence in your own work and uniqueness, which will be a combination of what you see and what you discover (and by the way, that bit about confidence, it’s a lifelong struggle that comes and goes.)”

Since closing his firm in 2012, Rene has concentrated on his painting. And, to be clear, the word ‘retire’ isn’t part of his vocabulary. “Painting is, and always will be, an integral part of my life.” Rene also joked that he’s a “very slow” painter but that’s because he wants to enjoy the process. For so many years, as a commercial illustrator, he worked on client projects and client timelines. Now, he has the freedom to choose his own projects and timelines. It's a wonderful way to live.