If you’ve visited the Kootenay Gallery of Art in Castlegar before, chances are you’ve seen the work of painter Mirja Vahala. Her beautiful acrylic landscapes are a regular sight at the gallery as well as at many other locations around the Kootenays. Her art studio is based in Robson, just across the Columbia River from Castlegar, and that is where she creates her own work as well as instructs and mentors other artists. Her preferences lean towards acrylics but she also offers art courses in drawing, oils, colour mixing, composition, portraits, and more.

We caught up with Mirja as part of our monthly series that celebrates and showcases local artists to discover how she got into painting and what her creative process is.

Hi Mirja. How long have you lived in the area?

I have lived in the community of Robson, near Castlegar, for 15 years.

What’s your favourite part about living in the region.

I love the natural beauty of the surrounding forests, lakes, and mountains.

How did you get started in painting?

At a young age, I was inspired by a caretaker’s drawings. I was educated in graphic design and visual arts, followed by running my own graphics company for 15 years. After selling, I began the Mirja Vahala Art Studio to paint and mentor other artists.

What are your favourite subjects to paint and what types of paints do you like working with best?

My favourite themes to paint are trees, forests, waterfalls and pathways which, for me, symbolize connection and passage. My intention is to communicate how connected we are to our natural environment through my paintings. After experimenting with many mediums, I now paint with acrylics, which dry quickly and allow for many layers of colour plus easy texturing.


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What’s different about fine art painting versus other forms of artistic endeavours?

5 Painting is different from taking photos in that I can be the goddess of the end product. Mountains can be moved, for instance! In photography, the photo is the end product. For me, photos are reference notes which spark my imagination — and remind me about ideas. They are not meant for copying verbatim.

Take us through your creative process, from inspiration to final piece.

The creative process begins with hiking and photography. Photos allow me to get information about how the light affects shapes. The challenge I love the most is designing each painting. Choosing colours for mood and impact are also very fun for me. In the studio, I draw and paint one-colour and full-colour studies. My goals are to create designs with impact, which emphasize the theme, movement and symbolism of the painting. When painting, I allow myself freedom to explore beyond these studies. I place many layers of colours using glazes and opaque passages. To provide energy, I make marks using tools such as palette knives and silicone colour shapers. I often listen to books while I paint, to keep from overthinking. As the painting progresses, I ask a myriad of questions: lighter/darker, brighter/duller, add/subtract, and so on. It can be difficult to know when a painting is finished. My hope is to be done before overworking. Once the painting has enough dark and lights, with colour harmony, and the feeling I want to portray, I stop. Sometimes I stop before finishing and begin another. This way I can gain a fresh perspective of the previous work.

You also teach painting, correct? What is one of the most important pieces of advice you share with your students about painting?

As an art mentor, my biggest advice is to persevere, to improve weaknesses using a dedicated practice and to celebrate any gains.

What do you do when you’re not working?

When I am not working, I hike, snowshoe, walk the dogs, read, waterski, workout and watch movies.

Where can we learn more about your artwork?

You can learn more about my artwork and art mentoring on my website, MirjaVahalaArtStudio.com.