At 85, artist Takao Tanabe still paints every day in the light-filled studio he built on his remote property on the B.C. coast.

He’ll rise and head to his studio, work a few hours before heading outdoors to do chores or walk, then head back inside to face the canvas again.

In the evening, Tanabe steps into the studio again, just to look and revise in his head what must be done.

This year he’s produced a series of three-metre sunsets, another series of small 15 by 30 cm images and then moved on to some mid-sized acrylics. All of them were landscapes, the subject of most of Tanabe’s work.

A retrospective now on display at the Burnaby Art Gallery, organized by curator Darrin Martens, shows how his approach to the land has changed in a 60-year career that has earned him the Governor General’s Award and the Order of Canada.

What fascinates Tanabe now are the seascapes and landscapes of the West Coast. Tanabe works from photographs, some of hundreds he has shot over the years as he travels by boat, plane or car up and down Vancouver Island.

He says he loves the dark, brooding B.C. days and "can’t get enough" of the colours and contours of the coast.

'It’s the mist that obscures the landscape and that makes it all the more mysterious'—Takao Tanabe

"It’s the mist that obscures the landscape and that makes it all the more mysterious. It’s a tiny little island with a big peninsula — that is the landscape, but covered with a bit of mist or cloud, it becomes a little bit more mysterious," he told CBC News.

"I like it when it’s cloudy and things are hidden and with no people in it, no boats, no cows."

Tanabe works on several paintings at once in his studio, which he designed himself when he bought a 25-acre piece of land near Parksville, B.C.

"I paint in my studio on a flat table. I have two tables going at the same time. Then I’m plotting a third one or a fourth one. It’s simpler for my brain to think in a series – they’re dark and moody and then brighter and sunnier," he said.

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Artist Takao Tanabe, left, receives the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts from former Gov.-Gen Adrienne Clarkson in 2003. (Canadian Press)

Tanabe was born in Seal Cove, B.C. and interned with his family during the Second World War.  After graduating from Winnipeg School of Art in 1949, he furthered his studies in New York and travelled in Europe on an Emily Carr scholarship. He also studied in Japan with a sumi painter, learning ink wash techniques.

Tanabe hasn’t always been a landscape painter – his earliest work, created after his graduation in Winnipeg, was abstract.

For more than 20 years he remained immersed in the world of abstract painting, interested in geometric shapes, flat spatial planes, perspective and bold colours in a range of mediums.

Then an offer in the early 1970s to teach for a summer at the Banff Art Centre coincided with his own decision to move in a different direction. 

"After 22 years of painting abstract painting, I decided it was time to try something else and I thought I would try painting landscape for a few years then move on again, because it seemed like the right thing to do to keep moving forward," he said.

Saving The Seasons

Takao Tanabe’s The Seasons is a 24 by 4 metre paper-on-plywood collage created at the invitation of architect Hart Massey for the Sir John Carling Building, the Ottawa headquarters of the Department of Agriculture.

Three years ago, that building was condemned and Tanabe’s painting along with it because it was too difficult to relocate.

Six months later, Tanabe got a call saying contractors believed they could lift the work, which is on plywood, from the wall where it is displayed, but that would mean cutting it into pieces.

"I said yes, anything to save it," he said.

"They sent me a photograph and we agreed on where we could cut it into pieces – each that could stand on their own."

An exhibition at Ottawa Art Gallery this fall displayed some of the sections and one painting now hangs on the walls at the Department of Agriculture. The rest is in storage.

He was living in New York at the time, and as he made his way to Banff he decided to take a closer look at the Prairies.

"It took a week to cross from Winnipeg to Banff and up and down and around and look at the Prairies carefully and I said ‘OK that’s my subject matter,’" Tanabe recalled.

He was drawn by the flat horizon and the gradations of colour and spent more than eight years painting and drawing Prairie landscapes.

"It’s so simple, but it’s very complicated. It’s not putting in mountains here and little bumps here – it’s absolutely flat with a little bit of plough lines, especially in the summer, the different colours of the field…and then there’s a big empty sky. It’s a challenge."

In 1980, Tanabe moved to Vancouver Island, but his years as resident artist and head of the art department at Banff left an impression. Among the landscapes he painted is a series of 20 of the mountains in winter – precise and as close to realism as he has ever been.

"I could never bring myself to paint mountain peaks in the summer when they’re nice and brown and black and there’s so much detail, but in the winter when they’re mostly covered with snow they’re much more paintable," he said.

The Burnaby Art Gallery has paintings from each stage of Tanabe’s career. It specializes in works on paper, so the exhibit concentrates heavily on watercolours, pencil drawings and other paper-based works.

The exhibit there will travel to the McMaster University Art Gallery in Hamilton, Ont., the Nanaimo Art Gallery in Nanaimo, B.C. and The Reach in Abbotsford, B.C. in the coming year.

Tanabe’s work has been collected by the Vancouver Art Gallery, the National Gallery of Canada, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and other public and private galleries. 

He will also have 2012 shows at two commercial galleries that represent him, the Mira Godard gallery in Toronto beginning Jan. 28 and another at the Equinox Gallery in Vancouver in February.