Wish you were here! Madeleine Gross paints travel photos from the world's most beautiful places

The Toronto artist shares the stories behind some of her dreamiest pictures.

The Toronto artist shares the stories behind some of her dreamiest pictures

Madeleine Gross. Poolside Muse. (Instagram/@madeleinegross)

Madeleine Gross says she isn't actually jet set. She isn't beaching in the Bahamas (and Miami and Tel Aviv) all year, and she doesn't fly to Montmartre for Sunday brunch. It's just that scrolling through her Instagram feed of painted holiday photos suggests another story, and if you're still desperate to get away this summer, be warned. One look could have you booking the next flight to Santorini.

"Everyone always fantasizes about going somewhere new across the world," says Gross — or that's been her experience, at least. The artist, 25, is a Toronto-based freelance photographer, and she says she saves for two or three trips a year. "I take a lot of photos when I go," she says — but when she does, she's thinking about how she can finish those pictures with paint.

I want people to look at [my work] and be relaxed. I want to take them out of their everyday problems.- Madeleine Gross, artist

While doing a photography degree at OCAD U, Gross started adding abstract paintings to her prints. (A series of them appeared in the school's Grad Ex show in 2015.) Since then, travel scenes have been her focus, and thick slashes of acrylic punch up already drool-worthy pics from Joshua Tree, Paris, Berlin and beyond, like she's adding exclamation points made of ice cream.

Why? Other people send postcards that say, "Wish you were here." She paints instead.

"A lot of my pictures are from trips, so it's obviously a joyous occasion or something beautiful," says Gross. "I want to take that back to my viewer so [you] feel like you're in that setting." Maybe it's the warm sun on your face, or a fresh breeze. "I really want the paint strokes to emulate that." And while all those pictures of palm trees and "rosé all day" sunsets are bound to make some people jealous, she tries to dilute the FOMO as much as possible. "I cover the identity in each image so that people can imagine themselves," says Gross. "I want it to be a little more inviting."

Here, she takes us through a few of her favourite destinations.

Santorini, Greece

Madeleine Gross. Taking in the View (Santorini 2018). (Courtesy of the artist)

"I really like going to vacation towns. Places like Palm Beach or Aspen or Santorini — places where you know you'll go there and it's a different pace. You know, it's not people rushing all the time. You just see the calmness."

"In Santorini, people were cliff jumping every single day. That's what they did every single day. They woke up and they did that. So it's just another world and it's so nice to pull yourself into that and feel that kind of lifestyle."

Madeleine Gross. Honeymooners. (Courtesy of the artist)

"I love 'Honeymooners.' I was just walking around, wandering, and you see people in love. Everyone's on their honeymoon there and it's such a surreal place. Every single second you stop and see the most beautiful settings. People are happy and it's just a different world out there. I saw these two people, affectionate and I'm sure in just a state of bliss. Same with 'Taking in the View.' I walked by someone getting married just at that point."

"Sometimes I feel I'm watching these settings and it's more like I'm witnessing it rather than I'm experiencing it, and I want to take it back for my viewers."

Madeleine Gross. Santorini Self Portrait. (Courtesy of the artist)

"'Self Portrait' — my best friend who I was travelling with took that picture of me. You hear about the muse, and I wanted to emphasize that you can be your own muse."

"I just wanted to immortalize that moment in a way and kind of animate myself. I'm wearing sunglasses so you could still put yourself in that setting. The way the gaze is — I'm looking into the view, into the water, and not the camera."


Madeleine Gross. Lifeguard Tower (Miami Beach 2017). (Courtesy of the artist)

"'Lifeguard Tower' — I went to Art Basel this past December. I stepped out for a second — it was Scope Miami and it was right on the beach there — and I just saw these three friends and they were coming down from the beach."

"You're seeing all this gorgeous art, and then to go outside and see the beach and be a little bit more calm — oh, wow. It's like two different worlds."

"A lot of times, I guess I'm people-watching. It's just nice to see other people in their natural state and imagine yourself in that setting even though you're having a bad day. You see this bright lifeguard tower and people walking back from the beach."

Madeleine Gross. Swipe Me (Miami 2017). (Courtesy of the artist)

"'Swipe Me' — that one is in Wynwood and Wynwood's just the coolest neighbourhood. And there's this guy standing on the street just texting. You know, what we see every day, but make that into art and look at it a little differently."

Tel Aviv

Madeleine Gross. Tel Aviv Beach #2. (Courtesy of the artist)

"I just think people always look forward to going to the beach. Maybe it's memories from when you were younger, maybe your family took you to the beach. Maybe it's because in Canada it's not an everyday thing for us."

"I want people to look at [my work] and be relaxed. I want to take them out of their everyday problems or something that's bothering them in their life, and just take a moment and be grateful — or look forward to something."

"This was just a joyous occasion. And the rainbow? I actually did this during Pride last year."

"I wanted to have a little bit more of a '60s feel so I added a swimcap [to the woman on the right]. She wasn't actually wearing that."

Madeleine Gross. How I feel when I'm with you. (Courtesy of the artist)

"That's the same trip. This one's Tel Aviv as well."

"I kind of wanted to make it like when you're looking at someone you really love and just like the colours — you see something someone else would see. You're in love, you're in a state of bliss and these colours are pouring out of you."

Haliburton, Ont.

Madeleine Gross. Reflections, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)

"A lot of [my photos] were taken in Northern Ontario. I wake up at sunrise and I take pictures of the lake, reflections."

"It's my mom's favourite place, and she recently passed away so it reminds me of her. She would go and camp out in the country and I have these memories of her being so passionate about it and waking me up at sunrise. She'd wake me up at the crack of dawn and be like, 'Hop in a kayak, we're getting that shot with the sun coming up.' That's really my favourite shot because it's my mom."

New York

Madeleine Gross. Luncheon on the Grass, in Central Park. 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)

"This one was inspired by Luncehon on the Grass by Manet. [...] I wanted to pull from that but make it modern."

"I definitely need to do a Toronto scene. That's probably my next series — a little love story for Toronto."


Madeleine Gross. Red Bicyclist (Paris 2017). (Courtesy of the artist)

"One thing I really liked about Paris is the people-watching there because everything was really elegant."

"A woman smoking, looking into the alleyway — it's just beautiful. Sometimes you just have to take a second and look up and be inspired."

"I was there for a week. I was searching for photos. I went there, really, to make art. It was my first time in Paris and it was incredible, but when I went there I was so, so inspired. I wanted to capture everything. Sometimes, it's nice to put my camera down and just experience it."


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.