04/23/2013 06:22 EDT | Updated 06/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Artist David Blackwood finds freedom in old age

Artist David Blackwood is known for his iconic prints of Newfoundland, which range from wondrous scenes of whales diving under fishing boats to harrowing depictions of sealers awaiting their death on Labrador ice floes.

Rendered in black and indigo blue, the prints — which have been exhibited at major Canadian galleries, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, as well as international hubs including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy — feel as cold as the places they depict.

But inside Blackwood’s sunlit Port Hope, Ont., studio, there’s colour everywhere. One new artwork, titled Ephraim Kelloway’s Door, is painted with striking blues and greens — like the water under an iceberg — as well as the reds and oranges of a badly rusted car.

This is a big change of direction for the 71-year-old artist. Blackwood says his turn to colour in the last few years is the result of the freedom that comes with artistic success, as well as age.

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“I’m in a position where I feel free to destroy the thing if need be … so there’s a feeling of exploration, a wonderful feeling of knowing you still have something to discover, something to learn,” Blackwood says.

“I’m terrified of formulaic work.”

Iconic prints

That may seem strange for someone who has created thousands upon thousands of prints, many focused on iconic items: trigger mittens, gas lamps and boats big and small.

Blackwood grew up and began drawing in Wesleyville, one of many rural Newfoundland towns dotting Bonavista Bay’s craggy shoreline. He didn’t make a print until he left home to study at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, where a teacher noticed his sketching ability and introduced him to printing.

Making prints requires intense concentration, Blackwood says, something that fit his work ethic. During the process, Blackwood etches a detailed scene, all in reverse, onto a copper plate before inking it and rolling it through a massive press.

Blackwood has elevated his craft by using rosin to create textures in his prints, and by using multiple shades of ink, including reds to denote fire or a fleeting bit of heat.

His hulking printing press currently occupies an entire corner of his two-storey studio. Almost the entire first floor is devoted to prints. Upstairs, Blackwood paints.

‘There are so many possibilities’

Painting is freedom for Blackwood. It’s his chance to play around with shapes, colours and textures, all of it guided by an eye that has studied art fiercely since his 20s.

The new work he showed me, Ephraim Kelloway’s Door, provides a glimpse of how Blackwood’s work is evolving. The actual door once belonged to Wesleyville fisherman Ephraim Kelloway. Several years ago Blackwood salvaged it, saving it from certain decay and making it into a recurring image in his prints.

The newest version of Kelloway’s door is a wood construction Blackwood crafted himself, giving it three dimensions. Its vibrant colours are due to the encaustic technique Blackwood now favours, which involves stirring powdered pigments into hot wax. The technique dates back to ancient Egypt, but it’s brand new to Blackwood.

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His newfound love for colour is clear on the sketched plans for an upcoming work tacked on his wall: “Siennas, greens, umbers … wow!” his notes on the paper read. While his prints made his name in the art world, Blackwood says the painting has always been there. Many in the art community were surprised a few years ago when he launched an entire show of floral watercolours based on the flowers his wife, Anita, brings in from their garden.

“All those prints take tremendous focus,” Blackwood says. “Painting is great because you don’t need to know anything about painting to have a good time. There are so many possibilities.”

Blackwood isn’t sure where his art will go next, but like the painters he idolizes — Picasso, Matisse — he says he’ll keep working until it’s impossible.

“Retirement is a deadly, deadly word,” he says, shaking his head.

Lucky for him, he says, “There is no retirement for the artist.”