“With paintings, you can create an atmosphere not always possible with photographs,” says Pelletier, musing about his 15-painting series of Canada’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
From the sub-zero sweep of an arctic skyline to SGang Gwaay’s disturbing red glow, each tableau captures the unique spirit of its location.
“You’ll notice that I haven’t put any people in these paintings. That way, the viewers can see themselves in the landscapes. It personalizes the sites.”
The artist’s 32-year career with Parks Canada began in 1978, where he started as a draftsman designing artwork for internal documents and later became a graphic designer. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Pelletier proposed using his artistic acumen to present a new perspective of Canada’s parks, spurred on by colleagues who had seen his work at exhibitions.
“I received a lot of encouragement to continue, and seeing that people are especially intrigued and impressed by artwork, I wanted to create realistic scenes of Canada’s parks through paintings,” he explains. He tested the waters with a few paintings of Quebec’s natural wonders, and not long after Parks Canada commissioned the panoramic series that sent him to Canada’s most treasured natural and historic sites.
Spending about a week exploring each site and taking hundreds of photos along the way, Pelletier braved rain, snow and fog to find beauty in the overlooked.
“My goal in creating this series was to present less well-known spot in the park,” he says. He’d only begin painting after he returned to his workshop in Quebec City, and each acrylic-on-canvas masterpiece represents about 250 hours of work, starting with a review of his photos.
Follow the Nahanni River along its full length and you'll find hot springs, river canyons up to 1,200 km deep, cave systems, untouched wilderness, and Virginia Falls, whose vertical drop is double that of Niagara. (867-695-3151; pc.gc.ca/nahanni)
"This denuded mountainside was such a contrast to the rest of Nahanni’s landscape, which you can see in the background. Erosion has shaped these large stone formations, and the wind also creates round ‘warts’ on their surface. These eventually fall to the ground, so amid the fine white sand (that isn’t snow!) there are countless perfectly round stones. Very strange!"
Burgess Shale, British Columbia
Brimming with 500 million-year-old history, the Burgess Shale is one of the most important fossil locations in the world. (201 Kicking Horse Ave., Field, British Columbia; 800-343-3006; burgess-shale.bc.ca)
"I couldn’t really see the landscape at the Burgess Shale because of the fog, so instead I chose a tiny subject, intimate and almost microscopic. I paid particular attention to the movement of the rock, and made all the lines radiate towards the fossil."
Jasper National Park, Alberta
Excelling in scenery, Jasper National Park is also one of the largest protected ecosystems in Alberta, home to elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and carnivores such as grizzlies, cougars, and wolves. (780-852-6176; jaspernationalpark.com)
"This is a more intimate perspective of the Rocky Mountains, with the glacier melting at the base of a mountain. The turquoise colour here was different from other mountain lakes and rivers I’ve seen—it was like milk, it was so opaque."
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta
It’s been a long time since bison last plummeted over the plateau at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, but you can still explore the grounds and learn about this millennia-old aboriginal practice at the comprehensive interpretive centre. (18 km northwest of Fort Macleod on Highway 785; 403-553-2731; head-smashed-in.com)
"While what you see today at Head-Smashed-In is only the landscape, I wanted to respect the history of this park as much as possible. Since I chose not to paint any recreations in this series, instead of showing bison falling off the cliff I hid one in the clouds."
Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta
You just might trip over a dino bone while exploring Dinosaur Provincial Park, but even if you don’t, the expansive beauty of the badlands is sure to capture your heart. Don’t forget a camera. (403-378-4344; dinosaurpark.ca)
"I walked all over Dinosaur Provincial Park to pick my angle, because even on top of a nearby butte the perspective is completely different. On the left, I painted some blooming cacti—I enjoyed finding the natural element so alive and luminous even in such an arid place."
Wood Buffalo National Park, NWT and Alberta
Count 'em: Wood Buffalo National Park comprises 44,807 km2 of wilderness—about the size of Switzerland!—making this Canada’s largest park and one of the largest on earth. Appropriately, it plays a huge role in sustaining threatened species like wood bison and whooping crane. (867-872-7960; pc.gc.ca/woodbuffalo)
"One might think I should have painted the bison at Wood Buffalo National Park, but among the many other interesting scenes, this view of whooping cranes, as seen from a canoe, was particularly special. Besides the bison, the park has also played an important role in repopulating whooping cranes."
Miguasha National Park, Quebec
Older than the dinosaurs, Miguasha National Park is one of the top paleontological sites from the Age of Fishes. (800-665-6527; sepaq.com/pq/mig)
"Miguasha’s main theme is in the stone, not the landscape, and so the park staff lent me the fossil you see in the foreground—packaging it very carefully into my pack. I walked through Miguasha with 400 million years of history on my back!"
L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, Newfoundland
L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site preserves 11th-century Norse ruins—the earliest known European settlement in the New World. (709-458-2417; pc.gc.ca/meadows)
"Because the ruins themselves at l’Anse aux Meadows are not very interesting visually, I depicted an evolution, with the vestiges in the foreground, the reconstructions in the middle ground, and a modern town in the far left. The sky also echoes this progression, starting out dark and mysterious in the right and growing lighter at it approaches the present-day construction."
Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory
Kluane is part of the largest non-polar icefield in the world, and offers soaring peaks, stunning landscapes, and glaciers aplenty. (867-634-7250; pc.gc.ca/kluane)
"I had the chance to fly over these mountains from a helicopter—although I was so busy taking photos that I didn’t really take the time to admire the view! Kluane is all about atmosphere—my goal was to convey the surge of mountains rising towards the sky and the cold, pure air up there."
SGang Gwaay, British Columbia
It takes some doing to get out to this isolated site, but the relics of a 19th-century village at SGang Gwaay are an unforgettable testament to the living culture of the Haida. (250-559-8818; pc.gc.ca/gwaiihaanas)
"SGang Gwaay is a site where the landscape still speaks, standing witness to its history. The forest is an important theme in this painting: from the silhouettes in the background, to the central tree (a wild apple tree imported by the Haida), the longhouse posts in the middle ground and, of course, the totems."
Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Exceptionally diverse with ecological communities, Waterton Lakes National Park doesn’t shortchange visitors on scenery either. (403-859-2224; pc.gc.ca/waterton)
"Although it was June, I experienced all four seasons during my 1,000-m. (3,000-ft.) climb to this plateau in Waterton Lakes Park. I tried to include a bit of everything, and the sky speaks—from menacing on the left to a clearer blue on the right."
Rideau Canal, Ontario
Having gained UNESCO status in 2007, the 202-km Rideau Canal remains a working marvel of 19th-century engineering, with most of its structures still intact. (pc.gc.ca/rideau)
"Rideau Canal is very much a human construction, and so I wanted to highlight its engineering and convey the canal’s heritage. The machinery in the foreground leads the eye to the type of bridge you see throughout the canal. The dynamic mechanism on the left counterbalances the calm river itself."
Historic District of Old Quebec, Quebec
Founded in the early 17th century, Quebec City has preserved its historic, but always picturesque architecture in Old Quebec, allowing visitors an intriguing glimpse of its economic and military past. (877-783-1608; quebecregion.com)
"Old Quebec is a challenging subject for an artist because so many paintings of it already exist. While I included key features (the Plains of Abraham, the Citadel and Château Frontenac) very precisely, I decided to portray Old Quebec via a winter landscape, winter being such a large part of the culture."
Old Town Lunenburg, Nova Scotia
The absurdly quaint town of Lunenburg has architecture dating back to the 18th century, and is also the home port of the Bluenose II (the reincarnation of the famous schooner, built after the original sunk in 1946). (902-634-3656; explorelunenburg.ca)
"I was looking forward to seeing the famous Bluenose II, which harbours in Lunenburg. Unfortunately, when I was there it had been removed for repairs! I had to wait until my final day at Lunenburg for a clear day, and ultimately that’s what I chose to paint—along with a hidden miniature Bluenose."
Gros-Morne National Park, Newfoundland and Labrador
Norway doesn’t have a monopoly on fjords: you’ll find them in Gros-Morne National Park, along with waterfalls, marine inlets, sandy beaches and colourful nearby fishing villages. (709-458-2417; pc.gc.ca/grosmorne)
"What really struck me when I stood on this beach in Gros-Morne was the duality between nature and culture, represented by the rocky outcrop and the shack of lobster traps. The water was luminous against the stormy background, and a golden light created a natural link between the two. "