Toni Onley


Toni Onley is one of Canada’s most celebrated artists. His landscapes have always provided a special significance for Canadians in reviving an appreciation for our surroundings. Onley viewed the landscape with an exceedingly distinctive character. His scenes are unpopulated and figures, either human or animal, are absent from his paintings. Toni Onley has taken his place in a distinctive Canadian succession, however, he has done so as an individual, and without any sense of breaking with his tradition.

Onley was born in 1928 on the Isle of Man, just off the west coast of Britain. This location provided him with the perfect setting to develop his talents for landscape painting. Onley loved to paint and draw at a young age, and at 14 he began his formal education in drawing, watercolour painting, and etching at the Douglas School of Art. After World War II, difficult times forced Onley to immigrate to Canada in 1948. He stayed briefly in southern Ontario, where he studied with landscape painter Carl Schaeffer, and discovered the inspirational watercolours of David Milne. Following his move to BC, in 1955, the urge to travel took Onley to Mexico where he studied Abstract Expressionism at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel. While in Mexico, he began to experiment with collages. His collages, shown in a one-man exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1958, launched Onley’s career.

Onley saw Mexico as a “black and white landscape with occasional primary colours” which limited his artistic inspiration. He had initially painted a series of paintings in oil, however, he was discouraged with the results and ripped the paintings into small pieces. He discovered the beauty of these pieces when he decided to place them together in a collage of shapes and images.

Studying the work of great watercolorists, such as John Sell Cotman, David Cox, Peter De Wint and J.W.M. Turner, at the Norwich School of Watercolour Painting in England, prompted Onley to return to landscape painting in 1964. He returned to Vancouver to revitalize his connection with the Canadian landscape. Since 1967 Onley has captured the Canadian landscape through a unique artistic lens. He became a pilot and flew throughout BC and Alaska, landing his float plane in remote locations. Armed with his watercolour painting kit and his eye for capturing the essence of the moment, Onley created works that continue to have a profound effect on Canadians.

Onley has been credited as a “modern day explorer with an insatiable curiosity to travel to the reaches of the world in search of line, shape and colour.” In addition to exploring the Canadian and British landscape, Onley travelled to Italy, Japan, China, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Alaska, Ireland, Egypt and the Arabian Gulf.

Japanese watercolour painting and his experience with Abstract Expressionism gave Onley’s later works a strong feeling of the flux between time and space. These works depict a profound awareness of the moment, light and the powerful presence of what he witnessed while viewing the land around him.

Toni Onley’s art is found in several distinguished collections, some of which are the Royal Albert and Victorian Museum and the Tate Gallery in London, England, the National Gallery of Canada, as well as the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.