Toni Onley

About the Artist

Toni Onley, one of Canada’s best known and most prolific artists, was born on the Isle of Man, off the west coast of England in 1928. He began his studies there at the Douglas School of Fine Arts from 1942 to 1946. One of the instructors who influenced Onley during that time was  landscapeA painting, photograph or other work of art which depicts scenery such as mountains, valleys, trees, rivers and forests. There is invariably some sky in the scene. (Artlex.com) Landscape is also a term that may also refer simply to a horizontally-oriented rectangle, just as a vertically-oriented one may be said to be oriented the portrait way. (Artlex.com)  water-colourist John Nicholson. While living on the island Onley painted landscapes, inspired by the work of great British painters like Joseph Turner, John Cotman and Peter DeWint.

Onley’s family immigrated to Canada in 1948 and lived in Brantford, Ontario, where Onley studied art and architecture at the Doon School of Fine Art in 1951. Artists whose work influenced Onley during those years were Carl Schaefer, Fredrick Varley and David Milne.

In 1955, Onley followed his family to British Columbia. He was in the right place at the right time to secure a one-man show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. In 1957, Onley won scholarships to attend the Instituto Allende, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. During his three years in Mexico, Onley was influenced by the artwork and ideas of the New York School of Abstraction and he started producing non-objective work.

In 1963 Onley won a Senior Canada Council  grantFunds dispersed by a granting agency (often a government agency), usually made available to a non-profit agency (like an educational institution) or business to enable the completion of a specific project. Grants usually require an application in the form of a proposal or submission, and may be competitive.  and traveled to London, England. There he studied  etchingAn intaglio printing process in which an etching needle is used to draw into a wax ground applied over a metal plate. The plate is then submerged in a series of acid baths, each biting into the metal surface only where unprotected by the ground. The ground is removed, ink is forced into the etched depressions, the unetched surfaces wiped, and an impression is printed. Also, both the design etched on a plate and an impression made from an etched plate. Too often confused with engraving. (Artlex.com)  and the landscapes of the Norwich School of Watercolour Painting. He continued to paint  abstractImagery which departs from representational accuracy, to a variable range of possible degrees. Abstract artists select and then exaggerate or simplify the forms suggested by the world around them.  (Artlex.com)  paintings but they were slowly permeated by a sense of landscape. Rosalyn Porter says about this period: “His course was now set towards what he is best known for today: landscapes of simplicity and power; dwelling on the essences of specific moments in time, the presences of objects, and relationships of  colourProduced by light of various wavelengths, and when light strikes an object and reflects back to the eyes. Colour is an element of art with three properties: (1) hue or tint, the colour name, e.g., red, yellow, blue, etc.: (2) intensity, the purity and strength of a colour, e.g., bright red or dull red; and (3) value, the lightness or darkness of a colour. When the spectrum is organized as a color wheel, the colours are divided into groups called primary, secondary and intermediate (or tertiary) colours; analogous and complementary, and also as warm and cool colours. Colours can be objectively described as saturated, clear, cool, warm, deep, subdued, grayed, tawny, mat, glossy, monochrome, multicolored, particolored, variegated, or polychromed. Some words used to describe colours are more subjective (subject to personal opinion or taste), such as: exciting, sweet, saccharine, brash, garish, ugly, beautiful, cute, fashionable, pretty, and sublime. Sometimes people speak of colours when they are actually refering to pigments, what they are made of (various natural or synthetic substances), their relative permanence, etc. (Artlex.com)  light and shadow.” (Porter, 1981)

Onley travelled extensively but lived most of his adult life in British Columbia. He taught at the University of British Columbia from 1966 to 1976 but he retired from teaching when the income from his art more than satisfied his basic needs.

“Toni Onley is both successful and rich,” observed writer Allen Wood in 1989. “He got that way by dedication, risk-taking and the astute business brain needed to develop a hard-nosed sales strategy.”  Of Onley’s  paintingWorks of art made with paint on a surface. Often the surface, also called a support, is either a tightly stretched piece of canvas or a panel. How the ground (on which paint is applied) is prepared on the support depends greatly on the type of paint to be used. Paintings are usually intended to be placed in frames, and exhibited on walls, but there have been plenty of exceptions. Also, the act of painting, which may involve a wide range of techniques and materials, along with the artist's other concerns which effect the content of a work. (Artlex.com)  process, Wood further observed that “[h]e paints fast, he works small and usually of a uniform size…All his frames are mass produced, pre-made in bulk, the components (glass, mattes, etc.) all identically cut, easily assembled, just waiting for their art piece.” (Wood, 1989)

Many of Onley’s art works are prints, like the Icefield/glacier suite, and Wood noted that Onley’s  printmakingA print is a shape or mark made from a block or plate or other object that is covered with wet colour (usually ink) and then pressed onto a flat surface, such as paper or textile. Most prints can be produced over and over again by re-inking the printing block or plate. Printmaking can be done in many ways, including using an engraved block or stone, transfer paper, or a film negative. The making of fine prints is generally included in the graphic arts, while the work of artists whose designs are made to satisfy the needs of more commercial clients are included in graphic design. (Artlex.com)  process “has a rigid production schedule and a well-oiled and efficient distribution organization.” (Wood, 1989)

In 1961, Onley was one of seven artists chosen to represent Canada at the Paris Biennial and in 1999, he became an officer of the Order of Canada. In 2004, at age seventy-six, Onley died in a plane accident doing what he loved to do: piloting an airplane in search of artistic inspiration in the Canadian outdoors.


Canadian Heritage University of Regina Mackenzie Art Gallery Mendel Art Gallery Sask Learning