Capturing Canadian Forces in action in Afghanistan

Pecota's technique meshes photo and painting seamlessly

Apr 30 Silvia Pecota Fallen_TFA.jpg
Photo: Silvia Pecota

Ontario artist and photographer Silvia Pecota has plunged herself into the action in Afghanistan and elsewhere on Canadian military bases to help tell soldiers’ stories through images. Read more on Pages 6 and 7. Above: Fallen Comrades was created two years ago in memory of the Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan.

The news is full of images and words about what’s happening in Afghanistan, but few have the same perspective as visual artist and photographer Silvia Pecota. She likes to capture the action up close.
Pecota did three stints overseas. She was on the ground in Kandahar taking pictures of Canadian Troops — making images that will serve her for the next step, sculpting and painting the behind-the-scenes of war and the tasks undertaken by soldiers in the field.

She is also working on a book of photos and images about the Canadian soldier, based mainly on her experience as an Artist for the Army between 2003 and 2005. Her goal is to get soldiers to help write the accompanying texts. In 2006, her work was exhibited at Canada House, located at the Kandahar air base. The Van Doos out of Quebec invited Pecota to photograph their work overseas before Christmas.

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She had not yet encountered them in her travels. Pecota has just put the finishing touches on an image they commissioned to commemorate the mission; it will be unveiled officially this spring.

It all began a few years ago when Pecota decided to help support the Canadian troops in her own small way.

“I never thought it was going to evolve into this,” said Pecota, whose website,

www.silviapecota.com, features some of her work.

“When the first four soldiers were killed, I created Fallen Soldier, in 2002. That was just a response to what happened. I remember going for a run when this idea came to me. I started piecing something together,” explained Pecota.

“Going back a bit,” she added, “I had created a postcard for the troops [in 2001] back before they had left for Afghanistan – the girl with the flag. I thought, let me do something for the troops. The printers did it for free, as an appreciation.”

The idea came from a suggestion.

“I was at a [swimsuit] calendar launch with the model that actually posed for it, and a soldier said,

‘You should do something for the troops.’” Pecota asked Kate and they agreed on a date. “I bought a flag and had no idea what I was going to do.”

Pro Patria was the result: an image of a model, Kate, draped in the Canadian flag. “It was very well received. It was great because it became a popular card, even with [troops from] other countries like the Americans.”

Pecota added, “When that tragedy happened [in 2002], the support of the country was right behind them. Prior to that, the soldiers weren’t getting the support that they deserved.”

Pecota is proud to have contributed what she could to the cause. Volunteering is something that comes naturally.

“I’ve done it with other things. It doesn’t take much to find where your time is needed. We cannot all do everything,” reminded Pecota. “I’m not out there looking. It comes my way. When I went for that run the idea came to me.”

The artist tipped her hat to all those who volunteer behind the scenes, oftentimes helping with tougher jobs. “It’s because of the form of work that I do. I am lucky, in a sense, that it’s a perfect opportunity to touch many people.”

The work began on the ground in Afghanistan, accompanying the troops and watching how and what they do.

In order to fill out the details back home, Pecota took pictures of the landscape and of the vehicles used by the troops. She even had them pose, so that she could try to capture the real angles. She then puts images together in a composite drawing.

“The one for the artillery, they wanted them with their guns out. I was there when they were actually on mission, so I saw this thing firing. I need reference images. How does the dust rise off the gun? How does the light filter through the dust?”

She met and made friends within the military and relies on them to perfect the technical details.

Pecota said, “When I’m working, I am in constant communication through email, until even the little details are justified,” she said.

The work is a slow and painstaking blend of photographs and oil painting, mixed and layered, with help from Photoshop. Each image can take about a month to complete.

The first step is taking the pictures.

“I take photos. I have an approximate idea of what the composition might be. But with the model that’s going to pose, I am open to possibilities. One idea evolves into something else. I take pictures of individual subjects and things separately,” she explained.

Then it’s down to the design.

“I rough out a composition. When I have decided on the actual pose of the individual I do a printout on paper and trace that image on canvas and do an oil painting. Then I scan the oil painting [into the computer] and mesh it together with photos and it becomes layered. There could easily be 20 layers,” said Pecota.

“Then I mesh them in with Photoshop and start painting in rocks or dust or shadows, highlights – details like a flag. I change elements that need to be altered. Meshing blends in seamlessly, so you don’t know where the photo ends and painting begins.”

Pecota has been working away at perfecting this technique for the past 20 years, since she attended Ryerson; she graduated in 1987. “I’ve always tried to achieve this. At that point it was on film. I incorporated body painting and exposure times.”

Her first efforts with this technique appeared in a children’s book, which took four years to complete.
Then she used it to create images for the troops.

Pecota got her first computer close to a decade ago. “I just bought a good digital camera in the last few years,” she said. “Two years ago I was shooting everything on film.” Then she found a digital camera with the quality she was looking for — the Canon Mark II. “It’s a major expense, freedom!” she admitted.

This new technology has enabled Pecota to come back, full circle, to her roots in art through photography.