Jacques Descoteaux has mastered both the hard facts and numbers of accounting and the interpretation and wilful experimentation or art (Photography by Claudine Baltazar)
For years, Toronto artist Jacques Descoteaux’s website described him “an accountant by day and an artist by night.” That changed in 2015, when he retired from Honda Canada after spending nearly 26 years in a series of financial roles with the automotive company.
Today, Descoteaux’s LinkedIn profile describes him simply as a “visual artist,” although he continues to volunteer with organizations, including West Toronto Community Legal Services. In other words, he’s now an artist by day and an accountant by night.
On the surface, Descoteaux’s two major life pursuits might seem wildly incongruous, one governed by the immutable rules of mathematics and balance sheets, the other the domain of interpretation and even wilful experimentation.
“He’s such a fine artist and then you’re surprised to find out when you get to know him that he also had this amazing career as a CPA,” says his long-time friend and fellow artist Janet Read. “Sometimes you might get that combination [of skills], but it’s not common.”
Descoteaux stands apart from those who come to art from a more analytical background, such as math or science, she adds. They are typically more likely to become “micro-painters,” obsessed with capturing everything down to the smallest detail.
“They’re really interested in hyper-detail, but Jacques is more interested in conveying an emotional feeling and reaction,” she says. “It’s something that’s beyond what you see with your eyes.”
Descoteaux says his past and present careers are really not that far apart—both of them requiring structure, discipline and curiosity, not to mention the occasional grasp of abstract concepts.
“You still need to be creative if you're designing procedures and controls in business,” he says. “You need to have that creativity and that ability to think outside of what is, and to see where you can improve. That skill is certainly transferable to art.”
And art, he argues, is very much about employing analytic problem-solving skills. “When a painting is in progress, you need to pause, take a look at it and see how it's working, or if there's anything that needs to be redone,” he says. “And then if there's nothing to be added or removed, you sign it.”
He has applied his stylized signature to literally hundreds of works of art over the years, primarily oil paintings, but also some sculptures, as well as photography and other mixed-media projects.
His colour-rich paintings are clearly naturalistic in origin, a fact underscored by titles like “By the Light of the Moon” and “Between the Wind and the Sea,” yet they also seem to exist in a realm just beyond realism. He deftly wields a palette knife in order to create a hard contrast between the land and sky, the latter of which makes up the majority of his canvases.
He has also worked in other mediums, including sculpture and photography, while the 2020 murder of George Floyd inspired him to begin a series of collages called “Stolen Voices”—which his website says is “dedicated to those whose voices were prematurely taken away because of who they were, because of what they said, because of what they did.”
Work in the series includes “Dudley George,” a tribute to the Indigenous man shot dead by a police sniper during the 1995 Ipperwash Crisis near Sarnia, Ont. and “6 décembre 1989,” honouring the 14 women shot and killed at École Polytechnique de Montréal more than 30 years ago.
But he specializes primarily in large-scale abstract landscapes inspired by the north, including places like Canada’s James Bay, as well as the northern environs of Iceland, Ireland and Scotland. Read, who also takes inspiration from such locales, describes it as the “North Atlantic rim,” and says it’s the “atmospheric light” unique to those regions that plays a significant role in both of their paintings.
"The light tends to be not as bright and shiny as the light in the south,” explains Descoteaux. “You hear a lot about how some early 20th century artists would flock to southern Italy and southern France because of the light on the Mediterranean. For me, as much as I like those places, the north gives me a more subdued light.”
His paintings are characterized by a low horizon and massive skies. “Sometimes it’s a very mellow sky and sometimes a little bit more turbulent sky,” he says. “It’s all a matter of what my feeling, my mood is at the time I’m painting.”
The question of nature or nurture is common when it comes to life pursuits, and Descoteaux’s upbringing provides evidence for both of his professional endeavours. “I think it’s a combination of the two,” he says.
“Accountants spend more time at work than we should. And one evening, one of my bosses said to me ‘You need to stop staying so long.’”
Born and raised in the Montreal borough of Ahuntsic-Cartierville, an unassuming middle-class neighbourhood on the northern edge of Montreal Island and the former heart of the city’s textile industry, Descoteaux and his three brothers were raised in a household where both business and music played a role in their daily life.
His father spent his entire career managing construction projects, while his mother played piano recreationally. It was a skill she’d learned from her father, who had a PhD in music and regularly played the huge pipe organ in one of the neighbourhood churches.
Descoteaux’s younger brother Serge spent the early part of his career doing fine carpentry before ultimately becoming a data security expert with one of Canada’s biggest banks. His middle brother Christian, meanwhile, was always interested in music, and today runs École de musique la Finenote, a music school in the Quebec City suburb of Lac Beauport.
Descoteaux, meanwhile, always had an affinity for art, even though it took him until his mid-30s to begin creating his own. He vividly remembers spending part of his very first paycheque—earned as a payroll supervisor with the Quebec construction company Sintra in the mid-1970s—on a couple of pieces he still owns today.
He estimates he’s acquired upwards of 100 pieces since then, but those first two were the beginning of a lifelong—and life-changing—journey. “It was the best use of my first paycheque,” he says with a laugh.
It was a former boss at Honda Canada that sent him down the path that would see him become a highly regarded artist whose work can today be found in private collections throughout Canada and the United States. “Accountants spend probably way more time at work than we should,” he says. “And one evening, one of my bosses said to me ‘You need to stop staying so long.’”
Taking that advice to heart, Descoteaux subsequently enrolled in two courses offered by the Toronto District School Board: A water-colour painting course and improvisational theatre. “I went gangbusters, but I needed to figure out what I wanted to do,” he says. “I was really working hard at not spending that much time at work.”
He liked improv but was, he says, “horrible” at water-colour painting. Yet, encouraged by some slow but discernible progress, he continued to pursue the latter. He began taking more classes at the Art Gallery of Ontario and what was then the Ontario College of Art & Design (now OCAD University), as well private classes with artists in their studios.
But, while Descoteaux ultimately abandoned improv, he says the skills it taught him were actually useful. “It really helped me more to think on my feet, and be able to stand up and improvise when you don’t necessarily know what the question will be,” he says.
While he doesn’t possess a formal art degree, he has studied under several professional artists, including a pastel master class with the late German-American painter Wolf Kahn at New York’s National Academy and a host of Toronto artists.
Colleagues and friends variously describe him as unassuming, hard-working and “amazingly kind,” someone always willing to nurture talent. “He’s the kind of person who makes things better for other people, and that’s not always common in the art world,” says Read. “It’s actually rare in a lot of professions.”
Descoteaux isn’t one to wait around for inspiration, instead sticking to a daily painting routine in his third-floor studio in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood
Amanta Scott first encountered Descoteaux at Toronto’s Propeller Art Gallery on a rainy night about 10 years ago. She had ventured across the city from her home in the city’s east end and remembers showing up at the gallery drenched after the wind destroyed her umbrella.
“I threw away most of the umbrella and just kept the cover part, which I wrapped around myself like a shawl,” she says. “Jacques’ eyes twinkled when this drowned rat that he didn’t know walked in. Other people might have looked at me askance and thought ‘What a nut,’ but we connected.”
That was the beginning of an enduring friendship that sees the two regularly get together for walks, where they discuss ideas and artistic techniques, and occasionally commiserate about the uncertain life of an artist and the struggle to balance creativity with tasks like administration and marketing.
In Descoteaux’s work, Scott says she sees shades of the acclaimed American artist Clyfford Still, who the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes as a “major member” of New York’s’ first-generation Abstract Expressionist painters.
Descoteaux was still producing relatively small work when he first met Scott, who encouraged him to embrace working on the larger scale that characterizes his current work. “I really felt his work could stand that,” she says. “It had power that could easily work on a large scale and it does. A larger-scale work hits you viscerally. It’s not just for the eyes.”
“Where do you get your ideas?” is a question that artists of every realm are invariably subjected to at some point in their career. Some say they come to them fully formed in a bolt of inspiration, while others say they work hard to cultivate and nurture them.
Descoteaux isn’t one to wait around for inspiration, instead sticking to a daily painting routine in his third-floor studio in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. “The inspiration tends to come from standing next to the easel, rather than just sitting and waiting for it,” he says. “You have to create the environment to get that inspiration and it happens much more if you’re standing by the easel.”
And, while some artists are infamous for an inability to stop trying to perfect their art—Auguste Rodin is said to have spent 37 years working on “La Porte de l’Enfer,” carved doors inspired by Dante’s “Divine Comedy”—Descoteaux isn’t one for working endlessly on a single piece. “It’s very easy [to let go], because I always think the next one will be just as interesting,” he explains.
Now well into his second career as a professional artist, Jacques Descoteaux has no plans to stop reaching for the sky.
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