DAVIS STRAIT, off Baffin Island—It's a typical 7 a.m. on the cruise ship Akademik Ioffe, carrying 25 artists, mainly from Toronto, through Canada's High Arctic.

Most of the group, and the 80 other passengers, have just stumbled into the third-deck lounge for coffee.

First desperate gulps are barely down the hatch when the outer door opens and John Joy bursts in on a cool breeze with his first completed painting of the day.

It's a large watercolour that, because Joy paints only in the open air and never from photos, depicts whatever he's just seen across the ship's rail. On this trip, that's usually bare, jagged mountains or fantastically sculpted icebergs, set off by washes of sea and sky that perfectly capture the light and atmosphere.

Joy, 81, is the oldest of the veteran artists who this summer spent nearly two weeks on the gleaming white Ioffe — originally a Russian science research vessel, now chartered by a tour company.

For the group, which went under the name Arctic Quest, the voyage was primarily a chance to observe, paint and celebrate the North. It took them from Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, to three communities in Greenland, then back to Canada and through Lancaster Sound, the entrance to the Northwest Passage.

The results will be on display starting Saturday at the Win Henstock Gallery in downtown Oakville. The exhibition showcases several dozen skilful representations of a part of the country that's unknown to most Canadians, and its impact on these experienced, successful artists.

All the artists were enthralled by the stark, vivid vistas; brilliantly lit, most of the time, by 24-hour-a-day sunlight.

"I never realized how many icebergs there are, the forms they take and the magnificence of them," says Joy, who produced 48 pieces during the voyage: While he works quickly, his paintings are nuanced and complex.

Most of the group sketched or painted studies, or took photos, for works to complete back home.

RoseMarie Condon estimates she and husband Paul Gauthier shot about 2,500 digital images. She combines elements from several to compose paintings: "Lighting from one, subject matter from another."

The High Arctic lends itself to abstraction. Unobstructed by trees, shrubs or buildings, and illuminated by clear, dry air, shapes and colours dominate.

"With all this powerful landscape, you have no choice but to go for it," says Sandra Henderson.

"It alters how you see things — the simplicity. You see the skeleton of the Earth," says Condon, who was on her second Arctic painting trip.

It was also a second time north for David Ward, who for years has created exquisitely detailed works. This trip, he says, helped him to see through new eyes.

"It's a different landscape," he says. "It's primeval. Everything is reduced to its bare essentials."

The stripped-down vistas reveal "the power of the painting is not in the detail; it's in those larger qualities: the basic composition, tonal qualities and basic colours."

Or, as Joy puts it: "It's a whole new ballgame. Look at the contours of this place!"

Arctic Quest was conceived by Toronto artist Linda Mackey along with Kathy Haycock, of Eganville, northwest of Ottawa, and Bonnie Levinthal, of Philadelphia. Participants were chosen from a long list of applicants, Mackey says. They paid for the trip themselves with help from corporate sponsors and a fundraising auction.

Renowned Toronto painter Doris McCarthy and Canadian astronaut and photographer Roberta Bondar attended the official launch, in January 2005. McCarthy donated one of her works to the auction, even though — after 16 journeys north — at age 96 she couldn't join the tour.

The Ioffe is one of a handful of commercial tour boats in the Arctic. On board, the artists often worked under the curious eyes of the other passengers, mainly from the U.S., Europe and Australia. Even the captain showed up for an exhibition of their work, eight days into the voyage.

For some on Arctic Quest, the trip had additional purposes.

It was, for a start, timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage, by Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Organizers aimed to forge a link with the artists who accompanied early Arctic explorers, and with members of the Group of Seven and the handful of more recent painters who have worked in the North.

They also hope the Oakville show, and others to follow, will draw attention to northern issues such as climate change and sovereignty.

Haycock and her sister, Karole Pitman, of Rocky Harbour, Nfld., wanted to celebrate their father, Maurice Haycock, who painted in the Arctic with Group of Seven stalwart A.Y. Jackson.

Maurice Haycock was one of many talented Canadian artists who painted in relative obscurity because the media and gallery spotlight rarely veered from those who'd been part of the famous Group. Trained as a geologist, he first went to the Arctic in 1926, working for a year with the Canadian Geological Survey. Most of that time, he lived in a small house in Pangnirtung, on the east cost of Baffin Island.

On that trip he met Jackson. They reunited 10 years later, and travelled to the Arctic together many times to paint.

His daughters are raising money to refurbish the decaying house in Pangnirtung.

Mackey and group member Ana Jurpik are trying to establish links between Arctic Quest and residents of the Eastern Arctic, and to encourage young Inuit to become involved in art.

They gave art supplies donated by Elmer Products Inc. to a school official in Resolute Bay, the Central Arctic village of 240 where the trip ended. Other materials were to go to nearby Pond Inlet when ice conditions allowed, and there's much more available if they can find transportation, Jurpik says.

The Oakville show — which includes Inuit sculptures and works by Maurice Haycock and Jackson — opens at 1 p.m. Saturday and runs until Sept. 21. Other exhibitions are planned for Sutton, Toronto, Waterloo, Iqaluit and Philadelphia, with more in the works, says group member Lynn Soehner, past president of the Society of Canadian Artists.