June 9, 2000
Last year I started reading about the explorations of Alexander
Mackenzie of the North West Company. In 1789 this Scottish fur trader
followed a great northern river to its mouth. He left Fort Chipewyan
on Lake Athabaska and headed north in a birch bark canoe into unknown
territory, hoping to find a route to the Pacific. After thirteen
hundred miles on the river that now bears his name, he arrived at
the Arctic Ocean.
This summer we're going to do the same trip. We're doing it in a
craft I've designed myself--a sort of floating easel. It's an outboard-powered
flat-bottomed riverboat of wood and fiberglass, a liveaboard with
a built-in painting station. It may be folly. Down this river there's
a few grizzlies, a few million mosquitoes, and maybe a few paintings.
The topographical maps for this trip when laid end to end stretch
from our living room through the dining room and into the kitchen.
I've identified what I think may be two hundred possible painting
sites and listed them by name: "Mouth of Rabbitskin Creek"
etc.--sort of artistic milestones to look forward to. The built-in
easel on the bow is made from an old cutlery cabinet and customized
to take small stretched canvasses. These, while bulky, are stored
in such a way as to provide extra flotation should we get swamped.
Kit and provisioning are gradually taking shape; storage, fuel,
accommodation, first aid. My dog Emily will be perhaps the first
Airedale down the Mackenzie. About thirty days on the river--there
and back. It'll be tight.
No one knows whether the paintings will be any good, nobody ever
does, but if past experience is any guide, with this sort of planning
and anticipation, they just might be okay.
PS: "Trifles make the sum of life." (Charles Dickens)
Esoterica: Floating Easels. Sisley,
Monet, and others found a boat to be an ideal spot for painting.
Fishermen and others who sit in boats for long periods tend to have
level readings on electroencephalograms. There is historic document
for boats doing something for the creative soul. Oliver Gogarty,
the Irish writer, fished without hooks so that he might think properly.
The following are selected correspondence
relating to the above and other letters. Thank you for writing email@example.com
River of Joy and
I remember travelling up Borneo's Sekonya River
with my cameras to photograph orangutans. I can
still remember the smell of the clean air and the
soft light in the morning. Sadly, only days after
I left, the area was devastated by forest fires
and the destruction to wildlife was horrendous. I
never saw the inferno which followed, but heard
stories about a bleak and charred landscape - not
the warm and gentle forest which I remember. It
made me realise how transient everything is, and
how important it is for me, as a photographer, to
waste no time in photographing what I see and
In December I will be in Antarctica, and Ted
Cheesman, who is organising the trip for me, sent
me the following quote which I think is very
"And I tell you, if you have the desire
for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out
and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you
are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove
their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all
will say, "What is the use?" For we are a nation of shopkeepers,
and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him
a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly
alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that
is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will
have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin's egg."
(Apsley Cherry-Garrard, from The Worst Journey in the World)
Steve Bloom U K
I tuck fabric softener (yes the kind you put in your dryer) into
my collar when I paint outside, the black flies and mosquitoes won't
come near me. I used to tuck leaves of the citronella plant into
the brim of my hat... looking like an apparition from Mars I might
add. The night before last and again yesterday morning I went out
to paint along the shore. The seaweed attracts bugs and the black
flies and a few mosquitoes hovered, but guess what... it works!...
so take a small box of fabric softener along with you.
Corinne McIntyre, Ocean Point/East Boothbay,
Plein air is largely a romantic notion
based on its early practitioners, the Barbizon
school and a few of the impressionists. It has
been popularized in the twentieth century as a
"back to basics" approach and has
developed into a way for artists to be seen and
sometimes sell works on location to passers-by.
You mention a two-step method. I have found this
idea valuable. I do rather quick pastel outlines
on location, fix them, and finish in oil in the
studio. I am interested in the relative shapes of
things as my line finds them, not so much in the
world as it is, and my work benefits from
bringing it back to the studio for consideration,
adding of foreign elements, and painting in
colors that have little or no relation to
Verro Ward, Recife,
The expedition down the Mackenzie for 30 days sounds great, unless
it's at the expense of my twice weekly letters! Have a nice trip
and here's wishing you many happy opportunities.
Ifthikar Cader, Colombo, Siri Lanka
(RG note) Some letters will be prepared in
advance. Some we may be able to get out via
satellite. My assistant will look after selecting
the material for these clickbacks.
"The way you see people is the way you treat
them and the way you treat them is the way they
"You must look within for value, but must look beyond for perspective."
"It is only as we develop others that we
permanently succeed." (Harvey S. Firestone)
Chrystos Minot, Boulder, Colorado
You mention naming paintings before you go on
trips. Whats going on here?
Wing Leung, Hong Kong
(RG note) Its a creative process that
gives a different spin to travelwork. Im a map kind of guy.
I like to pour over them before trips. It gives me an orientation
and a preparedness for the topography and the potential. Furthermore,
titles have always been very important to me, not only in connecting
with the collector, but in completing the circle in a creative way.
A way or a path can be a series of titles. The titles slow me down
and help me to appreciate the romance, the history, the environs.
At the same time its important not to lock in to using those
titles. Often, something altogether better will come up.
I take it that the effort you put in to
preparation is in some way related to the
results. How do you make this work and what are
(RG note) When Im
installing a bilge pump in my boat Im
thinking of the potential of the whole trip.
Every minor job is a further commitment toward
the major goal. The brain is at work,
anticipating, scheming, at all times, even in
sleep. The main problems are in not anticipating
all the problems and the frustration of not being
able to turn some problems into opportunities.
In the interest of storage space on this trip,
have you considered using canvases glued to 1/8th
plywood or painting on canvas taped to a board
and then rolled up when dry (I learned this
method at a Louise Woodward course in France)
(RG note) To me, wooden panels are the best when
backpacking or when space is limited. On the
Mackenzie trip Ive built in the luxury of
stretched canvas. Also, for some reason,
Ive gone off panels for a while, but it
could come back.
What to do
My problem is that I love to paint plein air
and can hardly paint from photos. When I have a
photo in front of me I feel lost and sort of
stuck. But I don't have a lot of opportunities to
go out often, so sometimes I take photos. Should
I paint from memory or go back to the place now
and then to check the details? Should I make
things up? For example, add trees or other stuff
or boats, people?
(RG note) Heres a happy path to your
creative growth. Paint from life, paint from
excellent reference that you get yourself, and
paint from your imagination. All three. Mix and
match these activities and learn to combine them
in single works. You will find style and personal
joy. You will not be so at a loss on a rainy day.
A pebble in a mountain stream
I shall be with you in spirit. My sub aqua diving and water skiing
and boating days are long gone in the distant past. Now in the winter
of my life I read with delight your letter of intended adventure.
Too late for a chance that a few pounds could be made from my art.
Travel and far off lands will come only in the description and vision
from your letters. You have the gifted talent which sustains your
travel. Sharing those experiences and places I will never visit
but enjoy reading about. Take the dog. Brings to mind my own sad
loss of my faithful Bull terrier, Ben. Fourteen years and sadly
passed away. Thoughts go back to times when young and free and if
I had not done this or that. But then in thought he can't come back.
You can never go back in time or body -- only in the memory of ones
own mind. Live then for today. Man is like a pebble in a mountain
stream. We rub briefly on our journey to the sea.
Victor Morgan, UK
The horses mouth
Watch out for horse flies. They are black and of a size a little
smaller than your thumb. When they bite on horses, the pain can
be so intense that it causes the animals to stand on their hind
feet with cries you can hear from two miles away. They say that
this is the best moment for viewing the whole set of teeth of a
horse. These black flies can take a trunk of meat from live animals
in one single bite.
Gerald Lui, Ft.McMurray, NWT, Canada
Mackenzie River trip
Where are you leaving from and when will you be
going? 1300 miles each way - that's quite an
undertaking - You'll be going so fast: 86 miles a
day - when will you be able to paint? It's a big
river too, currents and eddies to deal with, I
wish you luck, so it's you and Emily?
Bill and Carol Hogan
(RG note) Leaving near Ft. Providence, NWT
approximately August 1, 2000. Destination
Tuktoyaktuk. Alexander Mackenzie actually
averaged 100 miles per day going downstream, 30
per day back up. This in a canoe that had to be
repaired every night, disagreeable and deserting
native guides, fearful canoemen who did not know
what lay in wait for them around the next bend.
In my case agreeable fellow travellers will join
and leave by air when they are properly
mosquitoed. Emily all the way. Rapids on this
river not such a problem. With a 2 to 4 knot
current its possible to drift and paint.
Long hours of light in summer.
Picture of boat at
bottom of page at http://painterskeys.com/robert_genn_album.htm
I wish to thank
everybody who wrote to wish us bon voyage.
If you would like to see selected correspondence relating to the
previous letter "Painting outdoors," please go to http://painterskeys.com/clickbacks/outdoors.htm