Carl Rungius (1869-1959) was one of the best big-game painters of all time. He was also a believer in creative thought. He’s the kind of artist from whom you can learn. If you’re not familiar with his work I’ve included several of his paintings at the bottom of this letter.
Rungius was born in Germany and moved to the USA when he was in his early twenties. From his childhood sketching animals in the Berlin Zoo to his final settling in Banff, Alberta, his was a life of hunting and painting. He went to a lot of trouble to get it right. Before the advent of the fast field telephoto camera that is so useful to wildlife painters today, he was known to build structures to prop dead moose into lifelike positions. His works are drawing driven, based on hard-won know-how of animal anatomy and his love of the outdoors. His pictures have an overall design and cohesiveness that speaks of the draftsman’s touch. While his surfaces are painterly and often modern in appearance, his work shows the value of preliminary sketches and preparatory roughs. He was also no stranger to repainting unsatisfactory passages and was known to go back into a work after years of worry.
In a world that was starting to think that creativity developed as you went along, Rungius was an artist who believed in thinking it out in advance. His compositions are filled with calculated lineups, radiating motifs, edge blocks, spot activation and other forms of eye-control. He was also a careful colourist. Subtle earth-tones interact with impressionist nuances and reflected light, while delicately rendered negative areas and counterpoint add abstract interest. The difficult problem of animal fur, for example, was divided and designed into zones based on nap, shine and texture. He also mastered ways to show the volume of an animal’s body and revelled in the variations of individual markings.
I spent an afternoon in the archives at the Glenbow Foundation in Calgary, Canada. I cruised dozens of his field sketches. These small (9″ x 11″) canvases sing of the meadows, the mountains, the wildlife; fresh, generous, full of light, loaded for all to see with the lofty thoughts of an artist who believed in thought.
Esoterica: There’s a path of creative improvisation and there’s a path of creative planning. “With our thoughts we create our world.” (Buddha) Is it possible to be on both paths?
Carl Rungius (1869-1959)
Note the radiating composition that draws attention to and contains the pair of mule deer. Note the lineup of the rear deer’s neck area with the tree behind — giving strength to the composition. Note the overall radial design from a fulcrum below the picture plane. Also note the counterpoint between the radiating foreground trees and the more distant trees. Note the variations in the two animal’s markings, the subtlety of the animal’s coloration and the cool reflective light on the bellies which helps with their roundness and solidity. Note how the delicate angled horizontals of the branches play a role in controlling eye movement around and back. Note the speedy gradations in the main trees that hold the rump, the nose, and anchor the dynamic and focal design of the compound antlers.
Note here the simple joy and casual painting of the foreground motifs. Half close your eyes and see the various shrubs form up into species. Note how foreground gradations help with the illusion. Note how the pronghorn antelopes, if viewed from above, would be turned every which way. Note how the delicate touches of pink and sienna within the grasslands echo the colors of the animals and lend unity to the whole.
This is one of the 9 x 11 field sketches from the Glenbow archives in Calgary, Canada. Note the thumbtack spots in the corners. The date on this sketch is probably 1910 so it’s pretty loose and fresh for the time. It’s an example of the dictum: “Realism from a distance, interesting from middle-distance, abstract from close-up.” In any case Rungius has achieved with remarkable economy and bravura a strong sense of place and atmosphere.
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Carl Rungius painting devices
by H. G. Huguet, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
You mention that Rungius’ compositions are filled with calculated lineups, radiating motifs, edge blocks, spot activation and other forms of eye-control. I think I should be using some of these devices too but I don’t always think to work them in. Also I’m not sure what an edge block is.
(RG note) In case you didn’t see it, there’s an analysis of Rungius’ paintings above. A good example of “edge block” is in the Rungius surprise painting “A Surprise Meeting.” The angled stick near the lower right corner helps to prevent the viewer’s eye from zipping off on the whitish area (the end of a log). The log end itself provides a triangular eye turner of the same tone value as the bear. Similarly, on the other side, the vertical of the tall tree on the left hand border and the echo of the shrub almost directly below help to keep the eye and mind concentrated. Edge blocks are particularly useful when compositions contain jagged or busy elements — in this case the foreground logs which he felt he needed for the illusion of depth.
Carl Rungius art exhibition
by Lorraine Dietrich, Quebec, Canada
An important exhibition of Rungius works and life is currently being presented at the McMichael Museum, Kleinburg, near Toronto, Ontario, Canada, until September 2, 2002 Call of the Wild www.mcmichael.com
(RG note) The show Carl Rungius: Artist and Sportsman comprises 111 canvases, twenty-two works on paper and seven sculptures in addition to archival, personal, and cultural objects drawn from the Glenbow Museum’s extensive collection.
Carl Rungius also hunting for the right friends
by Elsha Leventis
While Rungius’s early landscapes and wildlife paintings are decidedly European, his later works (in the McMichael show) have influences from the Group of Seven. While I admired the work and skill that Rungius put into his prolific work, I found that in some of the larger works, done back in the studio, the animals didn’t quite seem rooted in their environment. Otherwise, it’s an interesting show from both the perspective of the art and the glimpse into the life of a wildlife painter early in the last century. Rungius was also successful because he became the darling of the hunting crowd, wealthy U.S. industrialists such as the Remingtons, and became a member of the most elite hunting clubs.
by Marina Morgan
I suggest that creative planning is creative improvisation, slo mo, longer term — think time lapse and slow-sequence filming. Still all film. Or classical music; there are long musical phrases and short ones, played against and with them. They are all music, and, as part of the whole, all are part of the musical masterpiece.
“Carl Rungius, Big Game Painter”
by Dennis Freed, NY, USA
It’s amazing how attitudes have changed in just a few years. If you read the considerable printed material on Rungius, such as the beautiful limited edition book Carl Rungius, Big Game Painter, Fifty Years with Brush and Rifle, by William Schaldach, you’ll see that he was into shootin’ as much as paintin’. Page after page describes his shooting prowess. He seems to have little to say about his art. How many artists do you know nowadays who carry a gun with them at all times? To the best of my knowledge there’s just one picture of him with a camera—toward the end of his life.
Pencil saves wasted paint
by Joe Blodgett
For the artist who wishes to produce large-scale works that may stand the test of time — preparatory roughs are still a must. Elements of composition and pattern should be worked out in advance. Different gambits can be looked at and measured for their potential. The pencil saves wasting paint. You’re right—jumping in is not always the way to go. However, the small field sketch is another matter and should be accomplished with as little preconceived thought as possible. Rungius did both.
Mark Rothko spiritual depth
I was somewhat confused by your letter about Mark Rothko. You said that it remains to be seen if history will judge him in positive terms. Well, it seems to me that he has already been judged as an important painter in the 20th century; he is already in many of the art history books and I doubt that he will be removed at this point in time as he is in there for a reason – he was an innovator and created a new style of art. Like it or not, artists are often judged by the new ideas that they bring into the art world. You also said that he was a tormented soul, as if this had some bearing on the quality of his work. First of all, being an artist is a difficult business and I am not surprised that many crack under the pressure, secondly where would the art world be without the tortured art of Van Gogh, Goya, Pollock or even Degas and Monet for that matter? There are so many artists who lived difficult lives (simply because they were artists and not dentists and doctors and lawyers) and their art shows that pain which is accompanied by spiritual growth which is a natural by-product from surviving the pain. Does the fact that an artist is depressed or sad make him any less of an artist? I think not, in fact it may make him an even better artist because he has a heightened sensitivity to the world around him. He may also have a sensitivity to the pain that other humans experience and thus may treat others with compassion. Indeed, would it not be a better world if we could have compassion for other’s pain? I do not buy art simply because it is pretty. It has to have some spiritual depth. It has to say something. That is an intangible thing that just can’t be found through intelligence alone, it requires some sacrifice from the soul.
(RG note) The letter and responses about Mark Rothko are at http://painterskeys.com/rothko/
Small is beautiful
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX USA
I’d love to get into the discussion of affordable art. You mentioned 8 x 10’s a while back, and how they bought you a Bentley. The mention of the Bentley distracted everyone, and we all went on a Bentley trip of sorts, and nobody picked up on the fact that you made and sold a lot of affordable art in order to buy a Bentley in the first place. So I’d really like to get back to that. Please tell us more about 8 x 10s — like how fast you do them, if there’s any special trick to making a composition that small, what percentage roughly of your work is on the affordable end, whether you get burned out on making affordable art, stuff like that. Just anything you can think of on the subject.
(RG note) I didn’t think of it as “affordable art” at the time — but now that you mention it I guess it was. We have a tradition in Canada of rendering our huge landscapes on small panels. Portable easels and panel boxes are practical in the bush. Also I have to say at the time I loved the size and proportion for its own sake. The small size forces you to simplify and avoid extraneous detail. In other words you get the big picture in a little space. About twenty years ago I lost interest in the 8 x 10 size and have gradually moved to larger sizes. Over the last few years my smallest is really about 11 x 14 and I can feel 12 x 16 coming on. Strange. With regard to speed, yes, small is faster and this is partly because there is less of a commitment. Many duds have gone straight to the campfire. There are occasional gems, however, and this makes it all worthwhile. As the lady said: “It’s better to have a small diamond than a large piece of glass.” The most sketches of the 8 x 10 variety I’ve done in a day was twelve. That was sitting on the fantail of our anchored boat while every one else was away fishing. The boat swung around with the tide and provided a rich variety of shoreline motifs to prime the pump. I find there’s no “burning out” really; sometimes forcing yourself into a particular size and high productivity marathon really wakes up the art spirit. However, working in an ever-changing range of sizes is good for the soul too.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes David Glover of Hollywood, California who writes, “A photographer was setting up Georges Braques for a portrait shot to accompany an article on him. Just when the shooter had the composition and sitter just right, the artist got up and excused himself. He quickly returned with a crimson silk foullard which he artfully stuffed into his breast pocket. He apologized for the interruption with ‘I think every picture should have a little spot of red somewhere in it!’”