I’m laptopping you at midnight from a bedroll under the Milky Way. We’re on a rock-strewn sandbar beside Lone Cabin Creek where it enters the Fraser River in the Cariboo region of Western Canada. The cabin has long since gone, along with the hardy miners in their search for alluvial gold. So far we’ve traveled over 150 miles down the Fraser’s moderate rapids — and there’s nobody else in sight. Today, on this bar, we have been seekers of beauty and awe — another kind of gold.
All day, between thunder and squalls of rain, my friends and I have painted. The gusts of wind and blown sand have given a sparkling texture to our efforts. I find that quality work, on location, is hard won. Panoramas such as this have a variety and complexity that defies stuffing it all into one painting. The trick here is to try to analyze and understand the nature of the various elements and reduce them to basic forms. Pillars, erratics, fans, igneous and sedimentary rocks, flint and shale, slate and limestone. Pines spaced and patterned in specific places of sustenance. Fast-moving sky above the ramparts. Foreground material is tumbled and combined every which way. There’s an education in geology here — and an ore-body with refining problems for artists.
“To be a painter you need a heightened sense of observation,” said Winston Churchill. It’s not just a matter of looking, but of seeing and understanding. Outdoor painters need a camera-free analysis of the mechanics of form and the basic knowledge of how things work. While form follows function and compositional design generally takes precedence over form, there’s a simple three-piece habit that is worth its weight in gold:
Look three times and try to understand.
Think twice about what it is you are seeing.
Paint once with economy and audacity.
The transition from understanding to commitment can be a slow process — but in places like this we are talking geological time. What’s a few million years? Besides, this may be, probably is, the last time I’ll be here. For artists, this knowledge makes clear our eternal privilege and obligation. “Look thy last on all things lovely, every hour.” (Walter de la Mare)
PS: The faculty of creating is never given to us all by itself. It always goes hand in hand with the gift of observation. (Igor Stravinsky)
Esoterica: Near the mighty Fraser River is the mining town of Wells. Founded by Fred Wells (1861-1956), it was one of North America’s first planned communities. Fred, a geologist, had diligently studied the land forms in the once active but played-out Cariboo goldfields. One day he found the mother lode. Fred raised capital, brought in workers, dug the mine and built the town. Today in Wells, there’s a cairn that holds Fred’s ashes. “His genius,” it reads, “was in observing and interpreting detail that was unnoticed by most. He was a man to whom ‘difficulty’ acted only as a stimulant.”
Perceived knowledge limits discovery
by James Kelly, Ireland
I think when we really observe, we then understand, as you said yourself. But sometimes a perceived knowledge of how things work can stop us from a level of observation which might lead us to the essence of the thing itself. The struggle for me is to commit myself to really looking and not just reproducing what I presume to be there.
by John Fitzsimmons, Fayetteville, NY, USA
I just happen to be reading James Dickey’s Deliverance, a book that everyone knows from the movie is about a canoe trip. Dickey boils down the experience into a brilliant, terrifying beauty, that perhaps is the thing these four friends were missing or avoiding in their everyday lives but reluctantly desired.
Reducing to basics
by Jim Savage, BC, Canada
I’d been pondering the remarks you made on the river about reducing the scene to basics. It was helpful seeing the lesson again in your letter, and you integrated the Fred Wells quote beautifully. You don’t take much time to watch TV, I’m thinking.
Three looks never enough
by Terry Thornton, Fulton, MS, USA
You say, “Look three times and try to understand. Think twice about what it is you are seeing. Paint once with economy and audacity.” But when you are surrounded by the awesome grandeur of the Fraser River, three looks are never enough, nor are two thinks enough to sort it all out, and I cannot imagine painting it once! I am happy that you are floating through one of North America’s greatest sites and I look forward to seeing your landscapes from that area. Awesome — and I am only a little struck with envy.
by Linda Favrholdt, Kamloops, BC, Canada
The Cariboo is such a fascinating place abounding in history and beauty. I have a family history that dates back to the gold rush period and an amazing journal written by my great great uncle, John Thomas Wilson Clapperton, from the Nicola Valley. His journal dates from 1862 to 1869 retracing his steps from Victoria to Barkerville.
Thank you for your journal writings this morning expressing your amazing adventure in the Cariboo country. I am with you in spirit and appreciate the beauty and awe that your eyes behold as you create your master pieces and visually record your stories.
Seeking Magic. Mystery. Mood.
by Stella Reinwald, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Thank you so much for the visual of the Fraser River and surrounding mountains. Reading your words brought back a flood of memories of the thrilling and humbling grandeur of that region… cold winds as pure as the river’s water, skies that change so quickly they verge on the spooky, towering cliffs glistening with mica and testifying to age and the power of shifting earth mantle, barely comprehensible to a mere human. Magic. Mystery. Mood. Maybe that’s what we all seek in a painting, the remembrance of such moments, a touchstone of experience. Words are great, but seeing is more primal than language and smelling more primal still. If only we could paint with smells!
Painting the well-charted
by Valerie Kent, Toronto, ON, Canada
While you were off painting in the uncharted, I was tenting and painting the supremely well-charted at Presqui’le Provincial Park in Ontario where the campsites are well tended, excellent trails exist through the old growth forests and in the meadows, and the marshes have boardwalks to entice visitors. But, the mosquitoes had never heard of civilization, and they were as fierce as yours probably were and we shared the challenge of the outdoors: yours bringing painted order to your work, and mine to bringing painted disorder. It is all good. It brings us joy.
No laptops back then
by Sherrie Robins, Niagara Falls, NY, USA
My mother came from the Peace River Country in Valleyview, Alberta. She had a love of painting. I remember seeing the Fraser River as a child in our travels “out west.” She had many stories of the “olden days.” Going to school in a cutter, being “wintered in” on the farm for weeks at a time, and creating a peep-hole in the frosty window pane for her family of 10 to peek through. A one-room schoolhouse and a single pot-bellied stove to keep them warm. She spoke of the outhouse and the catalogue… which served a dual purpose. There was a radio, but when the battery wore out, there was none. Kerosene lamps, a Hawaiian guitar and many voices filled the cold night Alberta air. She spoke of fishing on Great Bear Lake, and frying it fresh on the shore, right over the open fire. She said no fish had ever tasted so good! They went to some sort of primitive ‘camp’ and romped and swam. There were no laptops then. How far removed we are, our culture and nations, from the “olden days” my mother spoke of when I was a child. It’s so easy to just sit at a screen of some sort and forget about it.
Capture the ‘wow’
by Louise Corke, Australia
I have been pondering over this very theme these last few days. I have come up (for the time being anyway) with a few simple steps: We look, we see, we respond, we sort and then we express. If we fail to respond — in our hearts — to what we have seen, then we cannot hope to express with feeling and convey that personal expression. Often I see students simply paint with a set process in mind, and thus the work is devoid of emotion and a personal response. I love to be able to capture that initial ‘wow’ that I felt leap within me when I first sited my subject. As I sort through what inspired me about the subject, I am very mindful to say just enough to reveal to the viewers what it was that got me excited enough to paint this. We have a wonderful world to be inspired by and each new day is like an adventure into the unknown, where things that require a second glance will be captured in time on a canvas for anyone to enjoy forever.
Let Canada capture you
by Grace Blowers, Canada
As a young woman, I have stood where you are standing, canoed the waters of the Fraser River, and watched the northern lights dance their kaleidoscope of colors across the sky. This I learned while roaming the vastness of northern Canada. There is a hugeness there that can only be taken in by the mind’s eye, but not captured well on camera or canvas in its majestic presence. Soak it in, take it in, swim through it, bathe in it, dance across it… capture it? I think not… snapshots, portraits to jog a memory… maybe. So, my advice? Use this time to not think too hard, not try too hard to capture Canada on canvas or film (except for those shots to use later to jog your memory, or to keep for your travel log). Otherwise, do not try to capture Canada. Let her capture you.
And, don’t panic. If you let yourself be a sponge, and soak in northern Canada, she will stay with you, and in you… like a lost lover, forever. And long after you have left her, vivid visions of her will burn in your memory and you will create her from within you, like you were still there.
by Elin Pendleton, Wildomar, CA, USA
Man alive, Bob… you gotta get a Hennessy Hammock! “Rock strewn sandbar”? I Love My Hammock! Instant perfect sleep spot, no bugs, and you can sleep flat or fetal, or whatever floats yer boat. I think it is important that you know about this alternative to ground sleeping while camping. I bought one to stuff in my goat’s pannier when I hike, so I could paint and then take a nap if so inclined, but I use it in the studio, too. I put some heavy-duty hooks in the walls, and hang it in there for “practice naps.”
by Karen McLaughlin, Philadelphia, PA, USA
For those of us whose boundaries are limited by circumstance and prior commitment, the limitless boundaries of sky and squall seem dreamily unattainable. To “look three times” at the same scenes that appear before our eyes day after day and capture beauty (or even interest) may be even harder than defining panoramas and vistas with such awesomeness.
I long for the day I can participate in even a fraction of your experience. Until then, I’ll continue to look for joy and wonder (and content) in the local park and the backyard blossom. Keep traveling so we homebound artists can share your glories. I think I’ll get out my sleeping bag and set up in the backyard tonight and dream.
Plein air ‘seeing’ is ‘being’
by Jan Blencowe, Clinton, CT, USA
Painting outdoors is my passion. I’ve been at it for five years now, after years of studio work. There is an undeniable urgency when you paint outdoors, nature’s so grand, my canvas so small. Her forms, colors, textures so interwoven and complex, my brushes and paints so inadequate. It takes the human mind with all its grand abilities and complexities to sort through the overwhelming visual feast set before it and re-create on canvas the essential components of such beauty and wonder. That I attempt to do this with some ground up minerals and earth mixed with oil and hog hair tied to a stick, smacks of audacity indeed! But I can do no other thing, the landscape beckons like nothing else I know. To look, to see, to understand, to capture (however imperfectly) is to be part of the land in a way like no other. When I’m out there, “seeing” is “being” for me.
Determination in Galapagos
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, Florida, USA
I hauled my oil paints all the way to the Galapagos a couple of weeks ago, imagining the fun it would be, reveling in the visual feast of a completely new and amazing place. Turned out to be quite a challenge to get any painting done at all. The islands are protected, and visitors that wade in (the pangas can’t even land on the beaches!) are led on long walks over stark landscape in the company of a naturalist. Not much of an opportunity to sit and paint. I took along a sketch book and some charcoal, and did the best I could. I sat on the beach one afternoon and painted sea lions and the ocean. It was windy, so now my oil paintings have authentic Galapagos sand imbedded in them. Plein air painting is always a challenge, but I’m glad I had the courage to keep trying. Even a quick sketch, in the heat and the wind, anchors me to the reality of a place more than any number of photographs could.
by John Carson, Montignac-Charente, France
We live by the Charente River in France. Early June last year we found a small blue ball outside the sliding glass doors to our terrace — like a small child’s toy, quite still. Unfurled, it was a fledgling kingfisher, unable to fly yet and clearly near exhaustion. How it got there is still a mystery. For three days my wife, who has inherited a way with birds, nurtured it back to life. As it found its wings and attempted flight we realised we could not keep it. But a few kilometres south of Angouleme is a wonderful animal and bird rehabilitation park, Charente Nature, where young birds can gain their ‘wings’ in a 70 metre plastic flight tunnel. Nine days later it was released at the shallow source of a local river — where the fishin’ is easy. I never got to paint it — those blues and greens are not in my box. But this picture did sell our house.
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, 2006.
That includes Beth Mahy of Dallas, TX, USA who wrote, “I took a geology class in college because I had to. I hated that I had to. But it opened my eyes. I saw into so many phenomena.”
And also Amy Petsch who wrote, “You are the only artist I know that takes a laptop with you on a painting vacation! Still, I appreciate the proximity to nature that is inherent in your message.”
And also Eileen Belanger of New Boston, NH, USA who wrote, “I have found my ‘gold’ in living vicariously through your travels, though I manage to do a bit myself. Your writings bring me joy. You have taught me to ‘see.'”
And also Orythia Johnston of Toronto, ON, Canada who wrote, “I am an art therapist and you often overlap the message and meaning of art and of art therapy. You put into words things about life that are difficult to phrase.”
And also Marilyn Curnow of Sidney, BC, Canada who wrote, “Thank you Robert Genn for your letters. I look forward to them. They are warm-hearted and filled with knowledge and humor. I’d love to see the sand-spackled paintings.”
And also Carol Casswell of Saskatchewan, Canada who wrote, “Your reflections are an inspiration. Thank you so much for pausing in the midst of your own adventure to gift each of us with your thoughts and insights.”