In the easel station on the bow of the “Alexander Mackenzie,” moving down-river, I’m up to my gumboots in personal trivialities. Painting, I’m thinking, is a progressive business, a parade of minor inventions. I obstinately flip through the tried and true, but the real action is in working each painting out on its own terms. Further, there’s a kind of flourishing creative mode on the water — like the way we use duct tape when things break down. Everything seems symbolic. Everything is more precious. It’s a Pilgrim’s Progress.
It’s a tough-to-paint shoreline of flint and shale with an endless tree line — white spruce and black spruce mainly — some are tassel-topped, others impossibly skinny. The sky is huge, full of abstraction and energy — it tells us everything. I’m working in acrylic on canvas. I’m using high-key grounds, early impasto, neutralizing glazing with variations of white, black, phthalo blue and red ochre. I’m punching in negative areas in opaque color, and large gradations are often done with final glazings. Some conclusions: Observation is an art that’s easy to lose — but a painting is, after all, what is to be seen. Something is gained by having all the time in the world. Contemplation is golden. Composition is king. Texture and bravura do not always come easily in this medium. Simultaneity breeds spontaneity. Be pliable. A work-in-progress need not look any good. Throw the odd one out. When you start to get sloppy, fix something on your boat.
It’s a big year for mosquitoes and black flies. Ashore there is no relief. On the boat we lose them by going fast for a few minutes. Then we drift, safe in a simple world.
Esoterica: As I write this the GPS says we are at 67 18 42; 132 25 29. The temperature is 28 Celsius, the barometer is rising, the wind is light, we’re out of peanut butter.
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. You may have noted that a previous letter was a repeat from when we were on the Mackenzie River last year. It was a complete fluke and nothing to do with the satellite transmission of your letters which is working like a dream. It was just a stroke of luck that the letter fitted in with some of the same issues we were dealing with last year. Thank you for writing.
Stuck up in a computer
Peter Jones, Manchester, UK
I just got the atlas out and used the map refs you gave and found your position — in itself a simple act, but really nice to do. I relate easily to your painting notes, your musings on art and the way of the painter. I’m not a painter’s painter but an artist who teaches an arts foundation course in Liverpool. In my spare time I make drawings from deliberately confused memories of things I have seen. Actually, not “deliberately” in the contrived sense; my drawings just tend to fill up with hybrid objects from memory — this happens during the drawing process and tends not to be preplanned. I relate to all your painter’s thoughts, even though I’m spending a lot of time exploring the world of interactive multimedia as a vehicle for my drawings. I feel there’s a BIG dichotomy between the piece of work you can regard as original because you have it in your hand or on your wall and the readily duplicated digital artworks that I’m experimenting with now (not yet publishable, but in the form of Shockwave movies to be put out on the web). Yet I really like the way that the web reaches out to all us super-specialists (I mean that every one of us specializes in our own hand-picked interests in life and thus we are highly individual as people). Anyway, what I find useful is that your writings tend to work for me even though I have got my head stuck right up inside the computer most of the time. Reading them also makes me think I should get out more!
I know well The Pilgrim’s Progress aboard the Edward L. Moore, a 63-foot commercial fishing rig. Being in that industry for a few years, nearly ten, I became familiar with many of the local boats on the Delmarva Peninsula. I spent quite a few days photographing and sketching various parts of the boats before attempting to paint. I wanted or needed to know the bow line from the mainstay and the scuppers from the wench (smiles) and so my two year “course” paid off with some fine photo realism. The scenes are wonderful around Tiverton, Stonington and Newport, Rhode Island. And the coastline of Martha’s Vineyard is very pleasing, as are the dolphins and the whales. There is much to see aboard a vessel, and much to be gained in the painting.
Cruising in a pedicab
Don Getz, Ohio, USA
Sitting here in my Ohio studio, sweating my ‘you know what’ off… it’s 89 degrees F., even with the air conditioning… 94 today in Cleveland… just wish I was with you on the boat. I had great Saturday after our workshop in Victoria, BC, sketching and traveling around the city on a pedicab. The young college athlete took me to special sites which he felt that I would enjoy sketching. I really look forward to my next return. In my seminar work I am constantly seeking new ways to reach my peers. It’s a challenge which I really enjoy and always look forward to helping artists when the opportunity occurs.
Mosquitoes as distraction
Leni, Mt. Sinai, NY, USA
Went on a two week land/sea tour of Alaska and Canadian Yukon. Mosquitoes did keep me from painting in Denali and loads of them at rest stops on the Taylor Hwy. etc. They joined us on the bus at each stop and my squeamishness about killing bugs left on the wings of self preservation and I found myself swatting at them bare-handed. Also on a Yukon river boat to Dawson City I sprayed my bug repellent on the windows and ledge so I could eat dinner in peace. I applaud your bravery for dealing with the natural elements and painting. I have not yet gained a true appreciation for plein air. I keep trying and go out with a friend on Long Island near home. I even took a workshop “Monet for a Day” and painted outside. Not sure I love my natural work since I don’t particularly love GREEN. I am in the mulling process of figuring out how to use my high-key, magenta, orange, turquoise, purple, etc. pallet and lots of jibs and jabs to produce landscapes that I love.
Fish as distraction
Barry D. Lindley
I have been enjoying very much your reports from the far north. I have canoed the French River and floated the Kisaralik (Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge). The first trip was with a group of Boy Scouts and I didn’t try to make any art, but I did take along my sketchbook on the Kisaralik. That trip was too arduous (and the fish too active) to paint on the float, but I did do some work most mornings and evenings in camp, and your descriptions and feeling really resonate with me.
Lack of joy as distraction
I just wanted to drop a line to say, thanks for the bi weekly dose of encouragement. The last few installments especially have been uplifting. I seem to be going through a dry spell where I haven’t felt the joy from just sitting at my easel and creating. Being a fairly novice painter, I don’t know if this is typical or if it’s due to some stress in my life, and usually my painting allows me to escape these things. Lately, however, even though I have ideas and several different things I want to paint, the joy isn’t there. So your last several letters have come at a good time and I want to say I really appreciate it.
Courage to try
Lin Souliere, Lion’s Head, Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, Canada
I sometimes paint from a canoe or kayak along the shores of Georgian Bay and my fear of nature and my awe of Her glory seeps into my bones. Balanced in a kayak with a small painting kit held in one hand (old Sucrets tin as a palette and a plastic film cassette as a water jug) and a brush in the other, watercolour block balanced between my knees, while the surface of the water disappears beneath me because it is so crystal clear. With the escarpments towering above and the sound of the loon nearby, painting becomes, for me, a privilege. I have been given that day by God or Nature or a Higher Being. Inspiration comes in milliseconds. A reflection there — then gone. The sun on the escarpment lights up a cavern. A young family of mergansers swims near, fearless. The kayak floats on the surface as if flying in mid air. But my fears (I am a non-swimmer in an uncomfortable life jacket!) never lets my spine relax. I swear I return each time with a new back problem. But the lure of the magnificent views that are seen only by the sea-faring few, cannot be ignored. My best times are those when I have worked up the courage to climb in that kayak, dare to venture beyond White Bluff and past civilization, to where only the heron, the loon and the bear are witness. And whatever I manage to paint is terrific because I found the courage to try.
Rhyming the roll of the waves
Annette Waterbeek, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
Producing while on the move — isn’t that all about the way art is done? During the summer we make a couple of trips up the Pitt River to the very end (or beginning of Pitt Lake… it all about how you look at it) The vistas are pristine when we are just cruising and the water is calm, it could be manageable to paint. It’s also dry and warm. To paint under your conditions would definitely be a challenge. How does the weather effect the way you paint? The wind, temperature, water condition? Does your brush start to rhyme the roll of the waves? What about the bug bites and the buzz of the little pests?
(RG note) The great dome of the sky and the ever-present pestilence are parts of a cosmic rhythm that has an effect on every stroke, every choice, and the spirit of the work produced.
Artistic wind sprints
I have tried several times to “paint shotgun.” On a road trip last year, I was successful in turning out two tiny watercolor landscapes as my wife, Mimi, drove the stretch of interstate outside of Wichita Falls. As you say, one must absorb the scene quickly “for the next time you look up what you think you saw has changed.” And so you can only paint the essence of the landscape before you, not the visual details. It’s definitely a good exercise for loosening up… very much like the one and five minute poses in a life drawing session. I call them artistic wind sprints — the painter’s analog to the warm-up sprints in which athletes engage.
P.S. “Do that which you dread and cherish those victories with pride.” (Og Mandino)
A fast hand and a hasty brush
That is what I have been trying to convey in my on the road paintings. I’ve gone thousands of miles in our Navy Van around the U.S.A. trying to catch the tone of the landscape. Not one particular place but the flatness of Ohio, the ups and downs of Missouri, the windy high plains of Nebraska, Montana along the Columbia River from the Empire Builder Train. It requires a fast hand and a hasty brush. I take some trees from one bend and some rustic parts from another farm. I am painting nowhere and trying to make it look like somewhere. It results in lots of so-so sketches and finally I might get a great looking Oklahoma.
Tania Bourne, Victoria, BC, Canada
Painting on the move. Yes. I tasted briefly the experience of a “floating easel” last week. I was on the “Inside Passage” between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert on the British Columbia coast. Gliding smoothly and silently between towers of green. Few and far between: lighthouses and other evidences of human habitation, exciting in their rarity. Saturating oneself in the mood and the mystique. Translating with water and pigment impressions rather than “scenes.”
Go with the wind and current
H D Brandt, Berlin, Germany
We literally cruise through our lives and it is measured by time. The river only adds a physical movement and a spatial measure. Progress down a river is a metaphor for the span we are given. We go with the wind and where the current takes us.
(RG note) While we find it possible to paint at eight or ten MPH we are often traveling at the speed of the wind and in the same direction — our boat’s flag lies slack — and with the addition of the current, there is a curious feeling of timelessness and not moving.
Art to transform movement
Pauline Conn, Bedford, TX, USA
I’m reminded of a story about a Hindu monk arguing with an existentialist. The latter was arguing that “everything is always changing” and the monk laughed and said, “Yes. everything is ALWAYS changing.” Creating on the move illumines the “always” or the oneness that underlines the change. As our brains try to integrate the change to create a constant — as in painting from a moving kayak — we transcend the change to realize what is ALWAYS there. Several years ago I was experiencing anxiety about a planned journey I was to take in an effort to find a new home. A friend suggested that I turn this trip into performance art. I had a small pewter pin shaped like a park bench. I photographed this pin in every setting — against mountains and on top of tour brochures, etc. As I traveled I would come to a T in the road and use my intuition to turn left or right-never knowing where I would end up. The art took the angst out of the travel (the movement). It allowed the travel to become art in itself as I journeyed throughout the Southwest and ended up in places physically and spiritually (and artistically) that would not have happened if I had not been inspired to use art to transform movement.