My daughter, Sara, and I are again up to Lake O’Hara and Yoho National Park in British Columbia. Today, in the champagne air of a place known as “The Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” both of us are struggling with extra-large canvases. We’ve come this high with a little help from our friends, and we’re talking about “strong and wrong.” It’s a term currently used by some of Sara’s New York musician friends. Apparently it’s better to blow a strong note off key than to produce a wimpy one that doesn’t get noticed.
Here in this grandeur where boldness has dominion, big statements seem appropriate. This place was formed in fire and reorganized by ice. Those mountains are strong. These rocks are monumental. These skies are so powerful and move so fast between the peaks, you can’t really grab ’em. Let ‘er rip.
A line of hikers is far below on a zigzag pathway. Sometimes we glimpse others climbing the distant cols or moving slowly along the windy ledges. All around there’s a spirit. Something’s happening in this amphitheatre beyond boots and poles, backpacks and water bottles. It’s something to do with worship.
For us paint-pushers it’s all about inhaling, so much so that one can be out of breath trying to climb Nature’s truth. Our audacity seems impudent. Nearby, there’s a place called “All Souls.” We don’t know how it got its name, but we can guess. As if anyone can enter, we find the best path is to simply accept the test.
In the words of the English poet Robert Browning, “I count life just a stuff to try the soul’s strength on.” So that you might get an idea of what we’re dealing with, we’ve included a few photos at the bottom of this letter. There are also a couple of shots of 30″ x 34″ paintings being attempted in heavenly places.
Every time we return, we feel it again. There’s the mystery of creation, the evidence of sweeping powers, the presence of a mighty hand. Cannot the little hand that mimics this be also mighty?
PS: “Something we were withholding made us weak until we found it was ourselves.” (Robert Frost)
Esoterica: A benefit in painting, not available to musicians, is the ability to cover or quickly remove bloopers. What’s a blooper between friends? As we say in the cover-up-your-sins world of acrylics, “Nobody knows what’s under there.” But a bold early statement is often key to a stronger work. Later and lesser strokes become just grace notes to the greater theme. We’re noticing how valuable are the early gestures — cursory, generous, thick and large — the strong and wrong.
Going for le neaque
by Adam Cope, Lanquais, Dordogne, France
I used to call it the ‘nub.’ In France, it’s called le neaque (French for ‘knack’), meaning both the knack as well as some outstanding strength. It’s the place where the strength of a painting comes from. Try and polish it or correct it to good taste or proper drawing and the force is broken (though sometimes all these elements come together naturally). A painting can’t be said to be original if it doesn’t have some neaque. You gotta go with it. Either a painting has it or it doesn’t.
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No covering up in some media
by Becky Triskel
It is certainly better to hit a wrong note with flair rather than fluff with a faint one. This certainly works for me as a musician and an artist. However, I don’t have the option of covering up a mistake when I paint. On rice or mulberry paper the paint soaks through immediately so your mis-strokes are unfixable. Even then a strong stoke, even if not perfect is much better than a wimpy one. Rather than cover up a flawed stroke you either make it work or start again. I call it practice.
The mountains are my bones and heart. Whether I paint them or not they are always just outside my window. Near or far they inspire me.
by Loretta West, Spokane,WA, USA
Thanks for taking us on your travels to O’Hara. I have only been there in January for skiing a few years ago, staying at the Elizabeth Parker hut, and the scenery was sublime. It was also great to see a shot of Liz Wiltzen whose excellent work we collected a bit when on day trips from our old home town of Calgary and she was then a waitress at the Buffalo Mtn. Lodge, many moons ago. So good to see her doing so very well. We will be in O’Hara in September for some painting among the larches. Seeing your shots has made me excited already. Just hope we get similar weather. I would encourage anyone to take a visit to that area, words do not do it justice, but paint comes close.
(RG note) Thanks, Loretta. And thanks to the many folks who asked how to get to this wonderful place. Access to the Lake O’Hara area (a small area within Yoho National Park) is effectively limited by virtue of a bus transport quota system employed by Parks Canada to limit casual visitors to a controlled number per day. Anyone can hike in if they are prepared for 11km uphill. O’Hara’s natural, secluded beauty has been preserved as an area in which determined park visitors can experience the wild grandeur of the back country without a backpack. Access to the bus (summer season only) for day visitors and campers is as egalitarian as it can be without resorting to a lottery: go here for details.
For Lake O’Hara Lodge, (really classy) this link will provide information on how to request a booking.
The Alpine Club of Canada operates the historic Elizabeth parker Hut at Lake O’Hara. It is one of the ACC’s more popular destinations, and information on how to obtain a booking with the ACC will be found here. Campsites and day visitor bus seats are booked three months in advance on the quota system.
The Lake O’Hara Trails Club has a worldwide membership promoting the clubs activities and encourages participation.
As Sara and I departed O’Hara we said goodbye to our friends and guides Patty Cucman and Stan Munn. Today I received the following note from Patty:
“We met a man on the Opabin switchbacks as we were coming down on Sunday. He looked distressed so we stopped to see if he was okay. He assured us he was fine, just resting, and on his way up. “Is it worthwhile?” he asked. You can guess our reply. Stan gave him a short lesson in the rest step and I told him, “Try it. It worked for my 84 year old Dad. His reply was, “Then it should work for my 73 year old me.” We left him to carry on. A few minutes later I was sorry I hadn’t told him he was close to the top and most of the nasty bits were over. Later, from the porch of Cabin 4, I saw him walking by and asked, “So was it worth it and did the rest step work for you?” (I had to give him a chance to recognize me without my hat and sunglasses.) He beamed and said, “Yes indeed; breathtaking, exquisite no certainly indescribably beautiful. Perhaps Paradise comes close.” Then he told me he had walked up the road three days in a row and had been to MacArthur the first day, Oesa the second and that day, the third, to Opabin. He was from southern England somewhere judging from his accent. He was very obviously moved. The blinkin’ place does that to people.”
Patty Cucman is the current president of the Lake O’Hara Trails Club.
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Reverential but hopeful
by Stacey Sasaki
I am sure that the great Emily Carr would agree that a note sounded strong is better than a wimpy wrong one. She, too, was wowed by all that wilderness and struggled to do it justice. I am so glad to hear you speaking in her tones — reverential but hopeful in capturing it somehow.
About ‘Let ‘er rip’
by Marilyn Hartley, Aiken, SC, USA
If I keep drawing/painting on a regular, disciplined scheduled, my art flows and I can afford to “let ‘er rip.” The boldness is rewarding and usually, successful. But if in the next work I try to duplicate that success, the work may tell me, “uh uh… keep working and I’ll tell you when I’m done.”
From purgatory to heaven
by Tania Hanscom, Cambridge, ON, Canada
You’ve got to have moxie to take on such overwhelming vistas bombarding you from every angle and against all your senses. You cannot paint grandeur meekly! It must be with strength, and faith.
I see a connection between Strong and Wrong and “All Souls.” All Souls Day is a day meant to help the souls of the deceased pass from purgatory into heaven. Purgatory is a state of being, not a place, so it’s the overwhelming feelings you experience in this place that inspire and uplift your brush like a soul being ushered into heaven with great fanfare and celebration! Yes, there is the wrong, in life and in a brushstroke, but perfection goes quietly while redemption celebrates!
by Charles Peck, Punta Gorda, Florida, USA
Strong and wrong … is right. It never hurts to remind those that paint all the time to get the big gestural statement down first and boldly — then everything plays off that note. This was another great uplifting letter but this Florida boy has to wonder, isn’t it cold up there? How do you paint when shivering? I suppose it does add to the open time of acrylics which isn’t much down here in the ’90’s but then we just have to get after it… heck, I bet you do up there also if for no other reason than to keep warm.
(RG note) Thanks, Charles. Reports of Canada’s coldness are greatly overheated. Particularly here in the west. Right now it’s hotter than a firecracker, even up here. We bring our temperature down by putting our feet in the lake.
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Going back to the right note
by Michael Epp, Vancouver, BC, Canada
‘A benefit in painting, not available to musicians, is the ability to cover or quickly remove bloopers.’
This is an interesting observation and one I have pondered at length. I’d say the equivalent of a musician hitting a bum note in front of a roomful of people, in painterly terms, is having a great painting and working on it too long to the point that it ‘loses something.’
Once again, I quote the great Norman Rockwell, who shared a story about working on a painting and having his wife come in in the morning and saying, “It’s perfect, don’t touch it anymore.” But he keeps on working at it, and his wife comes back later and says, “You’ve mucked it up.” And he agrees, saying, “The original life and freshness of the thing somehow got painted out of it.” He should have left it alone, the hardest thing to do.
Just as the musician can’t go back and hit the right note, the painter can’t go back to the ‘right note’ either. It’s a one way ticket. Sobering thought.
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
Rarely do we come away with the grandeur captured, perhaps that’s why we return again and again, to “dip in” once more into the ongoing dialogue with the wildness of nature that has not been tampered with by man. To feel so reduced by our surroundings that we have no rights in taking anything away — but still we try, slipping out the backdoor with a wee sketch. Perhaps the gain lies in stretching towards that what lies beyond our reach, not only the distant peaks and the barren slope, but what is too big to be reduced to a thought or a painting, and in reaching, we grow, even if we fail.
Hiking, getting into a sweat, painting gear strapped to my back, and getting up the track, is essential in slowly coming into the feel of the avalanche-scarred slopes, of the currents of air that move through the great rocky amphitheatres where the whistle of Alpine marmots reverberates off the clutter of scree.
It is indeed all about inhaling. Years ago one of my teachers at the art academy likened painting to breathing: working out of doors is inhaling, he said, and working in the studio, away from the motif is exhaling, one as essential to the other to stay alive, both in life and in painting.
Wenn schon, denn schon
I confess that I winced at the notion that a loud wrong note in music is better that a quiet right one. I don’t think Beethoven or the other “classical” guys would have been amused; though the idea of an audience in a concert hall jumping unanimously to its feet at such an event did make me chuckle. The Germans say wenn schon, denn schon which translates more or less to “If you’re going to do it, go the whole hog.” In jazz, I suppose the strong and wrong idea is more inspirational than embarrassing, since improvising is based on spontaneous reactions. A bit like action painting, I suppose. I’ve often felt like throwing a can of paint at someone, but that might strike a wrong note — painting, I suppose.
Live large, for the soul
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Early on in my career I painted larger works. Of course, I painted more figures than landscapes and I had trouble selling these, but that isn’t the point I make here. Painting large is liberating on several levels and many artists who paint small should try it. You have to summon courage, fortitude and inner energy to paint large and the rewards are great even if the piece misses. When I stand arms length from my canvas and start slashing away with my initial strokes I feel as though this is what being an artist is all about. You have to be fearless with the amount of paint you squeeze out and use every bit of it. Brushes have to be big in order to get more paint on the canvas quickly. This is an exhilarating feeling that has to be experienced to be understood. There is an excitement that fills the air as you apply more paint. The fear level increases as you enter the “ugly” stage most paintings go through before starting to come together. Most importantly you as the artist feel a release from earthly constraints with your arm and spirit stretched out in front of you moving the paint around. The smell of so much paint exposed to the air intoxicates me as it fills my nostrils. Big juicy pieces of paint slathered on with abandon. Painting large is a liberating experience to say the least. At best you feel like you’ve accomplished something. A piece of you has been lifted from your soul and applied to your work. I feel tired and exhausted when I finish but satisfied I have reached the true potential of what it means to me to be an artist. When I go to museums and see the monumental works of the masters I get a truer sense of what it may have been like to paint a life size pastoral work or a work with multiple life size figures. The largest work I’ve painted to date was five feet by seven feet with five figures; two adults, four children; two dogs and a cat set in an interior. It took nine months and countless hours of preliminary painting before I even applied paint to the final canvas. I look at pictures of it now and can’t believe I did this piece. I still paint big once in awhile, for me, for my soul.
original painting by Deann Rex, Utah, USA
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Michael Dominguez who wrote, “Finally… Heart. Bigger than electronic capitalization can ever imply.”
And also Bruce Meyer who wrote, “I heard a story of once when Wynton Marcellis was playing with a relatively unknown combo in NYC. Right before the end of a long and emotional conclusion to his solo, a cell phone rang in the audience. Wynton picked up the cell phone melody and played with it, incorporating it into the theme, and after a few minutes, he brought it back to the emotional conclusion.”
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