Several nights here we’ve had a hard time getting to sleep. “I’m too excited!” says my daughter, Sara. Rich environments such as the Bugaboos, a mountain range in Southeastern British Columbia, teem with the sort of stuff many a painter craves. While not all painters are into mountain work, better compositional elements are worth looking for wherever we happen to be. What are those elements? Here are a few:
Monumental subject matter
Foreground substance and echo
Background mystery and majesty
Opportunities for activation and eye control
Opportunities to apply your idiosyncratic style
Mountain variety goes a long way in suggesting “what could be.” On the other hand, more limited environments may actually stimulate the imagination. Our small workshop group was talking about Cezanne’s many paintings of Mount St. Victoire in Southern France. I once drove slowly around it for three days looking for Cezanne’s locations. No matter where I went, the mount was a potato-like hump. And yet, with nicks, fidges and zips, Cezanne had squeezed from it a significant art movement.
On stepping down from our magic carpet — a Bell 212 helicopter that seats 14 — the mountain panorama takes us more than a few breathless gulps. “I progress very slowly,” said Cezanne, “for nature reveals herself in complex forms.” We painters need move very little. It takes a while. “The painter unfolds that which has not been seen.” (Paul Cezanne)
Too much inspiration, like too much absinthe, can boggle and confuse. But it is motif-rich environments like the Bugaboos that teach visual discrimination. Surrounded on all sides by sculpted beauty and pattern, we exercise our “telephoto-vision.” I like to take a slow 360 degree rotation to contemplate what I really want to look at. These hills are alive with viewfinders held at arm’s length.
PS: “To Nature, one need be neither too scrupulous nor too sincere nor too submissive.” (Paul Cezanne)
Esoterica: Liz Wiltzen, one of our workshop instructors, is a masterful advocate of academic truth, aerial perspective, and traditional values. Sara Genn, on the other hand, feels the mountains need not be painted as is, but rather studied with the idea of extracting their power. This power, passed through eyes and hands and transferred to canvas, might be a mere chip of the whole. “What a privilege,” she says. We all agree. “Here on the edge of the river,” said Cezanne by the Loire, “the motifs are very plentiful, the same subject seen from a different angle gives a subject for study of the highest interest and so varied that I think I could be occupied for months without changing my place, simply bending a little more to the right or left.”
Painting in Paradise
by Margaret Ferraro, Kinburn, Ontario, Canada
This past August, I had the honour of leading a group of 14 artists to plein air paint in pastel, in Tuscany. Now that we are back in Canada, as the dust settles, the cream rises. There are a few things that are rising, but the one image I can’t get out of my head is seeing the Mediterranean from high up on the trails along the Cinque Terre. This is a Unesco world heritage site, a series of 5 small fishing villages, with farms that have eked out a living by terracing the mountain side, farming for grapes, olives, apricots and many other things. These farms have existed for hundreds of years. Farms to the right, sea and sun to the left. Paradise. A privileged life indeed.
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Be not submissive before grandeur
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
The bugbear of the Bugaboos or any other mountain range could be the threat of too much “picture postcard-ness.” In my case, such problems as you describe have to be addressed in the Ecrins Massif in the French High Alps, where I will be working the next three weeks. With such a motif overload — already well-threshed out by some of the finest photographers in France — it’s difficult to glean kernels that stand out by their personal approach. Man dwindles before the mountain. The artist needs to shake off all influence by those great images in magazines and on postcards, leave by the wayside all trepidation before the power of the textures of the scree slopes, the angles of eroded ridges, the wildly contrasting colours. My own idiosyncratic approach to the mountain is to try and reduce what is so overpowering, to push that great stony rock-face into a corner of the composition. “Be not submissive before grandeur.” (Paul Cezanne)
by Nader Khaghani, Gilroy, CA, USA
Sara knows what she is talking about. Cezanne destroyed aerial perspective as the old worn out relic that it is. The problem with it? It takes the eyes into distance and drops the ball. Leave as it there. Dead. Cezanne brought the background distance close almost to the picture plane. When are we going to update our mentality? Do we need to be behind times hundreds of years with misleading instructions on aerial perspective? Teachers who push the worn out ideas are misguiding unsuspecting art students who do not take the time to investigate space issues for themselves.
People are just waking up to impressionists and artists have abstracted their vision. About time we artists speak our time.
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Like laying out a garden
by Lanell Penrod, Brazoria, Texas, USA
This letter is especially meaningful to me today, as I have been working and sweating in my garden for years trying to get it so that it resembles something down here in Southern Texas. It seems that I start over so many times working toward the same thing. I often lose sight of the fact that it takes time for anything substantial to come around where one is satisfied. I have been lying by plants for years, and this year is the year that I start placing them where they will be shown off to the best advantage. This article is timely and clarifies my thoughts and plans.
I was delighted to read the highlights of designing at its best. Yes, I am an artist, have been since the age of 3 and design has been my passion all these years. I can’t look at anything unless it is critically in need of my input to improve it.
At a dead stop again
by Enid Egan, New Westminster, BC, Canada
At different times, I have taken several unworthy paintings on masonite, stood on the edge of them one by one, and pulled up the other side, cracking it so I can jump on it to make it useless, thrown it in the dumpster, with no regrets. They usually had been lying around while I thought and figured, and could never come to a conclusion as to how to fix them.
As to fixing paintings, I realize if I can’t figure it out after several months of them hanging around, why not just start something new, and let the loaded brush land where it may. I’ve done that, and now have several more paintings at a dead stop with loaded brush syndrome.
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by Suellen Seguin, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
I’m a photographer, fairly new to your letters, and finding it always has something for me — this week’s “elements of composition” were especially pertinent to photography. Have you ever taken photographers on your expeditions? From the pics I see online, the easel could quite easily be exchanged for a tripod!
I am so enjoying your letters! I find that my photography is more satisfactory, more creative and exciting, with input from other art forms — a visit to an art gallery, a turn around a textiles exhibit, even leafing through a magazine — I call it “priming the pump.” It’s the artistic side that I enjoy the most and I guess that’s why I enjoy your letters so much.
(RG note) Thanks, Suellen. One of our mountain guides in the Bugaboos is professional photographer Lyle Grisedale. As well as helping with camera settings and locations, he’s a great source of knowledge for fauna, flora and geology. CMH also offers photography workshops with John E Marriott, and others.
New website planned
by Tim Alcock, Denver, Colorado, USA
The Internet is positively abuzz with flashbacks to our Bugaboo workshop, friendships created, hopes realized and inspiration digested — the Twice-Weekly letter included. I’m touching up my works and should be finished shortly — must not ‘add excess detail’ ….argghh!!… holding back… but it’s tough!!
I’ve been in touch with CMH and have an email listing of all participants. My plan with this is to go out for permission to use their names on the website/blog, we intend to create for the Bugaboo Tens. I will do the same for prior year attendees assuming you or CMH can provide me with their contact information. CMH seems to be supportive of the website idea.
I’ve done some sleuthing on web hosts for the proposed website and formed some initial opinions on the most flexible and best value. I’m prepared to go ahead and set something up this week.
(RG note) Thanks, Tim. Tim was one of our recent heli-painters in the Bugaboos. As you can see he is offering to set up a website, the Bugaboo Tens, for past, current and future participants — free of charge to all Bugaboo painters. I’ve agreed to finance the project. The site will post photos of folks working in this spectacular location and illustrate their work alongside. The motive is online sales and connectivity for artists. What we need right now are deadly photos with informative cutlines as well as good quality photos of your Bugaboo art. Currently we intend to post all submissions, probably alphabetically by artist’s name. Featured home page and connective material will be chosen by Painter’s Keys staff. This idea is very much in its initial stages. Tim will probably end up making the site self-loading. Linked to ours and other sites, it will be effective.
‘The Book of Awesome’
by Verna Korkie, Canmore, Alberta, Canada
I took half a step off Cloud 9 this afternoon but it is not easy to rejoin our fellow Earthlings. Most of them don’t get it! Wasn’t that simply Nirvana?! My sincere love, thanks, and good wishes to Robert, Liz and Sara for being the glue in an extraordinary experience in the Bugaboos. There really are no words. As they say, “You had to be there!” Right out of the Book of Awesome! I know Tim Alcock is in touch and actively involved in the website possibilities. I sent him my photos. You guys are really on to something very special with this “beyond a retreat” concept and I hope you will continue to spread such joy in the future.
Enjoy the past comments below for An excess of inspiration…
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 Elihu Edelson of Tyler, TX, USA, who wrote, “After college I chased a co-ed to Denver and was in awe of the Rockies but only lived there a little over a year. The nostalgia for mountains has remained with me.”
And also Al Etmanski Jack Fowlie of Bridlington, UK, who wrote, “Foregrounds that echo backgrounds add power and control to the work.”