At a show last fall, “The Bugaboos and Other High Places,” a collector briefly stood in front of me and asked, “What is it about the mystique of mountains, and why are mountains such a perennial subject for painters?”
In the rush to say hello to everyone during the three-hour opening, I’m not sure what I said to her, and I regret not getting her name as I could have given a thoughtful answer. It’s a question I’ve often pondered.
You get the answer when you’re up there. In the mountain air, you get a feeling of exaltation, of being on top of the world and maybe even on top of your form. And more than that is involved.
Here are five thoughts:
Top-end strength. Particularly for the upper half of the painting, rock and snow tower to the top and beyond the picture plane, interacting with sky forms and sky energy.
Dominant patterns. Often abstract patterns and shapes of snow and rock give strength and determine an often complex design that keeps the painter involved.
Foreground character. Between lichened rocks, scattered scree, reflective lakes, struggling trees, low foliage and alpine floral colour, foregrounds literally take care of themselves.
Aerial perspective. From high vantages, mountain ranges recede into the distance and give opportunities for pictorial depth. Especially in magic hour, aerial effects become pronounced and lush. Mountains, with their neutrals and cooler offskips, provide an uncommon workout for both eye and palette.
Light and form. Mountains are cones, blocks and spheres, writ large. An education can be found up there. And when you throw light on the forms — sun, shadow and core areas — they gain personality and monumental presence. Direct, reflected, counterlight and alpenglow, mountains are light’s chosen vehicle — as if some Great Spirit was just showing off.
PS: “I have memories of the clearest crystal mountain days imaginable, when we fortunates in the height seemed to be sky people living in light alone.” (J. E. H. MacDonald, 1928)
Esoterica: I’ve painted a lot of mountains, including the Rockies, the Alps and the Andes. The Bugaboos, a relatively unknown range in eastern British Columbia, are simply loaded with top painting material. We’re going to do it again this year on August 23 to 26. We go daily by helicopter from a luxury mountain lodge to high, heart-thumping locations determined by us. The chopper makes the mountain-air workshop a bit expensive, and you may feel guilty flying in five minutes to places that would take you hours to hike, but you soon get over it.
FYI, Tim Alcock of Denver, Colorado, flew and painted with us last summer. He was so keen on helipainting that he’s setting up a website for Bugaboo alumni.
Tim’s collected photos… Thanks, Tim.
There’s nothing like it
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Being on a mountain helps conquer inherited fears and experience something we didn’t believe was available to us. Ground level dwellers get liberating ideas sitting in an eagle’s nest. It’s not mystical, you don’t need to join any ritualistic group or be anointed by anyone. Just get yourself up there and take your own sweet time on a mountain. There is nothing like it.
(RG note) Thanks, Tatjana. And thanks to all the Bugaboosters and other mountain artists who sent praiseful notes about painting in the mountains. For flatlanders and others, more than 110 workshops are currently available in our Workshop Calendar.
‘Bugaboo Tens’ website
by Tim Alcock, Denver, Colorado, USA
I loaded a whole bunch of pictures into the Bugaboo Tens website yesterday — under the “re-live it page” — and added captions. A couple of ‘alumni’ have responded, it would be good to populate everyone from 2010 and 2011. I’ve got a plan to improve the website, just need the time to do it. So far I’ve been prioritizing painting.
(RG note) Thanks, Tim. In our original conception we had in mind putting examples of some of the great paintings that happened while in the Bugaboos, or after the event. If participants feel like sending along paintings as well as those sorts of terrific shots that are coming in, that would be great. The site is apparently getting a lot of hits.
Another way of going up the mountain
by Lesley White, Prince George, BC, Canada
Like you, I’ve spent time in the mountains, The Babines around Smithers, BC mostly, but my ascent is slow by comparison. Horseback vs. helicopter; no contest, but the journey is unlike any other. It’s true, heli-painting is costly, but a good trail horse can set you back about the same amount. Following the initial outlay, I like the advantage of subsequent trips being free.
Ground cover changes constantly and while nature brushes your hair, the silence is palatable, the air breathable and the pace and sway, hypnotizing. There to welcome you as you emerge from the tree line into the alpine, are stunning clumps of wildflowers and if you continue the ascent, tundra and patches of snow. Recording the mountains in paint while literally in them is, well, indescribable. Actually, overwhelming comes to mind. How does one contain this majesty on an 8 x 10 panel without feeling inept?
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Blown away by mountain work
by Kenneth Flitton, Picton, ON, Canada
I’m in the throes of a painting of Spirit Island, Maligne Lake in the Canadian Rockies which elicitsexactly the kind of feeling brought on in your letter. I worked in Calgary for two years and spent countless weekends just strolling the alpine meadows. Absolutely glorious. Also, in November, 2012 I visited the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario. The best and most beautiful was the Lake O’Hara (Yoho Park, BC) work done by JEH MacDonald in the late twenties. I had never seen this work before and I was blown away!
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The wonder around the corner
by Jaci Evans, Jasper, GA, USA
I live in the mountains of north Georgia. There is a mystique in mountains that you don’t find in the desert, on the plains or the sea shore. You see what is immediately around you, and you can see the top of the nearest hill or the far off mountain. But you can’t see what is in between unless you travel the winding roads or walking trails. You have no idea what is over the next rise or around the bend until you get there, and then there is another rise and another curve. The mountains are filled with beauty that can be captured on canvas or in a photo, but it is the wonder of what might be there that I find so intriguing.
by Gaye Adams, Sorrento, BC, Canada
I’ve had the privilege of hiking (and helicoptering) into these places, and something happens aside from the obvious sense of wanting to attempt, humbly, to capture something on canvas. It is otherworldly – particularly the Bugaboos where you do your yearly trip. Jeweled lakes suspended like cobalt cups in the rocky indents of the high peaks abound. I spent an afternoon on a glacier painting the blue green rivelets of melt water patterns through the ice as they made their way down to the valleys below. I realized that there was no way to verbalize the experience of being in such a place, but I had the thought that somehow, everyone should have an opportunity to see this stuff. In that expansive landscape, with it’s rarified air, I somehow feel expanded also, and I take that experience with me even as I descend back into the lowlands.
Being a painter sends me on quests to seek out such unsullied places, and gives me an excuse to spend some time there. And I am grateful.
Fine miniature mountains
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
I have a little studio tip for all of our readers who wish to paint mountains, but like me, can’t always get there. I picked up a little mountain on a nature hike. It is just a small rock (seven centimeters) yet in the way it is fractured, it is a fine miniature mountain. By moving the light source I can change the time of day. By turning it around I get a different mountain. If I wet the rock and sprinkle flour it looks snowcapped. By the way, how did your big mountains come to be called, “The Bugaboos?” That is a curious name.
(RG note) Thanks, Peter. Great idea. The spires were first surveyed in the late 1800s. There was a bit of a gold rush up there in 1896. Prospecting, mostly by Scottish miners, turned up an abundance of pyrites and galena but little gold. Weathered boards and a few scratchings are all that remain. The name “Bugaboo” was used by these miners because it meant “dead end” or a “place with no hope.”
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by Kelly Borsheim, Firenze, Italy
Here in Italy, I’m working to improve my oil painting skills. That means taking on specific projects and focusing in a new way. I am currently creating a painting in a style called “Tenebrism” and once again, I have used my personal experiences in the Renaissance City for the inspiration of my composition. This time with an Italian “playboy” who wants to receive kisses instead of money for repairing shoes! He is quite famous here.
The term “tenebrism” is derived from the Latin word ‘tenebrae’ meaning “darkness” or “shadows.” It describes a painting style in which much of the composition exists in the dark, while the more important subjects will appear as if a shaft of light fell upon them. You might imagine the high drama of so much contrast. Paintings using tenebrism certainly have more of a moody feel than paintings created in a “high key” (very few dark tones or colors). Caravaggio gets the most credit for excelling in this style, but it was around before he was and other artists have used it to advantage as well, including Rembrandt.
(RG note) Thanks, Kelly. Readers can see Kelly’s tenebrism work in progress here.
The mystique of mountains
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Painters painted mountains as symbols, immense challenges, obstacles to conquer and overcome. It’s in our everyday vernacular, in our music. Biblical prose mentions mountains: Moses went to the mountain and brought back testament to God’s laws. They saw God, if you will, in these monuments. Mountains play a big part in human psyche. They represent the ultimate obstacle to overcome. The true test of your will and acumen to scale them. We equate strength with mountains.
Painters, and then photographers, experienced the hardships with travel to get to these lofty heights. They also saw mountains as man’s beginnings, the place from where it all started. Edgar Payne, Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, William Wendt, Granville Redmond, the Barbizon School. Many of these painters were religious and they saw humanity’s past, present and future in mountains.
by Gabriella Morrison, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
Why paint mountains? “It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness that in some recess of Concord, i.e. than I import into it.” (Henry David Thoreau, Journal, August 30, 1856)
Just because I live near the mountains, I do not seek to climb them, capture and translate their image or seek to live with their image made by various means. However, I do find fascinating the desire people have demonstrated in the past and continue currently to “conquer” the highest mountains, to memorialize their successes and dramatize their failures to accomplish such heroic feats. Does it add value to a painting of a mountain that has been accessed via helicopter? Perhaps it’s because of the novelty, expense that is incurred? Or, because a buyer of a painting done on site can boast that the artist did indeed make that heroic, dangerous and expensive journey to create something which others may not be able to similarly boast about. Why paint anything? Because it’s there where you find yourself and you are engaged.
Grateful for the feedback
by Jane Adams, Toronto, ON, Canada
Because of the Painter’s Keys I’m stunned to have received 62 emails from all over the world: Australia, San Francisco, Asia, Paraguay, UK, Europe, Canada, USA (Also 2 friends… Hi Mitch and Marjorie!). This was indeed an outpouring of wisdom from our tribe. Such fascinating emails and such generosity of spirit!! There are lots of real gems!! Also, many of you sent examples of your work, which I found thrilling. It has been a great conversation. Almost everyone gave me critiques. I have never had such a remarkable raft of commentary from fellow artists: all of it excellent, some hilarious, lots of learning for me, many new ways of thinking about my work. And, of course, practical lessons in how to critique. I am giving all of your very thoughtful ideas about my paintings every consideration… I know it was offered in the spirit of optimism and encouragement, and I am totally grateful!
(RG note) Thanks, Jane. Jane’s website is here.
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Enjoy the past comments below for What’s up in the mountains?…
High Country Lake
oil painting, 8 x 16 inches
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 Claire Remsberg of McCall, ID, USA, who asked, “What are ‘cooler offskips’?”
(RG note) Thanks, Claire. “Offskip” is an old English countryman’s word that means “off in the distance” or “over there.” In art, it’s the distant part of your painting. In landscape painting in particular, distant parts tend to be cooler — that is, leaning toward the blues and purples. It’s their coolness that makes them recede.
And also Dick Bell of Saskatoon, SK, Canada, who wrote, “As a flatlander I had always wondered what to do with the top half. Here on the prairie we have only skies, but I have discovered they are the most monumental of all.”
And also Tony Kampwerth of Knoxville, TN, USA, who wrote, “The beautiful features of the mountains are even more dramatic when the mountains meet the sea, as they do in Alaska.”