Getting ready to go up into these mountains requires forethought and planning. As materials must be backpacked, instinct and practicality tell you stuff needs to be light but sufficient. Nothing worse than getting up there and finding you have no medium. Plastic pill bottles hold minuscule amounts and can be replenished daily. Half-size paint tubes are adequate for day hikes. Avoid glass — it’s heavy and dangerous. In the acrylic world, I don’t think I’ve ever found a place without water except once in Morocco. Here in the Rockies, the good spots are bubbling with it. In the pristine winters, snow works fine for both eating and painting. In summer, a tiny bug-spray squirter is as important as Ultra blue.
Fact is, places like this are filled with life lessons on thinking ahead. The mountains are jumping with critters.
At higher elevations, the Columbian Ground squirrel devises complex tunnels to avoid predators and to raise young. Well-designed “cozy rooms” for (generally) private wintering are excavated. Nicknamed “Haymakers” by early mountaineers, these squirrels have a short foraging season and their long hibernation requires gathering, curing and drying of rich grasses. We step around these well-pitched spreads on the gravelly paths.
Meanwhile, the Golden-mantled Ground squirrel is in the business of breaking up large mushrooms (mostly Boletus) and laying them out to dry on the sun-warmed branches of conifers. These smart packers hike back and forth on worn pathways between harvest grounds and drying racks.
If you happen to give a spare cashew to a Canada jay (whiskey jack), more than likely he’ll take it to a spruce and wedge it in the crotch of a branch and then quickly drop back to check you out for another. Like sharp-eyed painters, they know when they’ve found a hot spot.
Largest of the squirrels, the Hoary marmot prepares for a busy day of foraging and creative breeding with a period of relaxation, reflection and dreaming on the sunny side of a big grey boulder. Apparently they understand the value of downtime.
We need not mention Canada’s widely lauded national rodent, symbol of all things preparative and busy — the beaver. Now, where’s my maul stick?
PS: “If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages, maybe take an animal degree.” (Rex Harrison in 1967 movie, Doctor Dolittle, lyrics by Leslie Bricusse)
Esoterica: The only problem with those tiny, beautifully-made Pochade boxes is that they produce tiny paintings. While there’s nothing wrong with small gems, the idea of producing bigger stuff on location seems worthwhile. As mentioned in my last letter, big seems appropriate. Getting the stuff up there is the rub. We’ve even indulged in the almost unthinkable fantasy of “heli-painting,” but second thoughts include the exemplary and well-thought-out lifestyles of our feathered and furry fellow-travellers.
Critters in Yoho
Marmot on toast
by Kathy Hirsh, Beijing, China
I returned this week from a trip to Mongolia so I can relate to your “packing carefully” letter today. They eat marmots in Mongolia. This is my fifth year in Mongolia and my third at the Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset Ultra-marathon. I volunteer at an aid station during the race, paint the rest of the week and socialize with the amazing participants in the evenings.
Several years ago I was riding across Mongolia in a jeep with a friend, and a horseman came riding up. It is polite to stop as there aren’t many travelers in Mongolia. He unwrapped a package and kindly offered us a cooked marmot, and we politely demurred. It resembled a deep fried football. It made me a little sad, but in Mongolia they eat a lot of meat and milk products to fend off the cold and long winters: yak, mutton, camel, horse, goat and marmot. I’ve even seen a horse being milked.
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Bluebirds on shoulder
by Sandy Davison, Lansing, MichiganI, USA
From my own years of painting at swamps I’ve collected “wisdom” from animal encounters:
The beaver is all about “do the work. Engineer it and keep up the momentum.”
Egret says, “No need to chase, attract it to you.”
Green Heron is about “single pointed focus, track it down and get it.”
Minks are a swirling dance of raw beauty, hunger and grace. They are manifestations of “sexy get what you want.”
From the snake that came directly across the water to park and breathe up and down in front of me; “ride on the surface of things and you won’t sink in.”
Many times Cedar waxwings or bluebirds would approach to land on my easel until they encountered a push-pull of desire and fear. They flew in and away, in again and away. So, “Try getting close to a good vantage, it might work out.”
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Balancing your values
by Keith Cameron, Sierra Madre, CA, USA
I wish I’d had your advice to heed about seventeen years ago during my first trip to Sedona, Arizona. During a hike to one of the more scenic vortexes, I had packed my travel watercolor set, very nice paper, and water for the session. As we hiked further and further my anticipation grew wild with what I was seeing in the scenery. The red sandstone coupled with the amazing blue sky of the day, and what could only be described as aboriginal magic, was filling my head with fluid, head rushing imagery. Unfortunately I had neglected to pack sufficient water for my nine year old son who was soon looking peaked. Needless to say I had to commit what I saw that day to memory. My son, now twenty five years old, and a beautiful artist, much more so than I could ever dream, tells me every day I made the right choice to suffer not painting that day.
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Critters to consider
by Hazel Robinson, CA, USA
Thinking ahead is necessary down here, too. I live in the mountains south of Yosemite National Park. Lovely, hot, clear, paintable year ’round. BUT one must consider the neighborhood bear, coyote, mountain lion, fox, and jays. Painting outdoors, alone, can be hazardous to one’s health in a number of ways. The bats keep the mosquito population under control but the Stellar’s Jay will steal your lunch out from under your chair. The mountain lion won’t bother you as long as you are paying attention but if you look vulnerable you are “fair game.” They usually prefer fawns, but humans are sometimes easier. The neighborhood bear roams at night. Being prepared around here involves more than painting supplies. I NEVER carry a gun, but I often ask my husband to accompany me. Two people together seems to be enough to prevent encroachment by any beast except the Jay. Thinking ahead means setting up close to a lake or stream, but that usually means car travel, so it’s easy to take along all supplies I want. When I go to Yosemite it means an hour in the car so I take lunch, drinking water, a folding chair and a patient companion. I’m eighty years old so we no longer “back pack.”
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6000 mile paint-out
by Dayle Ann Stratton, Brandon, VT, USA
I have now begun what I am calling my “6000 mile plein air paintout” — driving cross country to visit relatives, I figured it was a great opportunity to camp and paint along the way.
Thinking ahead has been my motto as I prepare to live out of my car for a large part of the next several weeks, in all kinds of weather, from muggy hot to rainy to below freezing nights in the high Rockies. It meant some creative wardrobing. The camping gear is compact: it’s all backpacking stuff.
When I packed my art supplies, I got out all the things I use for oils and acrylics. I chose a limited but flexible palette in each. Some things got put away, and a few things added — including my favorite big brush, added at your suggestion! I am well-supplied with lots of panels, small and medium size — nothing large for reasons of space in my station wagon, which has to hold everything for the duration.
I wish I had Sara’s easel, but my chunkier collapsible will do, since I won’t be doing much hiking. The paints and brushes are in a lovely back-packable box, a basic selection of mediums stay in the car to replenish — yes, plastic pill bottles! I worked out a compact brush cleaning system that includes an old laundry detergent bottle to collect cleaning and rinse water for safe disposal. Gonna stop by the pizza place before I leave to pick up some boxes for drying.
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by Rita Graef, State College PA, USA
I am in the market for a plein air easel and would like to know what type of easel your daughter, Sara, is using in the photos in the clickbacks. I like the way it looks to set up, as well as that it can handle larger canvases.
(RG note) Thanks, Rita. It’s a Soltek easel designed by painter Charles Soltek of Sandy, Utah. It’s remarkably handy and easy to put up — tightens in any position with the Allen wrench provided, takes rather large canvases and, while state-of-the-art in appearance (all modern in aluminum and steel) and while still lighter than most French Easels, it’s still a bit heavy for backpacking. Kevlar, anyone?
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Is wildlife legitimate?
by DJ Geribo, Alton, NH, USA
I belong to a business group where I live in New Hampshire whose mission is to help every member grow their business by networking and meeting, one on one, for a “schmooze.” In this informal meeting we find out about the person and their business so that we would feel confident referring them to our contacts. I recently schmoozed with another member of the business group and I showed him some of my artwork, which is mostly nature and animals — that includes domestic, farm, and wildlife animals. He asked me, ever so delicately, and prefaced it with ‘don’t take offense,’ if paintings of animals and wildlife are considered fine art. I did not take offense because I believe with my experience in the art world and what I’ve seen and I know, that there is no question that paintings of animals and wildlife are indeed considered fine art. But I wondered if there are other “civilians” out there who feel the same way that he does and what I can do to educate them about seeing my art as fine art?
(RG note) Thanks, DJ. Pay no attention to those who would narrow the definition of what art is. Birds are art. Dogs are art. Fish are art. Life are art.
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Squirrel identification squirrely
by Kathryn Manry, Calgary, AB, Canada
Sorry to be picky, but I had to comment on the photo of the Golden-mantled Ground squirrel — which is actually a red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) in the photo… Our Golden-mantled Ground squirrels (Spermiophilus lateralis) are often mistakenly called chipmunks because of the stripes down their back (however, they are about three times the size of our most common chipmunk, the Least chipmunk (Eutamias minimus). I attach photos of a Golden-mantled Ground squirrel and a Least chipmunk — I am sure some of these cheeky characters have snagged a cashew or two from you as well!
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Khor Virap Monastery with Ararat, Armenia
oil painting, 24 x 48 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 Barrett Edwards of Naples, FL, USA, who wrote, “This letter again made me smile, for I’m soon heading up to Banff and Jasper from Colorado to camp and paint for two weeks. I shall look for your “critters” and feel your presence as I paint.”
And also Margo Laurie Goodman of Revelstoke, BC, Canada, who wrote, “A handy tip for treks. Take along some lightweight Bounce sheets. They work like a mosquito repellant. Just tuck them in your pocket or on your hat.”
And also Ida Lozano of Merced, CA, USA, who wrote, “Try Listerine in a small spray bottle as a safe bug eliminator – just spray the ground around your chair, etc. Supposed to work.”
And also Lynn Quinn of Lively, ON, Canada, who wrote, “The critter you’ve labeled a Golden-mantled Ground squirrel isn’t.”
And also Ralph Peterson, who wrote, “The Great Horned Airedale you have depicted is wrong. It’s actually an immature Great Mountain Humbug.”
(RG note) Thank you to everyone who took the time to point out these errors to us. We have a team bent on correcting some of them.
Enjoy the past comments below for Thinking ahead…