Thinking ahead


Dear Artist,

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.


The chipmunk feels no need to knock before he enters.

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.


A Columbian Ground squirrel left these leaves for drying.

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.


A beaver tends to keep busy no matter what’s happening around him.



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?


The elusive Great Horned Airedale is an authority on rocks.

Best regards,


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


A Golden-mantled Ground squirrel knows where his dinner is.


Canada jays often work in pairs to accept and cache future needs.


A Hoary marmot warming up and contemplating her next move.





A Water vole actually goes under water to get the stuff he needs.


A porcupine has a unique way of dealing with criticism







Marmot on toast
by Kathy Hirsh, Beijing, China


“Mongolian Marsh 1”
original painting
by Kathy Hirsh

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.

There are 2 comments for Marmot on toast by Kathy Hirsh

From: Anonymous — Aug 05, 2009
From: Judy Gosz — Aug 06, 2009

I checked out your web site (because living in China and riding across Mongolia are wildly romantic notions) and think your site is absolutely fantastic! The colors you use are luscious. . . they make my mouth water . . .the accompanying picture seen here is much more subdued. Lovely, lovely images!


Bluebirds on shoulder
by Sandy Davison, Lansing, MichiganI, USA


“MSU Beef Operation”
pastel painting, 9 x 12 inches
by Sandy Davison

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.”

There is 1 comment for Bluebirds on shoulder by Sandy Davison

From: Camille — Aug 04, 2009

You have obviously been paying attention! Great observations!!!!

And LOVELY pastel painting!


Balancing your values
by Keith Cameron, Sierra Madre, CA, USA


“Baron Davis”
by Keith Cameron

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.

There is 1 comment for Balancing your values by Keith Cameron

From: Lynee — Aug 26, 2009

Awesome story! Our little decisions define us.


Critters to consider
by Hazel Robinson, CA, USA


“Green raku”
by Hazel Robinson

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.”

There is 1 comment for Critters to consider by Hazel Robinson

From: Jeanne- Manhattan Beach, CA — Aug 04, 2009

Hazel, I can’t thank you enough for adding the last line of your paragraph that shared your age. Of course, I’ve heard of people continuing to paint in their “Golden years” but most are in the studio. But here you are traipsing off to Yosemite at 80. Good going. You are an inspiration. Thanks.


6000 mile paint-out
by Dayle Ann Stratton, Brandon, VT, USA


“Sentinal Tree”
oil painting, 20 x 16 inches
by Dayle Ann Stratton

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.

There are 2 comments for 6000 mile paint-out by Dayle Ann Stratton

From: Catherine in BC — Aug 04, 2009

Dayle, I just want to congratulate you for deciding on this terrific adventure ! It’s something I always wanted to do but let fear of travelling alone keep me from going years ago. What a silly waste that was ! Have a wonderful trip and get some great paintings too !

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Sep 28, 2009

Catherine, thanks. I have met many women who travel alone, and like me, feel perfectly safe– more so out there than in town! I am 66 years old, and I don’t see this as my last painting adventure, though most will be shorter. Car trouble kept me from painting as much as I wanted — came back with mostly sketch-level stuff — but the trip was worth every moment in inspiration (and hundreds of photos). I met terrific people all across the continent. I hope you can still set out on your own adventure, even if not trans-continental.


Modern easels
by Rita Graef, State College PA, USA


Sara Genn painting with the Soltek Easel

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?

There are 3 comments for Modern easels by Rita Graef

From: Sandy Davison — Aug 04, 2009

Yes, yes, yes to the Soltek! I love them and am on my second one (after a man drove into it at the Door County Invitational Plein Air Festival a couple of weeks ago.) They handle wind and I’m pretty rough on gear, the car was too much however as it clipped a leg off and then the box broke. When I’ve had them at workshops they are a walking sales tool because in three seconds I’m up and running. You will need to engineer some socks for the bottoms of the legs, however, and can look at pics of them on my blog: Sand also causes problems, but the easel is best.

From: BJ Wright — Aug 04, 2009

I’ll add another vote for the Soltek. After buying 2 French easels and 3 various ‘quick set up’ easels, I bit the bullet and bought the Cadillac of easels. I spent enought on the previous easels to buy the Soltek. So my advise to anyone is this: BUY THE SOLTEK first and forget about the rest.

From: Mary Bullock — Aug 05, 2009

The Glouchester easel is great too!


Is wildlife legitimate?
by DJ Geribo, Alton, NH, USA


“Black Crow Walking”
original painting, 5 x 7 inches
by DJ Geribo

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.

There is 1 comment for Is wildlife legitimate? by DJ Geribo

From: Tannis Pratt — Aug 04, 2009

I just have to add how much I agree with the “RG note”. Also good for you for not laughing in the fellow’s face!


Squirrel identification squirrely
by Kathryn Manry, Calgary, AB, Canada


Least Chipmunk (left)
Golden-mantled Ground squirrel (right)

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!

There are 5 comments for Squirrel identification squirrely by Kathryn Manry

From: Stella Reinwald — Aug 03, 2009

Sorry to be a wet blanket on your fun, but isn’t it usually true that whenever someone introduces a comment by apologizing for making the comment, chances are very good they are not in the least sorry. On the contrary, they more often than not are gleeful and gratified for the opportunity to interject their ostensibly more accurate information. Just an observation.


From: Wes — Aug 03, 2009

And then there are some of us who actually like to be corrected and appreciate it whether the corrector apologises or not.

From: Anonymous — Aug 05, 2009

I think Wes is the exception, I’m with Stella on this one. In my part of the country when people preface their comment with “I’m SORRY!” (usually with great emphasis) they mean, they are NOT apologetic. As in “I’m SORRY! People shouldn’t throw their McDonald’s wrappers out the car windows!” (Person is not sorry….) ;) And I agree, too, that the ‘animal painting’ comment was made by someone who DIDN’t think animal paintings were ‘art’ – otherwise…. why even comment?

From: Monica — Aug 05, 2009

I got to put in my two cents, ( sorry I can not stop laughing, or can I? but seriously) I am with Wes. I hate to be wrong, but when I am I want to know. (Did I just open the flood gate ?) thanks all I enjoy this forum .

From: Barb — Aug 11, 2009

I think that the “I am sorry…” thing is unique to English speaking population. Nowhere in other European countries did I notice such thing (hmm, perhaps in Hungarian…not sure). When we want to correct someone or express disagreement, we use direct statements which would sound rude in English. Interesting cultural oddity.




Khor Virap Monastery with Ararat, Armenia

oil painting, 24 x 48 inches
by Seda Baghdasarian, Malibu, CA, 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 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.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Thinking ahead



From: Faith — Jul 31, 2009

After my typing catastrophe on Tuesday, I typed this somewhere else first!

Your love for the mountains and nature oozed through every line of your letter this morning. What a privilege to be able to paint in such glorious surroundings.

The thought came to mind that before the age of photography, people relied on the pictorial artist to report on places and experiences denied (or not open) to them. Even though photography changed all that, the force of painting has fortunately not diminished. The eyes of the painter are still more perceptive than the camera lense, the interpretation more urgent than the snap judgment of even the most skillful photographer.

In defense of photography, the brilliance of the nature photography of today and yesteryear is as much part of our human cultural heritage as art, since photographic records exist to remind us of both the beautiful and the bad in our world, but the painter’s quest for beauty (as he or she finds and perceives it) is the motivation for the eventual art production, and the “human touch” that tends to be submerged in photography shines through the “hand-made” artwork.

Thanks for reminding me that even the modest ceremonial of committing a nature scene to paper or canvas is a celebration and a tribute to our wonderful world.

Planning ahead – to connect back to your letter – entails prevention (of catastrophes – even little ones, like forgetting one’s favourite paintbrush) and conservation (of nature. including elusive Airdales), but also a creative approach to life, inspired – as an artist – by what one finds.

From: Olinda Everett — Jul 31, 2009

Downtime. I tend to have a frenzy of activity punctuating long spells of downtime. Feeling guilty and glum.

After a good session of working and progressing two or three pieces in clay, working fast and resolutely, I am empty and full of doubts. The page is blank again. I have difficulty going back to the same theme, because the pieces will not reveal themselves until fired and that takes a while. So, I look for another strand, another signpost on the same road. Last night I was watching a programme about whales, made to a background of quotes from Moby Dick. Alongside the strong, thoughtful words, wonderful, magical images of water creatures swirled on the screen. The impact was almost physical. I was full of passion and in my mind stretched, rolled, pressed, resolved planes and angles, searching for meaning and technical possibility.

The creatures flying through water, challenging interpretation and offering life lessons are now joined by the profoundly luxurious tans and steels and silver tips on the coat of a squirrel – what wonder!

Woke up this morning to the end of downtime again, an undescribable bliss.

Say hello to Yoho, my most favourite place on earth. Olinda

From: Peggy — Jul 31, 2009

Your writing is such an inspiration. I don’t know how you have time to do everything, but thank you.

From: Jeanne- Manhattan Beach — Jul 31, 2009

So wonderful to find that you’re not only seeing the flaura and fauna around you but can identify them as well. It always stuns me to discover that so many people have no clue about what is around them on a daily basis. It’s tantamount to being partially blind. How can you stop and “smell the roses” if you don’t know the “roses” are there? How can you paint a landscape without understanding the details of what’s before you, understanding what gives each species it’s identity and personality? There is so much to learn in the great outdoors.

From: Ed — Jul 31, 2009

Just thought I’d mention that it’s rarely, if ever, a good idea to give food to a wild animal or bird. Human food, regardless how “natural” (e.g., a cashew), is often incompatible with the animal’s normal diet and digestive system and can be harmful if consumed. Worse, though, is the habituation of wild creatures to humans that is occurs when we overcome their inate self-protective instincts by offering them food. They’re perfectly capable of obtaining their own food without our help, and feeding them for our own entertainment or amusement cheapens the experience of observing them in their natural habitat.

Many national parks in the U.S. forbid feeding any animals or birds within the park boundaries. Unfortunately, such rules are necessary to clarify what might not be intuitively apparent to those who “innocently” feed a bird or squirrel. Ask a park ranger the consequences of feeding a wild animal, and what he or she will tell you will often be: “a death sentence for the animal”. And that’s not an exaggeration.

From: Allan Gill — Aug 03, 2009

In my hiking days (too long ago) it was a familiar sight to come across little piles of “hay” carefully piled on boulders in the high country, along with the distinctive cry of the “rock rabbit” (Pika). There would be trails from rock to rock that the little ranchers would use in their daily activities. The Pika is not a rodent, rather it is related to rabbits.

The Columbian Ground squirrel is also a familiar little rodent, and even a pest on ranch land. It is larger than the Pika and not so shy, and in my experience, it is not seen that much in the remote high country, at least not here in Southern British Columbia. I don’t think the Ground squirrel makes hay either. They are mistakenly referred to as gophers but are a distinct species from gophers, as you know.

From: Ellen — Aug 03, 2009

I really love your pieces from/about our Rockies, Bob, particularly the YoHo area — as well as the responses they bring from other readers. You obviously love those places and it shows. And today, addition of some of the critters found there was inspiring. I well remember my first trip there and the whiskey jacks…

From: Dave in Plano Texas — Aug 03, 2009

As a teacher of drawing and pastel painting (not my favorite medium but it’s popular), I’m frequently asked what the difference is between drawing and painting or what is the difference between a drawing and a painting (two different questions). I’ve come up with various answers, some related to process, some related to results. To me, drawing is part of painting, get the right shapes in the right place. A drawing leaves substantial areas of the support exposed as part of the product while a painting alters most of the surface of the support.

Does anyone have other useful answers? Also, why does it make any difference (other than as categories in art shows)

From: Faith — Aug 03, 2009

Dave! I once read that painting is when the whole available area is covered and drawing when it isn’t. I don’t subscribe to this opinion, not just because that leaves vignettes dangling! Maybe “painting” is done “wet” on something. But that would exclude pastels. Maybe a definition isn’t needed. Just call it a sketch, a study or – if you’re convinced – an artwork.

From: Darla — Aug 04, 2009

Dave — I always thought that drawing is primarily concerned with line, while painting is done with masses or solid shapes. You can draw with paint, and you can paint with dry media. It makes a difference because the techniques and results are different.

From: Lillian, NY — Aug 04, 2009

Now you tell me all about the easel situation….. For my birthday, my husband bought the French easel I showed him in an art ad. Not a bad deal at $96 plus shipp. I was delighted.. Anyway, when it got to me, the box says” already put together. Easy to set up.” I am here to tell you that it was NOT easy to put up and about 30 minutes for the two of us to figure it out…. Where and how much is that aluminium easel? thanks for your input. I have learned that I shold have shopped more I guess.

From: Rob Zeer — Aug 04, 2009

I love drawing then add colour to my drawings, ending up with a painting. For me the drawing part is usually more spontaneous and exploratory. Through drawing I can resolve the composition and tone very quickly. I usually start by prepping my canvas with “acrylic medium for pastels”. By doing this drawing on my canvas is better than drawing on paper. I then use acrylic glazes that keep my under-lying drawing visible. Please google my name to see some of my end products if you are interested.

From: Sandy Davison — Aug 07, 2009

Responding to the comment from the unwilling pastel teacher, who queried how to delineate drawing versus painting for his students: drawing derives from line, painting from form. Drawing is essential to painting as good drawing is to good painting. That said, form is less predominant where a “drawing” is made and therefore mark making and quality of stroke take over. At their best they meet in pastel as it can define line and mark like a brush, expressive, personal, assertive.



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