Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Definition of September

For plein air painters, the month of September brings some welcome relief from the heat of summer, and an introduction to the wider, and sometimes wilder, variations in color that the autumn landscape shows. Sometimes your subject looks like it could have been painted in July; sometimes it will show the landscape fading and worn, and sometimes it will look like summer intends to take its leave in splendor.

For a landscape of the latter variety, look here. Queen Anne’s Lace was painted mostly during August of 1992, but I finished it in the first half of September. Poison ivy and Virginia creeper are turning red in the meadow and at the edge of the woods; goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace are blooming, and some of the trees are showing shots of color. Cornfields have “tassled out” and hayfields are clipped short and dry. The air is less humid, the distant vistas have some crispness in their look, and the cumulus clouds trail shadows across the countryside.
Cloudy Prairie, oil on panel, 12 x 16, private colletion
Copyright Peter J. Bougie  2007

Cloudy Prairie was done in September 2007. Low clouds ride on a raw breeze. Light breaks out in the upper left and in the distance along the horizon. Some of the trees, like the basswood (linden) on the left, and some oaks in the center distance, are still full green. Others, in this case a lot of box elders (an invasive species), some maples, and some unidentified, are more yellow green. The prairie grasses depicted here, notably the big bluestem, are their mature color and seeded out.

Riffled Water, oil on panel, 16 x 8
Copyright Peter J Bougie 2006

Riffled Water is dated September 4, 2006, but could have been painted in July. Okay - September 4th isn’t far removed from August either. The setting is heavily wooded river banks. You don't see much of the banks, but you see evidence of what the fast water does along them in the leaning and fallen trees. The sky is overcast, hence the gloom. Even on brilliant sunny days, the sun only makes bright patches in a setting like this.

Silver Riffle, oil on panel, 12 x 16, Private collection
Copyright Peter J Bougie 2008
I painted Silver Riffle in a remote valley in Pierce County (Wisconsin) on September 14, 2008. My wife Nora and I were guided there by her brother John Koch, fly fisherman, who has sought trout in the waters of Cady Creek for years. It was an overcast day, and that overcast had settled on my outlook; I was having trouble finding a subject. I stood on a bank above this little defile and when I looked down it was like the sun had broken through the clouds - I had my subject. It’s a definitive September subject. Goldenrod and asters are blooming and the grass is bedraggled and exhausted. Water slides in a hard turn out of the larger main channel of the creek through a little gap over some rocks, and the result is the staggered ripple pattern. I haven’t been back to the spot since I painted there. Seasonal floods have probably changed the look of it.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sense and Presence

One of my former teachers, the late Don Koestner, was the first person I know of to do a painting of this bluff along the south shore of Lake Pepin, just west of Frontenac, Minnesota (view it here) I thrilled at his painting the first time I saw a reproduction of it, about thirty years ago, because it was a fine example of the sort of subject I aspired to approach myself (Don painted it in 1982 – as it happens, he was just a little older then than I am now). Thirty years ago my great inspiration was to do paintings of the upper Mississippi valley and the steep, rugged bluffs and limestone cliff faces that characterize it. Don was there before me and showed a way to go.

The cliff face is the west end of a ridge, a sort of archipelago in the river valley. In pre-glacial times, the river flowed to the south of it. Since the last glacial melt, the river flows through Lake Pepin on the north side of this bluff (Frontenac State Park occupies the east end of the bluff and commands a famous downstream view of Lake Pepin). I have never seen rattlesnakes here, but I have no doubt they are there. The habitat is right: sunny rocky ledges, where the snakes like to warm themselves and make dens in the crevices, adjacent to upland meadows with lots of insects and rodents, which they eat. I have encountered rattlesnakes in the flesh as far north as the Kinnickinnic River, at its confluence with the St. Croix, between Prescott and Hudson, WI (at Kinnickinnic State Park). Apparently the early settlers saw them in numbers at Rattlesnake Bluff, hence the name. 

As an aside, Rattlesnake Bluff and the “archipelago” to which it belongs are unique geological features in the Mississippi River Valley. They occur in only two other places.  Barn Bluff in Red Wing, Minnesota is one. Thoreau hiked there and an ancient petroform on the Wisconsin bluffs – an arrow or bird shape laid out with stones on the steep hillside and pointing toward Lake Pepin - is visible from its crest. The other archipelago is just upstream from Trempeleau, Wisconsin, consisting of Trempeleau Mountain, Brady’s Bluff and Eagle Bluff (there are rattlesnakes there too): all steep craggy hills jutting above the Mississippi Valley and entirely separated from the main bodies of steep ridges on each side of the valley.

Photo copyright Nora L.Koch, 2010
 One more aside, about rattlesnakes. The type that live in these rocky bluffs are timber rattlers. They are relatively shy and unaggressive. You have to either completely surprise them or really mess with them to have trouble with them. Though related to the diamondback rattlers of the west, they are not as dangerous. Bull snakes, another snake common in this area, that resemble timber rattlers in their markings, but without the rattle or the wedge shaped head, are much more aggressive, often bigger than rattlesnakes, but non venomous. Timber rattlesnake bites, however, are venomous, and these snakes are to be respected. 

Rattlesnake Bluff, oil on panel, 7 x 12, 2010
 copyright Peter J. Bougie, 2010

I have done three paintings of this scene from the same spot. The first, “Rattlesnake Bluff”, was a summer afternoon painting and the view is from a spot a couple of hundred yards further north of where Don did his painting. It is a small painting, 7” x 12”, done entirely on the spot. The temperatures were in the upper 80’s that day and after about two hours working on site some areas of the painted surface were beginning to get tacky, dragging at the touch of the brush; these circumstances, along with the fact that my return trip from the site needed nearly an hour of driving time, allowed no further work after leaving the site and returning home. Beyond that, the afternoon is memorable to me for several reasons. One: after many years passing since first viewing Don’s painting, I finally took the opportunity to go to the place myself and try my own hand. It is hard to describe the feeling I had approaching this opportunity. I felt a connection with my former teacher after many years of separation, viewing what was much the same wonder of nature, of creation. I felt it was no accident that years ago I had been attracted to a place of study (Atelier Lack) where he taught. Not merely so that I could be in contact with someone who was a skilled and competent artist, but also that I had the opportunity to be taught by someone moved to artistic expression by the things that so inspired me. I think it is no accident that I had the privilege of this contact. My teacher Richard Lack, steeped in the writings of Carl Jung, would have called it serendipitous. I don’t really object to that, but I prefer to call it grace. Don passed away in 2009, but I had a sense of his presence preceding me and instructing me. I am not claiming anything mystical, only remembrance. He was a most kindly and gentle man, with a love for what is simple and good.

I was there, preparing to paint what Don had once painted. He is gone, but he had instructed me, and I remembered. All of this was in my mind and heart as I painted; I don’t know how to describe it otherwise. 

Wacouta Cemetery, copyright Nora L.Koch, 2010
My wife Nora and my brother Pat were along with me on this excursion. Pat is my younger brother, although neither of us, both south of fifty, are young anymore. Nora took photographs of the area, and Pat did drawings in the ancient (by mid-western American standards) Wacouta cemetery not far from the spot where I painted. It is one of the only times that Pat has accompanied me on a painting excursion, and since I am fond of my brother, with whom I shared a room growing up (I trust he has forgiven if not forgotten my impatience and temper with his snoring, and other breaches of elder brotherly authority) and wish him only the best – and perhaps that he could accompany me, now and then, more often – I recall it as an afternoon doubly full of grace, sunny warmth, and good will. That sort of thing doesn’t happen every day. 

Repose, oil on panel, 12 x 16, Copyright Peter J. Bougie, 2011

Photo copyright Nora L. Koch, 2011
 As I mentioned, there are two other paintings of the same scene.   “Repose” was done at the end of October, 2011. I was full of a sense of the land going to rest prior to winter that day, something that Tolkein called, somewhere, “locking up”, as spring is “unlocking”. My sense was of all of the vigor and even unseen violence of the growing season, everything bursting up out of the earth, the most tender of shoots pushing up through matted leaf litter and rocky soil; hickory and oak trees extending the reach of their crooked limbs into the light, all of that now ending and going to rest, to repose. The third painting, “Emerald”, is quite the opposite, of the “unlocking”, of the vitality of spring on a fresh morning, with a bit of haze not quite burned off yet by the sun. “Emerald” was another one of those paintings that seemed to spring out of my brushes, as if the Holy Spirit directed my eyes and hand, as well as it could, through my most limited ability and senses. I hope there is joy in it, and the promise of all things being made new. That is, I hope there is a sense of the presence of God, and of His extraordinary promises – the hairs of our heads are all counted, and not a sparrow or a grasshopper falls but that He knows and receives it back. Every leaf unfolding from its bud is responding to His ongoing act of creation, and every exploding atom in the sun itself is a whisper, and the merest caress, of His boundless good will and energy. 

Emerald, oil on panel, 12 x 18, private collection
Copyright Peter J. Bougie 2012

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Dark Wood


Township Road, oil on panel, 16" x 12", 2011 Copyright Peter J. Bougie
   The other day Nora asked me what my favorite painting of the past few years was. I replied that I didn’t have one favorite, but that there are some I like more, and some I like less. Okay, she countered, can you give me a few favorites? I named a few, and one of them is Township Road.
   It was done on the last day of July in 2011. That year it was unusually hot in this part of the world during June and July. That Sunday turned out to be one of the last uncomfortably hot days of that season. High clouds obscured but did not block out the sunlight. Standing still and working on the painting in the tall grass I sweat through my shirt in about fifteen minutes. I stood on a bank above the road with the coneflowers and the Queen Anne’s lace barely nodding in the humid air. Bees and deer flies buzzed. Deer flies – aggressive little biters shaped like F-16’s - are mostly done by the end of July around here. To my left, the asphalt road turned into gravel, leading back to some secluded private residences along the St. Croix River bluffs.
   It has marks of civilization; power poles with transformers, an asphalt road, and the corner of a parched hayfield. The dark wood hangs over the road and seems to press against it from both sides. This affect is relieved a bit by streaks of light on the road, and the lighter horizon at the top suggests open spaces, after the dark wood is traversed.
   The sky in the reproduction has much more color than the original.
   I saw the view within minutes of arriving, and the picture flew out of the brushes as if it were just using me to paint itself. That happens sometimes.