Monday, May 28, 2018

Fisherman's Rest

Fisherman's Rest
oil on panel, 12 x 16, Copyright 2018
Peter Bougie
Photo by Nora Koch
    Fisherman’s Rest is a place on the Rush River in El Paso, Wisconsin (not Texas). It is one of those places you can find in remote areas, whether they are buried in a city or in the countryside. Somehow, they have avoided the ravages of progress. There is a stretch of road which proceeds to a dead end, where there is parking and a shelter for picnic makers and fishermen.  Dead ends are consoling. I know traffic will be limited. Along the river side of the road, before you come to the fork which takes you up out of the valley or down to the dead end, you pass the ruined building in this painting. On its downstream side is a broad greensward that someone has been mowing and leaving free for public use for, I’m told, at least fifty years. On this broad green lawn, liberally shaded by towering old cottonwoods, I painted this view of the past in profile to the present. So far it is a one session painting, although I am not oppossed to developing it further. What I like best about this old ruin is the shadowy opening underneath, which has an air of work long ago interrupted and left where it lay.
Detail, Fisherman's Rest
 The shade in the foreground is provided by an impressive cottonwood that must be at least seventy feet tall. It has a very straight trunk unbroken by limbs until arcs of them break out about two thirds of the way up. Tall old trees inspire me to speculate about their age and how it compares to the time line of my life history.  I wonder who rested under them, and when, and what was happening in the world when they did. 

Untitled Study, 16 x 12, oil on panel,
Rush River
  The second painting was done a few miles downstream near the Ellsworth Rod and Gun Club, showing the Rush a bit discolored from the recent heavy rains, and the willows and box elders bending over the water, making shadows under the banks. The valley of the Rush has become a little gorge here, and a tall palisade shades these waters, keeping the vicinity relatively cool throughout the morning hours. Hawks and vultures soar in its updrafts, remote from the water, which, a little downstream from here, is channeled over a rugged rocky funnel.  My wife Nora and I with her brother John spent a couple of quiet hours here one hot morning recently. Trout were rising; John would have known what was hatching and bringing them up. It was a hot day. After two hours, the paint on the panel had become quite sticky, and I could no longer work on it. I was using a copal gel medium, which sets quickly in the heat. Fast setting paint allows you to plan and create an underpainting you can paint over selectively and advantageously. Of course, you have to work fast, and once it reaches a certain tack, it's too sticky to paint on until it dries. Even slow setting mediums or slow (low v.o.c) turp set fast outside in hot weather, but I don't recommend copal gel for beginners. If you are working fast, it's often a matter of you win some and you lose some. Experience will increase your odds in this scenario. 

Delight in the world’s good
at the very most
can only tire the appetite
and spoil the palate;
and so, not for all sweetness
will I ever lose myself,
but for I-don’t-know-what
which is so gladly found.

            St. John of the Cross, Romances, #12, A gloss (with a spiritual meaning) #1.

1) Low v.o.c. or volatile organic compounds. Low odor spirits is low odor because it is less volatile - evaporates more slowly - than regular spirits.
2) St. John of the Cross, (Santo Juan de la Cruz) 16th century Carmelite mystic, spiritual advisor of St. Theresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church, and still much revered Spanish poet.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Going Wobbly

“ Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.” [Isaiah 43: 18-19]

Spring Riffle, 11 x 8 1/2, oil on panel
Copyright  Peter Bougie, 2018
Photo by Nora Koch, copyright 2018 

       Painting a picture on location is an excellent way to live in the moment. It requires intense focus and concentration. It requires determination and the mental toughness to resist distractions, endure physical discomforts, and persist in working in spite of the dismay you inevitably will feel when you compare what you have painted to what you see – even when what you’ve painted looks good. Sometimes I console myself at the end of a session of painting by recalling that there’s a good chance my painting will look better when I am not comparing it to nature. That often turns out to be true. A strong composition will carry you a long way. Effects rendered true to nature, even dramatic light effects, set in a weak composition will not. In fact, it’s likely that the dramatic light effect you see will not look dramatic if it is set/composed poorly.
     Mind you, I’m not advocating for effects untrue to nature set in good compositions. That combination is unsatisfying in its own way. I am reminded of Degas’ criticism of the Impressionists (with whom he was sympathetic in many ways) about losing consciousness before nature. He mocked admirers of Monet’s Water Lilies for “going wobbly at the sight of a pond.” Plein air painting is in no way analogous to pointing a camera and taking snap shots. It is not enough to chase effects. You have to understand how to make a picture – and that is after you have gained at least a basic mastery of how to observe nature, and of your materials.
     This willow I painted once came up out of the dirt a pencil-thin shoot in a sand bar on the Rush River, in western Wisconsin. It did not set a course to ascend like an oak or a cottonwood. Willows are impatient. They seem to know they won’t last very long. And so, this one leaned to seek the light, to take advantage of spatial opportunities and to set itself against wind, frost and water. The leaning grows into a turning, twisting muscled gesture, a responsory comment to the conditions of light and the river bank; the company of other trees, the activities of reptiles and mammals, the flights of birds, and the metamorphosis of insects. I can’t cite the passage, but I recall that Thomas Merton[1] said something about how a tree praises God by being what it is. We praise God by being what we are, too; but we are more complicated creatures than trees. I mean that we can’t say to ourselves that we are sinners, and by being that we praise God.
     We probably think that we understand very well what trees are. I think we have a very limited understanding of what a tree is, not to mention everything else. We see all things as they are in a moment. But all things exist in a continuum. We can make a lot of accurate summations about a continuum with our intellects using information we gather with our senses, but we can’t literally perceive the continuum. We can observe it in its particular parts and reconstruct it in part – in very limited part - by reason. If we are really blessed – which means if God sends a gift – then we might have an intuition which causes us to make some leap. In case we are full of ourselves about our blessings, recall what Paul says: Who makes you any different? “What do you possess that you have not received? But if you have received it, why are you boasting of it as if you have not received it?” [1 Corinthians 4:7] This is not an admonishment to squash the achiever or the non-conformist. It is a reminder that we do not invent ourselves.
     At the base of the willow grows new grass, drinking its fill, a little cloud of green. Across the top of the composition is the reddish brown reflection (not the reality) of unleafed trees on hillsides beyond, and where the water is moving in riffles and tremors it is a silvery blue gray calling back to the sky. A stalk projecting from the willow near its base has caught flotsam in the flood. It is an incongruous recollection of surfeit and natural violence.

“In the desert I make a way, in the wastelands, rivers.”

Detail, unamed composition, Rush River 

[1] Catholic convert, Trappist monk, contemplative, author, 1915 – 1968.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The North Slope

            My wife Nora and I spent a couple of hours on the north slope of Rattlesnake Bluff recently. It was a fair early spring day, the kind we usually get in early to mid April but which has arrived later this year. It was a long winter, and I am thankful to have spring weather at last.
            The north slope of Rattlesnake Bluff faces toward Lake Pepin and is located on the Minnesota side of the lake. It is covered with mature hardwood forest. At this early season there is obviously no leaf canopy. The sun shines through to the ground. The ground is covered deeply with fallen leaves. There is very little undergrowth, for during the growing season little sunlight gets through the canopy. The slopes here are also scattered abundantly with boulders of many shapes and sizes that have fallen from higher up and come to rest where the steep slopes ease and flatten. I don’t know, but I imagine that most of these rocks were broken loose during the post glacial melting that took place up until as recently (as geological time is reckoned) as ten thousand years ago.
            I brought along a painting I did here two years ago with the thought that I might work on it some more and improve it. It is a painting that has some striking notes from nature in it, along with some others not so well observed, and which is not composed well enough to show. However, I did not find the painting’s location where I expected to find it. While looking for it in the wrong places, I found some things I hadn’t seen before.
            I was attracted by a large boulder planted diagonally on a mound, showing a green moss colored back on its sunny side. I ascended the slope to assess the view. Looking uphill I saw a ravine descending from the upper slopes. A movement across the slope above me caused me to stop; a white tail deer leaping elegantly and seemingly easily across steep terrain strewn with rocks and fallen trees. The forequarters go up over an obstacle and at the top of the arc, just as they begin to descend, the hindquarters are pulled up as if by a string. It covers more ground in two or three bounds than I can in as many minutes of trudging noisily through the litter. I continue up the slope pausing regularly, and the white tail continues uphill a hundred yards and more in front of me, pausing to look back over its shoulder, although not in a panic. It seems to understand I can’t keep up, but it does not want to become any more well acquainted. Humans, after all, extend their reach with guns and bows, albeit not at this time of year. It picks its way out of sight along the east edge of the ravine. There’s a kind of loneliness I don’t know how to describe in the flight of the deer, and in the sight of a dead skunk in a hollow below, its black and white fur disturbed in an unnatural way, its head concealed under litter.
            From the skunk carcass I look up to take in the whole ravine for the first time. It goes a long way up the bluff. There are steep places with exposed rocks with cavernous spaces showing beneath, and tumbled boulders in hollows as the thing descends in irregular steps. At the top two angled slopes appear to meet, and irregular shapes of blue sky show between tree trunks and crisscrossing limbs. The spirit sings a ravine; my heart and imagination rise in response. I picture a hard ascent, possibly snakes, possibly a skid and a fall, bruises, scrapes, possibly blood; certainly exertion and straining. Well, that’s if I were a younger man, or had prepared to do it today. I won’t do such a thing on an impulse anymore. I could still pull it off, but then I might not be able to do anything at all tomorrow.
            There are paintings to find in the ravine, and if I keep coming back I’ll find one someday. I’m not in a hurry to do so. I’m going to let it percolate for a while. Any given site will yield compositions. Study the sites in seasons and under varying light conditions. Come and go with a fresh eye. Learn to distinguish the spirit moving you from an errant impulse. For example, the spirit may be urgent, but it will never rush you. If it rushes you, it’s a spirit of another sort; it urges you to point and shoot, omitting the aim. Patience and determination uncover what is there to be found. Impulses make for misses.
            I walk west for a while, carefully picking my way through the litter. The drifts of leaves conceal fallen limbs, holes, ankle turners and things that cause one to lurch suddenly to one side or the other. At last I find the rock I painted two years ago, although the morning is too advanced by now to work on that painting today. I recall on that past morning I saw that rock standing out in the sunlight almost as soon as I entered the woods. It was like it beckoned me. I don’t see it highlighted like that today. It’s darker with moss than it was then. Almost like it is… not hiding; but turning away. I won’t paint here today. I’ll return another time.

Monolith, oil on panel, 16 x 12
Copyright 2010 Peter Bougie
The photo above is not a professional scan. It is the first painting I did at this location, back in 2010. Weathered, eroded limestone, intensely green moss, irregular patchy sunlight. A hauntingly beautiful place.