Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Spanning the Waters

“Who has cupped in his hand the waters of the sea, and marked off the heavens with a span? Who has held in a measure the dust of the earth, weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or has instructed him as his counselor? Whom did he consult to gain knowledge? Who taught him the path of judgment or showed him the way of understanding?”   Isaiah 40: 12-14

Fallen Willow, oil on panel.
Copyright 2009 Peter Bougie
Summer flees. For long stretches of time during this prime season, for which I long and wait throughout the dreary post-Christmas dark, I am made indolent by the heat. There is extra inertia to overcome. Some activities are eliminated. Painting is affected too. I want some shade to stand in. I don’t want to broil and scorch under the full sun for three hours; not to mention it is unwise, (but some might forsake wisdom in favor of desire). If I paint outside I must make up my mind to put up with aggressive deer flies for hours. They are shaped like little swept wing jet fighters, they keep after you, and they like the heat. If I’m out of the sun, or if it’s a little cooler, I must contend with mosquitos, gnats, or no-see-ums, or whatever little things they are that land on my glasses and take a walk. If it’s tall grass I might rub an elbow with the eighth leg of a tick, and if it’s wet I risk making myself bait for chiggers, and subsequently scratch myself bloody in my sleep. Of course, there are sprays and liquid applications and other stratagems to employ against insects; they smell toxic and feel unpleasant on the skin and are by no means certain protection.

Snakes are active and make a sound indistinguishable from a breeze in the tall grass; you wonder what’s up when you realize that day-dreamy, breezy sighing noise is starting and stopping abruptly, and then you go looking for the reason why. Skunks come out in the dusk and are intent on their business. They don’t mind your presence if you mind yours, but don’t surprise one. They know what they’re about and you don’t, and incidentally, their backs are surprisingly luxuriant with fur. I’ve never had an encounter with a bear, and I’m not counting that a loss. Some people will say that black bears aren’t “that” big, by which they mean they aren’t as big as grizzlies. But they have large teeth and claws, so how big do they have to be? If a fifty-pound dog with a bad disposition can chew you up, what might a bear in a bad mood do? Woodchucks will approach you from upwind if you are still, and beavers slap the water in indignation at your trespass. Mink might run across your toes before you realize what has happened. 

Windfall, oil on  panel
Copyright 2003, Peter Bougie
Trout jump right before or right after you look at the spot where they do it, and they startle you like spooks when you comprehend their shape, the very color of the water and faintly outlined, hanging suspended in a pool or a current. Wild turkeys file along in a row, fledglings behind a matron; young adolescents wander abroad. Bluebirds or yellow finches swoop and lunge, indigo buntings flicker in a shadow, and robin nestlings not quite prepared to fly succumb on the ground to cats. Raccoon kits die in pairs on the road. And so on.
Bearing in mind the ends of things, I’ve done a lot of paintings of windfalls over the years, usually in the form of fallen trees along the water courses. They succumb not only to wind, but also to lightning, and sometimes to currents undermining a bank or to a violent flood. They can alter the course and speed of currents where they fall; cause partial damming, pooling and sedimentation, changing the character of a location. When I was a lot younger than I am now, I tended to look at everything in the world as being permanent. Waterways were always what they appeared to be, and I thought that trees were as eternal as the hills. But trees go down quite regularly along the waterways. Their fallen torsos remain until a flood drags them away and deposits them along another bank, or against the abutments of a bridge. Sometimes they sink. A few might remain a long time, if they have planted the shattered ends of a couple of stout limbs deep in the river bottom to brace high above the water, like one I found on the Rush River recently
Below the Chute, oil on panel
Copyright 2018 Peter Bougie
Photo by Nora Koch

I painted Below the Chute in a single session on site. I’m not sure if I consider it finished. My first glimpse of it was from a higher vantage than the painting shows, and it was a dark shape against the sunlit water and foliage behind it. Approaching, my intent was to capture that dark shape against the lighter ones. Arriving closer, I was much taken by the play of color value on the fallen trunk against areas of foliage and water, sunlit or shady, around and behind it. Here is light on the bark-less trunk, following the curve of its surface in an arc, silvered or bronzed on the weathered dead wood and contrasting with the living yellow-green or blue-green of foliage. There, a nickeled bronze, darker, gradating into a half-light, its warmth making a low vibration against a shade of green of just the same value in the water ‘next’ to it. The sunlight played on the whole scene in various ways while I stood and painted. There is a lot of foliage overhead and at times the whole fall was mostly in shadow, and dark against some lighter reflections on the water. I made a partially impulsive decision to paint the fall with considerable light on it when I observed the effect suddenly occurring before me. I say partially impulsive because I took a moment to observe the play of elements as they changed before my eyes and consider one against another, all in a short time. But I can’t stand and ponder while everything keeps changing; I have to decide. This entire program of light and motion, the turning of the earth and its movement around the sun, is never ceasing and always making innumerable iterations at every single moment, even in the most localized considerations. If I miss this wave, maybe I can catch the next one.