Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Month of August

The Month of August, 1994,, oil on canvas, 20 x 48
private collection
Copyright 1994 Peter Bougie

In August, the big bluestem is mature on the prairies; five, six, eight feet tall, the stalks golden brown to reddish brown on the ends, with the blue streaks extending down into the green near the ground. It sways gracefully in the breeze, the flagged seed heads tossed on the ends of the stalks, and the stalks relax back to vertical when the breeze subsides, or recoil in the opposite direction if the breeze blows hard enough; uncountable in their ten thousands per acre. The rosin flowers are blooming, sunny yellow, and some stragglers of coneflower and Queen Anne’s Lace are still loitering, as if in denial of the passage of summer. Goldenrod stands in insular clumps around the edges of meadows; sometimes it dominates where the soil was disturbed. If I am troubled by the world I can take comfort in these things. I can contemplate the fields, watch the grass grow. Let the chatterers chatter.

The Month of August, detail "fade to white".

I painted “The Month of August” in 1994. I made the one-hundred-mile trip from my home to what was then called O. L. Kipp State Park, now Great River Bluffs State Park, in southeastern Minnesota on the bluffs above Hwy 61 between Winona, MN and LaCrosse, WI. I did a lot of work on the painting on site, but it is not a traditional plein air painting. I prepared an underpainting in grisaille, flake white and greenish umber, in order to carefully establish the gradation of values for the hazy condition depicted in the painting. I established the drawing in grisaille on site, and developed the atmospheric recession logically – basically, fade to white - in the studio. Then I applied color over the grisaille using the underpainting as a gauge for mixing color (chroma) values (tones). I established the color notes on site working in the late afternoon and evening. As evening proceeded, the colors in the sky made subtle shifts in hue and color temperature in the reflections on the water. I could swear they shifted from moment to moment, changing in the seconds when I looked away from nature to work on the painting and then looked back again. I recall being fascinated by how the shapes of the islands and sandbars were shaped by the flow of the water, and by the shapes and textures made by air currents moving over the surface of the water or the look of a tree or clump of trees in the middle distance. It was a great delight to look carefully at things and come to know them, in a certain way. When you paint a subject from life, you see it not only in greater detail but much more intensely than you do observing it casually. You become familiar with whole arrangements of shapes and hues, of how lesser arrangements fit into greater arrangements, and experience all this as a sort of communication occurring over time. It is a more thorough and complete, if less urgent and intense, experience than a three-hour plein air painting.  More than that, there is an inner dimension to the experience which is indifferent to the act of painting. It is a kind of contemplation.  

The point of observation for the painting was from the bluff top about 500 feet above the water. It was an overlook cleared alongside a park road. The forests on the bluffs are hardwood- red oak, basswood, shagbark hickory, maple, walnut, chestnut, etc. Black squirrels are a peculiarity of the area on both sides of the river.  On site I was always accompanied by the sounds of vehicle tires slapping over expansion joints in the surface of highway 61, the noise of motors, and train whistles and steel wheels on the rails from freight lines on both side of the river. Now and then there was the deep diesel thrumble of tug boat motors pushing racks of barges up or down stream. A creature of sensation, I would breathe it all in deep. After the painting was finished, it was exhibited in various places and finally sold at an exhibit in Manhattan – to a purchaser from Minnesota.

It was the beauty of the upper Mississippi valley and the driftless area of western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota that was part of the inspiration for my becoming interested in landscape painting. Since the early 1980’s I have lived about 100 miles north of the area that was so inspiring to me in my teens and twenties. I have not traveled there to paint since the 1990’s, although I have done a lot of painting north west of there in the countryside around Lake Pepin, on both sides of the river; and in the St. Croix river valley, and along the many small rivers and trout streams in Wisconsin that feed the St. Croix and the Mississippi.

The Mississippi is 493 miles long from its headwaters at Lake Itasca in north central Minnesota to the Falls of St. Anthony in Minneapolis. Not far below the falls the river receives its first two major tributaries; the Minnesota River at Ft. Snelling, hard by the current International Airport, and then the St. Croix at Prescott, Wisconsin. From Prescott the Mississippi forms the Minnesota/Wisconsin border until Minnesota turns into Iowa about thirty miles south of where I painted this picture. The river is already over 600 miles long here; it has traveled about halfway to the mouth of the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois, and a little more than one quarter of the way to the Gulf of Mexico. At this point its drainage area is entirely in Minnesota and Wisconsin, draining a large percentage of both states. Other major tributaries that have entered it at this stage are the Chippewa and the Black River from the east, and the smaller Cannon, Zumbro and Whitewater rivers from the west. Part of the Black River delta is shown in this painting.

The Month of August, detail,  Black River delta
It is said it takes a drop of water about 90 days to travel the 2,320 miles from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. That is a bit less than 26 miles per day, or slightly more than 1 mile per hour. Some of it will return as vapor in the warm fronts that take a few days to travel north up the valley. They will often collide with cold fronts descending from Canada, making wind and rain, and fall again on the limestone rock faces, backwaters and trout streams of this middle border.