This summer I took my tepee and spent 5 days in the mountains alone…in an area south of Tumbler Ridge. These mountains are mind-blowing…just south of the Wapiti river. My idea was to get a little time in doing pleine aire painting. When Charlie Russell met Phillip Goodwin in a cramped New York studio, they became close friends and Charlie invited him to visit in Montana. At Charlie’s cabin on Lake McDonald they spent time painting outside. This was a new experience for Charlie and I suspect that Goodwin and pleine aire painting helped improved Charlie’s sense of colour.
There are many contemporary western artist who do all their work in the studio with a wide array of photos for reference material. Plein Aire allows you to do small, quick, colour paintings of an area and this can be expanded upon later in the studio. I always take a photo of the subject that I am rapidly painting. I am always amazed that, in this day and age of digital photography, the camera continues to lie about tonal values and colours. Sometimes the photo looks nothing like what I see and paint.
Five days alone, mumbling to yourself, is enough to make you really appreciate your fellow humans. When I was young, I ran an experimental trapline for the game branch…live trapping , measuring and monitoring beavers. This was in the days before two-way communication in the bush…even before chainsaws!! I was alone with my beaver for 2 weeks at a time. Then a native would show up with my next two weeks of grub…and leave just as quickly. This is called being “bushed”. Over the course of the summer, I found that beaver are really good conversationalist…Tom Hanks had a similar situation in his movie “Castaway”. You’ve got to talk to somebody…it’s when the beaver answer back that it gets scarey. Imagine that…the slip of an axe and there is no way to get help. That’s how it was done then. I was 19 years old, a university student studying wildlife biology…1963.
There are difficulties painting in open air in the northern Rockies…bugs and bears. Right off the bat there was fresh grizzly sign, so I moved my cooking area 100 yards from my tepee. The Defender shotgun is part of my painting gear. I saw one grizz across the valley but it all worked out. The bugs were a different story. Have you ever tried to paint with flies up your nose and mosquitoes swimming in your acrylics? REALLY FRUSTRATING… especially when they land on your panel that you are trying to paint on and wiggle around doing their own little bit of creativity on your composition.!!
It was a good trip. There are areas in the valley that are semi-arid prairie and I got several ideas for more Charlie Russell paintings without having to drive 2 days south to Montana in order to simulate his landscape conditions. In fact, the whole Peace River valley is amazingly similar to the Missouri. We even have prickly pear cactus on the southern slopes. That’s the amazing thing about B.C. We have just about every type of topography available in North America…from the grasslands of the Chilcotin to the rain forsests along the coast.
Anyways, it was good to see people again.