Chapter 11-15

11. Boulder Creek

Two or three years later I took my Painting class to the same milestone, and we parked under the well-known tree midway between the beginning and the end of Boulder creek. On the further bank of the narrow stream globular willows flourished, and around their roots coarse, marsh-grasses grew. Behind them were tall spruce trees and topping these the mountains — Sulphur to the south, Rundle to the east, Bourgeau to the west, and Norquay behind us. Too many mountains, said the students, and much too many trees. However, most of them settled down to painting portraits of these long-suffering mountains. Not all of them. The men found a boat to enliven their foregrounds, and Lil walked into the gravel pit. She found the bones of the deer upon which the eagle had feasted. She took the skull, some vertebrae, and arranged them on the gravelly ground where dandelions bloomed. Here was nice colour contrast, and a colour scheme enriched by the varied hues of the pebbles. A popular theme for a young painter — the brevity of life exemplified in the skull and the flowers, one of which was already in seed.(4)

This young lady monumentalised her outdoor still-life in her customary style, and produced a fine picture, I thought. The students were quick to agree. Pure landscapes are weather pictures, pictures of light, records of the day. The mountains and the trees whose shapes are multifarious and confusing, are mere hooks on which to hang the true theme. There are rare golden days in all seasons here, when I see pictures everywhere (colour is my prime motivator) and days when all seems wrong. This was a day of the second type.

12. Edith, Louis and Fifi

The gravel pit lies at the western end of Third lake, in the draw between mounts Norquay and Edith. The run-off which in years gone by deposited the gravel has found another outlet, but a wardens' trail leads through this pass in a northerly direction to the valley of Forty Mile Creek. Edith's peak stands well back and is only visible from the road at this point. It is a fine pyramid and a sharp apex, and a favourite with climbers. I had always wanted to explore this pass, but found neither the time nor the opportunity, until one day in October my neighbour Syd Vallance, a former president of the Canadian Alpine Club, asked if I would care to go with him. I agreed of course.

It proved to be cheerless, even a dismal, walk, through a dank, and dripping forest where only moss grew. Had I been alone I am sure I should have looked back furtively and imagined every cracking twig to signify a grizzly.

The trail led up and up until at, say 4 miles, we had passed Edith's peak, and had a briefly clear view of the two mountains beyond, that is, of mounts Louis and Fifi. The three names commemorate a walk taken by three individuals years ago — Fifi was the dog. We pushed on, emerging at last from the inhospitable and somewhat eerie woods, and traversed a shoulder of Edith. At about timber-line we were trudging through snow. A cold wind whistled through the pass. We paused only when the vertical face of Louis loomed directly ahead. The last time Syd was here, he said, he watched his son through binoculars climb this monstrous slab of rock, and recorded the incident with his camera and a telescopic lens. The last stage of the climb was up a 400-foot chimney.

I made a sketch in water-colour, sitting in the snow. The wind was penetrating, the paint froze on the page of my sketch-book instead of drying. Twenty minutes was the limit of my endurance. We retired to the lee of a rock and ate our lunches. The walk back was tiring. My pack gained in weight. I suffered cramp in the shoulders, and at last suffered the indignity of handing over the pack to my younger companion, who was generously insistent. We regained the West road, much relieved, emerging by way of a grove of aspens which the welcome sunshine penetrated, and on the way home we admired anew the friendly contour of Mount Rundle.

There is a good view of Edith from the river or from the south side of the valley, but Louis and Fifi are hidden. Their silhouettes may be seen from the Minnewanka road.

13. Green

The last time I put Edith into a picture, raising her head above the monotonous green forest, I was offended by its very viridity. This is an old story. When I lived in England I liked to paint pictures of the countryside in winter, or in spring and fall. I shuddered at the thought of midsummer amidst the trees, and with most others of my calling, I packed up and left for the coast to paint ships, and the sea, and the stone habitations of fishermen.

Now green is a colour of great beauty and infinite variety. Brewer states authoritatively that there are 106 shades of green, but to the landscape painter its shades are uncounted. Green symbolizes noble things — joy, happiness, safety, abundance, hope, and, to the Moors and Greeks of old, victory. It is restful to the eye. It was a favourite hue to the psalmists. Apparently it symbolized for them all the comforts needed for complete well-being. It suggested green sward, and lush foliage, water in the desert, cool shade in the heat of the day, and a soft spot suitable for repose in a stony, thorn-ridden land. But grass and trees occur infrequently in the middle-east, compared with say, the Emerald Isle. It is anything but monotonous.

Constable claimed that it was his composition of his green out of a medley of greens that made his meadows, and again it was by treating it as a single tone that poor painters contrived to give it so little intensity.

Before Constable arrived, landscape painting was a matter of formulae and convention, based upon the mellow but faded productions of a bygone age. A story told of Sir George Beaumont and Constable serves to show how the paysagist of that time proceeded. Sir George had placed a small landscape by Gaspar Poussin on his easel, close to a picture he was painting, and said, 'Now, if I can match these tints, I am sure to be right.' 'But suppose,' replied Constable, 'Gaspar should rise from his grave, do you think he would know his own picture in its present state? Or, if he did, should we not find it difficult to persuade him that somebody had not smeared tar or cart grease over its surface and wiped it off imperfectly?'

On another occasion when the two were painting together, Beaumont said, 'Do you not find it difficult to determine where to place your brown tree?' And the reply was, 'Not in the least, for I never put such a thing into a picture.'

A contemporary critic (Mattews, in 'Diary of an Invalid') wrote, 'The fact seems to be that the delightful green of nature cannot be represented in a picture... I believe that nature must be stripped of its green livery and dressed in the browns of the painters, or confined to her own autumnal tints in order to be transferred to canvas.' Constable restored green to pictorial art; his paintings moreover are proof enough that warm colours are not necessary to produce the impression of warmth in landscape. Leslie wished for a parasol when looking at a sunny landscape done in cool blues and greens, just as Fuseli called for an umbrella when contemplating one of Constable's showers, in which warm colour was even less conspicuous.

Sir Alfred East has somewhere written on the proper treatment of a green meadow on canvas, drawing attention to the reflection of the sky on the blades of grass which bend to the proper angle, to the lurking undertone of earth, and to the immense variety of greens that go up to make up a mass which, to the casual and uninformed observer, seems to be flat, unchanging tone. In his water-colours I have seen leafage represented by unadulterated yellow and almost pure ultramarine, with a score of intermediate tones resulting from the admixture, or from the use of other pigments.

In the management of greens, it must be apparent, the landscape painter finds his greatest difficulty.

The anomaly which I seem to have implied is easily explained. It must not be supposed that Constable's pictures are cool in colour throughout. He introduced warmth for contrast. 'All concord's born of contraries,' wrote Ben Jonson. Contrast, change, surprise, novelty, quicken human interest. Beauty only exists because there is ugliness for a yardstick. There is no harmony without discord. A spot of warmth introduced into Green Hell would make it heaven. So, a touch of warm colour such as that I have mentioned, is necessary to set off the cool constant greys of the mountains. Green is as often cool as warm and is not a great help.

I wrote that I was appalled, or offended when I finished my last sketch of Edith. This is not strictly true; I was annoyed at my failure to capture the wonderful green harmony the scene suggested, and monotony was discernible in my sketch rather than in nature.

14. Rain

On rainy days the class assembles in the studio and either paints from a model (often an accomplished model from the ballet class), practices portraiture, creates a still life group, or compose pictures from sketches already made. One, perhaps, eyeing me doubtfully, will essay an abstract. Another is liable to set forth in spite of the rain, hoping to find a sheltered spot, maybe a tree, a doorway, or an arch of the stone bridge that crosses the river. It depends on the species of rain. Hiroshige considered and illustrated forty forms of pluvial pulchritude. He was perhaps rain's most distinguished interpreter. Hiroshige depicted nature in all her moods, although he abhorred the dramatic. Indeed one most fascinating quality in his landscapes is tranquillity. That the summer shower was a theme receiving frequent and ample treatment at his hand, goes without saying.

His treatment also was surprisingly varied. He had no formula for rain, like that propounded by Rembrandt in 'Three Trees,' and faithfully copied by every etcher since his time. He never seems to have repeated himself. 'White Rain at Shono' and 'White Rain at Nihonbashi' bear little resemblance in expression.

In the former the rain comes down in driving sheets. It is a sudden shower. Three straw-clad figures in the foreground run for shelter; two others who carry a lady in a litter are less fortunately situated. Bamboo and taller trees in the background bend to the weight of the storm.

In the second the rain falls gently and straight. It has not body enough to obscure Fuji in the distance, it is expressed by a few black lines, mostly vertical. Walkers on the bridge in the foreground open their gay umbrellas.

In 'Rain at Night on Karasaki' there are no figures, but there is peace, and this is reflected in the poem inscribed on the print:

'The Wind of the evening

Surrenders its sound

To the night rain,

And the pine of Karasaki grows in fame.'

Who complains of a warm summer rain! At home we hasten to put out our window plants, and consider going for a walk. There is something invigorating and mentally cleansing about a walk in the rain. The soft veil of gray seems to compose the spirit. The hues of nature become bland and harmonious. Local colour holds its true character. Flowers assume a brilliance and an individuality largely lost in sunshine, and their fragrance diffused more intensely, mingling with the odours of growing vegetation and the fertile earth, charms the senses.

Through the window at home I note the freshness of the lawn, the vivid green of foliage, the black boles of the trees, sparrows playing in the puddles, reflections on the wet roadway, a little girl in a blue raincoat, glistening, a young man, bareheaded, his face pink and glowing. Peace pervades the street. Sound is muffled, all but the songs of birds which are clear and bright.

Once I worked for a whole day upon a gray landscape which I wanted to finish for the Royal Academy exhibition. It was cold and miserable, the rain fell with a gloomy persistence familiar to an Englishman. Nevertheless I wrapped myself in a mackintosh, selected a large umbrella, packed my picture in oil cloth, and set out.

What a day! Crouched under the gamp, shivering, depressed — I shall never forget it. Fortunately in this country rain is rarely accompanied by that searching and penetrating chill. Once at Muskoka we were caught in a violent downpour on the edge of the forest. We fled to the partial shelter of a large pine tree. I stretched my raincoat over two convenient limbs and the shelter was perfect. We settled down for the duration, and there I made a picture of golden-rod in the rain, in perfect comfort.

But on occasion in a mood of frustration I solemnly declare that, apart from utter darkness rain is the worst calamity that can befall a sketcher. All its vaunted qualities wash away. Let us wait till it stops.

'For lo,' sang Solomon, '..the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of the birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.'

15. Summer in the City

It was so long since I spent a summer in the city that I had almost forgotten that the joys of the season —the pleasures of sight and sound, and the comfort of well-being— may be enjoyed therein as fully as in the country, at the lakeside or in the mountains. The country of course is easily accessible, if you must have it, and the lakes are never far way, but it is really no hardship to be kept in town if there are trees around your home and flowers in your garden.

What a boon the trees are! The elms particularly, with their graceful branching and spreading foliage. Not so graceful perhaps as the elms of Ontario nor so imposing, but well enough, and of all our urban trees the most beautiful. The oak looks best in the forest, the willow on the river bank, the pines belong to the northern wilderness of rock and lake and muskeg — never in the city do they live up to Ruskin's description 'goodly and solemn pines with trunks like pillars of temples and the purple burning of their branches sheathed in deep globes of cloudy green.'

Elms are best for the street: no other tree makes so symmetrical an arch over the roadway, so high a canopy.

I write facing a large window. Bosky elms fill the lights. I see the lawn dappled with shadows, and the avenue beyond the hedge enveloped in a cool penumbra. All is green but the gray pavement pitted with golden sun-spots, the brown boles of the trees, and the glimpses of red brick and white stucco seen through rifts in the foliage. But green is a generic term, as I have said, embracing a thousand tints.

I suppose that few, other than landscape painters of the academic school, really examine a tree with an eye to its form, chiaroscuro and colour. It is a profitable study nevertheless. Look with me at the elm tree that stands at the far end of the lawn and fills the top part of the window. We cannot see its crown, which is just as well, since at one time it was callously pruned, and its spread is not so great as it should be.

The high sun shines through the foliage towards us. We observe without difficulty that the greens may be classified roughly as pale greens and dark greens — those in light and those in shadow, and that each class has many subdivisions. Taking the light first — the brightest leaves are those few that directly reflect the sun, and they are dazzling. Then there are those that reflect the sky — they are bright also — blue tinged with green. More numerous are the semi-transparent leaves that the sun shines through; they are mostly at the edges of the leaf masses, and are very brilliant — at the top of the tree they appear to be yellow against the blue sky; lower down, or where they are clustered, they assume a greener tint.

The hues in the shadows require much keener discernment. The greatest depths are almost as low in tone as the dark branches, and may be 'warm' or 'cold' — that is inclined to brown or to blue — depending on the character of the colours they reflect. There is a tree across the street whose foliage reflects the cool shadows of the asphalt pavement, but our elm has warm umbras.

Now examine the golden spots of light that break up the shadows on the road and on the lawn. Each is an image of the sun, or, when they seem to be larger, a conglomeration of such images. They are not round discs of light, but mostly ovate, because they are distorted by various means, and because they are viewed at an angle, in perspective.

In the form, the lines, of the tree there is beauty of a more permanent order. The sun hides his face, and the splendour of colour has departed, but the form remains. The trunk is straight and sturdy. At the height of five feet its bifurcations begin. The new branches curve only slightly at first but as they grow more slender the curve grows more pronounced. These radiating lines 'sweeps of associated curves' — may be traced in the leaves also, both in their groups and in their individual forms. The whole growth is subject to law; each part springs from the parent stem.

Ruskin frequently stressed the inevitability of the principle of subordination in art and live, drawing his analogies from nature. He likened masses of men to masses of leaves. Trees, he said, like society conform to two other laws also, those of individuality and incomprehensibility. He spoke often of the individuality of leaves, and of the strange fact that no form is ever exactly duplicated in nature. No two leaves are the same. He saw mystery in the heart of a mass of foliage.