Chapter 16-20

16. Trees

The valley and the lower slopes of the surrounding mountains are well covered with lodge pole pine, a very straight and slender tree, as its name implies, and so dense in growth that one wonders how elk with their great spread of antlers, or moose, manage to find a passage through them. In the mass they are unlovely, and the despair of visiting artists. It is hard to retain that respect due to all trees for the benefits we derive from them — a respect that in other lands and in other times developed into worship.

In the days of Pliny a noble Roman admired a beautiful beech-tree in a sacred grove of Diana, wrote Frazer in The Golden Bough. He embraced it; he kissed it; he lay under its shadow; he poured wine on its trunk. He really did worship that tree.

I knew a lady who would embrace certain trees when she felt depressed, deriving great comfort and happiness from the contact. But the old-time veneration has been outgrown. Imagine a Canadian logger begging a tree's pardon before felling it. Yet this is still done in Europe.

The ill-favoured lodge-pole pine, I'm afraid, is not venerated in spite of its posthumous roles as railroad ties, mine timbers, poles and pulp. It is an untidy growth and practically naked up to its crown, useful only (as it stands) as sanctuary when a grizzly chases one up it. As a model for an artist it is a complete failure. Edward Bawden, the English painter, on his first visit to the valley, was dumbfounded by the prospect of miles and miles of lodge-pole pines. But he faced the matter manfully, and evolved a calligraphic technique that seemed to solve the problem of expression. He drew a containing line, a simple shape like a pine-cone, and within this contour he inscribed details in line which identify the tree — cheerful little arabesques and squiggles.

17. Scale

If the superabundance of trees is overpowering, what can be said of the towering peaks. Many would-be alpine artists feel frustrated and mutter — 'They can't be painted! They're too big!'

Meryman came and spoke to me as I sketched at Moraine Lake— a very spectacular spot. Here indeed is scenery on the grandest scale. He asked, 'How can you paint this stuff on such a small piece of paper?' I felt a bit huffy, but he soon charmed this feeling away and we finally accepted each other's point of view. Of course he was right in a way: the larger the canvas the more impressive it is apt to be.

He had a Hook easel screwed to a six-foot canvas, and he left it standing day and night on top of the pile of boulders known as The Moraine. It was his ambition to cover the canvas — more than that — to finish it — at one sitting, just as the American painter, Redfield, did.

It is more a matter of scale than size, I had much pleasure in pointing out. The scene he aspired to paint at one go, overpowering as it is, is not without its built in yardstick. The trees that border the lake, beginning in the foreground, recede in orderly fashion, and climb a little way up the screes in the distance. They are of known height, more or less, and indicate roughly the miles that extend along and aloft. I have been deprived often of any good means of measurement, and my paintings consequently have lacked magnitude and magnificence. By the judicious introduction of objects of known dimensions, such as human figures, the artist may indicate or exaggerate the size and importance of anything he likes. I recall Poe's story of the insignificant insect that became a monster in given circumstances. By this means a handful of rocks may be converted into a mountain range, or a dripping spout into a waterfall.

18. Butterflies

We were sketching in a forest clearing within sight of that meandering creek, Forty-mile, over which the West road passes before it turns west. A thick growth of thistle bloomed where trees had been felled — a good half-acre of it, and on each bloom was poised a Painted Lady. Such a cloud of butterflies I never saw before. There were thousands, calling to mind the butterfly trees of California which are occupied every year by migrating Monarchs. It might have been hard to distinguish them, but that they seemed to be so restless, and every few moments each Lady would flutter upwards for a few feet and then return to her seat upon the thistle.

It was a wonderful and a beautiful sight. One of the students put some in her sketch, where they didn't look like anything, so she produced her movie camera and took coloured photographs of them, determined to record somehow that unique, sedate dance of the Painted Ladies.

It may be thought that a discourse upon butterflies is unwarranted here, but it happens that this inconsiderable insect is closely associated in my mind with an artist of bygone days whose genius I have always admired. Thomas Stothard is his name. He drew the lovely line drawings that embellished Pilgrim's Progress, over which I used to pore as a child. He was a gentle, industrious man.

Once he was engaged upon a picture which embodied a reclining sylph, and he was puzzled as to how he might represent an elemental spirit of the air so as to express her insubstantiality. A friend suggested he should give her a butterfly's wings, 'That I will,' said the artist, 'and to be correct I will paint the wings from the butterfly itself.'

His biographer states at this point that he 'sallied forth immediately, and after a walk of several miles, succeeded in catching a butterfly, of the class known as The Peacock. He brought it home carefully and commenced his drawing — but not, as he should have done, in the studio: he worked on the kitchen table. He was interrupted and left the insect where it lay. The maid, of course, swept it up.

This unfinished drawing, done in the late 18th century, is still in existence. When he learned of his loss Stothard did not complain. He was of a gentle disposition, as I have said. When burglars at one time carried away all his silver he was equally philosophical.

He went for another walk and this time caught a Tortoisehell. This fellow with his magnificent colouration, really excited him, and from that moment he determined to enter the field of entomology. He became a rabid collector of bugs; the more he caught the more rabid he became; and he confessed that no one knew what he owed to these insects, for they had taught him the finest combinations in that difficult branch of art — colouring.

This also confirmed him in his respect for nature. He went nowhere without his sketch-book and made careful notes of everything that struck his eye or his fancy. He claimed that, 'of all studies nature forms the most inexhaustible and delightful, and that every artist should in some way make his art his recreation; for let him sketch what he might some time or other he would find it useful.'

This last observation is true. I keep all my sketches, however bad they may be, and, in my experience, few if any of them have failed to come in handy. Stothard was to make distinguished use of his wildflower studies late in life, when he was commissioned by a silversmith to design a large quantity of chased plate for the king.

The harmonies he derived from the pigmentation of butterflies are not readily discernible, but he was famous among his contemporaries for a rich brown that is characteristic of some of them. He invented and made this peculiar pigment himself by baking the shank bone of a sheep in the oven, afterwards pulverising and grinding it in oil.

19. Skies

Along the West road one is permitted a clear view of the sky. The valley measures more than a mile in width in the five-mile strip down which we have wandered. The peaks lie well back, and induced no feeling of claustrophobia. The study of skies is an essential part of our class-work, that is, of landscape painting.

It is astonishing that so many pure landscapes are produced in our generation, when one considers that the painters of the High Renaissance produced none at all. It is also surprising that while mountains, trees, still water, and purling streams, are skilfully represented there in moments of supreme beauty, the sky, more often than not, is treated with scant respect.

The realist frequently neglects his skies, underestimating their importance and the decorative painter often overemphasizes them. I don't know which is worse — the misfits of the former or the slickfits of the latter. Clouds assume marvellous shapes in nature, but none so marvellous as those one sees in art.

Sky in landscape establishes the mood of the scene, and indicates the weather and the time of day; its colour is reflected not only on lake and river but upon the leaves of the trees and on blades of grass that happen to have the right angle of incidence.

Clouds are the most inconstant forms with which the landscape painter has to cope. They move and change, expand or dissolve. Yet their inconstancy is a virtue from his point of view; he can arrange them so that by line, mass, tone, and colour, they become an integral part of his topographical and pictorial pattern.

Thus the sketcher who starts with the sky (and there are many who do —they like to start from the top) is blindly rejecting the most valuable aid. Sir Alfred East always advised the student to leave the sky till last so that it might be designed to perfect the composition.

Some are afraid to paint a clear sky, believing it to be uninteresting. Wordsworth knew the type:

'The soft blue sky did never melt

Into his heart; he never felt

The Witchery of the soft blue sky.'

A cloudless sky betokens peace — stillness and repose. Salvador Dali is aware of its value. The atmosphere of brooding—suspense that envelops many of his strange compositions is enhanced by its presence. In The Ancient Mariner the sense of inaction and foreboding is maintained in part by Coleridge's insistence on an empty sky.

'He that regardeth the clouds shall not reap,' said the prophet, who, it is evident, was not a landscape painter, or would have had to eat his words. The boy, Constable, spent many hours lying on his back watching the clouds — the large, garish clouds as he afterwards described them, whose broad shadows swept over fields, woods, and hills.

Light, fleecy, summer clouds add gaiety and a little movement to a clear sky's static state. They float serenely over Hobbema's masterly landscapes,' in Boudin's peaceful coast scenes, and in a thousand other pictures.

20. The Rainbow

The insinuation of a rainbow in a picture was described around the turn of the century as a daring feat, and a while before that a Times critic coyly sneered at 'sweetmeat rainbows of lollipop colours.' It is possible also that at some time the painter who presumed to fashion that radiant arch out of pigment was guilty of blasphemy in the sense that he usurped the powers of God, who, it will be recalled, distinctly said to Noah, 'I do set my bow in the cloud and it shall be a token.' So many things were forbidden the artist on similar grounds. At any rate rainbows were rarely seen in pictures before the time of Rubens.

It was said that Rubens employed others to paint in his landscape backgrounds which calumny he nobly refuted by reproducing a series of pure landscapes. It is more likely that he turned to nature for relaxation, or because he loved to be out of doors, or that he was a born sketcher, which is certainly true. He delighted in observing and recording such phenomena as bursts of sunshine, moonlight, meteors, and impetuous torrents. And he did not neglect rainbows; there is one in the Louvre, and an even finer specimen in the Munich gallery, entitled 'Landscape with Rainbow' which shows a simple hay-field with a small farm on the further side and three haystacks in front, with a luminous bow flung across a gloomy sky and with a transient sunbeam burnishing gable and tree. A larger version of this canvas hangs in the Wallace collection in London.

That incomparable sketcher Turner, was familiar with every mood of nature and with the phenomena appropriate to each. He often pieced out a composition with a rainbow. I remember seeing a water-colour by his hand in London, and particularly the note which was appended to the title, 'The Rainbow,' in the catalogue and written, I believe, by Mr. Finberg, which read: 'This is a drawing which I do not understand. The, rainbow has only two colours: viz., yellow and crimson lake.'

Turner, of course, knew the proper sequence — starting from the top, or the outside edge — violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red. No artist could conceivably go wrong on that. A double rainbow, however, is another matter. It is easy to jump to conclusions; the second bow, you think, is obviously a replica of the first. At least so Millais thought when he painted 'The Blind Girl,' one of the most famous of all rainbow pictures. It is all right now, for the artist made the necessary correction when it was pointed out to him that the second bow is a reflection of the first, and that the colours are therefore reversed and less brilliant.

But what of the third bow. Is it a reflection of the second, or a second reflection of the first? On one memorable occasion I saw five luminous bows fused into one broad band of brilliance. It appeared in the east flung across Tunnel Mountain and above Rundle, in the afternoon. It was breathtaking. I rushed around to Dan McCowan on the next street. He was in the bath-tub, but he got out and draped himself in a towel. Whether he had colour-film in his camera I have forgotten. I never saw his photograph. I took a good shot but lacking colour.

One day whilst driving along a country road in Manitoba a brilliant rainbow came after a sharp shower. It was an arresting effect and one easily memorized. I made a little picture of the scene the next day in my studio. When it was finished the effect struck me as being more unusual than I had thought, and much too odd to show. I had my back to the sun, yet the sun's rays converged to a point within the bow. Had I been looking in the opposite direction the effect — without the bow —would have been understandable. It looked wrong in the picture, though I knew my observation had been accurate. Months later, whilst dipping into Leslie's Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, I came across the passage —

'He (Constable) pointed out to me an appearance of the sun's rays, which few artists have perhaps noticed, and which I never saw given in any picture, excepting in his 'Waterloo Bridge,' when the spectator stands with his back to the sun, the rays may sometimes be seen converging in perspective towards the opposite horizon. Since he drew my attention to such effects, I have noticed very early in the morning the lines of the rays diminishing in perspective through a rainbow.'

Painting a rainbow in water-colour is always a daring feat technically.