Chapter 30-36

31. How to Look at Nature

I am asked sometimes how to look at nature: because I am a landscape painter it is thought that I must have a sure-fire answer. I am not so sure. I may have a keener perception of my own brand of beauty since it is my business to smell it out and reproduce it, but do I get more pleasure out of the simple contemplation of nature. I don't doubt that I do. Some of us are almost pagan in that our love for Nature prevails over our love for art.

The artist is supposed to look on landscape with a predatory eye, mindful of what may be appropriated therefrom. As the undertaker measures the corpse for its box, so the painter measures scenery, it is thought, visualizing its ultimate apotheosis within a frame of gilt.

It is no use raw; it must be modulated by art. The picture has but one frame, lacking depth or distance; it is contained within the static walls of a rectangle or oval or circle, instead of being limitless; it is entirely devoid of movement — a timeless heath without wind; it is but a part of a panorama, a line of poetry torn from its context; it has one texture instead of many; and its luminosity is a muted parody on the effulgence of the light of day, or the unsubstantial shimmer of starlight. The painter's job is to compose these differences, by selection, arrangement, unification and other devices.

How much of Nature and how much of Art should go into a painting is the point of departure for all new schools of painting.

Constable's claim, that, whenever he sat down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing he tried to do was to forget that he had ever seen a picture, must not be taken literally. It does not mean that he tried to forget all that he knew of the science of picture-making. Far from it. He meant merely that he did not want to see nature through another man's eyes. He wanted his transcriptions to be his own, unimpaired by extraneous influences.

De Loutherburg painted a panorama — he called it the Eidophusicon — which he exhibited in Panton Square in London. He made it as realistic as possible by using lighting and sound effects. It was very popular. Gainsborough went to see it every evening. De Loutherburg wanted to show a free expanse of landscape and evade the constriction of the frame. Pictures have been painted on concave surfaces with the same Idea.

Many generations have attempted to suggest movement without much success. The representation of textures has frequently been aided by the incorporation of material other than pigment in the picture, strands of hair, bits of tinsel, newspaper and so forth. The problem of reproducing light proved a fascinating one. The Tenebrosi tackled it; the Impressionists approached it from another angle; and the Pointillists reduced the problem to one of simple division.

The art of painting was always considered to be that of representation. All down the ages the painter strove to render an illusion of reality. Many stories have come down to us of alleged success, of realism so faithfully achieved as to deceive beholders. They began with the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, which was a winner. No other has work of art has ever come to life. Apelles painted grapes so real that, it is said, birds came to peck at them; a horse neighed at a painted horse in another picture by the same artist; and his third success was a painted curtain which a friend tried to pull back.

Vasari quotes many examples of the same kind of thing. Peacocks, he wrote pecked so heartily at some strawberries painted in fresco on an outside wall that the plaster was destroyed. Moronobu, a Japanese artist, painted sparrows so well that one spectator swore that he saw them fly away and return to the kakemono. There was the fly on the snuff-box that a king tried to brush off, and failed because it was painted.

But these were all near objects, not overly difficult to paint. I never heard tell of a landscape that fooled anyone. Constable used to say that he had never seen anything in art that completely satisfied him; and it is safe to assume that he was never deceived. The most a landscape painter can do is to reanimate the emotions inspired by scenery.

That painting is the art of representation has been rudely denied in recent years. But such denials are mere quibbles; even the abstract painter tries to represent something. Cennini of old composed this precept for his pupils — 'Thy Perfect Guide is Nature,' and it seems to me that it holds good to-day.

It must be apparent that the artist's way of looking at scenery differs from that of the layman; it is complicated by other considerations than those of simple enjoyment. There is no doubt that he sees more in it than others do, but he has more practice and whether he derives more pleasure than they from its contemplation is doubtful.

My friend the dealer in Winnipeg had a nice gallery above his store. I walked in there once and was surprised three ladies in curious and unnatural attitudes. One stood with her head between her knees — it was in the days of the knee-length skirt; the others were painfully bent, and their heads were twisted as though they were trying to get an inverted view of something or other. I withdrew hurriedly. The dealer followed.

'What on earth...?' I asked.

He smiled.

'Only three women from Detroit,' he explained, 'buying a picture for their art club. Thought I'd sold them one, but one of them just remembered that Professor Ecks said that if a picture was good it was just as interesting upside down. They're looking at it upside down.

'Why didn't you turn the picture round for them?' I asked.

'O well!' he laughed.

Seurat and Signac never saw in nature masses of colour split up into primaries — blue sky, for example, made up of touches of pure blue, pink, and yellow — but they painted them that way, and calculated that this method of colour-division would give the effect of reality, impossible to achieve by other means, and that at a certain distance there would result a visual fusion of the pure colours and an added sense of vibration.

The botanist, the geologist, the hunter, and the nature student are trained observers also, but their ways differ again from ours. Theirs is primarily a material rather than a spiritual interest. The layman, I expect, would not wish so much to look through their eyes. He wants a guide to nature's beauty and grandeur. There is nothing else for it — he must learn how to paint.

32. The Golden Mean

The ancient Greeks found the key to perfect proportion in man, and reduced it to a numbers. Rodin reiterated, 'The whole of art lies in the human body.' This is demonstrable in a well-set male figure, divided at the hip; divided again as to the upper portion at the collar, and in the lower one at the knee. This method of division is perfection and is expressed in numbers thus — 1.618. A properly proportioned book-cover would be a rectangle whose sides were in that ratio 1 to .6189 roughly five-eighths to three eighths. It is called the Golden Mean.

Another way of looking at it is this: Divisons of or 1/4 are readily recognisable as such, and are obviously aesthetically clumsy for that reason. Curves also, whose origins are most obscure are the most beautiful. Thus a section of a parabola outreaches an arc of a circle in interest. A full moon is never introduced in a painting, but an oblate version. In all paintings sightly spacing follows this law.

33. The New Highway

I seem to have neglected the West road. In the interval we drove along it through the snow as far as Massive, which is nine miles from Banff. Our worst fears have been realized during the winter— fears founded on the constant blasting of rock. The new highway is indeed going through. The mountainside that we knew so well is sheared down to bed rock. For a space on each side of the new road all vegetation has been obliterated. Most of the blue Douglas firs are either felled or shattered. The new road follows the old one but is a few feet higher so that the rubble on its southern shoulder impinges on the trail below. At about the six-mile post the new highway crosses the valley, and its bridges will span the railroad and the rivers and it will continue along the south side for many miles. It will open up new vistas no doubt, for hitherto the south side has been mostly inaccessible.

But our beloved five-mile ambulatory adjacent to Banff is badly damaged. The country beyond it is less familiar. None of it, in forty miles, displays the same concentrated beauty. But we do go further afield.

The West road forks at twenty miles. The left, or S.W. tine is known as the Windermere road. It passes through Vermilion Pass, by Marble Canyon, and over Vermilion Crossing, and reaches the Windermere Valley at Radium Hot Springs. The Western tine continues to Lake Louise Station, and there divides again. The left prong climbs the hill to Lake Louise, and eventually reaches Golden, also in the Windermere valley, through Wapta and Field, bypassing the Yoho Valley, and Emerald Lake. The other branch veers to the north, following the Bow River, and comes to Jasper Park in due course, by way of Bow Lake and the Columbia Ice Fields.

34. Sunshine

We do not see much of' the acknowledged beauty spots as a class, but we arrange to stay at one place or another over week-ends, at one of the many bungalow camps, or we join the C.P.R organizations, The Trail Riders, or The Trail Hikers. One of the nearest, and, formerly one of the most popular of the camps is Sunshine, fifteen miles away. It is reached by private road on the south side of the river, off the Banff—Sundance Canyon roads and protected by a padlocked gate. Originally a fire-warden's road, it is now strictly One-Way — a road that climbs 2500 feet in about ten miles. Towards the top the grade is extreme. The lodge lies in a hollow at the foot of a waterfall. Once out of the hollow one is upon a vast moorland, heather scented, above timber line and so treeless, extending south for six miles to the top of Quartz Ridge. And beyond the ridge Assiniboine — the highest mountain in these parts— lifts its shapely head. On the mesa's western rim is a chain of lakes at different levels, all emptying into Simpson's Creek, far below. These are beautiful lakes, gem-like, in a magnificent setting. Rock Isle Lake is the highest and Larix receives its overflow. As its name implies Larix is surrounded by larches; a stream connects it with Grizzly.

From Sunshine there are trails to Aasiniboine, over Quartz Ridge, and to Egypt Lake, over Wawa Ridge.

This seems like the top of a fabulous world, limited by a fantastic horizon fretted with high peaks. Beside the streams are deer-haunted, flower-studded, meadows. There are trout in the lakes: we used to stop and feed them.

In spite of its unique beauty Sunshine now is strictly a ski lodge, and had not catered to the summer visitor for the past few years. We have sketched there in June when patches of snow lay thick on the ground, and avalanche lilies and anemones pushed through for a sight of the sun.

Sunshine brings to mind the pure, palpitating colour of the high plateaus, and raises the question as to how this effect is achieved by the sketcher.

35. Broken Colour

One of the advantages of the water-colour medium is that it is possible to achieve with it a sparkling effect of opalescent colour rivalling that of sunlight. It is not achieved by mixing pigment on the palette, but by visual fusion — partial mixing on the paper. Oil painters strive for a similar effect by colour division, by splitting up mixtures into Primaries which are applied to the canvas separately, pointillisme, they call it in France.

To paint a shining gray sky begin with a wet wash of yellow ochre, let rose madder or Venetian red flow into that from the top, and finally ultramarine or pure cobalt. A clear blue sky can be painted in the same way, substituting phthalocyanine blue for ultramarine.

A mixture of the same pigments on the palette is dead and dull by comparison. This principle does not apply only to skies, but throughout a painting, and especially in the shadows, which must be kept transparent. If a shadow Is essentially warm, the warmth occurs in the middle and its edges are cold. This is easily suggested by painting the whole shadow in blue, and while it is wet by dropping into it burnt sienna or raw sienna or whatever is necessary. When dry this passage will vibrate, or 'sing' and will assume a beautiful bloom.

One learns a great deal technically from outdoor experience. A sketch is often done in a race against time, or in an exalted state of mind excited by some spectacle of more than ordinary interest, or in a fury of creative enthusiasm in which one works by instinct rather than by thought or calculation.

It goes without saying that the purest colours belong to the distance in landscape. I have mentioned three which I prefer. Ochre is an earth; the best is that mined in France: it is transparent. Rose madder was formerly made from the madder root, but is now refined from alizarin, a derivative of coal tar. Ultramarine was at first made by grinding and purifying the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli; it is now a laboratory product known as colloidal sulphur. Pure cobalt would do just as well, but it is hard to come by.

36. The House-painter

According to Oscar Wilde all art is quite useless. Panting, however, has a variety of purposes, one of them distinctly utilitarian. There is the matter of house-painting, which, though hardly to be classed among the fine arts, has been practised from time immemorable, in circumstances of expediency or necessity by artists of the first rank. I know one or two contemporary painters who were once adept with the six-inch brush and the paint-pot, and a number of famous artists of other days who first learned to love the smell of paint whilst apprenticed to the same.

There is something fascinating in the act of embellishing a flat surface with pigment—to do it smoothly and regularly is not as easy as it looks: something involving the exaltation that comes of the mastery over material and the pride attendant upon good craftsmanship.

The three painters who have been busy on our house for the past few days stood together on the lawn and looked up at the gleaming eaves. One said to the others, 'Looks swell, doesn't it?' Modest pride in work well done. They enjoy slapping paint about; they whistle while they work, even when balanced on top of a swaying ladder.

We who paint pictures are only too painfully aware of the element of truth in Wilde's aphorism. There are far too many pictures in the world already — yet we continue to produce them. Some of us have to coax people into buying what we paint. Some are a public pest, I regret to say; they plague possible patrons with the persistence of brush-peddlers. My three friends enjoy far greater independence. They are indispensable in the community, for wood must be protected from weathering.

That this so-called humble branch of the art of painting is purely utilitarian, and makes no appeal to the mind or the emotions, is a mistaken idea. A well-kept, well-painted, homestead, whether in town or country, is not only pleasing to the eye, but uplifting to the spirit. It betokens prosperity and cleanliness, pride and energy. A drive through Wisconsin, such as I sometimes take, gives one a fine feeling of well-being— neat towns, trim farms; but proceeding northwards one becomes depressed to see barns mostly unpainted, gardens unkempt, and small towns drab and doddering.

With a curious perversity the landscape painter of the older schools found more inspiration in decay than in freshness, in any visible evidence of the hand of man — barn or bridge, fence or fortress. He sees in ruin the pathos of nature, and in the soft hues of weathering more repose than in the animated contrasts of new-laid bricks and fresh paint. He discovered a deeper sentiment in the contemplation of the futility of hope, as expressed in this material way, than in the sustaining influence of hoping.

It has been remarked that paint is alluring stuffy full of possibilities to an enquiring mind. Old Crome was bound in his youth to one Francis Whisler, a coach, house, and sign painter of Norwich. His biographer Kaines-Smith wonders whether, as the Homeric 'iron of itself doth draw men on to strife' paint does not of itself draw one on to art. Crome worked for Whisler for five years before he showed the slightest inclination, or ability, to scale the heights. Some of the inn-signs he painted during this period are still in existence, and show no promise at all. But it is obvious that he did like to sling paint about. He invented 'graining.'

Barker of Bath, Julius Caesar Ibbetson, and many another began their careers in similar circumstances. Perugino, according to Vasari, was given by his father 'to be the shop-drudge of a painter in Perugia, who was not particularly distinguished in his calling.' This undistinguished man was, in fact, a house-painter.

My three painters are young men. I have not yet discovered whether they are ambitious to exchange the noble expanse of' the side of a house for a square yard of canvas, on which to express their thoughts with bits of all the colours they possess. Nobody really needs a picture, but the wall needs painting at intervals. Better, I might advise them, make pants of the canvas, for they too are necessary, and be content to minister to the requirements of the house and the barn.