I hope you will diversify your subject this year as to time of day. Thomson, you know, wrote not four summers but four seasons.
Fisher to Constable.
I like to sketch the year round, in summer when conditions are most comfortable, as well as in winter when one is liable to freeze to death. Each season has its charm, and gives way to the next before one's visual digestion is ruined by repletion.
The mildest day of a prairie winter is far too cold for water-colour sketching, but this problem is not insoluble, it may even be evaded luxuriously by painting from a window or a closed car. Herkomer tells how he set up a hut in the Welsh Mountains from which to paint the landscape background for his large canvas 'The Lost Sheep'. Millais adopted the same plan for 'The sound of Many Waters' They were thus more or less indifferent to the vagaries of the weather, and less subject to interruption. While this idea might well be adopted to winter painting in a more extreme climate if the subject and the panel are big enough to justify such a course, the sketcher who paints scenes of modest proportions is obliged to circumvent bad weather in other ways, or stay at home.
Coloured chalks, pastels, charcoal and pencil, aren't affected by the cold and may be used instead of water-colour, for as long as the sketcher continues immune also. At thirty or forty degrees below zero, the fingers stiffen very quickly without protection. Woolen gloves are clumsy but permit the use of pencil, but a sock is the best protection of all. It is pulled over the hand, and the pencil point thrust through the toe. the finger thus has full play, and will keep warm, provided the sock is thick enough.
The number of lines drawn depends upon the temperature. Sometimes a well-finished drawing with copious notes on colour and tones (which are numbered 1 2 3 according to their depth). Nature in the nude presents few graphic complications. The earth rests under a smooth coverlet of snow; and only its major undulations are indicated.
The problem of painting snow is of colour rather than of line. Its surface is highly reflective, and its borrowed hues are vibrant. In oil this vibrant quality is more easily suggested than in water colour but something of its purity and sparkle may be represented by mixing colour on the paper rather than on the palette; cobalt cadmium red, and viridian in the shadows and the same pigments with cadmium deep substituted for viridian in varying proportions in the sunshine.
Rime or the trees is one of the joyous sight of winter. The low sun behind their stark forms might be the apple of gold in pictures of silver like the word aptly spoken. Their hoary heads are crowns of glory, exquisite patterns of filigreed silver, silhouettes of cold purity. Towards the north an unfamiliar whiteness clothes the visible world - you call it white, but when the sun hits the tree-tops it becomes evident that white is only a relative term. White, indeed, does not occur in nature. here is, actually, a palpitating iridescence, the gray of the opal fired of flashes of sunlight. To walk along the street, or in the woods, enveloped in this brilliance, is an experience that never fails to beget an exaltation of spirit. The unreality of the scene brings wonderment too. Its sheer beauty is balm to the soul. A blue mountain in the twilight - a fiery sunset as sea - a clear night on the veld - spring woods in England - these are the breath of life to the landscape painter, and, given the seeing eye and a receptive mood charm every man.
I shall never forget the extraordinary sensation of standing in a copse of young poplars whose leaves, seared by an early frost, had turned an even yellow. The trees were high enough to form a partial canopy that obscured the burning blue sky, and I was shrouded, enwrapped, enmeshed, and circumvested in gold.
It is the sense of unfamiliar envelopment, that is impressive, whether in the living grays of hoar frost, the crimson of the heavens at sunset, or the golden suffusions of autumn.
Just as ardently as he wished for the snow, the prairie painter welcomes its evaporation. He has occupied himself with other things; he has made a few pencil drawings out of doors, and he cannot help but regard the past season as a period of hibernation. He longs to feel the sun and the wind on his brow, to walk over pre-Cambrian rocks, and fill his lungs with the beneficent air. Fortunately it is possible to do these things. There are warm days though snow patches linger in the deep woods, and upon the northern slopes, when the sap is flowing and spring is on the way.
I have in mind the Lake of the Woods visited many times at this season. Once I failed to foretell the warmer days, and I was in immediate trouble. The colour was indescribably lovely. A few meandering channels cleft the ice - strips of blue in pallid harmony of grays, snow lay in white accents on the sheltered shores of the islands, and beneath the trees, which in the middle distance and beyond were brown in hue. In the foreground were yellow tufts of dead grasses amidst the snow. The only greens of any brilliance were in the mosses on the rocks.
Entrancing colour! The pencil seemed inadequate, and in spite of a searching wind I sat in the snow and began to sketch in colour. but the washes of paint congealed. I painted in such and Ice-crystals, achieving absolute realism for once. When I laid a brush aside for a moment, it acquired the hardness of a stiletto. By taking care that the sun shone on my sketch continually I contrived to finish, but the result was far from perfect, and elicited jeers from my companion, who was blessed with an extra pair of socks, youth and a box of oil paints.
'Anyway', I said 'your ice is not real like mine. I enlarged upon the comparative advantages of one medium over the other, which an oil painter never does, being too loftily indifferent. He rarely concedes that water-colour has any comparative importance whatever, and uses it flippantly when he uses it at all for trifles by way of amusement and relaxation.. In face of this attitude the professional water-colour painter still regards himself as a pioneer, or, if he has become demoralized a quack. We proceeded to cap epigrams, thus:
Oil is a medium fit only for women. Michaelangelo.
Water-colour is an amusement for young ladies. Joseph Wright.
Give me oil. Cox.
Water-colour can accomplish or suggest what nothing else can. Sir Frederick Wedmore.
Clear tones unmuddled by oil. Blake.
Not often does an artist excel in both mediums. When he employs both, his style in the one is apt to incline towards that in the other, and he arils to make the most of either.
The fact is that a different mental and visual outlook is required, governed entirely by material, that is, by the pigment, brushes, and surfaces used. It is hard to readapt oneself. At the same time I hate to be frozen out.
When we become tired of the grays and browns of the nude earth, weary of the unfriendly weather that obscures its beauty, and chills the ardour it inspires, warmer days clothe the landscape with delicate diffusions of green and gold. Spring has come. There is still a chance to learn more of the anatomy of trees. There are new effects of colour. No voracious insects are abroad as yet. There are few physical discomforts; it is a grand time for sketchers.
At midsummer the prevailing, everlasting and monotonous green often sends the artist hurrying to the mountains or the seacoast, chased by swarms of mosquitoes. I spent one memorable night on a tiny remote island on Lake of the Woods. I had neglected to provide myself with cheesecloth or netting, so my head was under a blanket but the noise the pestilent insects made, quarrelling for standing room on the tip of my nose was informal, and rendering sleep impossible. I was up before daylight, and put in this longest sketching day of my experience, beginning with a sketch of the sunrise, and ending when it was too dark to see, with the sunset. There were short intervals for meals. That night we rowed as far away from land as we could, extended ourselves as comfortably as might be along the floor boards of the boat, and incidentally under the seats, letting the boat drift we composed ourselves to sleep, happy in the thought that we had fooled the mosquitoes for once.
Some summer seasons and some districts know not the mosquito. Two of the most delightful summers I have ever known were spent at Lake Muskoka. The greens were as triumphant there as elsewhere, but I refused to let them annoy me. The weather was glorious, the air was soft, the sandy shores inviting, and , best of all, no battalion of mosquitoes rose to the attack when one left the shelter of the cottage, no insectile Amazon pierced one's shrinking epidermis with her horny proboscis. It was impossible to stay indoors. My young family disported itself in the water and along the shore all day long. Here was an exceptional opportunity. I made sketches of the children nude or in bathing suits. They made splendid willing models.
There were interesting effects in pure landscape to sketch at intervals - a squall on the lake - golden-rod in the rain - blood-red maples in September, but every clear day the children and I worked together.
Autumn [in Manitoba]
I had been reading again the stanzas inspired by Autumn in Thomson's Seasons, curious to learn his thoughts after I had enjoyed a month of glorious colour in Manitoba at that season. I stopped at this passage:
But who can paint
Like Nature? Can imagination boast
Amid its gay creation hues like hers?
The answer to these rhetorical questions is, first, No one and second, No. All landscape painting is a compromise in colour. It is impossible to reproduce the brilliance of light with pigment in all its intensity, and, nowadays, few want to paint like nature. Constable wrote, 'There is enough room for a natural painter. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth. Fashion always had and will have its day; but truth in all things only will last, and can only have just claims on posterity.' It is the same to-day.
Differences of style are the result of different conceptions as to what truth in nature really is. Literal representation my or may not be the great: it was but deceptive imitation that made birds peck at the grapes Apelles painted, bees to settle on Millais' apple blossom, and to cause Fuseli to call for an umbrella when standing before on of Constable's showers. There is more in art than might be suspected from the casual acceptance of the Pre-Raphaelite formula, to reject nothing and select nothing. On the other hand there are painters who strive to kill all but the faintest possible resemblance to nature in their work. Can Nature boast hues and forms like theirs? The answer again is No.
To interpret nature at her best surely is the noblest ambition of the landscape painter, and this involves the imposition of design upon any literal rendering, and a selective vision. This theme, however, is developed in another chapter.
I went to Carberry and forced my reluctant car through the sand to the south. The spruce trees that cap those hills retain their sombre dignity unmindful of the season, but the shrubs and deciduous trees made those little hills rejoice, or, gave them the appearance of so doing. They were clothed in scarlet and yellow, and white tailed deer flitted joyously about them. The spruce provided a foil for the golden poplars. Close to earth poison-ivy leaves crimsoned a whole hillside. When, after twenty miles or more, I looked down the valley of the Assiniboine, I saw that these were the first colour changes, and that the larger trees were only mottled with yellow, an effect unlovely and spotty like a blight on the forest, but delightful in detail.
I could not help but regret the passing of the sunflowers that were blooming a month before on the bare sand, sturdy individualists, exquisite blossoms, each with its little black shadow, creating in the mass an unusual harmony.
Starting from the confluence of the Assiniboine and the Red River, I followed their changes every day until the trees were stripped of leaves. At St. Adolphe on the Red, the houses even the smallest, manifest French influence - each has its mansard roof. One of them was surrounded by oaks whose foliage was rich brown. The colour of the scene was indescribable. The sun was above behind the copse, and illumined solitary leaves and the edges of leaf masses, and the lush and varied growth in the foreground. The aching beauty of the scene was consuming. The intensity of the stillness, the warmth, and the golden light, set one sighing and brooding on the inevitableness of fate, on mortal beauty, ephemeral happiness, and things of that kind. The farmer stood behind me as I sketched enthralled.
'My house never looked like that' he said, 'that's pretty'. Admitting the presence of beauty, now that it was made clear to him, catalogued as it were on paper.
Some would have us believe that the spirit of autumn inspires desperate thoughts, that the decay and despair in nature invokes sadness in ourselves. I saw a cottonwood at Headingly that was a lyric instead of a dirge. Its quivering leaves were yellow, in every conceivable tone. It stood on the river-bank. The sky was a tender blue, low in tone behind it, and the river a deeper blue. A group of farm buildings on the opposite bank, upon which red paint had been applied in inelegant patches, added enough interest for a picture. I can imagine no gayer sight at any season.
A week later the magnificent elms that grow between the road and the river at this spot, presented a gorgeous sight, a harmony or rich and vivid brown, like the brown of a wall-flower, with gray, for the sky was overcast. The noble shapes of the trees, their receding boles along the roadside, and the river beyond, made the original theme pictorially articulate. While painting it introspection was difficult, owing to a cold wind, which caused a certain amount of physical discomfort without spoiling my sense of beauty.
'Fine day', remarked a passing farmer.
'Bit cold, don't you think', I replied.
'It's what you've got to expect at this time of the year', he said severely. So cold winds are seasonable, and you cannot very well ponder on the futility of things in a wind. Thus the year dies, with few regrets from most of us. When the last leaf flutters from the ground, we are already looking forward to the spring.